July 8, 2020 by American College of Sofia
Honorable ACS President, dear seniors, parents, teachers, advisors and guests,
It’s a great honor for me to address the Class of 2020 in one of the finest schools I’ve ever visited. I congratulate all of you for the hard work you’ve done to get to this point!
First of all, I’ll admit — I like this. I haven’t had a chance to graduate in such a regal fashion — the dresses, the hats and all that “Harry Potter” stuff — so, I’ll use this opportunity to enjoy it as much as I can.
I understand you are here to see each other one last time, throw hats in the air, and go to lunch. So, I’ll try to keep it brief.
As I mentioned already I have not graduated in glamour. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember graduating at all, I just finished high school or rather was finally done with it, and to be fair, the school I went to in the city of Varna was not even a real high school — it was the untranslatable UPK (учебно-производствен комплекс), one of those joints that accepted kids who were not admitted to good high schools. There were all sorts of bad boys, and popular girls, everybody smoked cigarettes… I didn’t fit in, so I was kind of lonely and lost. There was just this one kid with whom I clicked. (Remember this — even in the most horrid of places you end up, there’s always one person with whom you click. I’m not sure if it’s God’s arrangement, or Human nature, but it’s a given — you are never alone.) So, this kid I clicked with (we sat next to each other in class), knew exactly what he wanted to be: a doctor. He studied hard the subjects related to Medicine, as well as foreign languages, he was obsessively focused, and was later accepted into Medical school.
Now me, as long as I can remember, I secretly wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid to admit it, to express it, even to say it out-loud, and I didn’t do much about it until later in life. I thought writers were either dead or lived in Sofia.
It took me years to figure out I was wrong not to pay attention to my calling, and even more years to act on it.
You see, if you don’t pay attention to what’s important to you, you get lost in what is not.
So, now I’m going to share a few things I learned while being lost. Here:
Recognize what drives you. If there’s one desire that makes your heart beat faster— examine it. Doctor, writer, rock-star, teacher, stock broker, architect, or carpenter — if it drives you — follow it, see where it takes you, go and get it.
But I’m here not to motivate those few of you go-getters that know exactly what they want from life, they don’t need that.
I’m here to talk to the rest of us — the ones that doubt themselves, the reluctant ones, the ones who don’t feel like they have a calling. I know you!
You are graduating now, you are accepted to universities all over the world, and I bet many of you feel the pressure — by parents, by peers, be random people: So what do you want to do? What do you want to accomplish? What’s your goal? What’s the plan?
All these… questions that perhaps make you question yourself:
“I’m not sure what I want to do, I don’t have a goal… What is my passion, anyway? Is it bad that I can’t think of one? Is there something wrong with me?”
Here’s the secret: you know why they (usually older people, but not always) ask you all these questions about your plans and goals in life?
They are asking you, because they don’t know the answers. They hope you do.
I say: You don’t have a plan? It’s all right. Maybe, God has a plan for you, but He’s still working on it. Maybe, the plan is not ready yet, and that’s fine.
You think Steve Jobs knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish in life when he was your age? You think Barak Obama did? No. Young Barak scooped ice cream. George Clooney sold insurance, Hugh Jackman was a party clown. You think the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew exactly that one day he was going to become Pope Francis? No. Jorge was a bouncer in a bar in his young years. Yes, The Pope was a bouncer.
Well, friends, I also worked some odd jobs. Here are a few: messenger driver, assistant cook, night club DJ, security officer, night shift truck dispatcher, bartender; I was meat cutter in a roadside restaurant, morning radio-host, I was wedding photographer, and so on… and all of that before I even wrote the first sentence of my first novel 18% Gray. I was 40 years old, when it was published, and I finally arrived at what I wanted to do all along. So, trust me on this: It may take some time. But your moment will come. And you have to be ready for it. What you must do in the meantime, waiting for your moment to come is very important: build character.
“But I already have character!” you might say. Yes, you do. But it is an ongoing project, it shouldn’t stop when you turn 18 or 21 or 40. You don’t stop building a bridge in the middle of the river, do you? You don’t stop building a three-story house when only the first floor is done.
No one can build your character for you.
Think of it as a vessel. A boat.
To build it right is your most important, and urgent task. Because this boat is for you. If you construct it smart, if you use only the best materials, if you make it sturdy and take good care of it, this boat will take you places. You will sail fast and safe, you will conquer territories, and discover new lands. Most importantly — it will harbor your soul, protect your values, and work for your talent whatever it may be.
On the other hand – if you are negligent building that boat, you may end up with a rickety craft, shaking with the slightest winds, sinking with the first storm. Caution: Some of the most talented people I have ever known were unsuccessful in applying their talents to work. Their character gave in to the pressure of the world. That is one sad thing.
So build your character.
Here’s the next important thing I’d like to share:
Faith is the only thing no one can take away from you, and the only thing you can take anywhere you go. In the 90’s, when the situation in Bulgaria became unbearable, I had to leave and go look for a better life for my family and myself in America. What did I take? I took some loans from friends. I took some clothes, a few books, a couple of CD-s, my character and my faith that this was the right thing to do.
So, have faith. Believe. And I don’t mean it in a religious way. You may believe in God. You may believe in Science. You may believe in the Great Spirit. You may believe in Music. Or Art. Or Nature. But know that only believing in something larger than you, will make you believe in yourself. And at the end of the day, believing in yourself is the only belief that really matters.
Two things to remember: BUILD your character, and BELIEVE.
Build and Believe. I guess that’s enough for today.
Being a writer, I have spent many years studying storytelling, mythology, literature, and pop culture trying to figure out the structure of a good story. It turns out it is the ancient, universal pattern that repeats itself in all the cultures all over the world. We’ve seen it over and over, and it goes like this: an unlikely, reluctant hero who lives in an Ordinary World embarks on a journey into the Unknown. Along the way, he or she makes some allies and enemies, falls in love, fights battles, fails and wins conflicts, overcomes trials, and as a result he/she becomes stronger and wiser and comes home changed.
Sounds familiar? Yes. The Journey of Odysseus. But also — the story of Star Wars (the reluctant Luke Skywalker?), it’s Harry Potter also, the story of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, the Lion King… Of course, the Lion King. Simba was a young lion forced to leave the Pride Lands, to flee abroad, and live the Hakuna Matata Life with his allies Pumba and Timon, then he was reminded who he was, he took charge, he fell in love, returned home, only to fight his fiercest battle with the enemies (hyenas) and finally prevailed. He changed into a strong, smart, and responsible lion.
The American mythologist Joseph Campbell studied this pattern, and made it popular as the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey. No matter what the setting of the story is, the stages of the Hero’s Journey remain the same:
Part One: Departure/or Separation
Part Two: Initiation
Part Three: Return
It seems too simple, yet, there is nothing trivial about it: we are amused by it, we can’t get enough of it. Why? Because this mythological journey is engraved in our human nature, it’s in the DNA of our storytelling — we all experience it one way or the other. It’s in the bedtime tales we hear as children, in the books we read as adults, in the movies we watch…
We are all made of stories about heroes. We are all made of heroes. The heroes are us.
So, now you are the reluctant hero in your own story. You must leave your Ordinary World to enter the next stage— it’s unfamiliar, dangerous, but it is also very, very exciting!
Be brave. Build and Believe. Have faith that it will take you where you need to go. Keep working on your boat, patching up holes, polishing it, maintaining it. Every day is an opportunity to keep building your character.
Now, remember this only friend from my high school, I told you about? The kid who wanted to be a doctor, and nothing else? Well, he became a physician. He built a carrier here, then he went abroad and worked in Emergency rooms and hospitals all over the world, he became one of the “Doctors without borders”… Some few years ago we got in touch. It turns out that after all, he had returned to Bulgaria just like myself, settled with a family and practice, and now some 30 odd years later we ended up being almost neighbors. He, who knew exactly what he wanted, and me who wasn’t sure until later in life. Life works in mysterious ways.
So now, class of 2020 — I am officially sending you off on your Journey into the Unknown World to make friends and enemies, to fall in and out of love, to fight battles, fail tests, and win hearts, to get lost and find your way back, to engage in conflicts and overcome trials, to become stronger and wiser. And one day I hope, you come home changed.
And bringing change to this land will cost you even more struggles. But, ultimately you will win. Go now. Be heroes.
And don’t forget to call your Moms. Often.