Each year, college universities across American invite a celebrity of some sort to give a commencement speech. They range from actors to entrepreneurs, scholars to scientists. The best of them stand in front of the auditorium, filled with newly-minted, ready-for-the-real-world adults, and say things like, “failure is your friend.” And that, “daring to dream,” will always be more important than any lesson learned in a global economics class.
They tell the graduates that, in the end, it’s the memories you make that mean the most. And that those night-late tailgates and awkward mornings in the wrong dorm room will be some of the best of their lives.
Think of it. To sit there in your cap and gown, ready to shake the dean’s hand, and be delivered the realization that all you ever needed to learn was what you already knew. But that’s the reason these types of speeches are inspiring. It’s everyone’s favorite type of advice: the kind you’ve always known in your heart but sounds so much better coming from someone else.
There is one commencement speech that stands above the rest in my mind, both in philosophy and actionable advice. One I’ve watched and re-watched along with millions of others on Youtube, known as the Make Good Art speech by the author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman stands in front of the newly minted, ready-for-real-world auditorium and offers one simple commandment: Move toward your mountain.
Gaiman explains that his mountain was to become, “an author of books,” and that, “I knew that as long as I kept walking toward the mountain I would be alright. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me toward or away from my mountain.” The question, “Is this moving me toward my mountain?” became a guiding light for how he should spend his time. “I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”
For living, breathing humans (and perhaps beyond) the end of one journey always marks the beginning of another. You don’t need a handshake from the dean to know that, wherever you are in life, the world is taking aim, ready to fire arrows of opportunity. Some purposeful, some not. There will be shiny distractions, mirages of meaning, and pressures to conform. And the catch-22 of being a fully connected, highly creative human is that you’ll be in higher demand for all of these. How will you know what to chase, who to follow, and where to use all those productivity hacks collected along the way?
To answer these, Gaiman’s question is a flare gun in the night: Is this moving me toward my mountain?
Knowing what your mountain (or passion, purpose, mission) is can take some time. Staying on the path long enough to reach the top is even more challenging. Some people pick a mountain not for its peak, but for the journey up. They see the flowery switchbacks and romantic lookout points scattered throughout the climb. This trail looks nice. But on the way up they get a few rocks in their shoe. They scrape their knees. The flowers they saw from the bottom have died and the mountain is looking more lop-sided than majestic. They’re only half-way up, but they’ve already learned to resent their stupid mountain.
Some people reach the top of their mountain and then realize it’s not what they thought it was at all. There’s that movie with Hugh Grant. The one where he plays an English mapmaker. He travels to a tiny village in Wales to measure the town’s mountain, which is thought to be, “The First Mountain of Wales.” It’s the pride of the village. The people there don’t have much, but they are proud to live in the shadow of their glorious mountain. They follow and pester Hugh Grant as he makes his measurements. “How tall is it? How tall is our mountain?” They make bets in the local bar. Some bet it’s 1,500 feet tall, others, 3,000 ft.
Finally, Hugh Grant walks into the bar with his measurements. Everyone is drinking, everyone is in high spirits. “How tall is it? How tall is our mountain?” Hugh and his nervous mumbling. He looks at them and tells them the height is 980 feet — just 20 feet short of being recognized as a real mountain. He tells them their mountain isn’t a mountain at all.
And isn't that just like life? One day you’re breathing the fresh air of your personal mountain peak and the next some snobby Englishman comes along and says, “I’m sorry, but your mountain is just a hill.”
The seasons of life play tricks on us. Pushing in one definitive direction for years, until suddenly, it’s revealed that we actually want something else. This is not my beautiful house / this is not my beautiful wife / how did I get here? It’s frustrating to be sure, but here’s the advice you already know to be true: It’s one of the best parts of being human.
As human beings, we get to choose multiple mountains. We’re allotted more than one purpose. Think of the names in this book. Think of all the people who enjoy years of success and meaning and then, one day, decide to pivot. They decide to reinvent and realign. They update their software and reimage their future.
For anyone looking to get the most out of their time, I’d point them toward Gaiman’s advice: Move toward your mountain. I’d also tell them not to let anyone ever convince them their mountain isn’t good enough (at the end of the movie, the whole village bands together with shovels and wheelbarrows and adds twenty feet of dirt to make their hill a mountain.) Most importantly, I’d tell them that when they reach the top of their mountain, look around, and decide they’re ready to climb another, to follow that feeling without question.
Because when you’re human, there’s always another path waiting. And isn’t that the advice you’ve known to be true all along?