Life is a shrubbery

I’ve had a lot of adventures in the past two years. One of the craziest occured right after my science rap trip to Japan (more on that eventually). I had been invited to give a commencement speech at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic in Tauranga, New Zealand. I wound up writing the speech in the Hong Kong airport. I got picked up in Auckland airport, drove the two hours to Tauranga, got out of the car, and gave the speech.

The results are below, including a live performance of Fossil Rock Anthem. It’s a pretty ridiculous speech centered around an overextended shrubbery metaphor, quoting the wisdom of ?uestlove, Six60, and the Dos Equis guy.

The audio quality isn’t great, but there are captions available. Speech starts at 2:49. Transcript after video.

Life is a shrubbery and you, proud graduate, are a gardener

Thank you tutors, graduates, friends and family. It’s an honor to be with you today.

Two days ago, I was in Japan. And I had nine 18-year old Japanese students in a seminar room staring at me, expecting me to teach them how to rap… about science… in English.  Except that they’d never rapped. They weren’t science students. And some barely spoke English. With those nine faces staring expectantly at me, I asked myself, how on earth did my life lead up to that moment?

To answer that question I could tell a linear story of how life has been like a single vine climbing from one point to the next.  From the rap I wrote about frog dissection in intermediate school, to the obsession my high school friends had with the Wu-Tang clan, to the first science raps I made for my students while teaching at Stanford University.

But that linear story of cause and effect – is wrong. As much as we like to look back and tell a story about the sensible way in which one life event has lead to the next, it’s not true. And I think that linear story does a disservice to the complexity of human existence, and the diversity of our passions.

Because any given life is not just one long continuous vine. A life is made of a multitude of branches shooting out in all directions. At any given moment, certain parts of us are growing, branching, flowering – while others are getting pruned, stifled, or just maintaining. From sports to music to love to death, each branch represents a feeling, a relationship, a hobby, or an idea. Some of our most complicated branches may lay dormant for years, only to flourish later on and become intertwined with others. So life’s not a vine. Life, my friends, is a great big shrubbery.

Yes life is a shrubbery. And you, proud graduate, are a gardener. Just as I could not have predicted that at age 25 I would be science rapping in Japan, you cannot predict, let alone dictate, exactly how you’re your shrubbery will grow.

But you can make sure that conditions are favorable for growth.

So from my brief experience in this world, I want to impart some of gardening techniques that have allowed me to become a globetrotting science rapper, in the hopes that they might help you contemplate your own success, and perhaps inspire further flourishing of your shrubbery.

To start off with, shrubberies need water and nutrients to grow. And the key ingredient for that growth is knowledge. This “knowledge” doesn’t have to be the type of thing you get from a textbook. It can be physical, emotional, philosophical, or intellectual. And in the shrubbery metaphor, growth is synonymous with learning. As long as you’re immersed in a rich soil of books, conversations, and experiences, the shrub will never stop growing.

And lucky for us, knowledge has never been more accessible. Universities around the world are putting their courses online. Your local library is full of amazing books. And you can teach yourself just about anything if you know how to use Google and YouTube.

Even if you think you’re finished with polytechnic forever, remember that all shrubs need that sweet liquid knowledge to grow. As the most interesting man might say, whether you’re in school or out of school – “Stay thirsty my friends.” Read for pleasure, take an online class, build something, or learn from you’re the people around you. Which brings me to tip #2.

Surround your plant with unique inspiring shrub friends. These other plants should energize you, challenge you, take you to new realities when you’re getting stifled, and bring you back to reality when you’re getting too far out. As the great philosopher Questlove once said (he’s the drummer of my favorite hip hop group, The Roots): “the only mofos in my circle are people that I CAN LEARN FROM. I believe THAT is the first and foremost rule to a successful life. You are going to be as educated and successful as the 10 most frequented people you text on your phone.” So when you come across a new person in life who inspires you, challenges, you, or brings out the best in you – hang on to them. Make sure they’re planted somewhere nearby.

But to be honest, coming across these people is not always easy. It requires a willingness to meet a stranger, to make yourself vulnerable, and to say yes to strange invitations. Like when you get an out-of-the-blue email from an American teaching at Kyoto University, who wants you to go to Japan. And as terrifying, bizarre, and uncertain as the prospect may seem, it will stimulate growth.

Which brings me to gardening Tip #3. You’ve got to be willing to uproot your shrubbery every now and then, and expose it to a new climate. Now I know what some of your inner shrubs are thinking – this climate is awesome, there’s this bird who comes and hang out on my branch every Tuesday, I’ve got this rock that I can lean up against. But if the comfort of that rock is preventing growth, it’s time to get– uncomfortable.

Now one obvious way to leave your comfort zone, which kiwis seem really good at, is traveling. But as great as travel is, you don’t have to leave your country to challenge yourself. You don’t even have to leave your city. You just have to do something out of the ordinary. Pick up a new language – join a new sports team, volunteer with a community that you don’t normally interact with. There are nooks and crannies of adventure, discomfort, and growth all around us. You just have to have the energy, bravery, and willingness to explore them.

Though that voluntary quest to leave one’s comfort zone may be nothing compared to involuntary trauma that all shrubberies inevitably face – drought, flood, predators, or fire. But just remember my favorite type of bush – the California chaparral. This plant is fire-adapted, and instead of withering in the face of fire, it actually releases the seeds of the next generation. In the face of trauma, it responds with growth. Not just an inspiring tale of how to deal with adversity, but an important reminder that in addition to you (the gardener) and your life (the shrubbery) there are many other factors that influence your growth. Insects that pollinate you, worms that help recycle nutrients, or even those mama and papa gardeners that helped cultivate that shrubbery in its earliest days.

Because as the many proud parents, friends, and family members in attendance today can confirm, you did not get here alone. As much as you should take ownership of that shrub, never take for granted the contribution of all those other factors that have helped your shrubbery along. Even as you travel, leave your comfort zone, make new friends, and learn new things – remember the Six60 song that was played on my last Air New Zealand flight – “Don’t forget your roots.”

Now the whole point of this ridiculous shrubbery metaphor is that we are complicated. We don’t always have complete control over how our lives develop. The best we can do is to put ourselves in stimulating and dynamic environment that encourages lifelong learning, and to make the most of whatever weather comes our way.

So what have I learned from my bizarre and uncertain trip to Japan?

Well, it only happened yesterday, so really I have no idea. And that’s the whole point. Someday I may be able to pinpoint some consequence of those actions, some new bizarre next step that arose from that experience. But I prefer to think of it as just a bunch of new little sprouting branches within my shrubbery, building on the key strands that have been growing and dividing my whole life.

So as you sit here today, think about the many different parts of yourself that have been branching and flowering lately. How has your experience at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic shaped your growth? But also look to the future, and consider the type of environment that will allow you to keep flourishing. Leave your comfort zone. Meet some inspiring shrubberies. And when it comes to knowledge…. “Stay thirsty my friends.”

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5 Responses to Life is a shrubbery

  1. crowther says:

    Having sat through a LOT of dull, trite, and just-plain-weird commencement speeches, I can say with confidence that this is a good one!

  2. What a beautiful, awesome, inspiring, moving, and cool commencement speech. I’ve sat through many commencement speeches too, and I’ve never been able to reflect on the talk by using the words “awesome” and “cool.” I’m thirsty just reading your post. Thank you.

  3. Mr. Lionel says:

    Thanks for sharing such an inspireing speech.

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