Dr. Ogle delivered the following remarks to the Class of 2018 during their Commencement ceremonies.
Faculty, staff, parents, family, friends -- Class of 2018… Welcome to Commencement – the 8th in our school’s young history.
Once upon a time, way back in 1994, I entered graduate school for the first time, and I took a class on the teaching of literature. Like many classes I have taken over the years, I don’t remember many specifics from the course, but I do remember this – a day when the professor polled our class about our lives as readers.
Now, this was a classroom full of English majors, most of whom intended to teach writing and literature at the secondary or college level. We were, in all honesty, a bunch of literature geeks, and we loved reading. But learning the trend in the room was impressive – and one I have not forgotten.
In the poll, the professor assessed the amount we read, for pleasure, during different stages in our lives. And almost uniformly, the results went like this…
In elementary school, we all read constantly – almost anytime, everywhere.
Personally, I distinctly remember – at the age of 8 - taking a book to my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. There I was, all decked out in my 1970s, 8-year old beige suit with light blue shirt, and what did I do? I spent most of the party in a corner reading – I don’t remember what, but I’m sure that, for this 8 year-old, it was far more interesting than listening to toasts about marriage, enduring love, and commitment.
Once we got to high school, nearly all of us in that graduate school course stopped reading for pleasure. The results were stunning – we all just stopped. The professor was not surprised, and her theory was that we were all over-scheduled high school students, and we were reading a lot for school – so reading no longer felt like a pleasure activity.
Then, when we got to college and beyond, we all began reading again. We had more free time and reading once more became something we did for enjoyment and enrichment – not just for comprehension and grades.
Our professor predicted that our reading would continue to increase over time – plateauing occasionally, but always more than we read in high school and rarely declining.
This poll came in the mid-90’s – and, for the next twelve years, I read constantly. I took books or newspapers with me everywhere. I usually had a book with me at doctor’s offices, restaurants, coffee houses, and on public transportation. I always traveled with a book. Bottom line. I read – a lot.
For me, reading was a time that lit up my brain. Yes, I would be focused on the text, but I think I read as much for the ideas that the words inspired in me. Reading unlocked my brain, indeed, it activated it. That’s probably why I took something to read – wherever I went.
However, at least for me, my graduate school professor was not completely correct. My reading did decline. And, I can mark the year when my own reading slowed -- 2007.
What happened in 2007?
Well, for me, Pacific Ridge School opened. And, yes, helping take the school from startup to this year, our eighth graduating class, has taken a bit of my time.
Also, in 2007, my children were one and four. They are now twelve and fifteen; something tells me those two have been partly responsible for my having less time to curl up with a good book.
However, the other thing that happened in 2007, as we all know, was the iPhone.
And, as a result and a lot of people, including me, are reading in a less sustained way than we used to. While some people read longform articles, and even books, on their phones, most people use their phones to text or to consume social media apps and games that encourage quick, often visual, engagement.
Go into the waiting area at a doctor’s office, and people are not reading books or magazines anymore. Fewer books and newspapers are open in airports. Airplanes rides are filled from takeoff to touchdown with phones or moving images from all kinds of screens.
Now, somewhere, my 15-year old daughter is rolling her eyes at this moment, because this is starting to sound like my weekly rant against cell phones, social media, and screen time. So, let me get to my point.
As an educator, I am concerned that I see people reading long-form articles and books far less often than I did ten, twenty years ago. And, I am concerned that it is harder for me to read than it once was. But I am not just worried about reading. I am mostly worried about thinking, deep thinking, the kind of thinking that requires time and space to germinate - the kind of time and space we just don’t have in our lives now. And I worry about the new habits we have created in its place.
In his 2016 book, Deep Work, Georgetown professor Cal Newport makes the case for the importance of, what he calls “Deep Work,” – by which he means, essentially, deep thinking.
He writes that deep work comprises stretches of focused, intense, uninterrupted time on one subject.
Consider his idea... How often do you focus on doing one thing, and one thing alone, for more than ten or fifteen minutes? If you are like me, I suspect not all that often.
And, as Newport points out – there is a law of productivity that is tied to focused intensity of time. That law reads like this…
The amount of “High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).”
According to this formula the more time we spend focused on just that one thing with few interruptions, the higher quality our work will be. This is not an entirely new idea, and in fact we talk in Middle School on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notions about the mental state of “flow” and how focused attention is essential for optimal learning and creation.
But, we have to acknowledge how hard focused attention is in today’s world.
Interruptions are everywhere and, let’s face it, humans are wired to go for the path of least resistance. We tend to go for the behaviors that are easiest in the moment. We just do.
Yet, according to Cal Newport, in our rapidly evolving world, we need to learn how to master quickly hard things and produce at an elite level. We have to be flexible and able to adapt to new challenges and concepts -- skills that are best developed through lengthy, uninterrupted engagement with ideas or text. We don’t learn to master concepts and skills by flitting from one thing to the other. We learn new things through focused, deep attention. It may seem counterintuitive, but deep work actually trains our brains to work quickly and gives our minds the opportunity to produce at a high level.
And, what’s even more important -- deep work is essential for finding fulfillment in what we do, both by ourselves and with other people. It is essential for finding purpose.
So, graduates… if we know that deep work is valuable – perhaps even vital -- and we know that human nature and modern conveniences pull us away from deep work and deep thinking, how are you going find it in your lives going forward?
First, I hope you look back at times you have had at Pacific Ridge and recognize the very deep work you have done here.
I would argue that your 9th grade orations were an example of very deep work. For the better part of six weeks, you all wrote an original speech about something that mattered to you, you crafted it, revised it, and then, you delivered it to a large room full of your peers. That’s deep work, and I remember the Class of 2018's orations as deeply personal and powerful.
I would suggest that global travel is deep work. Sustained time with a small group of your peers without interruptions – trying to figure out how to work as a short-term functioning family – in unfamiliar circumstances – that is deep work. As Katja suggested a few minutes ago, the bonds formed in times like the Northern Sierras trip are the result of the deep work that is part of that experience.
Digging in to create a theatrical performance or a music concert, compete in an athletic match or an academic competition or produce a piece writing or art – the act of trying to make something as goodas it can be -- something this class knows all too well -- those moments are the definition of deep work.
Papers, projects, debates, solving a problem from different angles, preparing for exams, learning to argue (and to listen) around a Harkness table – all deep work.
Now I understand that a Pacific Ridge School education is not only filled with moments of deep work, but I know that you engaged in it more than you may be aware… and, I bet, if you think about it, the work here at PRS that will stick with you most and will give you the most guidance in the years ahead -- is the work that was deepest.
So, class of 2018, I stand before you today with a challenge…
Seek out depth in your lives. Do not settle for a daily existence that flits from one task to another. Insist upon creating time to do the real work it takes to understand, to master, to create.
But you might ask, if so much of our lives pulls us away from depth, focus, and intensity, then how do we grab that time back?
Well, Professor Newport gives us four rules to achieve “deep work,” and I will reference them here to give us ALL a few suggestions.
The first rule is… THINK DEEPLY. Seems simple, right? Maybe not. Start by trying to become aware of when you are, and are not, thinking deeply. Learn what it feels like and what it accomplishes for you. Make a point to replicate the moments in your life that include deep thinking – you will be better for it.
The second rule… “Dump Social Media.”
Yes, somewhere that 15-year old daughter of mine is, once again, rolling her eyes, so I will make this one simple. Social media is the antithesis of “deep work.” I don’t expect you truly to dump it – but be mindful of your use of it. Realize that filling ALL your “down time” with social media is actually taking away an opportunity for your brain to activate, create.
Which leads to Newport’s third rule. “Embrace boredom.”
In 1996, the late Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winning author, Sam Shephard, wrote this about driving long distances -- something that, for many, might be the definition of boredom. Here is what he said...
“I love long-distance driving. The farther the better. I love covering immense stretches in one leap: Memphis to New York City; Gallup to L.A.; St. Paul to Richmond; Lexington to Baton Rouge; Bismark to Cody. Leaps like these. Without a partner. Completely alone. Relentless driving. Driving until the body disappears, the legs fall off, the eyes bleed, the hands go numb, the mind shuts down, and then, suddenly, something new begins to appear.”
Boredom is awesome. Really! Of course, I’m not advocating for bleeding eyeballs or missing limbs. But, boredom, in its many forms, allows our brains both to rest and to regenerate. The moments we might call boring might actually be the moments that we find the answers we have been seeking and the creativity that has eluded us – if only we let ourselves linger in that space a little while longer.
But these days, we have to work to make boredom happen. We are wired to go for anything that will keep us from feeling bored, and, yes, we have created an infinite array of opportunities to avoid it. As odd as it may sound, we probably have to schedule time to be bored these days.
But, in spite of all the challenges, we can make a plan to “go deep.” This takes us to Cal Newport’s final rule.
The fourth rule is “Drain the Shallows,” and what he means by that is simple.
Find a way to make sure that there is depth in your days -- on purpose, and by design. Put it in your calendar, make a plan for it, create the time and space not to be engaged by the shallow, easy, quick, time-sucking activities that will still be there when your time away from them ends.
The tech giants that everyone likes to talk about these days -- Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, they all have, somewhat famously, scheduled time “off the grid” in what has often been called “think weeks.” Why? Because these experts on thriving in our rapidly changing world recognize the need to spend time thinking deeply – time to recharge the brain and organize around ideas that are not urgent, but are so very important for us, both professionally and personally.
Class of 2018, you may not be able to schedule “think weeks” into your lives yet – but I bet you can plan for a few hours here and there, maybe even a full day sometimes.
The point is that our lives are such now that we must make “Deep Work” happen, because it does not happen naturally. Be purposeful. Plan ahead. Think about what in your life is “shallow” work and what in your life is “deep.” Be mindful of the shallow work – plan for the deep. Make this time sacred in your day, your week, your year. (Pause)
Now, I want to shift gears here for a moment so that you can hear from others on this day – from the people who have been by your side for the last two, four, or six years – and who are responsible for the “deep work” you will remember most. My guess is that their messages may be a bit more light-hearted than mine, but the caring relationships you have built with them are a result of the meaningful experiences – and “deep work” - you have shared over the years.
Class of 2018, we send you off today into a world that none of us can predict. And, as such, I have two final requests of you – and they are my usual ones.
First, seize the unique opportunities that come with each stage of your lives. As you have done during your time here, look for ways to extend your current interests, while always keeping your eyes open for new passions as well.
Join the groups of people who are asking the most interesting and compelling questions.
Take up a new hobby.
Keeping reading! And read books of varying of topics and genres. Maybe even pick up an old favorite from time to time.
Try not to judge the quality of your life through Instagram.
Seek out communities that will help you find the critical balance between blindly embracing and timidly cowering from all the changes that will be before you.
Constantly ask yourself this important question… “Who and what is unique about this time and place in my life?”
Whatever the answers are, grab them and take advantage of them. They may be long-lasting or they may be fleeting. But, if you remember to grow, to change, and to evolve, every decade will challenge and delight you.
But here is the trick... which leads me to my second request of you.
Every once in awhile, ask yourself this question.
“Who, or what, has stayed with me, throughout all of my life?”
The answers to that question may be many or they may be few – but the answers mean something.
If someone or something has stayed with you through all of the change in your life – then it matters. It matters that someone who knew you when you were five still has importance to you when you are eighteen. It matters that some activities you loved in your youth still bring you peace or energy in adulthood.
Figure out the answers to that question, and then wrap your arms around those people, those things, as much as you possibly can.
I hope for many of you, that Pacific Ridge School will be a place that remains part of your life – as you will always be part of ours.
But, now, it is time for you to leave this place. We are not ready for you to leave, but I know you are.
Class of 2018 – we will miss you. We will miss your laughter, your thoughtfulness, your love of one another, your endless love of competition, and I will miss the way that you treated this place like home.
But ladies and gentlemen it is time. You are ready.