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June 2011

Three must-see college graduation speeches

It's graduation time in many parts of the world, and that means long ceremonies and a lot of speeches. The graduation speech is a tough gig; most speeches are soon forgotten, assuming they made any impact at all. The 2005 graduation speech by Steve Jobs garnered a lot of attention at the time, and is still talked about today, having been downloaded millions of times. If you have never seen Jobs's Stanford speech, check it out below. Last week the famous comedian and TV talkshow host Conan O'brien, who was sharing the stage with luminaries such as former US President George H. W. Bush,  gave a commencement speech for the ages. Although the speeches are different in style, they are both great examples of entertaining speeches which connect and engage and ultimately leave the audience with something memorable and valuable.

Conan O'Brien's 2011 Dartmouth College Commencement Address
Humor is a matter of taste, of course, but I found this speech to be hilarious. And judging from the laughter from the audience, and the luminaries on stage (and even the snickering secret service guys in the back), his tone was right the mark. Conan is a comedian so we expect laughs, but he also had a personal and heartfelt message in his talk. His advice was based on his experience with a very public "failure." Conan's key takeaway message was this: "It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention." Watch on YouTube.

Steve Jobs's 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address
Although Jobs is a self-made billionaire and cultural icon, right from the start Jobs displayed his humility and made a connection with the audience by saying "I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation."  After that he wastes no time with formalities and gets right on with laying out the structure of his talk: "Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories." His first story was about "connecting the dots." His second story was about "love and loss." And his third story concerned the issue of death. His stories were deeply personal. All three engaging, personal stories supported his overall key message of "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." Watch on YouTube.

Advice for graduates from a comic book (redux)
A book called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by my buddy Dan Pink was published in 2008. That spring I put together this Slideshare-style deck below that people could click through in about five minutes. The advice is simple and echoes some of the points touched on in Conan and Steve's college graduation speeches above. The advice is just as good in 2011. If you are graduating this year, all the best to you!

Stephen Colbert's 2011 Commencement Speech at Northwestern University
And here's one more that was just given a few days ago from another well known TV talkshow host. Here are a few of his takeaway lines:

"Thankfully, dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it, you haven’t failed, and you’re not some loser...."

"Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life.....In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. Because service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself....Instead, try to love others, and serve others and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return." Watch below.


Transcripts of Steve Jobs's speech
Transcripts of Conan Obrian's speech

Be Like Bamboo: Lessons for work & Life

Bamboo The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo. The symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and offers practical lessons for life and for work. I shared some of the lessons learned from the bamboo in this 12-minute TEDxTokyo talk below which was recorded (and streamed) live from Tokyo on May 21, 2011. You can see the slides I used in this talk below on These slides were made in Photoshop and Keynote and exported as a PDF file for Slideshare. Following the video and slides below, I give a very short summary of the "bamboo lessons" from the presentation.

Lessons from the Bamboo (TEDxTokyo)

Be Like Bamboo (TEDxTokyo slides)
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(1) Remember: Size is not the most important element
What may look weak may actually be strong. The body of even the largest type of bamboo—which is actually a type of grass—is not large compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are often the only trees left standing in the aftermath of a huge storm. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?" We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You do not have to be big and imposing to be strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are—or you can be—as strong as you need to be. Remember too that there is strength in the light, in openness and transparency. There is strength in kindness, compassion, and cooperation.
(2) Bend but don't break

One of the most impressive things about bamboo is how it sways with the breeze. This gentle swaying movement is a symbol of humility. The foundation of the bamboo is solid, yet it moves and sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don't-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we're talking about bamboo, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.

(3) Be firmly rooted yet flexible
Bamboo is remarkable for its incredible flexibility. This flexibility is made possible in part due to the bamboo's complex root structure which is said to make the ground around a bamboo forest very stable. Roots are important, yet in an increasingly mobile world many individuals and families do not take the time or effort to establish roots in their own communities. The challenge, then, for many of us is to remain the mobile, flexible, international travelers and busy professionals that we are while at the same time making the effort and taking the time to become involved and firmly rooted in the local community right outside our door.

(4) Slow down your busy mind
We have far more information available than ever before and most of us live at a fast pace. Even if most of our work life is on-line, life itself can seem quite hectic, and at times chaotic. Often it is difficult to see the signal through all the noise. In this kind of environment, it is all the more important to take the time to slow down, to calm your busy mind so that you may see things more clearly. There is an old Taoist saying that speaks to this idea of clarity and slowing down: "We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see."

(5) Be always ready
As the Aikido master Kensho Furuya said in Kodo: Ancient Ways, "The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action." In presentation or other professional activities, too, through training and practice we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready. Through study and practice we can at least do our best to be ready for any situation. No matter how good we think we are today, the training and the spirit to improve remains with us always.

(6) Find wisdom in emptiness
It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities. Bruce Lee used to remind people that "The usefulness of the cup is its emptiness."

(7) Commit yourself to growth & renewal
Bamboo are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have remarkable potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. You may at times become discouraged and feel that you are not improving at all. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we're moving forward.

(8) Express usefulness through simplicity
Aikido master Kensho Furuya said that "The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same." Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.

(9) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say "I will not be defeated."

(10) Smile, laugh, play
The Kanji (Chinese character) for smile or laugh is 笑う. At the top of this character are two small symbols for bamboo (竹 or take). It is said that bamboo has a strong association with laughter, perhaps because of the sound that the bamboo leaves make on a windy day. If you use your imagination I guess it does sound a bit like the forest laughing; it is a soothing sound. Bamboo itself also has a connection with playfulness as it has been used for generations in traditional Japanese kite making and in arts and crafts such as traditional doll making. We have known intuitively for generations of the importance of smiling, laughing, and playing, now modern science shows evidence that these elements play a real and important role in one's mental and physical health as well.

These are just ten lessons from the bamboo; one could easily come up with dozens more. These are not things that we do not all ready know. Yet, like many a good sensei, the bamboo simply reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten. Then it is up to us to put these lessons (or reminders) of resilience into daily use through persistence and practice. You do not need to be perfect. You need only to be resilient. This is the greatest lesson from the bamboo.

The eternal power of relationships

Mom_garr.002 One year ago today, my mother passed away. The next day I wrote this post on my personal blog about my feelings at the time and how that sunny morning on the Oregon Coast back in the USA unfolded. Being alone with my mother and by her side when she took her last breath was the single most moving, soul-stirring experience of my life. (Two months earlier I experienced an equally soul-stirring moment when I first met my daughter after she was born in hospital in Osaka, though the circumstances were quite different.) The day after my mother's passing I said that I felt a sense of closure, but I have come to realize that that was probably not the correct term. For I am not sure if anyone ever really has what we call "closure" after they lose someone dear to them. I certainly feel some empty spot now in my life — after all, I had never known a life without a mother or even gone more than a week without calling home to see how she was doing, no matter where I was in the world. And yet, somehow I still feel her presence today. Perhaps that presence consists of nothing more than my memories stored in my brain. Perhaps. But even so, my memories are real and her presence feels real to me. The quote by Robert Benchley still rings true to me one year later: "Death ends a life, not a relationship."

My mother was also a grandmother and even a great grandmother. So in memory of my mother, please allow me to repost below an excerpt from something I wrote on my personal blog at the beginning of this year. I know this is not about presentation or design or creativity, etc. Although, below is a link to a very creative visual presentation about my mother from my nephew Kirk.

The importance of grandmothers
What is on decline in many so-called advanced nations around the world is Community -- not networks of convenience but real old fashion, analog communities -- and at the heart of community is family. Strong families. Extended families. Three of my grandparents were already dead before I was even born, and I never became close to the only grandmother I knew before she too died when I was still a Child. I never did shed a tear for her passing; I hardly knew her. That is a great shame and something I regret. The relationship between grandmothers (and grandfathers too) and their grandchildren is something remarkably special. It is so much a part of a child's education -- in many ways the lessons learned from a childhood filled with loads of time spent with caring grandparents (and other seniors) is far more important than any lessons obtained from years in school. Not too many generations ago, even in the USA, grandparents played a key role in the education of children. In Japan, and in Asia in general, the importance of the extended family is still very strong, but even here in Japan, that is slipping away a bit as people become too busy with work and school, and economics necessitate moving far from home, etc.

I was thinking about this because of this song below by a relatively new folk artist in Japan named Kana Uemura (植村 花菜). Uemura is still in her 20s and broke on to the pop scene big just exactly a year ago here in Kansai (her song has some Kansai dialect in it too) when her song played for the first time on FM802. At 10 minutes it is an outrageously long song in today's world, but apparently she insisted that there was no way to make the song shorter and tell the story, and a lovely story it is. In this song she sings about her memories with her now deceased grandmother. Even if you do not understand Japanese, you will enjoy the evocative music which she wrote and you'll be able to follow much of the story through the visuals in this video. After that, you can go here to see the lyrics in English and in Japanese (romaji). Uemura has won many awards with this song and has become very famous now in Japan this year with her album which has gone gold.

The song is called トイレの神様 ("Toilet God" though the term kamisama is not used for god and instead "megami" or goddess is used). Uemura lived with her grandma as a child and spent much time playing with her and learning from her. Uemura was not good at cleaning the toilet room so her grandma told her that a beautiful goddess lives in the toilet and if she cleaned it every day the goddess would make her into a beautiful woman. This memory forms the basis of the song. This song is so popular in Japan because many people can relate to her story. This story of happy memories and bitter loss is something we can all relate to. For me, the sentiment expressed in Uemura's story and simple chords really hits home this year (2010) as it was a year of great loss for me and my family, though through memories our mother ("grandma") lives on. (You can read about the meaning of the song here with some background.)

What's your Grandma story?
Shortly after my mother's passing, her grandson Kirk, who is now a young attorney with his own small children, created a short visual story of his memories with his grandma. Kirk lived just a few houses away from his grandma. His story is a great one, and one I was not aware of as I had already left home for college and then for work. His story will be of great interest too for his own children and my child when she is old enough to read.


Read my nephew Kirk's whole short story of his memories with his "Grandma Ruth" on his posterous blog.


Above. My mother passed away on June 5, 2010. We rushed to be with her in the USA on her final days so that our 2-month old daughter could at least meet her grandma one time and make a connection. The saddest thing for me is that our daughter will not be able to spend time with her American grandma, but at least we have photos of them actually meeting. My mother was so happy! She had to wear a mask, but she was all smiles when our little girl met her grandma - her eyes lit up! My mother did not smile for the entire time I was with her until she passed away by my side a few days after this photo was taken, but she was all smiles when she saw her beautiful grand daughter. Our daughter will have no memory of this day, but the pictures are important for her too and she will learn all about her American grandma and grandpa as she grows up -- and we'll tell her about her first trip to the USA to meet her "Grandma Ruth." In tribute to my mother, my daughter has the same middle name as her grandma.

Above. In the Fall of 2010 I finished up my latest book. I dedicated this book to the memory of my mother and I used this picture above in the dedication. This picture was taken in Aomori in the 90s on one of her trips to see me in Japan. I wish she was coming back to Japan many more times, but perhaps in a way she will be.

Above. At Christmas 2007 in Oregon I showed my mother the presentation zen book for the first time -- the dedication features a picture of her and my father when they were in their 20s. I did not care if the book sold at all at that point -- nothing could be better than seeing my mother's reaction to her and my dad's photo in my book. That was the best feeling ever.