Responsibility, Humility, Self-esteem

I wrote the following speech for my wonderful final year students (13 young women and one young man), whom I cherish a lot. In my opinion this is not just a speech for them but a general wish for all the people I have to do with, including myself.

Dear graduates,

today should be a day of joy and celebration for you because you have finished your school career now and in a few minutes you’ll hold your certificates in your hands. But there is a depressing truth that could tarnish that joy a bit and I’m pretty sure that most adults in this room will agree to it. Even though there is no empirically verifiable data to prove the following claim, we may all assume that you can forget about 80 to 90 per cent of all the stuff you had to learn in the last couple of years because you’ll never need it again.

There is a famous quote, which teachers often love to throw at their students with a dramatic voice: “Not for school, but for life we learn.” Only few people know that the original quote is by the Roman author and philosopher Seneca, and that initially the word order was exactly the other way around. What he actually said was: „Non vitae, sed scholae discimus.“ (Not for life, but for school we learn.)

Seneca was complaining already that school is hardly suited for preparing young people for life – a complaint that hasn’t much changed during the centuries. Some bitchy educationalist with a knowledge of Latin must have taken that pessimistic statement and turned it into a motivational school concept by changing the word order. And because it is now such a beautiful thought-terminating cliché and killer argument it is being passed on and on in its distorted form.

Despite that somber introduction to my speech you may be surprised that I want to congratulate you with all my heart, and I want to tell you, that I’m damn proud of you. You’ve achieved your A-levels and are now allowed to study or learn trades that aren’t open for middle school graduates. Your future job can become a deep source of personal enrichment – I’m not talking about financial enrichment, forget about it, that’s not important anyway.

In order for you to achieve that, I want to express three wishes I have for you. I ask you to keep them in mind during your exciting journey through life. They are wishes that I also have for myself and for everyone present.

Here is my first wish for you: I wish you to be able to take full responsibility for your life. What do I mean by saying that? I think it’s up to us what we’re doing with the gift of our lives. We are responsible for the quality of our relationships, our physical fitness, our handling of finances and our emotions. It’s not easy to accept that.

For this reason, most of us have got accustomed to blaming external circumstances or other people if we don’t like something in our lives. We rarely look at the real problem, ourselves. We should stop blaming the world around us if we do not like our lives, because we create our circumstances ourselves by the way we interpret external events and react to them.

To take full responsibility for your life, you have to give up all your excuses, your victim stories, all the reasons why you haven’t done it yet or why you didn’t try. You should neither blame external circumstances nor the past. You can’t expect others to take the first step towards change. Unfortunately, most people are so driven by their habits that they’ll never change their behavior. Here’s the good news: you can change the way you think, communicate and how you see the world. You can change the images in your head and your whole behavior.

Therefore, I wish you to regain control of your thoughts, your inner visions, your dreams and your behavior.

I wish you to make yourself aware of what you think, say and do and that these things are consistent with your vision, your inner values and your goals.

This is what I mean by “full responsibility”.

I now come to my second wish. On the surface, it might seem as if that wish contradicts the things I just said because my second wish for you is humility.

Like the word “responsibility”, the word “humility” is an uncomfortable term. Friedrich Nietsche compared humility with the attitude of a slave or a squirming worm, who just wants to avoid being kicked. Of course that’s not how I define “humility”.

Instead I want to quote Wolfgang Thierse who said: “Humility is the awareness of the neediness of human beings, the awareness, that we all make mistakes and do wrong and are depending on the mercy and forgiveness of others. And we have to be willing to forgive as well. Humility is a deep insight into your own fallibility as well as the thankfulness for things that work out well.”

I’m looking at well-educated, well-off and well-developed people who have been given a lot of chances in life. But beware! We are quick in our condescension towards the uneducated and the simple, the sick and the weak, the clumsy and exhausting people. We often believe to know exactly, what others should or shouldn’t do and have a lot of good advice to give.

But we don’t really know, if it’s not exactly the other way around. Maybe we are the ones who need pity, change and help more urgently. I wish you that kind of humility.

I also wish you the kind of humility that is necessary to accept, that there are things you can’t change. There are things you can’t even comprehend. It takes humility to realize that you might quickly end up in the same situation like the people who you are looking down on now in a patronizing manner and with the best intentions, of course.

Let me come to my last wish for you. I wish you to develop and nurse an unshakable feeling of self-esteem. I wish you to be able to defend that self-esteem without guilt if that’s necessary.

Self-esteem is not based on the abilities you might or might not have, how well you did in your exams or what you can achieve in life. It is all about discerning who you really are in your essence, and how you relate to your true self.

Knowing your intrinsic value as a human being is probably the most important basis of a healthy psychological and physical development. And even though we all agree to that statement unconditionally, we haven’t really internalized that truth deeply enough. We rather measure our value as a person by our achievements and define ourselves by how well we perform. In order to realize how trapped we are in those thought patterns, we only need to look at our reactions if others do better than we.

If you have developed self-esteem, personal failure will still be sad but not a tragedy. You can fail and still love yourself. But if you haven’t developed a feeling of self-value and you keep defining yourself by your achievements, you’ll experience every failure as an existential threat. There are typical phrases that people use then: “I failed. I am a failure. Whatever I try, I mess up. When I look in the mirror I see that everyone else is more beautiful, more intelligent and more successful than I am.”

Your performance (or exam grades) don’t say anything about your value at all. Of course, ambition and discipline are important and necessary driving factors. But honestly: someone without self-esteem will fundamentally be unable to achieve anything noteworthy.

At least in those aspects your teachers have been supporting you in the last years. We assisted you, gave you feedback and took the necessary disciplinary measures. Those are our pedagogic tools. But without being aware of it, we, your teachers, often only assessed you and looked at you but we didn’t notice or see you for who you really were. Maybe a reason for that might be our own lack of self-esteem.

You can neither earn nor eke out you own value. The only thing that you can do – yes, even have to do – is to struggle for a true insight into that value.

And this is my third wish:

May you experience and see yourself as you truly are.

May you stop judging and defining yourself only by your achievements.

May you find people who don’t just look at you but see you.

May you always make an effort to look behind the exterior and see the interior.

I can’t repeat this enough. When you look at yourself, go beyond the outward appearance and see the beauty inside. You “are” – and you are precious. I wish you that kind of self-esteem.

My friends, to make a long story (or speech) short: you are fantastic people and my colleagues and I are happy that we could work with you for so many years. Take full responsibility, be humble and develop a feeling of self-esteem. This is my wish for you. Thanks for your attention.