Maria Popova is the founder of BrainPickings.org. This is her commencement address for the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania 2016.
I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop- culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.
I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city — people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, it’s like we remember how we can live and who we’re capable of being to one another.
I also practically live on my bike — that’s how I get everywhere — and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast — which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in — but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me — and I felt strangely defeated.
But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice — unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else — he had a restaurant’s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife — this is how this immigrant made his living.
My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate I’ve been — because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and it’s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.
I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining — when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.
I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.
This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers — self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity — intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.
But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.
Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.
In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.
You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe that’s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.
Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.
Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist page views and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more page views and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.
You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.
Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.
You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.
Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.
Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.
It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.
But you — you — are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrow’s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.
So as you move through life, pedal hard — because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and don’t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.
Instead, pedal forth — but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.
Thank you and congratulations.
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