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Honor’s Breakfast Address

April 19, 2007

I was going to talk about my book, The Physicist’s Guide to Weight Loss, but then I ate about a half pound of sausage at this breakfast and I figured I better not be hypocritical so we’ll switch to plan B.

Let’s see. I have another speech on me. Ah, yes. Here we go. Star Trek Convention. Oops, Mr. Bush I have your speech. American Association of Physics Teachers. No. But that is a good one. That is a good speech. Oscar acceptance. No. Grocery List. I'm sorry. I have it. I do have it on me. I do. Here it is!

Well, after extensive student polling, secret balloting, and months of negotiating a speaker’s fee in the low 2-figure range, I was chosen to give this Honor’s Breakfast Address. You’ve obviously made a grave error. But it's too late now. So let's just get on with it.

Assistant Principal Phillips has suggested that for me to speak longer than 10 minutes would be regarded as cruel and inhumane punishment and that if I go as long as 15 minutes Jack Danilkowicz will forcibly remove me. But if I can finish in less than 10 minutes then I don’t have to pay for my breakfast here. To fit in the time frame I’ve had to strip away all the frills and jokes. So those of you who came just for the jokes might as well leave now.

This is a multimedia speech – I have some pictures, a video, and a sound track to go along with this speech. Umm, unfortunately it’s on my iPod so only one of you can participate. Let’s see … I’d better give it to the assistant superintendent … here you go … (push play when I say “My theme”)

My theme today is to work hard and follow your heart. (Is it working?) Follow your heart and work hard.

First, follow your heart. You don’t have to know what you want to do with your life, especially in high school. As a senior you are asked, “What do you want to do with your life,” an average of 4.7 times per day with a standard deviation of 2.4 (this is the honor’s breakfast right?). Okay I made that statistic up, but it’s true that adults are constantly asking you, “Where are you going to school?” “What are you going to major in?” “What career are you pursuing?” Etcetera. They ask you these things to get you talking, to see what’s inside you. The same way you collide protons and anti-protons at Fermi Lab – to see what comes out. (Okay, okay, I’ll try to keep the physics out of the rest of the speech.)

While the intent of these questions is harmless, the effect is detrimental. People start to expect you to have a plan. Do you know what your plan should be? Your plan should be to not have a plan … per se. Learn what your options are. Don’t be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. Like my dad told me, “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” And I would add that you have to work on stuff you like to be good at what you do.

This world changes fast and the rate at which it’s changing is itself speeding up. (That means the derivative of change with respect to time is non-constant, in fact it’s increasing – honor’s breakfast remember?) It’s actually a bad idea to have a fixed plan – in fact the tech companies I worked for had a name for this: they called it “premature optimization” and it’s disastrous.

Look, on average you’re going to change jobs 8 times in your life -- and I didn’t make up that stat – I found on the Internet so it must be true. Seriously, you have to be flexible and you’ve got to follow your heart. Look at me … 

I was valedictorian at my high school and I graduated with honors from U of I in electrical engineering. I worked at Hughes Aircraft designing missiles but then took a job in Motorola’s Cell Phone division – I followed my heart to what turned out to be a very cool (and lucrative) job. Then I really followed my heart and signed a contract to do some bicycle racing. It was great; I got to fracture my ulna and dislocate my acromioclavicular joint and sustain MTBI’s (that’s a concussion for you non-premeds) in beautiful locations throughout the United States. I won a few races and rode the Olympic Trials. But, while bike racing I wound up teaching physics for a few weeks to make some extra money. (Hey, I was no Lance Armstrong.) While going over incline planes (you know, a = g sin theta and if there’s friction then you subtract µg cos theta from that) anyway, I actually witnessed the light bulb going off in this kid’s eyes and I realized that I had something to do with that. It was an epiphany. I realized at that moment I was being called to teach and I followed my heart. After some more racing and some more school I wound up here. The point is – life changes – you’ve got to follow your heart.

This next decade is the only time in your life when you’re not beholden to anyone. No parents (after they pay for your schooling), no spouse, no kids. Listen to your heart and jump. If you wind up somewhere you don’t like – there’s nothing lost. Change direction. Seriously, all the marriage and family stuff can wait for a few (or many in my case!) years. Take a chance now. When you’re older and your own family starts to depend on you then follow your head – you’ll have to make sound decisions and not take so many chances. But that just makes it all the more important to follow your heart now.

Secondly, and this is a simple point, work hard. Find things that interest you and work hard at them. Don’t waste your time. Life is short. Work hard and get good at what you do – competence is a rare commodity. (And of course if the supply is low and the demand is high then the price is correspondingly high as well, right Mr. Spacone?)

I do some rock climbing as a hobby and I’ve always said in climbing that if you’re not falling, you’re not climbing hard enough. Same is true in school and life. If you can do every problem in the homework set then you ought to sign up for harder classes. If you scored a 36 on the ACT (Laura Mohs, Joyce Fan) then you’d better damn well sign up for the hardest stuff around. Work hard.

The honors you receive here this morning signify where you stand: top 10%, top 5%, and top 1%, whatever. If you are in the top 5% of people in this country then you’d better be working harder than 95 out of every hundred people you meet. You mean you don’t get to work as hard as everyone else? NO! You have to work harder. I know it’s a little Marxist (see even an AP Government reference, Ms. Holtsford) but from those with more, more is expected. You have to work hard. Very hard in fact for people like you.

Finally, if you follow your heart you’ll wind up doing things you like, and with hard work you’ll be successful – you’ll be rich in ways that material things just can’t touch. Heck, you might even get asked to give an Honor’s Breakfast Address and think that’s about the coolest thing around.

So that brings us to the very end of this homily; it’s okay if you slept though some of it, as a teacher I’ve always thought of myself as someone who talks in other people’s sleep. For those of you who stayed awake, I know many of you made paper airplanes out of your programs, so there will be a flight competition in the gym immediately after this program.

Thank you.