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On Honor, True and False

2013 National Honor Society Induction Speech
Singapore American School
21 March 2013

Thank you and welcome, 54 inductees, current members of NHS, parents, faculty, family, friends.

It’s an honor to have been asked to share some words of wisdom with you—especially so, given that I know your first choice, Mr. Kay, was unavailable to do so.

So: upon accepting this late assignment, I rushed to Mr. Sturgeon to ask what this speech should attempt.

His answer was simple: “Talk about character, service, and leadership—talk about honor.” I have to admit I found the answer slightly boring. But thankfully, Mr. Sturgeon added two more words that hit me in my sweet spot: “Inspire them.”

A Metaphor from the Dead

I happen to have fallen in love with the word “inspire” a good 30 years ago, when I was fresh out of high school and falling in love with the beauty of the English language to such a geeky degree that I spent my spare time playing with etymology—the study of word roots. I used to lie on my apartment floor with this very book—the Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language—for hours at a time, and surf through its pages looking not for definitions, but for the ancient, original meanings of words we use today.

The etymology of the word “inspire” has been one of my favorites for all my adult life. The literal definition—“fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something good or creative”—that’s so cliché by now that, here again, we find it boring. But as one of my very closest friends, the great German philosopher and Dead White Male Friedrich Nietzsche observed in the late 1800s, “all words in use today are dead metaphors.” All the words we use today, in other words, have a poetic meaning at their roots that has rubbed off over the centuries to the point that we don’t hear it.

So hear this one:

“inspire”: ORIGIN: from Latin in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ Originally used of a divine or supernatural being.

Do you hear that? Admit it: at its dead metaphoric root, the cliché word “inspire” has  more epic swag than all of us in this room combined: God breathing life into Adam? An act of “inspiring.” The muse of epic poetry breathing the Iliad into Homer? Another act of “inspiring.” Oh, the swag, it overwhelms.

At the same time, though, this piece of swag makes my job here harder. Because it means that this here ceremony, folks, is at heart religious, and that my job is to somehow try to express nothing less than “the divine.” It means that your teacher has suddenly received the role, for the space of this gathering, of something closer to that of priest.

So the flip tone, the swaggy slang, I must inform you, stops here. One of you asked me to be a rapper up here, and I am not sorry to say that you will be disappointed.

Because honor is no laughing matter.

We can laugh back in the mundane world. I’ll rap for you in the cafeteria.

But here, now, let us try to understand this ritual—yes, I said “ritual”—for what it is.

Out of the roughly one thousand young adults in our society, its elders—and again, yes, I said “elders”—have invited a tiny, select minority of our young—the 54 of you standing on this stage—to honor you with a rite of passage. It is a passing, from our generation to yours, of a torch we call, metaphorically, “honor.”

And this means, at bottom, that we have identified you as having the most promise to lead our society when we no longer can.

It is a solemn thing, the rite of passage, stretching back surely thousands of years and hundreds of generations in human history. In this ceremony, we are entrusting you, among all your peers, with a new role: to be our replacements in the future, and to lead our society well. We are passing to you the responsibility, when you replace us, to keep our society strong and wholesome, decent and admirable.

We don’t do solemn well in these times—so I’m going to ask you to take this moment to concentrate yourselves in order to, just this once, attempt to do solemnity well. I’m asking you to open yourself to whatever “divine breath” might inspire you for the remainder of this ceremony, as we discuss your passage to adulthood, and to a life of honor.

Let’s begin with that lamentably dead, cliché word itself. Let’s begin with the word “honor.”

An Uncomfortable Question

We observed you closely and chose you carefully, because you have shown uncommon honor. We are confident that you deserve this ceremony, and we congratulate you for it. I personally know many of you standing on this stage, and have observed you in action in our years here together, and I have greatly admired you. I am sure I speak for many of your elders in this room when I say that it gives great hope for the future.

It’s that future that we will now focus on—your future. Let’s be honest here: the odds are strong that many of you will graduate from SAS to enter some of the most privileged and ivied halls of power on earth today.

The question that intrigues me, but also concerns me, and that should concern you as well, is this: how will you handle the opportunities that your privilege will offer you as you grow into adulthood? Will you be able to continue handling them with honor?

I hate to say it, but unfortunately, the odds are very strong that for some of you—perhaps even most of you—the answer may be uncomfortable. Why? A Wall Street Journal article last year entitled 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You says it well: “If you really want to cause social mayhem,” the author tells his imaginary audience of graduates,

it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it…

“Don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up,” the author concludes. “Too many smart people are doing that already.”[1]

It is an uncomfortable observation, but honorable people don’t avoid discomfort. It’s uncomfortable because the author clearly implies that many former high school honor students, surely NHS inductees like you, somehow lost their honor along the way, and used their talents “to mess things up.” If it happened to so many corrupt elites today, logic dictates that it can happen to you future elites tomorrow.

On Cultural Cancer

You’re probably thinking at this point, “Not me. I won’t become a dishonorable adult.” We all want to believe that. But the sad thing, it seems to me, is that these “smart people” probably didn’t go into college thinking, “I’m going to use my talents to evade taxes, to defraud people who trust me, to abuse the environment, to promote cancer and obesity.” A few sociopathic outliers notwithstanding, I don’t think human nature works that way.

So if it’s not human nature that leads power to corrupt, the problem must lie in a society’s culture, in its values. It seems obvious to me that we live in an age suffering from a set of values that is itself a form of cancer—of cultural cancer. And that set of values, in bumper sticker form, that has “inspired” so many talented people to sell their honor today, teaches this wisdom: “he who dies with the most toys wins.” (That actually was a bumper sticker in my youth—I’m sure many parents in the audience remember it. Your generation’s Facebook “bumper sticker”—YOLO (and for you parents out there, that stands for “You Only Live Once”—preaches a similar gospel of self-indulgence.)

According to this philosophy, if “messing things up” helps me make more money to buy more toys and live the high life more than everybody else, so be it—I’m in. I’m successful. I’m a winner.

Notice that what’s missing in this toy-rich “winner” are the very qualities of Honor we’re here today to celebrate: the spirit of Service not to the self, but to the greater good; the Character to choose that greater good over temptinBumper Stickerg self-indulgence; and the Leadership to walk away from that temptation. These are the very honors we’re publicly adorning you with today.

Yet clearly these YOLO values rule the lives of many people in the modern world, and it’s no wonder why: statistically, if you’re 15 years old right now, you’ve seen 300,000 30-second TV commercials in your life.[2] That’s 2,500 hours of “buy toys, buy toys, buy toys” you’ve wracked up so far. You’ve spent more hours in front of the advertisement delivery system—the TV—than you’ve spent in school at this point. It has breathed commercials into your lungs through your eyes and ears mercilessly, relentlessly, and through that “breathing,” it may have “inspired” some of you to equate success with shiny stuff.

More depressingly, unless you’re lucky enough not to fit the U.S. statistics, while you spend 28 hours a week watching TV, you spend less than four minutes a week in meaningful—key word, meaningful—conversation with your parents.

TV trance28 hours of ad bombardment a week versus 4 minutes of meaning per week with your parents. Clearly, parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders have about the same chance of extinguishing the flames of desire coming from the boob-tube that they would of putting out the sun with a fire extinguisher.

So your time is coming: from these honors to those opportunities to cash in on them for a life of shiny things bought at the price of “messing things up” and making the world worse, you’re going to face choices. Will you be able to keep your honor intact?

A Cautionary Life

Let me tell you a true story to illustrate this point. It’s the story of Dr. Richard Teo, who is a 40-year-old millionaire and cosmetic surgeon in Singapore—or was. Because Dr. Teo’s 40th year was his last. Last year, he died of lung cancer.

In a speech to a class of dental school students—you can see it on YouTube, and I urge you to—Dr. Teo shared the story of his success.[3] His description of his teen years should sound familiar to many of you. “Since my youth,” Dr. Teo said,

I’ve been a typical product of today’s society…. I was told by the media… and the people around me that happiness is about success—and that success is about being wealthy. I’m a typical product of what the media portrays. So I led my life according to this motto.

Back in those days, [Dr. Teo continues,] I was highly competitive, whether in sports, studies, leadership. I wanted it all. I’ve been there, done that.

But at the end of the day, it’s still about money.

Dr. Teo was from a working-class family. His hard work in high school earned him a scholarship to NUS, where he entered its elite ophthalmology program. He got a research grant that led to two patents—one for equipment for eye surgery, another for an eye laser. He showed great promise in helping the blind to see.

But there was a problem: while his friends who went into private practice were, as he put it, “making tons of money,” he was only earning a moderate income. He obviously wasn’t poor, and yet, since he’d been taught “it was all about money,” that moderate income wasn’t enough.

Dr. Teo speaks of the moment when he discovered, as he puts it, that “people who are not happy to pay $20 to see a General Practitioner have no qualms paying ten thousand dollars for a liposuction, 15 thousand dollars for a breast augmentation.”

And this is the moment of truth for that that promising high school Honor Student and elite university student; this is the moment when he faced the question I’m asking you to contemplate: “Will he be able to continue handling the opportunities he has earned with honor?”

Dr. Teo shares the reasoning that led to his choice:

It’s a no brainer isn’t? Why do I want to be a GP? I’ll become an aesthetic physician. So instead of healing the sick and ill, I decided that I’d become a glorified beautician.

Long story short, Dr. Teo decision to abandon the blind for a life of enlarging breasts and reducing thighs made him millions in his first year of private practice. He was pictured in magazines with celebrities and tax-dodging Facebook founders. He bought toys—he was especially proud of his shiny Ferrari—and he built a mansion. A decade after enjoying these toys, when dying from Stage 4 cancer at age 40, he discovered that they “brought [him] no joy,” that he “could not hug his Ferrari to sleep.”Ferrari honor

Dr. Teo spent his final months trying to atone for his sense of shame—of dishonor—by returning to what we’re here to celebrate: a life of Service. He returned to helping the sick instead of profiting from the vain, making the rounds comforting people who, like himself, were suffering from terminal cancer.

Let’s leave him there, thankful that he found meaning in his life, though only very late. I know this is depressing stuff, but hey: five minutes of depression now, if it “inspires” any of you to withstand the temptations to sell out that are surely coming your way, may save you from years or decades of depression later, if and when you realize that you did sell out.

(Sell out what again, Mr. Burell? Character. Service. Leadership.)

So—Yeah. Blech. Yuck. Horrible. I feel it too. Not inspiring at all. I apologize—but again: Honor is no laughing matter. We’re not here to party.

In any case, let’s transition from this “dying depressed with the most toys” sewer of a story to conclude it in the comic vein. Let’s conclude it with George Carlin’s take on this YOLO brand of “wisdom”: “Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions,” bother Carlin preaches,

is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.[4]

What I am Not Saying

At this point I want to make sure you’re not hearing me saying, “Do not become wealthy.” As a product of the working class who paid all his expenses for over a dozen years in college—tuition, rent, car payments, insurance payments, gas, food, utilities, on and on—by working low-skill, low-pay jobs, and for whom the experience of emptying the spare change jar on the floor in order to count enough coins to buy a bagel sandwich for breakfast was not uncommon at all, I can tell you with all certainty: there is no dignity in poverty. Worrying about how to keep a roof over your head next month is not a lifestyle I recommend to you. By all means, prosper: take care of your material needs for yourself, and for your family.

Nor do I want you to think I’m condemning bankers, businesspeople, doctors, or any of the other well-paid professionals as a class. At its best, banking is itself service, providing the capital to the talented entrepreneurs who can innovate, start businesses, improve life, and provide jobs for people who need them. Doctors, at their best, ease suffering. On and on.

So use your talents, by all means, and provide comfort for yourself and your family. Just “don’t mess things up” by choosing more comfort at the price of your honor.

Confucius—and those of you know this white Chinese guy talking to you right now would not finish his speech without a nod to the divine Confucius at some point—says it very sensibly and, to me, rightly:

Wealth is something everyone wants—but if you have to gain it in dishonorable ways, it’s better to be a street-sweeper.[5]

Wealth and honor are not mutually exclusive terms, then—okay? You can have both, if you make the right, but very difficult, choices, and don’t sell your honor for, you know—shiny body-tape and shiny sandwiches.

Monstrous, but True

I’m going to close with an anecdote that might help you understand why I chose this theme:

One year here at SAS, a student—let’s call him or her “Alex,” a nice gender-free name to protect his or her identity—asked me to write a college recommendation letter. I only knew Alex for a brief semester, but Alex impressed me, demonstrated drive and grit, belonged to service clubs, was in NHS, the whole nine yards. So I agreed—and if I agree to write you a recommendation letter, my own spirit of Service kicks in: I polish the hell out of that letter to make it sound as if composed in heaven. I do it because you’ve made me trust that you will do good in the world.

Alex came by a few months later to tell me the good news: acceptance at the “reach” college. “Do you know what you plan to study?” I asked. Alex smiled and answered, “I know exactly what I want to study: Corporate law. I want to get through college as quickly as possible in order to make big bucks protecting them from consumers they’ve hurt.” “Yeah, right,” I said: “Seriously: what are your plans?” And Alex laughed and said, “I am serious. Those are my plans.”

Though not aimed at me, that remark hit me like a kick to the stomach. I felt dirty for several days after hearing it—and again, not because Alex chose what can be an honorable profession, but because Alex found hurting others for money a laughing matter. I felt a bit sick at the idea of my life-work—endless hours of service to the students in our community—promoting the success of individuals like Alex.

Try to imagine how that would make a teacher feel.

Honorable—and Equally True

Now let me wrap up with a more uplifting story—and for those of you impatient for me to reach the end, also the final one. It happened in class just this Wednesday: I was introducing a lesson in which students had to read three ancient Chinese texts about terra cotta warrior-guy Qin Shihuangdi. The three texts contradicted each other on several important points, required sharp skills in analysis, literacy, and reasoning—the same wonderful skills that made me at one point consider going into law myself. When I asked how many students in the class had any interest in becoming lawyers, hoping to “inspire” any who said yes by this challenge, not a single hand went up. Interesting. On impulse, I had to ask, “Just out of curiosity—around the room real quick: what are you leaning toward devoting your life to in college?”

The answers? A good seven or eight said “engineering”—“Good!”, I said. “Create things that solve problems. Make things. With all the problems crowding the horizon, we need all the engineers we can get.” I also heard “architecture, computer animation, nursing, art, dance, veterinary medicine, international relations, environmental science.”

Not a single YOLO, “he who dies with the most toys wins” answer in the room. That crisis of faith in my profession largely evaporated in that moment.

What I especially liked about their answers, moreover, was that they all shared a passion for some skill, some practice, some intrinsic challenge that they seemed to enjoy tackling. They shared an enthusiasm.

And like “inspire,” the word “enthusiasm” brings us back to this wonderful Unabridged Dictionary—because it, too, has a beautiful metaphor buried way down in its own etymological roots. En—“Into” + theos, Greek for “god”—so, “to have a god inside.” These kids seemed to have found their “god inside”—and having that, they surely wouldn’t feel the need to devote their lives to taping sandwiches on the outside.

We Close

To close: as I said at the beginning of this overly-long speech, it’s essentially a first draft finished at 4.30 this morning. I apologize for that length, but by George, you need to assign the homework earlier. I also apologize for the absence of crowd-pleasing humor and harmless subject matter—but to have chosen that would have made me feel dishonorable.

I congratulate you again for the honor you have received today, and repeat the sincere report that many of you on this stage have enriched my life by making my very wonderful job more wonderful still with your presence. And I hope you carry that honor with you to the grave, at the end of a life that is prosperous, yes, but more importantly, is also one of Service, of Character, of true Leadership—of Honor.

I’m no god, so obviously I cannot inspire you. But that god inside of you, that enthusiasm for self-fulfilling work? I trust with all my heart that, if you honor that, and pursue what you love, you—and all of us in this room—will love what you become. Even if you don’t cure cancer, you will not be spreading it.the future

So Congratulations, NHS inductees of 2013. I thank you for your time in this solemn occasion, and invite all the elders in this space to congratulate you for your accomplishments along with me.

Works Cited

Confucius, Analects: With Selections from the Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett. 2003. Analect 7.12 (adapted), p. 68.

Corless, Roger. The vision of Buddhism: the space under the tree (1990), p. 20
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:George_Carlin

Herr, Norman, Ph.D. “Television and Health: Statistics on American Teens, Television, and Parental Contact”. Web. N.d. http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

Teo, Richard, M.D. “Thoughts of Life, Wealth, Success & Happiness”. Jan. 19, 2012. Video. http://youtu.be/umLkfADe17s

Wheelan, Charles. “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You.” Wall Street Journal. April 30, 2012. Web. http://on.wsj.com/IeVcNY


[1] Wheelan, Charles. “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You.” Wall Street Journal. April 30, 2012. Web. http://on.wsj.com/IeVcNY

[2] Herr, Norman, Ph.D. “Television and Health: Statistics on American Teens, Television, and Parental Contact”. Web. N.d. http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

[3] Teo, Richard, M.D. “Thoughts of Life, Wealth, Success & Happiness”. Jan. 19, 2012. Video. http://youtu.be/umLkfADe17s

[4] **Update: Turns out the Carlin quote is unsourced, and probably originated instead here: Roger Corless The vision of Buddhism: the space under the tree (1990), p. 20
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:George_Carlin

[5] Confucius, Analects: With Selections from the Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett. 2003. Analect 7.12 (adapted), p. 68.

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