Count the stars

The following speech was delivered by Fr. Johnny C. Go, SJ on 24 March 2017 during the 2017 High School graduation ceremony at the Fr. Rafael Cortina Sports Center.

To the members of Xavier School’s Board of Trustees, led by its chairman, Mr. Johnip Cua; our School President, Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ; Ms. Aimee Apolinario, High School Principal, and her team of Administrators, Faculty, and Staff; to the proud parents and friends of our graduating students, and most of all, to Xavier School’s graduating high school class of 2017:

First of all, congratulations to our graduates! The last time I interacted with our graduating students was when I visited the group in Guangzhou four years ago during their Grade 8 Xavier China Experience on the last year of my term. I’m so glad to be back here for your graduation. I’ve actually attended a total of 25 graduations in my 12 years here, and this is the very first one where I don’t have to stand on my feet all evening giving out diplomas. Thank you for taking that over, Fr. Ari Dy!

But seriously, to the Board of Trustees and to all of you who are here, my deepest gratitude for honoring me with the Luceat Lux Award. It is an honor made more prestigious by its roster of past honorees–which includes, just to name a few, my mentor and friend, the late Fr. Ismael Zuloaga SJ, his fellow visionary and longtime Xavier School Principal, Mrs. Jenny Huang Go, and my batchmate and ever-faithful leader of Xavier’s Days with the Lord, Abraham Go.

By honoring me tonight, you are honoring the people who stood with me and worked with me all those twelve years–the people behind the scenes who threw their support behind our quest to redesign a distinctive Xavier School brand of education: I am, of course, referring not only to my ever-supportive Board of Trustees, but also to every single administrator, teacher, staff and maintenance person, each of whom made a contribution to our enterprise. I need to share this honor with them, so I request them to rise and ask you, dear parents and graduates, to give them a big round of applause.

The world has certainly changed since my high school classmates and I graduated almost forty years ago right here in what used to be the old grade school gym. Actually, the world has changed so much even in just the last four years since I left Xavier! Thomas Friedman, author of the bestselling and paradigm-altering book The World is Flat, just came out with a new book last year where he claims that today’s world isn’t just flat; it’s also fast!

Dear graduates, the world that Xavier School is sending you off to is much, much more complex than the world that we,your teachers and parents, first wandered into when we were wide-eyed high school graduates your age. No one then, for example, would have imagined that today we would have the biggest and most updated encyclopedia–available in several languages and edited virtually by the whole world–without printing a single volume! Who would have thought then that the largest taxi company in the future wouldn’t operate a single cab—-or that the largest global hotel chain wouldn’t own a single piece of real estate?

And even as we gather here, the world is changing fast–and not always for the better. I don’t know about you, but I really think something happened just these last couple of years. Has it just been only about two years ago when the world felt like a more tolerant and less prejudiced place? Recently, the standup comedian, Aziz Ansari, was the featured host of “Saturday Night Live”–arguably President Trump’s favorite TV show. During his monologue, he made the observation that people used to pretend that they were not racist because it wasn’t fashionable or politically correct, but now? They’ve completely stopped pretending! To this emerging breed of vocal racists, the comedian made this one request: “Go back to pretending,” he begged them. “I’m so sorry we never thanked you for your service,” he added. “We never realised how much effort you were putting into the pretending but you’ve got to go back to pretending,”

Given such a world, one spinning so rapidly and dangerously, what can we say to our graduates, our future leaders–with all their privileges of a good education and all the social capital and opportunities that go with it?

I have but one unsolicited piece of advice for our graduates: “Count the stars.” Count the stars–even if you know you’re going to lose count. Sure, any fifth grader today would be quick to point out that it’s impossible to count the stars. There are simply too many of them!

But just the same, take the time to count them anyway because it’s not so much about getting the right answer; it’s also about the process. In this case, it’s not so much about determining the actual total number of stars; it’s about the discipline and the pleasure of learning about each star you count.

Too often our world puts a huge premium on quick results, instant fixes, and shortcuts. There’s this hashtag that students use whenever they tweet about their school assignments: #tldr, which means “too long, didn’t read.” There is this preference for the info-nugget, the sound bite, the big ideas. Unfortunately, the more important and more complex things in life can’t be captured in just 140 characters. We need to do some extensive reading and deep thinking to even come close to understanding them. If we limit what we read to tweets and headlines, we will most likely fall for fake news. So we need to take the time to read the fine print and make sure to read between the lines.

Getting the work done and achieving results are obviously important, but something needs to be said about the value of doing the hard work and learning in the process. K. Anders Ericsson, the American psychologist and scientific researcher, claims that what distinguishes experts from their peers is not their innate talent, but a lifetime of what he calls “deliberate practice”–i.e., a period of intense work and deliberate effort to improve one’s performance.

My assignment after Xavier was to become a student again and to finish my dissertation in London –something I had to complete to get my degree. At first my attitude was: “Let’s get this over with!” But soon I realized that the project of writing a doctoral research was not something you could simply “get over with”–at least not if you’re trying to say something worthwhile. You need to do a lot of reading and then, spend a lot of time thinking about all the ideas you’ve read, make connections among them, attempt to articulate what you think, and just keep revising and improving your text. I recall sitting in parks and cafes, writing out drafts; putting up manila papers on the walls of my room where I sketched every conceivable mind map; even doing my laps in the pool while wrestling with related questions and issues underwater. In other words, I had to be willing to invest time thinking about my dissertation, stick to the discipline of reading and writing every single day. Even on days when I felt I was getting nowhere, when I couldn’t churn out a single decent page of writing, I sat there on my desk relying only on what Jesuits on studies have called “butt power.”

I didn’t know it then, but all those times that I kept at it, ideas were brewing that eventually became the core of my dissertation. Something was happening even if I was counting stars and losing count: I was strengthening my capacity to think and to synthesize. That whole experience showed me that more important than simply getting the job done is building your capacity and acquiring the expertise that can only be borne out of doing the hard work. In the long run, more crucial than “getting through” is “getting thorough.” That’s the only way expertise is produced.

Back to this business of counting stars: Just to complicate matters, as science has told us, not only have many of the stars we’re seeing been long dead, but there also remain millions of still undiscovered stars in the deep space of our ever-expanding universe. There’s so much more to the universe than what meets the eye.

In the same way, there’s so much more to reality than what we can perceive or measure. As the sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

But the same goes for who you are, too. The world is going to insist on measuring you in terms of what you have and what you do. And you’re going to be tempted to do the same and use those same measures in judging others. But remember, more important and more lasting than what you have and more than what you do is who you are. No matter what people tell you, you are going to be more than your bank account and your accomplishments–even all the perks that go with them. All these have a way of fading and passing away. What remains in the end is who you have become–based on the decisions that you have made and the actions that you have taken.

At the end of the day, the one thing that will define you–the one thing that defines us all–is the manner in which you use your time and energy: the dreams you invest them in and the people you spend them with. So choose a big enough dream to define your life. And choose the people you spend your days with, making sure you include God there. For what will ultimately shape your life is how you live each present moment. In making the most important choices in your life, don’t just focus on the means of your livelihood; rather, seek also the meaning of your life.

Over twenty years ago, after college, I was working as a brand manager in a food manufacturing company, and was assigned to marketing the ready-to-drink juices–the type that came in bottles and tetrapacks. One morning I joined a team of researchers that went door to door to conduct a survey on the brands of juices found in different households right here in Little Baguio, San Juan. I watched the team interview a young girl who very shyly but graciously agreed to be interviewed.

The researchers asked her the usual questions in the vernacular. “Meron po ba kayong juice sa bahay?” they began.

“Ay, opo!,” the young girl eagerly answered.
“O anu-ano ang juice na meron kayo?”
“Marami po!,” came the proud reply. “May Sto. Nino, may Sacred Heart, at Nazareno.”

The poor girl had mistaken our survey on juices to be a survey about “Diyos” or God!

The uncanny thing about that incident was that it happened at a time when I was beginning to think seriously about what I really wanted to do with my life. The poor girl’s confusion about “juice” and “Diyos” symbolized—rather blatantly—my own growing confusion and dilemma about my life: Did I want to spend the rest of my life selling juice or doing something else?

I guess we all know how I ended up answering that question. And one of the best blessings that God has given me for saying “Yes” to Him was the privilege of serving you here in Xavier and making some difference in your lives.

Dear graduates, let your light shine like the stars. Be the best that you can be in the service of God and others. We, your teachers and parents, are rooting for you! God bless you, and congratulations to you and your parents!

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