Editor’s Note: Alison Klayman, a 2002 graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Barrack) and Brown University (class of 2006), lived in China for four years, during which time she made her acclaimed documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the famed Chinese dissident. She was the commencement speaker at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy’s graduation this year on June 6. This is an excerpt from those remarks.
There might be a decade between me and today’s grads. But all of us born in the 1980s and ’90s are considered part of the same generation. They call us the Facebook generation, or millennials.
In May, Time magazine chose the following headline for one of their cover stories: “Millennials,” they wrote — brace yourselves — “are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”
I’m sharing these inflammatory accusations with you today so that you will take them personally, or rather, as a personal challenge. I challenge the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Class of 2013 to become model millennials: risk-taking, hard-working, engaged and active citizens who are going to save us all.
So how do we do that? Let’s start with the first accusation: laziness.
You’re about to go to a place filled with temptation to be lazy — college. Coming from Barrack, you know how you’ve been taking eight classes a semester? Get excited. In college, it’s going to be more like four. And you can easily schedule your classes around the principle of nothing before noon — and even have Fridays free.
But the real secret is that you can technically be working hard in college while still actually being lazy. You can go to class and get good grades, without ever addressing the big issues at stake — figuring out what you want to do and how you’re going to get there.
That’s why “risk-taking” is my preferred antonym to lazy. You have to chase down experiences, in and out of the classroom, to really test your boundaries and explore new frontiers for yourself.
A great way to hone your risk-taking skills is by making friends and learning from people who are different than you.
My own education in risk-taking was influenced heavily by my college friendships at Brown. I had a friend named Tom who took a semester off to crawl around on his belly at night protecting sea turtles eggs on the beach in Greece. Another friend, Morgan, left for a semester to help a law firm specializing in transgender legal advocacy projects in the Bay Area.
Watching my classmates take these risks probably influenced me even more than any class I took. It proved to me that if you have a plan, some savings and a lot of guts, you don’t need anyone’s permission to follow your dreams.
Which brings me to that second accusation from the editors at Time: feeling entitled. I didn’t just fly to China and expect things would start happening for me. There was hard work and self-doubt, a steep learning curve toward proficiency in a new language, odd temp jobs that were at times glamorous, at other times not.
So what goes hand in hand with all this hard work? Patience, persistence and mistakes. Things won’t come easy, and each mistake or failure is a valuable lesson you take with you as you pick yourself up.
Now it seems like a lot of what I’m advising is, essentially, to be pretty self-centered. Figure out what you want, what your passions are, and work hard as you follow your dreams. So how do we avoid the last charge, of being a narcissistic generation? Well, here’s the kicker — I believe that what we want shouldn’t and isn’t solely defined by individual gain. Built into the millennial notion of personal fulfillment — and actually the Barrack Hebrew Academy notion of personal fulfillment — is a desire for justice, environmental sustainability and tikkun olam.
There is evidence that this isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky idea. Millennials are less homophobic, racist and sexist than any generation that came before.
And no one has the power to stop you from expressing yourself but you. What happens as a result of your self-expression is out of your control, but the path from your brain to your mouth is policed only by your own values and courage.
In summary, your job over the next few years is to take risks, to work hard, to be open and courageous enough to think about improving the world beyond just your own personal experience. And the good news is your Jewish education and roots from Barrack are going to allow you to travel far, whether it’s China or local politics or farming or deeper into your own artistic or spiritual life.
This is something Ai Weiwei says early on in my film, and they’re definitely words to live by: “If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening. But life is much more interesting if you make a little bit of effort.”
Go and make some effort.