This evening I would like to speak on the topic of ďSetting goals for yourselfĒ.I find that there are nine important principles when considering how to set goals for yourself, and I would like to discuss each in turn.

 

Principle one: Set goals which are achievable.Itís important to set goals which are achievable because goals which are not achievable can serve as sources of lingering frustration.

 

Principle two: Set goals which are important.Itís important to set goals which are important, because goals which are unimportant are unimportant and can unnecessarily take the place of goals which are important.

 

All right, Iím just pretending.This isnít my real speech.I thought if I threatened you with a painfully dull speech, it might make my real speech look good in comparison.Well, weíll see if it pans out.

 

While Iím on the subject of pretense, though, I really think I should be honest about the whole situation and revert to my normal mode of attire.So if youíll excuse me for a brief moment, I need to get rid of this jacket and tie.

 

Paul Fussell wrote this great book called Class; itís about class structure in American society.Towards the end of it, he writes about a group of people that donít belong to any particular class.He calls them the X-class.One of their characteristics is that they always slightly underdress for every occasion.Itís as if theyíre saying, ďWell, I donít need to look that good.I do have compensatory attributes.ĒI suppose I will leave it for you to judge if my little speech this evening is legitimate compensation for the absence of a strip of cloth knotted around my collar.

 

So a couple of months ago, a student comes wandering into my room and asks me if Iíll give the NHS speech this year.So I think about it for a few seconds and say, ďOh sure, why not?ĒYou know, itís only been about a decade since Iíve given a speech.Freshman year of college.Communications class.We had to give persuasive speeches and I had several peers who were fans of the country music, so I decided to give a speech on how that particular genre really ought to cease production until they can somehow convene and figure out a way to make their lyrics less laughable.I donít really know how well that went.

 

So I tell the student Iíll do it, they wander off, and then it strikes me, ďOh shoot, I forgotÖ.I have nothing to say.ĒWell, this could be a problem.I mean, I used to have things to sayÖbut then I said them.And I really didnít want to repeat myself.But it didnít worry me too much.I mean, I knew had a couple of months to think of something to say.Naturally, with my keen skills in time management, I didnít begin writing things down until last week.

 

Anyway, when I tried to think of what I could talk about, I knew I could talk about physics.But I talk about physics 180 times a year.And that seems about right.181 might be a little excessive.180 is a good, round number.So I thought Iíd talk about another subject I favor, which is the subject of philosophy.

 

Now, my introduction to philosophy came to me in the form of a pair of pajamas I had when I was five years old.They were light-blue, flannel pajamas and they were very, very comfortable.They were so comfortable, in fact that I used to wear them to school.I did.Iíd wake up in the morning, hop out of bed, eat some breakfast.My mother would say, ďWell, the bus is going to be here soon.Youíd better get dressed for school.ĒIíd say, ďWhat are you talking about?I am dressed for school.This is what Iím wearing.ĒAll I had to do was put on some socks and sneaks, grab my Transformers lunch box, and Iím all set to go.

 

Now kindergarten was fantastic because basically itís recess all day long and thatís great.And then you get to first grade and all of a sudden itís math and spelling all day long.And you think, ďHold on here!Um, last year was recess all day long.All of a sudden itís math and spelling all day long?All right, well how many years of this math and spelling all day long do I have toÖ?What?Twelve?Oh, I donít know about that.I think you guys just pulled a bait-and-switch on a six year old.I donít think thatís right.Ē

 

But kindergarten was great.The thing I remember most about kindergarten was a girl in my class named Sharon Weiss.Sharon Weiss was the only student in my kindergarten class who knew how to read.She could read, dozens of books, anytime she wanted to. And I couldnít do it; I couldnít read when I was in kindergarten.She could do something that I couldnít do.Now as if that didnít bother me enough, one day the teacher had Sharon Weiss sit in front of our class and read to us.Now this was just too much for me to bear, this was too patronizing, to be read to by another kindergartener.But what could I do?Nothing.I just had to sit there and take it.So I sat there, gritting my teeth, saying under my breath, ďSharon Weiss, I donít know when, and I donít know how, but one day, I will take my revenge.Ē

 

Now in kindergarten they had these things they called certificates of achievement.And theyíd pass them out for absolutely everything under the sun..Count to ten? Certificate!Pour a glass of water? Certificate!Wipe your nose? Certificate!Absolutely everything humanly possible earned you a certificate of achievement.And why not?All you need is some colored paper and a copy machine, you can pump them out by the thousands.And we didnít know any better.Weíre stupid little kids.We think theyíre fantastic.ďHey mom!Check it out!Certificate of achievement.Says I can stack three blocks on top of each other.ĒďUm hmm, thatís nice dear.You want to go put that on the fridge with the other forty-three you got this week?ĒďOh, you bet!Certificate of achievement going up on the fridge everybody!Look out!Weíve got a block-stacker in the family!Ē

 

So one day I arrive at kindergarten and find that a challenge has been presented to us.If you can bounce a ball ten times consecutively, you will earn yourself a certificate of achievement which says as much.Now I donít mind telling you that even at the tender age of five, I was a fairly well-seasoned athlete and knew immediately this would pose no difficulty for myself.So I tried to be real smooth about it, talking out loud to myself, ďOh, what should I do today?Should I bounce with the right hand?Should I bounce with the left?Should I bounce back and forth.Itís so hard to decide.You know, I didnít get a lot of sleep last night, I think Iíll just bounce with the right hand today.Ē So it gets to be my turn and I grab the athletic ball: fthump, fthump, fthump, fthump, fthump, ten times consecutively, no problem.I plunk the athletic ball down on the ground, get my certificate of achievement, and lean back against the outside wall, quite satisfied with myself.

 

A few minutes later, itís Sharon Weissís turn.Well now.Can she bounce the ball ten times consecutively?No, she cannot.Can she bounce the ball five times consecutively?No, she cannot.She would try to bounce it, it would hit her knee, bounce away.She would try to bounce it, it would hit her foot, dribble away.She tried and tried, but simply could not bounce the ball ten times consecutively.Now I tried to be cool about it.I was a polite little kid; I didnít want to say anything.But this evening I must confess to you, at that moment,in my fifth year of life, on the inside, I had a smile from coast to coast.Lao Tzu says, ďHappiness perches on misery, misery crouches beneath happiness.ĒEven in kindergarten itís true, even in kindergarten.

 

So why do I tell you this story?I donít really have a reason.Itís actually been a digression from the main theme of this evening, my childhood pair of light-blue, flannel pajamas.

 

Now they werenít plain pajamas.They had a picture on the shirt, it was a cartoon character, it was Popeye the sailor man.So thereís Popeye, with his can of spinach, his sailorís cap, his pipe, his, well, confusing musculature.And on the shirt thereís a caption, Popeye is saying something.And Popeye says something which could have as easily been said by the Buddha.Popeye says, ďI am what I am.Ē

 

Now I was here at the NHS ceremony last year and I saw everything with the cloaks and the candles and the chanting and whatnot.And it seems to me that for a ceremony like this, the speaker should make a presentation with certain qualities: a simple sincerity of message, words of academic seriousness, maybe even solemnity.And there are times when I really wish I could give that kind of speech.But I donít think I can do it.And if you were to ask me why not, I really donít know what more to say than other than what Popeye says.Well, I am what I am.

 

Every once in a while people ask me who my idol is or who my idols are, as if itís going to give them some insight into my psyche.And for the longest time I really never knew what to say because no one really seemed right as a choice.But then a while ago, I was thinking about it and it struck me, ďWell, I know exactly who it is.ĒItís not a real person, itís a fairy tale character.Itís the little kid who points out that the emperor has no clothes on.Thatís who my idol is.Thatís who itís always been.

 

But why is this?Why is skepticism such an integral part of who I am?

 

It goes back to a time when I was about your age.†† My family moved from a suburb of Philadelphia to the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia.And that same summer, I spent just about all the time I had in the Parkersburg public library, reading books, mostly on religion and philosophy and psychology.

 

Now I learned a lot from the books, but I think I learned even more from the process itself.You see, I would read a book that would take a particular philosophic stance on a certain issue and it would make sense to me.It would seem reasonable, logical, well-ordered, internally-consistent.And as I read it, I would think, ďYes, this seems about right, it makes sense.I can accept this.I can believe this.Ē

 

Then a few days later I would come across a second book that would criticize mercilessly the first book I had read.It would point out all of the inaccuracies, misinterpretations, logical flaws, counterexamples.And it wasnít just that this second book caused me to change my mind.I was amazed how easy it was for me to believe something I later saw to be absurdly untrue.

 

And, you know, after this happens a few times, you begin to get very careful about believing anything.And you begin to internalize this cautiousness, this carefulness.And you gradually begin to replace the tendency of easy and effortless belief with a calm, cool acceptance of uncertainty.

 

For those here to whom this appeals, I will close with a short primer on skepticism.

 

  1. Begin with what Descartes began with, what so many philosophers have begun with.Doubt everything.It sounds extreme, and it is.But donít worry.You wonít implode.You wonít begin acting like a feral child.The world wonít instantly turn anarchic.But you have to do it.The only way to build upright is to start on level ground.And doubting everything is the only level ground there is.

 

  1. When you are inclined to believe something, before you do, you must construct the counterargument.Not only must you construct it, you must do so with as much effort and integrity as you had constructed the original.If you do this, and only if you do this, will you begin to see how elusive knowledge really is.If you donít do this, youíll begin coasting down the path of convention and conformity, a path from which most never return.

 

Now it may seem that these two requisites make the construction of a philosophy exceedingly difficult.They do.Philosophy is not easy within the bounds of careful skepticism.But it is possible.In my own life, I have slowly, and sometimes painstakingly, made my way through the ideas with which I now see and understand the world around me.

 

You will need to find your own path in your own way, with your own time and with your own effort.And youíll just have to trust me for now when I tell you: in looking that much deeper and in thinking that much more, things will piece together, but like they never have before.