Dr. Jimmy Chin
The commencement address was given May 13, 2017 at Unity College by Dr. Jimmy Chin.
Well isn’t this a bright eyed looking group!
Thank you for having me here on such a special day, this special moment. It is a great privilege to speak to you and I have not taken it lightly. In fact, you might not think someone that has spent the last 20 years climbing in the Himalayas, hanging from high altitude alpine walls and skiing first descents in no fall zones around the world would lose any sleep over speaking to a few college students. Well, for the record, I’ve spent quite a few nights over the last few months lying in bed sweating it out wondering what in the hell I was going to say to you all. Breathe Jimmy Breathe!
But today isn’t about me. It’s about you. So yes, take a big deep breath…and take it all in. You’ve worked hard to get here. And let’s just take a moment to appreciate all the people who have helped you get here, your teachers, your brothers and sister, your friends, your family, and your parents.
This moment, graduation from college is such a beautiful, liberating and terrifying rite of passage. For some of you it is the transition to deeper studies in graduate school, and for many, a transition out of the safety net of academia into the “real world.” That place with a completely bewildering number of options, seemingly impossible choices, pitfalls, opportunities, lack of opportunities, career paths, expectations, Tinder dates…What am I going to do with my Life?!
Well, before you panic, which you will if you haven’t already, I have a few things to say. And please, take whatever I say with a grain of salt. Some of this will strike a cord with you, and some of it may not, or you may never remember a word I say…but hopefully, hopefully, some of it will become useful down the road. I am simply here to share a few observations about things I’ve learned from my own personal journey…
The first thing I want to talk about is taking risks. I know. I know, some of you must be thinking, this is the last guy on the planet that should be giving advice on taking risks…he spends most of his time ridiculously dangerous situations, he almost died in an avalanche! He’s insane!
Well when I say take risks I don’t mean you should go climb high altitude alpine walls, although it is quite fun, nor am I asking you to make jumps turns down Everest. So you know, the biggest risk I ever took was forging my own path. My parents were Chinese immigrants. They were very traditional and conservative. For most of my childhood and adolescence, as far as I knew, there were only 4 career paths – doctor, lawyer, professor and investment banker. My parents were librarians at Minnesota State University. They saved their whole lives to put me through a private college. When I finished college, I was under a lot of pressure to pick a traditional career path. I don’t blame them. I knew they only wanted the best life possible for me and I appreciated that. But that path wasn’t me. I told them I was going to move west and live out of my car and climb and ski full time. They were horrified. They would say things like, of course we’re worried. There is no word in Chinese for what you do. I would call my sister and ask, “How are mom and dad?” And she would say, “They are a bit worried. They think you’re a homeless person.” I struggled with a deep sense of doubt and guilt everyday…particularly when, living as a vagabond climbing bum. I was dumpster diving for food behind grocery stores. But I continued to fight for the life I wanted. I lived out of the back of a 1990 Subaru Loyale station wagon. It wasn’t very glamorous, but I was committed to making a life out of climbing, skiing and living a life of adventure. It fed something in me and I lived with passion and was surrounded by people who were passionate about what they were doing.
People often assume I knew what I was doing…that the path was clear to me. Hell no! I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I wanted meaning and purpose in my life and I set out to find it by following my heart.
And by the way, people always talk about following your heart as if it is easy. Oh, follow your heart. Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not that easy. It’s not always clear what your heart is telling you. You have to examine your intentions endlessly. What are you passionate about? Who is it you want to be? What do you want to do? And most importantly, why? These are big questions and these are questions I still ask myself everyday. Just know that there is always doubt…that is normal and that is where you have to take the risks to understand yourself and what your heart is telling you…in life and in love. Being willing to walk away from the expectations of others and of society was the biggest risk I ever took. I cannot overemphasize how important it was for me to have taken that risk. It was a commitment to that unknown path that eventually led me to one small opportunity and another and another and another that finally brought me to where I am today. As I was once told, “You have to commit and figure it out.”
The next thing I want to speak about is failure. Failure is an interesting word. It has obvious connotations. However, in my experience, I have learned the most profound lessons in life through failure.
For most of my career, I have been recognized for my successes. Oh he skied Everest. He climbed Meru. Well, what people don’t talk much about are my failures. And I’ve had many. When I first looked up at Everest to try and ski it and the first time I gazed up at the icy flanks of Meru, both times, I almost turned around and walked away. They seemed too big and too outrageous to comprehend. I was convinced that I would fail. But I stayed and I tried and I failed spectacularly on both of them. Through those failures, I learned it was okay to be scared, even good to be scared. I deconstructed the failures; thought about how I would do things differently; and how I could do them better, move faster and more efficiently. I learned what I needed to do to come back and eventually ski Everest and to climb Meru. I not only learned how to better prepare for them, train for them and refine my strategies around climbing them, I also was able to apply what I learned on other mountains. In essence, those failures gave me the confidence to fail more and in turn to seek bigger goals and objectives in climbing but also in other aspects of my life as well, like in filmmaking. I learned not to let the big objectives overwhelm me and that just like in climbing big mountains, it’s about the three feet ahead of you, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping the bigger objective in mind, and doing the work right in front of me. As my mentor Rick Ridgeway once said to me while I was starving and feeling hopeless on an expedition where we were attempting an unsupported crossing of the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet. “You know how you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
But back to failure, the great irony is that failure is often the best way forward, the best way to succeed. And of course, without failure, there is no such thing as success. And the more you fail, the sweeter the success. I often think, the greatest failure in life could very well be never having failed. It means you never dared to dream big, never tried something extraordinary, never stuck it out there and never took the risks. Learn to embrace failure and be proud of failing, because there is such a thing as failing upwards. Just don’t let failure debilitate you, learn from them, let them motivate you. Embrace failure and in some ways you will never fail. In my life, I have had many failures and I am thankful for every one of them.
Finally, I want to speak about compassion, empathy and respect. We live in a time with more forms of communication than any other time in history yet our country and our politics are more divided than ever. I truly believe, without compassion, empathy and respect, there is no ability to have true discourse. You will not be able to hear others and in turn, you will not be heard. Remember, we are all in this together, regardless of color, race, sexual orientation and religion. We are all trying to make sense of the world, struggling to find meaning and purpose and to get through our own existential crises.
In particular as a graduating class from Unity College, you know, we all lose if we politicize the protection of our environment. Yes, there are a lot of perspectives on how to protect our environment and yes, you need to take a stand for what you believe in, but you also need to have compassion, empathy and respect to take down the barbed wired fences between differing opinions and world view to have real dialogue. Intelligent dialogue. Right now we need dialogue that will actually lead to solutions as opposed to deepening the divides.
You are the future and you hold the keys to the preservation and conservation of our environment. You have the chance to make the world a better place. To leave it better than you found it. That is part of your responsibility.
I just saw this African Proverb carved into the wall at the natural museum in New York. It said, “The Earth is not a gift from our parents. It is a loan from our children.”
How will you use your voice? How will you use your education to find solutions to the environmental issue we face today? Frankly put, if you can’t de-politicize the discussion and facilitate intelligent and meaningful discourse about protecting our environment, we’re screwed.
People will have their opinions and so will you. Be informed. Examine your opinions carefully but examine the opinions and perspectives of those around you even more carefully. It is only through understanding the bigger picture that you will be able to form an intelligent opinion. Have the humility to recognize you might not always be right.
You are graduating today but learning doesn’t end here. In fact, graduating only means you have now been given the tools to think critically and to continue to learn better. Life is about learning, about making mistakes and about shifting your gaze, about growing intellectually and growing as a person. Without compassion, empathy and respect, you will not be able to truly see the world through different lenses, or place yourself in someone else’s shoes. And, you will have missed some biggest opportunities to learn and grow.
On that note, compassion also means being compassionate towards yourself. There is likely no one that is going to be harder on you than you. Remind yourself to take it easy on yourself. Just as you should treat others with respect and compassion, you need to treat yourself with respect and compassion too. We all make mistakes. Learn from them. But don’t spend all your time beating yourself up. You can use that energy in much more productive ways.
In conclusion, I encourage you to think big when you go forward becoming the person you want to be. The one great privilege you have is the privilege of creating a meaningful life for yourself. And when I say a meaningful life, don’t sell yourself short. Go big! Never stop reminding yourself that every day that passes is one less day you have to live, so get out there, take risks, fail spectacularly, be compassionate, empathetic, respectful, be patient with yourself, put one foot in front of the other, create the life you dream of and become the person you want to be. You have no one to do it for you but yourself.