“Fifteen years ago, I was sitting where you currently sit. Literally, in one of those chairs,” said Churchill alum Andrew Friedson to the graduating Churchill class of 2019 on Tuesday, May 28, at DAR Constitution Hall. “They don’t tell you when you run for student body president that only the senior class president gets to speak at graduation. …Turns out, I had to wait a decade and a half, and run for County Council, just to speak at Churchill graduation.”
Here is the rest of Friedson’s commencement speech:
And I’m truly thankful for the opportunity to be here.
Churchill is a special place. It helped mold me into who I am today, and when you look back, I’m sure it will have done the same for you. But it can be a tough place, too. It comes with pressure. With expectations. With seeing peers as competitors, often, before seeing them as collaborators.
Up to this point in your life, everything has been about achievement. Your grades. Your advanced placements. Your test scores. Your college acceptance. Your sports teams. Your extracurriculars. You’d be forgiven if you felt like a walking Yelp rating – judgments about you courtesy of others. A star rating across your forehead focused on what you are, rather than who you are.
It isn’t just in high school, either. It’s all around us. We live in a world of Instagram and Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. Social media platforms that certainly have their benefit and their value but exacerbate this obsession with public appearances above personal depth.
Competing over moments, rather than sharing in them. Capturing moments for others to see, rather than being in the moment ourselves.
Defining ourselves not as people, but as profiles.
Defining our experiences not by enjoyment, but by likes.
Defining our friendships not by quality, but by quantity.
(Now don’t get me wrong. I’m counting about 3,000 potential Facebook friends in the audience here, and obviously be sure to tag me in your Instagram story!)
But in all seriousness, this virtual world can quickly replace our sense of reality, and the pressure of these broader expectations can take away some of our basic humanity.
Soon, the pressure you felt to give colleges exactly what they want on your applications will be replaced by a similar feeling to give employers what they want with the perfect LinkedIn profile or the ideal resume. It’s easy to be consumed by this endless pursuit of what is expected from and for you. A never-ending race of resume bullets. An accumulation of flashy awards, but nothing that is truly rewarding.
Graduation is an important day in your life. Not just because of what you’ve done, but even more so, because of who you’ve become. Not just because of the likes your posts today will receive, but because of the lessons you learned, with and from whom you learned them, and how you got to this seminal moment in your life.
Take a moment. Take a breath. Reflect on that.
They call this a commencement for a reason. It’s the start of a new chapter of your life. For perhaps the first time, no one is in control of your story but you. My challenge for you today is to make a commitment – to define yourself by your own wants, needs, and values rather than allowing yourself to be defined by the expectations of others.
At Churchill, there is pressure to be great. I know it because I’ve felt it. I’ve lived it. I’ve put it on myself.
But if I’ve learned anything in these past 15 years, it’s that greatness is relative. It’s temporary. To be great at something is merely to be superior to others. What is great to you today, may not seem great to you tomorrow. What’s great to one, may not be great to others.
Being great is measured by how you compare to others. But life is more than an endless competition to be better than those around you.
Don’t just define your life on being great. It’s far more meaningful to be good. A good person. A good friend. A good colleague. Being good is determined by how you treat others. So focus on treating them well.
First and foremost, though: Be good to yourself.
Take time to find out who you are. What do you care about? Why do you care about it? Once you learn who you are, be who you are, accept who you are, and love who are. Our greatest strengths can be our worst weaknesses, and our worst weaknesses can be utilized as strengths. Don’t focus on fixing all your flaws. Focus on being keenly aware of them. The key to a successful life isn’t to change who you are – it’s to know who you are.
Beyond yourself: Always be good to family and friends.
There is nothing better than a loyal friend and there is no replacement for family. Hug them today. They helped you get here. Thank them for putting up with you, for pushing you, and for getting you to this special moment.
Life is a roller coaster. It will have ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. You can’t control what they’ll be and when they’ll happen. But what you can control is who you surround yourself with for the ride. Hold them close and cherish them – on happy days like today, and on tough days. You’ll need them, and they’ll need you, too.
These deep personal relationships are truly the only rating, the one meaningful measurement of a life well lived. It’s through loved ones, not your resume, that you will ultimately be remembered.
Beyond friends and family: Be good to everyone around you.
Life is unpredictable. You can’t know where you’ll be when you’ll need help.
Be good to people generally, and people will generally be good to you. Offer a friendly smile to a stranger. Sit next to someone who’s alone. Offer help to someone in need. You never know the difference a small gesture could make in someone else’s life, or when you’ll need a small gesture to make a difference in yours.
The pressure to always be great is a heavy burden. You’ll be amazed how much of that load is lifted if you focus your energy not on competing with the people around you, but on building camaraderie with them. You’ll see how you view people around you differently when you emphasize what makes them good, not whether they’ve achieved greatness.
Before I conclude, I’d like to mention a Winston Churchill line from early in his career in 1908. He said:
“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”
In a few moments, you will get your diploma, received for the relative greatness you’ve achieved here. It will end one chapter in your life, and begin a new one. The first new day of your forever.
Thanks to this great MCPS education, your families, your friends, your teachers and mentors, the first few chapters have been scripted. The rest of the story now is yours.
What do you want it to say? How do you want to leave the world a better place?
My hope is that your story will be focused on goodness above greatness, on what you want to give with your life, not just what you want to get out of it. Make your story about giving and you will always appreciate living.
Being great is an outcome. Being good is a choice. Make that choice every day, to be good and to see good – in yourself and others. If you do that, your story will be fulfilling and meaningful – and trust me: there is no greater achievement in life.
Source: Text of commencement speech by Andrew Friedson, County Councilmember, at DAR Constitution Hall to Winston Churchill High School graduating class of 2019.