May 18, 1998
by Adam Werbach
(Singing) If you're happy and you know it clap your hands. You can do better than that... If you're happy and you know it clap your hands. If you're happy and you know and you really want to show it, if you're happy and you know it clap your hands.
You graduates have every reason to be happy today. You have achieved a remarkable accomplishment and I join the faculty in congratulating you.
Some people say that today is the first step into the estimable realm of adulthood -- of suits and sports cars, of mortgages and Martha Stewart, of videos, video cameras and finally of Viagra. They say there are certainly no more children's songs in your future until you reach the next step phonics and pampers.
While all of these things might very well lie in your future, I want you to remember the kid that you've been for the first two decades of your life. Your youth is your strength. In the next period of your life you'll be confronted with more rules, processes, mores and traditions than you ever thought possible. Do not forget these words. When you're trying to change something for the better, it's often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Act now, apologize later. A little well planned irreverence will take you a long way.
Many of you have reached the pinnacle of your educational totem pole. Others will continue on for a few more years in graduate study. From your lofty perch at the top of the academic food chain, you will now be thrust down to the lowly position of intern, trainee, associate, assistant, understudy, analyst. You will be told that you've learned nothing, know nothing, have no practical experience, and that Thursday night is not a party night. Of course, they're wrong. You can still party on Thursday night, even without Seinfeld.
You've already started getting the immortal question. Say it with me, "What are you going to do with your life?" I didn't hear you. Parents -- why don't you say it with me now so you'll say it to your poor child one time less. "What are you going to do with your life?"
Graduates will learn that there is only one answer to this question. "No Dad, what are you going to do with YOUR life?"
My grandfather kept asking me that question after I graduated from school. Then I was elected president of the Sierra Club, and I figured that I'd stop getting asked. Wrong. My grandfather thought that I had become a gardener. He didn't figure out that being a gardener wasn't such a bad thing until I was an answer to a question on Jeopardy. It doesn't matter whether you're a gardener or a graphic designer, only that you tend your garden well.
Some gardens are easier to till than others. I have found that most of the least fertile ground in America is located in our nation's capitol. That's one reason I hate Washington, D.C. I hate the suspenders and the wonks and Helen Chenoweth and the fact that the President can get a dog named Buddy and make everything seem OK. Now that wasn't what you'd call a sparkling reference on my resume, being that the Sierra Club works on important federal legislation. Unfortunately I still have to spend a lot of time there. I remember coming home from one particularly hard trip where a Senator called me a certifiable nut for suggesting we take down this 'little' dam on the Colorado river. I was feeling demoralized until I heard this story.
Former Senator Bill Bradley was giving a speech and afterwards sat down to a fancy dinner in his honor. As he sat down the waiter came and poured him some wine and put a roll in front of him and a pat of butter in front of him, and he turned to the waiter and said, "Excuse me, may I please have a second pat of butter."
The waiter said, "I'm sorry sir but our policy is only one pat of butter per person."
Before the senator could respond the host of the dinner jumped up, aghast that the guest of honor had been refused and ran over to the waiter and said, "Waiter, don't you know who this is? This is former Senator Bill Bradley, former NBA star, Rhodes scholar and one day he might even be the President of the United States of America! Give him another pat of butter."
The waiter, unfazed, straightened his coat and looked the host in the eye and said, "Well maybe you don't know who I am. I'm the waiter and I'm the guy in charge of the butter!"
It doesn't matter what you do. What matters that you do it well.
You have had the privilege of an outstanding education from an extraordinary faculty. You can use that education as a club to pummel those who may not have read John Locke, seen the majestic view of De Toqueville, bathed in the melodic verses of Maya Angelou, reveled in the choreography of Twyla Tharp, or experienced the irreverent critique of Warhol. Or, you can use your education to harness your unique youthful power. Ask yourself if these leaders followed every path that was laid down for them.
Wield power creatively, like the waiter. Now your family is shaking their heads in unison right now -- thinking, my god, if we had taken all of the money that we've spent on your education and given it to Save the Children, we'd never have to see Sally Struthers on the TV again. And now this kid is telling our kids to be waiters. That's exactly right. You should be waiters and bus drivers. Bus drivers.
I want you to think back to eighth grade, picture yourself on one of those big old yellow diesel school busses. You remember the type -- the type where the seats of green pleather seats were always so hot they'd stick to the bottom of your OP shorts. Where you couldn't get the window more than half way down and you were stifling in diesel fumes. Your friends are talking about an episode of Beverly Hills 90210, when all of the sudden a pall comes over the bus and you look over to where the bus driver should be sitting and you see her weave and fall out of her chair. Everyone freezes. The bus is heading downhill, heading toward an s-curve. What do you do? Now, you've never driven a car before, and you certainly haven't driven a big yellow school bus. But then again, no one else has either. Are you the type of person who jumps out of your seat, gets behind the wheel and starts driving the bus? Or do you just sit and wait for someone else to do it? What do you do? What type of person are you? We need more bus drivers. From global warming to population explosion, our planet is facing the fight of its life -- like a driver-less bus heading toward a cliff -- the question is whether you are willing to take the wheel.
Now you'll never know enough. You'll never be the only person for the job. I was elected president of the Sierra Club only a few months after I graduated. I remember getting home that night and my first emotion was fear, panic. I thought to myself, "Oh my god I tricked them. Now what am I going to do?"
I remember going to sleep that night under the weight of all that fear and waking up the next morning to the phone ringing. "Hello?"
"Yes hello, this is the White House."
"Yeah, sure, what do you want?"
"We want you to come to the White House to explain your vision to the President and the Vice-President."
"Who is this?"
Well, it was the White House. And I had to get myself to Washington, D.C. by the next morning, and I had to get a vision. What am I, Deepak Chopra? So I get on this plane and I try to write a vision on a cocktail napkin. I was up all night and by the time I got to the White House and was hustled into some policy speech that the Vice-President was giving about trading air pollution permits, I was already exhausted. And I slowly, slowly felt my eyelids getting heavy as the Vice-President continued to talk about this very important subject. And then I fell asleep. Until I heard, "Adam, am I boring you?" I had the Vice-President's attention now. In fact I had everyone's attention. "No, Mr. Vice-President," I said, cracking like an adolescent.
Sometimes you'll feel like you get behind the wheel of the bus and drive right off the cliff. I hope your first day on the job goes better. I slinked back to San Francisco and got on with it.
Instead of being embarrassed at being young, instead of being embarrassed that I would sometimes make a fool of myself, I used it. Instead of bemoaning Beavis and Butthead, I decided to learn from their appeal. The Sierra Club membership was collectively aging a year every year. And by the time I took over the organization average age of a member was just shy of qualifying for membership in AARP. No organization -- business, social, or otherwise -- can survive without a constant infusion of new blood. Remember that -- they need you at least as much as you need them. In two years we brought the average age of a member down by a full decade and in the process we helped save places like the Kaiparowitz plateau in Utah, the American River in California, the Sterling Forest in New Jersey. My strategy was quick and simple. Use all of the communication tools that have been used to sell Chia Pets and Nintendo to us all of our lives to sell a message of substance. If Nike can sell you a pair of shoes that you can't afford in five seconds, then you better be able to sell a message of substance, a message of hope, in three seconds. And you can do it because you know how -- they've taught you all of your life. You need to tap into what you know already -- that's your strength. The best way to win a game is to play by your own rules.
Now, breaking rules and apologizing later is not something to be done lightly. In my line of work we see what happens when people break the wrong type of rules. Last week I was in Los Angeles to release injured harbor seals back into the ocean. The fierce El Nino storms mixed with the catastrophic over-fishing that's occurred off the coast has made it hard to be a sea mammal. In 1998, 90% of seals and sea lions born off the California coast will die in their first year of life. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. During the time of this speech, two species will have become extinct forever, ripped from the pages of the planet's operating manuals. The forest and the farm fires burning in Mexico as I speak are darkening the skies all the way to Chicago. For the second time in our lifetimes a nuclear arms race is heating up. I worry now that when I have kids they'll have the same nightmares I had about nuclear holocaust. Now it's not fair that you have to be dealing with that but these are problems that you must face in your lifetime. The problems are real.
And as much as I detest the arrogant disconnect that pervades Washington, D.C., we cannot cede our democracy to spin-doctors, campaign ads, and corporations. Don't join the chorus of fools that wages war on all things public. Public radio, public lands, public education, public libraries. These are the tools of democracy. Thank your family and the job you worked through college for your education, and thank the United States by striving to make our democratic bond stronger, and then to change it for the better.
You are now entering this portal of change. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Explore it. The only fear that you should have of aging is that you will begin to fear change and you'll begin to look for ways to insulate yourself from it. Maybe I watch too much TV, but I was actually inspired by Jerry Seinfeld. Last week I stepped down as president of the Sierra Club -- not because things were going badly, but because things were going well. I left the presidency ready for another leader to take it farther and faster. I left it in the knowledge that in two years we had saved two million acres across America, ushered in the end of the era of big dam building, made the movement more relevant to young people. In nature you don't have the luxury of getting off the top of a mountain and just leaving, but in life, you can actually jump off of one peak to another taller mountain and just keep on climbing. Embrace this change you face right now. Embrace it.
As you leave the warm embrace of Colorado College, make sure to thank the faculty and staff that have invested in you, and know that the best way you can honor them is by being a responsible citizen.
So I've told you a few things. First don't stop being a kid. Your youth is your strength. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Sing kids songs. Make a fool of yourself. Fall asleep in front of the Vice-President. Second, it doesn't matter if you're a waiter, a bus driver, a gardener or the president of a fortune 500 company. You will have the tools to wield power immediately. Do so compassionately, respectfully, and responsibly. Third, don't give up on politics. We need you out there, talking to your neighbors, reading the newspaper, knowing the staff of your member of congress. Fourth, don't be afraid of change. It will make you stronger.
We need you to keep singing children's' songs. We need you to still be young. We need you to think of bigger and better ways.
Now sing with me... If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it and you really want to show it, if you're happy and you know it clap your hands.