By Ben Nemtin, 2018 Commencement keynote speaker
Thank you President Watkins for that warm introduction. Thank you students, parents and the Board of Trustees. I am elated and truly honored to be here speaking to you tonight. First and foremost, to the graduating class of 2018, congratulations! You made it! I feel privileged to be here tonight, and this experience has already taught me a lot. I’ve learned that I need to wear more robes. They are more comfortable than sweats.
At this point in my life, I only know five things. Actually, I know more than five things, but there are five things that I live by, and it all started with a bucket list. You see, I had just graduated high school, and I was so happy. I was happy because I had just graduated. I was happy because I had a scholarship to a great university. But the main reason I was happy was because I had just made the U-19 national rugby team, and this was my biggest dream. Where I grew up on the west coast of Canada, rugby is a huge sport. Right, it’s the third biggest sport, behind hockey and hockey. And, I played the fly half, which is like the quarterback and the kicker in one position, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. And, as we were training for the World Cup in France I started worrying about my field goals. I thought, ‘What if I miss an easy kick right in front of the goal posts?’ What if I ruin this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?’
Now, these worries would creep into my mind at night in the form of anxiety, and this anxiety caused me to lose sleep, and all of this caused me to slide into a depression. Now, this was something I had never experienced before. I was a happy-go-lucky guy with a great group of friends, and all of a sudden my anxiety stopped me from going to school, and it stopped me from going to rugby practice. I dropped out of university, and I got dropped from the rugby team. I became a shut-in in my parents’ house, unable to leave. Now, these feelings lasted for months until my friends insisted that I join them to live and work in a new town for the summer. Only then did I start to feel like I was coming out of my fog. I got a job and I started talking about how I was really feeling for the first time. I also met inspiring young people that were starting their own businesses and traveling the world. And, after that summer I made a decision to only surround myself with people that inspired me. I didn’t know it then but that one small decision would completely change the rest of my life.
So, when I got home, I thought about which of my friends were inspiring and one kid came to mind. His name was Jonnie, and I only knew two things about Jonnie. No. 1: He was a self-taught filmmaker, and number two: He took my sister to prom. So I was conflicted about whether I should reach out to him. But I did, and I said, “Jonnie, let’s make a movie!” And he liked the idea, and we brought Jonnie’s friend Dave and Jonnie’s older brother Duncan into our amateur movie mission. The problem was, we had no idea what we wanted to make a movie about. There were a lot of things we wanted to do, but for some reason, we had never done any of them.
And around this time, Jonnie was sitting in first-year English class, much like the one you sat in, and his teacher assigned him a 150-year-old poem called “The Buried Life.” And something in that poem struck Jonnie and he came back to the four of us excitedly and made us read four lines of that poem. Now, getting three teenage guys to read a 19th century English poem was no small feat, but he was convincing. After all, he took my sister to prom. So, the four lines were:
But often in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire,
After the knowledge of our buried life.
This poem articulated our feelings perfectly! There were so many things that we wanted to do, but we hadn’t done them because they were buried. We were buried by work, by school, by life. And we had moments of inspiration, but eventually those became buried by the day-to-day. So, right then and there, we decided to call this film “The Buried Life.”
Now, in an attempt to unbury ourselves, we asked the question: ‘What do you want to do before you die?’ You see, the thought of death was the only thing that shook us enough to think about what was important.
And with that, we made a list of our buried dreams. Right, we just decided to make the most epic bucket list of all time. But when we made this list, there were two rules. No. 1: Pretend you had $100 million in the bank. And No. 2: Pretend you could do anything. So, if anything were possible, what would you do? Well, we would make our own TV show, go to space, write a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, pay off our parents’ mortgage, tell a judge, ‘You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth,’ walk away from an explosion in slow motion and have a beer with Prince Harry! We also made a promise: Every item we crossed off our bucket list, we’d help a complete stranger do something on their list.
Our plan was to take two weeks off our summer jobs before we went back to school and go after our list, helping others along the way. So, we each worked two summer jobs so we could buy a camera on eBay and build a website. We had lofty goals of renting a brand new 30-foot RV, but we settled for a 1977 Dodge Coachman RV that we pulled out of a small swamp. I would actually cold call companies looking for sponsorship with a deep voice pretending we owned a successful production company. And we were a little bit short – the last money that we needed, we threw a “tight-and-bright” theme party.
So, unfortunately, that is me on the left.
The four of us ducked out of our summer jobs two weeks early so we could hit the road. I told my boss I needed two weeks off because I was going to a wedding, a long Indian wedding. I had two Indian weddings that I could not miss.
The next day my boss saw me on the front page of the newspaper dressed as a knight, crossing off number 43: Be a knight for a day. So, I got fired. Also, did not get matched up with the best headline.
But, the wheels were in motion!
We hit the road for two weeks in our dusty RV and nifty matching T-shirts, on a mission to tackle our bucket list and help others. And then, something unexpected happened: People started hearing about our list, and strangers would reach out and say, ‘I saw number nine, ride a bull, on your list. Well, my friend owns a bull ranch. He can help you.’ Or, ‘I saw number 41, make a toast at a stranger’s wedding. My friend’s getting married. I’m the best man. I can get you in!’ And then people would send us their dreams — saying things like, ‘My biggest dream is to fly a fighter jet.’ Or, ‘I’ve always wanted Morgan Freeman to read me a bedtime story. Can you help me?’
You see, the mission took on a life of its own, and the momentum didn’t stop. To date, that two-week road trip has lasted over 10 years. And the list items that I was convinced were impossible have somehow been checked off. List items like number 95: Play basketball with President Obama at the White House;
number 19: Write a No. 1 New York Times bestseller (a miracle for guys who barely passed English class, and one who legitimately did not). You know, impossible list items, like number 14: Grow a moustache.
Did we use mascara to darken our moustaches? No comment. We managed to cross off number 54: Make a TV show,
and we even crossed off “have a beer with Prince Harry.”
Although by the looks of it, it looks like I crossed off, “have a few beers with Prince Harry” So, oddly enough, it’s not these big list items that mean the most. It’s been the times when we’ve helped other people do what they love that remain the highlight.
But at the University of Utah, you already know this because helping others is part of your culture. I heard about one student who’s turning plastic bags into sleeping mats for the homeless who sleep outside during the winter and another student who takes prom dresses as donations and provides underprivileged girls with formal gowns for prom for free. I heard countless stories like this, so when I visited Salt Lake a few weeks ago, I thought I would try and help someone cross something off their bucket list. Take a look.
Doug is proof that impossible is possible. Four years ago, he couldn’t see. Now, he’s watching his first basketball game. Next on this list: Play a game of basketball. And I have no doubt, with his tenacity, he will be back on the court.
Now, when you take this next journey — whatever you do — just know that there will be ups and there will be downs. There will be times when you struggle. We are told, ‘be strong, get through it on your own, don’t rely on other people, don’t be a burden, don’t be someone else’s problem.’ The truth is, this is backwards. From someone who has been there, this is backwards. We are all human beings, and when you hit that struggle, know this: You are not alone. And, more importantly, asking for help in that time of need comes with no shame. Because whoever you go to for help will one day return the favor and come to you in their time of need. And this is the world we want to create — a world of connectedness and compassion. The truth is any struggle you have overcome has made you stronger. Those battles have taught you things that you never knew, and taken you to places you never thought you could go. They have given you a depth of empathy for other people who might be struggling with something similar. You see, our struggles can be our strengths when we embrace them rather than try to hide them. Because this is our true self. And who you truly are, is exactly who you need to be.
Now, in order to be your true self, know this: That thing that you’ve always wanted to do, it’s possible. I am here to tell you, you can do that thing. Not only can you do it, but you must do it. And I understand that it might feel impossible, and you may question yourself, asking, ‘What makes me special enough to go after my dream?’ Well, you’re not special, and either am I, and that makes us equal. You see, we were just young and dumb enough to follow our gut and not listen to anyone that told us it was a waste of our time. But that naïveté is what fueled us. And, as Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’
Your job now, as you embark on this next chapter, is to stop and think about what’s important to you, not what’s important to your parents or your friends or your teachers or your Instagram followers. (Well, keep your Instagram followers in mind because they’re pretty important). But think about what’s important to you — in your gut and in your heart. And if that scares you, that’s good. And if people say you’re crazy, that’s better. And if you can’t think about what your passion is, feel what your passion is. What excites you when you think about it? Follow that feeling. Because if it’s not what you really want, you simply will not have the energy to succeed. You see. It’s easy to buried by the everyday grind; to put your dreams on the back burner until next year, until next year. But we must not forget the words of the brilliant philosopher Ferris Bueller: ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’ Now take a second to think about your secret dream. Right, what is it? Now that you’re thinking about it, how do you accomplish it?
My friends and I managed to cross off nearly all 100 list items. And I noticed there are patterns of things we do again and again to accomplish any goal. As I said, I only know five things. So here they are. Here are the five steps to making the impossible possible. Now pay attention because this is literally everything I know, so it goes quick.
Step One: Write down your dream.
Something funny happens when you write your list. You take an idea and you make it real. You take something that is intangible and you make it tangible. You’re effectively breathing life into your dreams. You’ve begun to prioritize your goals. Suddenly, these are not dreams anymore — they’re projects. A dream has a funny way of staying a dream, but a project — you can break it down into manageable steps, just like any work assignment or school project. Studies show that people that write down their goals are 40 percent more likely to succeed. That’s an easy 40 percent. Take it.
Step Two: Talk about your dreams.
If you don’t talk about your dreams, no one can help you. Alright, one more time for the nosebleed section: If you don’t talk about your dreams, no one can help you. Why would you want to do it by yourself? That is impossible. And I guarantee help will show up in the most unexpected ways. Because the only way we cross things off our list is from the help of other people. Some people don’t talk about their biggest dreams because they’re afraid of what other people might think, or they’re afraid of failure. Well, failure is usually a course correction to success, and what you learn far outweighs any potential hit to your reputation.
Step Three: Persist.
People trick themselves into thinking that external forces are the reason that they fail. The simple truth: You fail because you stop trying. Increase your odds of success with persistence. God knows that’s how Jonnie got my sister to prom. Success depends on consistency of effort as much as it does on the quality of work. You can produce great work and not have it recognized. Trying again and again makes all the difference.
Step Four: Take Moonshots.
Tim Ferriss says it well: 99 percent of the world does not believe they can do great things, so they shoot for mediocre goals — they shoot for realistic goals. Right, so the level of competition is highest for realistic goals. Therefore, if you shoot for unrealistic goals, there’s less competition. You have a higher chance of getting it done. Quite simply, a big dream motivates you to get out of bed every morning. And it attracts the best people and best talent by your side. You want those people standing next to you, right, not doubters. If you don’t know how to do it, that’s ok. All you need to know is the first step. You’ll figure out the second step after the first.
And finally, Step Five: Give.
As you know, helping others fills you up in a way that doing things for yourself does not and often brings you a greater sense of fulfillment. Not only that, it also helps you get stuff done! When people see you out in the world helping others, they want to help you. Jim Carrey says, ‘The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.’ This rings true because when I look back, it’s the times when I’ve stepped into someone else’s life in a moment that means so much to them, like our friend Doug, that I know will stick with me until I die.
Now, I want to share four final lines from “The Buried Life,” the 150-year-old poem that started it all.
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats so wild.
Don’t stay buried. By doing what you love, you inspire other people to do what they love. And that ripple effect goes far beyond what you’ll ever know. It’s time for you to track your true, original course because today is the youngest you will ever be.