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U.C. Berkeley Linguistics Dept. 2002 Commencement

In May, 2002 I participated in the U.C. Berkeley Linguistics Departmen's commencement ceremony, in anticipation of my PhD (which I did, eventually, finish) and had the honor of being asked to be the graduate speaker. (Ok, I was the only one who volunteered.) Here's the text of my speech

Life is a Game.

That may seem a strange theme to mark a formal and serious part of our lives, but here in the Berkeley linguistics department, we take our metaphors very seriously. So indulge me on this one.

Life is a Game. You'll hear a lot of different variations on this. People will exhort you to be a team player. They will alternately praise or condemn playing by the rules. They will tell you that your fate hangs on the roll of the dice or the turn of a card. They will suggest that thinking ten moves ahead is the only way to win. And they will commiserate that, in the end, you have to play the hand you've been dealt.

And somewhere in there, you should be getting the sneaking suspicion that you have no clear idea what game it is that you're supposed to be playing -- and neither do they. Are you moving across the board on a pre-ordained path, with only the dice to direct you between Boardwalk and jail? Or are you submerging your self in a team effort, knowing that it doesn't matter who moves the ball as long as it gets moved? Are you pitting your pure intellect against the world on the chessboard of life? Or are you standing frozen on the sidelines, watching someone else capture the flag, waiting for someone to touch you and release you from your paralysis? Do you feel you're trapped in some cosmic game of peek-a-boo?

Here's the deep dark secret -- you get to choose.

Standing here, at the end -- or in the midst -- of a formal education, we have a lot of experience playing by established rules. Someone else has been choosing the game, defining the goals, deciding what moves are, and are not, acceptable. That's a bit hard to shake off. But in these times of transition, it can be important to step outside the game and ask yourself, Is success defined only by the acquisition of Boardwalk, Park Place, and the railroad monopoly? Or can it be equally defined by keeping all seven balls and two expensive crystal goblets juggled in mid-air for an hour? If there are no chairs left when the music stops, who's to say you can't make your own music and keep on dancing? And if you don't like the hand you've been dealt, just remember that one suit is as good as another for building a house of cards.

Life is a Game. Some parts of it are fixed when you open the box. Some boxes have the detailed game boards, and some have the advanced version of the manual, and some have the loaded dice. But if you dump everything out of the box and still don't find what you want ... hey, you've got this really cool empty box, and it can be a fort, or a boat, or even a transmogrifier. You get to make the rules. And I think this is the real secret to success: don't write the rules so that you can't win.

Don't say you have to roll a thirteen if the dice only go up to twelve. Don't decide it only counts if it's one-on-one if everyone else is playing on five-man teams. While certainly your reach should exceed your grasp, don't put the thing you want to grasp in the bottom of a piranha tank. There's a difference between a goal that forces you to stretch yourself and risk failure, and a goal that preordains failure. But here's the secret escape hatch -- know what winning looks like.

When the Olympic games roll around, there's always a tension between the stark simplicity of a gold medal and the warm-and-fuzzy notion that "we're all winners just to be here". But feel-good slogans aside, winning can wear a lot of different faces. It doesn't have to be taking the gold in the marathon -- it can be just doing that morning jog even though it's cold and rainy. Winning doesn't have to be receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine -- it can be making one correct diagnosis. Winning doesn't have to be attaining a tenured professorship -- it can be explaining your work to the woman sitting next to you on the plane and watching her see the world in a new and more complex way. Know what winning looks like, and recognize it even when it isn't wearing the face you expected.

My family is very fond of games. On one holiday, we had this political role-playing card game involving nuclear threat and counter-threat; simulated governments stockpiling weapons and trying to come out on top of the balance of terror. Now I have a cousin who is a staunch pacifist, and he was unenthusiastic about the game but played on the condition that he could play it as a pacifist. Playing the game as the inventor intended it to be played would have been losing, for him. Instead, he won. He didn't win simply because his goal was to stick to his principles -- he won by the conditions set by the game. So you never know. Know what winning looks like, and don't accept that the rules you've been handed are the only ones you can play by -- especially if they're rules that you can't win. Because life is a game. And there's nothing wrong with playing to win, as long as you can win and you recognize it when you do.

Now, the detailed interpretation of the metaphors in this speech is left as an exercise for the listener, but there will be no test. That's because, while Life is a Test, there's really only room for one metaphor at a time in a commencement speech. Thank you.


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