The Robe

It’s good to know a couple of Trojans had my back while I was on the USC campus for the USC-Oregon showdown.

A little background first: Now when I crowd-surf or wave my “Read Harvard” sign on a street corner, I wear a black and cap gown. I think it’s more effective than just standing there naked in street clothes.

Well, this past weekend “in costume” I struck both the USC-Oregon game — which with 90,000-plus fans streaming into the Los Angeles Coliseum was crazy — and the Breeders’ Cup races in Arcadia, a slightly more subdued affair.

At the end of the day, it was one comment a woman made to me while we passed each other in a crosswalk on Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia that stuck with me. She said simply and with a straight and earnest face, “Congratulations on your graduation.”

The moment she said it, I realized that while I had taken my cap off and tucked my two signs under my arm, I was still wearing my graduation gown.

That immediately got me thinking.

I had worn a cap and gown only twice before until my current Harvard Reject book adventure and promotion tour, once when I graduated from high school and again after graduating from college.

Sure, I’ve been wearing my cap and gown as an advertising lark or branding gimmick, call it what you will, but perhaps there really was some real significance, if not symbolism, to be found in donning my black robe 35 years after my last official commencement into the real world.

After having written Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject, hadn’t I truly graduated to a higher place? In many ways, the book is like my PhD dissertation and took just as long to research and write. I took the writing seriously because I vowed to follow whatever I wrote down.

Indeed, the process of writing and publishing – and the introspection and solitude required to create a book, or in my case of code of conduct — has taught me to say “yes” more often, to be less fearful, to ask more probing questions, to focus more sharply, to show more discipline, to take more risks, to aim higher, to plan more, to dream bigger, to live with more purpose and vision, to love and give more deeply, to accept change more willingly, to strive for greater improvement and innovation, and to work to be a better husband, father and leader.

Writing and trying to get my arms around the success and leadership principles in the book have truly changed me. When you think deeply and start heading upriver like Marlow in the Heart of Darkness, you begin to see what’s been holding you back – things like following mindless routine and bureaucracy and living comfortably with complacency.

You realize that all the hoop-jumping you’ve been doing all your life – getting better grades, rising in your corporation, adding another rank – has just made you more accepting of the status quo. By going along all these years, you tell yourself, you’ve managed to get along.
But what do you really have at the end of the day – at the end of your life? Is acceptance what you want? Or do you want to move the needle in a new direction – put that dent in the universe that so obsessed Steve Jobs?

Sure it’s fun to Tweet and Facebook and parrot bumper-sticker quotes all day, but is that as good as it gets – getting a hundred people to like your last post?

I submit there’s something more, and it can’t always be expressed in 140 or fewer characters. I want solitude and intimate conversation, and you only get that heading up river past all the distractions and noise that compete for your attention and taking on real projects that can’t be completed in a day or even a year.

That is the only way to turn a heart of darkness into an elevated spirit of enlightenment.

So, yes, I have graduated again. And it feels good. Thank you, lady in the crosswalk, for bringing it to my attention.

Start writing your own code, and, more important, follow what you write. Then share it with your true friends. Ask for more than a “like” or a “comment.” Get some real feedback. Engage in deep discussion over a glass of wine or two.

Look forward to slipping on your cap and gown again. It’s a robe worth wearing more than once or twice in a lifetime.

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