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A speech to Duke TIP award winners

For some reason, Grinnell invited me to give a speech to Duke TIP scholars on Tuesday, 3 May 2016. Duke TIP recognizes strong seventh grade students, often basing its recognition on performance on standardized tests. I didn’t get a lot of instructions, but I’m told that I’m supposed to give an inspirational speech.

Good afternoon. As Dr. Bagnoli said, my name is Sam Rebelsky and I teach computer science (and many other things) at Grinnell. Congratulations to you and your parents for your academic successes! You should be very proud of your achievements.

I must admit that it’s a bit weird to be up here in front of this audience. All three of my sons were Duke TIP scholars, and so I’m much more accustomed to being on the other side of the podium. Lecturing is also not my normal mechanism for teaching, since I think students learn better by doing. I’m also not sure that I’ve ever read my speech before. But I’ve been asked to lecture, and so I will. I’ll do my best to use your time well.

I have a few recommendations for you. I’ll do my best to explain each in turn.

I think Grinnell asked me to be up here because I represent a certain kind of success. I have an awesome job. I get to make a difference in the lives of my students. I get to work on interesting projects, projects that I often design. I regularly have the opportunity to interact with really smart people. I get paid well. And I get to watch my students go off to do incredible things, from helping design parts of Twitter to writing the code that lets Disney and Industrial Light and Magic create awesome animations, to making people laugh on the Silicon Valley TV show, to working on medical software, to raising wonderful children, and more.

My own occupation and that list of occupations lead to my first recommendation for you: Pursue your passions. Each of my students has found something different that is important to him, her, or zir. Most of them are privileged enough to make a good living do what is important. (Others do what they are good at, and use their income to make it possible for them to spend time on what they value.) I can tell you that while all of my three sons were Duke TIP scholars, each is looking in a different direction. My eldest is likely to be a Quant, someone who applies mathematics to solving a wide variety of applied problems. But he’s also thinking about teaching. My youngest son, who is ninth grade, already programs better than many of my students. But he thinks he wants to pursue music, since it calls to him.

Then there’s my middle son, who is just starting college. He has no idea what he wants to do. He’s talked about being a priest, a human rights lawyer, a fireworks manufacturer, and a baker, among other things. Of course, he’s also talked about being a trophy husband, so he really doesn’t know. It’s okay that he’s still exploring. I’ll tell you that my oldest son originally thought he’d be a chemist, and I thought I’d be an archaeologist. Part of young adulthood is figuring out your passions. And that’s my second recommendation for you: Take the time to figure out what you are passionate about. You may not know that until midway through college, or beyond.

That leads to my third recommendation, Don’t focus on just one thing. No matter what your primary passion is, you will do it better if you can draw on other skills, knowledge, and approaches. As a computer scientist, it’s still important that I write well. I also draw upon things I learned in studio art as I do work. I’m a bit envious as I watch my children draw upon the cooperative skills they learned in team sports. Each thing you do may lead to identifying a better direction for you. And each thing you do can contribute to your success. So try a lot of different things.

Many of you worked very hard to get here. And I very much congratulate you on that; knowing how to work hard is an incredibly important skill. However, for others, it likely came easy. And for you, I will share my own story. Like you, I as a smart kid, and things came easily to me. Things came easily in grade school. Things came easily in high school. Things even came relatively easy to me in College, and I attended the University of Chicago, one of the most challenging schools in the nation. My wife was envious that I always seemed to have time to go book shopping, to work as a Calculus tutor, to work for our film society and attend or run daily film showings, to work late nights in the computing center, and more. I’ll tell you it was great. And then I hit graduate school. And I realized that I could no longer get along on just intellect, and didn’t have the skills I needed to succeed. I didn’t know how to buckle down and get work done; I was too used to just dashing off an answer. And it therefore took me about two years longer than it should have to finish graduate school. I wish I had learned good work habits earlier. And so these are particularly personal recommendations: Learn how to organize yourself. Figure out how to buckle down and get work done, even if it’s not always pleasant work. And to do those things, you may need to challenge yourself, even if others do not challenge you. I wish I’d done all of those things, and I strongly encourage you to do so.

My previous recommendations have been primarily about you, and how you might succeed. My next recommendation is therefore somewhat different. Take responsibility for others. As some of our brightest citizens, you will take on leadership roles. You may develop ideas and products that can change the world. Take your successes and use them to help others - serve as a mentor, a tutor, a guide. I know that I find helping others to be one of the most rewarding things I do, and I hope that you’ll find the same.

My next recommendation also has to do with other people. Don’t do everything yourself; collaborate with others. Joe gave you a long list of things that I do. Most of those things I do with other people. And, in general, things are much more successful when I work with others. We get more perspectives, and the additional perspectives lead to a better result. We share work. We challenge each other. I know that I’ve often made a decision that I thought was great, only to discover later that it was wrong. When someone challenges me early on in the process, I avoid wasted time going in the wrong direction.

It should be obvious, but you should also take time to thank the people who make a difference to you. You’ve clearly achieved a lot. You probably didn’t do it alone. Thank your parents. Thank your teachers. Thank your siblings and friends. I’ll admit that I could not have hoped to have reached the position I’m at without a lot of support, support from my parents and teachers when I was young; support from my professors, when I was in college and graduate school (I still remember my most frequent comment from Gerald Mast, from whom I took about four classes: Sam, you have great ideas. It’s too bad that your writing interferes. He’s responsible for me eventually finding a competent writer’s voice.); support from my colleagues, in my professional life; and support from my family, who help me achieve everything.

We have almost reached the end of my remarks. It’s therefore time for my penultimate recommendation. (I know all of you know what penultimate means, but let me explain to your parents. Penultimate means next to last. We use the more confusing term to make ourselves sound smarter.) I think Dr. Bagnoli might try to get President Kington to fire me if I didn’t say When you’re looking at colleges in a few years, consider Grinnell. Grinnell permits you to explore a wide variety of interests, exposes you to new and challenging ideas, provides you with committed faculty and other resources, and gives you a set of interesting and talented peers to work with. (Joe, did I do okay?)

My final recommendation is to be proud of yourselves. Few students achieve your level of academic achievement, and you should take the time to congratulate yourselves.

As you know, most lectures end with a quiz. I hope you were taking notes.

Are you ready? Should we have Joe take the quiz for you?

Which of the following were recommendations that I made today?

  • Pursue your passions. (Yes)
  • Do what you love now; it’s clearly what you’ll always love. (No)
  • Focus on one thing. (No)
  • Take the time to figure out what you are passionate about. (Yes)
  • Don’t focus on just one thing. (Yes)
  • Use words like penultimate and defenestrate (No)
  • Learn how to buckle down and do work. (Yes)
  • Challenge yourself. (Yes)
  • Pursue wealth and power. (No)
  • Take responsibility for others. (Yes)
  • Brag about your achievements. (No)
  • Don’t do everything yourself; collaborate with others. (Yes)
  • Take time to thank the people who have made a difference. (Yes)
  • Attend Grinnell. (No)
  • When you are thinking about college, consider Grinnell. (Yes)
  • Be proud of yourselves. You deserve it. (Yes)

Thank you for taking the time to listen. I look forward to seeing you receive your awards. I also hope you enjoy the rest of your visit.

As always, I appreciate any comments folks wish to send my way. (And no, I’m not saying that as part of the speech.)

Version 1.1 of 2016-05-03.