Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy 2001 Convocation Address

Fellow IMSA students, good morning. Slightly less than half my life has passed since I arrived at IMSA, and slightly more than a decade has passed since I left. During my three years here at IMSA I learned a lot about myself, and what it means to be gifted; in the years since I have learned a lot about the world, and what it means to be gifted in the context of the rest of the world. So, I'd like to share with you some of my experiences during my three years at IMSA and in the years since, and a bit of what I learned as a result of those experiences. I'm not going to stand up here and pretend to know your lives and thoughts better than you do, or claim to understand your particular situation or age. I don't claim to have the answers, but I hope that some of what I have to say will pertain to you, and I hope you can learn from my experiences.

One thing that I have come to believe is that people are in many ways defined by their opposition, by those obstacles in their path, by those things that daunt them, by those things that try to limit their achievements in whatever way. I've encountered many of these obstacles in my life, and discovered that they can be quite plentiful. I've found that they can be concrete and tangible, or they can be nebulous and poorly-defined. They can be ideas and thoughts, they can be doctrines or dogmas, or they can even be people, past and present. But regardless of the nature of the obstacle, there are only two different ways you can deal with opposition, and thus two different ways the opposition can define you.

In the first way, the opposition becomes a rallying point, the thing that makes you rise to the challenge, your personal dramatic struggle. You use things you've learned in the past and your ingenuity to work against the opposition, and eventually, through your dedication, persistence, and the belief in your abilities, you overcome the opposition. The end result is that you learn from the experience and build up your arsenal and your bag of tricks. And you define yourself through that struggle and eventual victory: the struggle becomes a trophy documenting the perseverance of your self-worth. The victory is exhilarating and rewarding, and brings with it a constant reminder of your success. It is, in my opinion, precisely what it means to be alive.

In the second way, you surrender in the face of the challenge, fall before it, and become subsumed by the opposition. The defeat, the opposition itself, becomes the proverbial albatross around your neck, a theme in your personality, a shadow of doubt that you always have with you. Everything you do in the future; any of your future undertakings are tainted by this defeat, and your self-confidence marred by the surrender. It's not the failure itself that causes this, everyone fails, and often through no fault of their own. But rather, it is when you do not even try, when you presume that you will fail, when you doubt your own abilities, that you are defeated.

How do you know which path you will take? Is it the obstacle, the challenge itself that dictates the outcome? No. It is you that dictates the outcome, through your belief in yourself and your abilities. You may choose to either fight, or to lay down and relinquish that which you've been given. It seems to me that one of the primary goals of IMSA is to ensure that, regardless of the nature of the struggle, you will always take the former road of perseverance rather than the latter road of surrender.

But as I said, the obstacles are not always concrete and obvious. They can often be entirely unexpected or even unrecognized. The unrecognized obstacles are the most dangerous. If you don't even know you are at war, it's difficult to fight. What I'd like to do, by relating my experiences here at IMSA and afterward, is give you a bit of foresight, a 'heads up', so that you don't get caught unawares in the midst of battle. First I'd like to talk about what I struggled with during each of my years at IMSA. I separate my experiences into sophomore, junior, and senior years because I found that each year at IMSA was very different and unique from the others. Each year presented its own special challenges and difficulties. In many cases they were not at all what I expected.

My sophomore year was a whirlwind. Although the specific reasons why each of you came here may be quite different from mine, I imagine the general reasons are probably very similar. The general reason I came to IMSA was that the place I was at, in this case a small town in Macoupin county, did not have what I needed. This may seem almost obvious, why else does anyone move on except because the place that they are at is lacking something? However, in this case it was especially true. I had been given this seed of potential, and I came here to seek more fertile ground in which to sow that seed. More specifically, the reason I came to IMSA was that I didn't feel that I fit in where I was at. Perhaps that is true for some of you also. Eventually, I figured out that I didn't fit in because I had something in me that other people just didn't understand. Something I had to let out. That thing was ambition. But I soon found out that letting this out, realizing my ambition was not as easy as I thought. Everything I thought I knew was overturned in my first few months at IMSA, and I was forced to completely re-evaluate where I stood, and what I thought about myself. Surrounded for the first time by people more intelligent than me, and finding for the first time that I wasn't able to breeze through my schoolwork without effort, I questioned what I had always been most defined by: the singular and special nature of my mind. My enemy that first year turned out to be doubt in my own abilities, of my gifts, of my uniqueness. How did I get through this? How do you get through this? Always remember how you got here, and why you are here. Those reasons do not and will not change. You are everything that they tell you. Remember that and you'll make it through the problem sets, the impossible deadlines, the homesickness, and your first taste at failure.

My junior year was easily the hardest year of all. That's because my opposition was the least concrete and the least expected. I had made it through the first year, but was not ready to take the next step. I was in a kind of limbo; I was lulled into complacency by my first year success, but it wasn't yet time to think about life after IMSA. When I arrived my junior year, I felt I had no worries, and I would breeze through. After all, I had finally figured out how to study, what else did I need? So I simply continued what I was doing, confident that everything would work out. But it turned out that this was exactly my enemy, the belief that I had no enemy and that everything would be easy. Without the definition afforded by a recognized obstacle, I soon began to feel that I had no direction. My purpose became fuzzy. I began to wonder where exactly I was going, what I was working toward, and why. If you find yourself in my situation, if you find yourself losing direction, as I did, than this is the time that you must be the most vigilant. You must collect your dreams, your hopes, and your desires and keep them very close. Never let them out of your immediate focus. Then you can see yourself through.

My senior year was by far my favorite. It was an incredibly busy and rewarding time. The obstacles that I did face my senior year were more concrete and somewhat more predictable, and therefore easier to overcome. I had to deal with the deadlines of college and senior projects, not to mention growing responsibility both in my academics and extracurricular. This when my primary interest was to spend time with my friends and enjoy my last year. I had to fight to keep motivated. But this fight was easily won, as I had been acquiring all the weapons I needed over the last two years. All I had to do was talk myself into doing it. So live up to your responsibilities this year, but enjoy it. If your experience is like mine, this year will run by so quickly you'll almost wish that you could go back and do it over. Almost. But like me, you'll always have one eye looking forward, to graduation, when you will leave IMSA, armed with many tools for success, ready for the next challenge.

And what was the next challenge? To all the IMSA students here today, be warned: if your experience is like mine, you'll find what you're fighting against when you leave IMSA was not what you expected at all. What I struggled with when I left IMSA was not definite problems, or pushing the limits of my abilities, or motivation, or anything like what I struggled with at IMSA, but instead I found myself mired in mediocrity, a mindless, formless, and unspoken form of inertia. I fought the people that perpetuate mediocrity so that they never have to look bad. I fought people that disliked me because I was successful. I fought the attitude that I was too intense, worked too hard, or cared too much. This fight was not easily won: in this case the enemy was very hard to define, pinpoint, and make explicit. There were times that, because of my inability to make concrete the opposition, that I began to question whether there was an enemy at all, or whether the enemy was me, my convictions and my beliefs. I began to wonder if indeed I was too intense, if I worked too hard, if I cared too much. How did I get through this? I became more stubborn, more opinionated, and more defiant. I reaffirmed my belief in myself and in my abilities. I reaffirmed my goals and my convictions. And with this re-affirmation, the solution became clear. The opposition revealed itself for what it really was: the perpetuation of low expectations and predetermined failure. With that, the preposterousness of succumbing to it became apparent, and I found that I could just ignore it entirely.

These are my experiences, and what I have learned. But, let me confide a bit more to you. While I have ultimately had many successes, they have not been achieved, and the knowledge that I acquired has not been gained, without many failures along the way. There have been many times when I have nearly surrendered to the opposition, when I have almost backed down and given in. There were many times when I questioned all those things that had been said about me, about my gifts, my abilities, and my mind. And there have been times when I have questioned whether the personal sacrifices I have made along the way were worth it in the end. As a result of all of these trials and periods of doubt, I learned something else extremely important: I am after all human, not perfect, not always strong, and not able to be vigilant all the time. And as it turns out, so is everyone else. So don't worry about being imperfect. The important thing is that you never relinquish your basic morals and beliefs. Never give up or be ashamed by your will to fight for what you believe in.

This is all I can tell you, fellow IMSA students. I hope that it helps. I hope it grants you a bit of foresight, and perhaps makes things a little easier for along the way.

One final thing. If you take anything away; if you remember one thing that I have said, let it be this: The most important thing that I learned at IMSA, the most important thing IMSA will teach you, is not how to compute a three-dimensional integral, nor how to determine the Gibbs free energy of a chemical reaction, nor an appreciation of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The most important thing I learned at IMSA, the most important thing IMSA will give you, is the conviction that you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to. It is the one thing you should never lose, because, as it turns out, it is the only weapon that you'll need.