I had the (very surreal, very strange) honor of traveling to my hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania to give the commencement speech at Oil City Senior High School, the school I graduated from in 2003. This was a very different kind of talk, and it forced me to reflect on a whole lot of Big Questions and life stuff. Below is the video (thanks to my sister!) and the transcript of my talk.
Class of 2017, Congratulations! I’m a bit nervous, but I’m telling myself you’re probably all too busy Snapchatting or whatever to listen to me ramble, so I shouldn’t worry. Anyways.
Friends, faculty, alumni, proud parents, family members, and graduates, it’s an honor to be here with you all today. I’m Brad Frost, and I’m a graduate of Oil City High School’s Class of 2003. That means a mere 14 years ago I was sitting right where you are, excited — and a little bit nervous if I’m honest — to enter this brand new phase in my life. I hope you’re excited too. And maybe a bit nervous as well. That’s all part of the experience. This is a huge milestone in your life, and while it’s now time to roll up your sleeves and dive into your future, it’s also a time for reflection.
I’d like everybody to take a minute and think about the things you truly enjoy doing.
Does everybody have some things in mind? Maybe you’re thinking about spending time with your friends. Maybe it’s playing a team sport. Maybe it’s reading a book. Maybe it’s writing. Maybe its being out in nature. Maybe it’s drawing. Maybe it’s taking apart a car engine. Maybe it’s even playing a video game.
Now for the more important question: Why? Why do you enjoy doing those things?
Why do you enjoy playing on that sports team? Is it the camaraderie you have with your fellow teammates? Is it working together as a unit to achieve something you can’t achieve on your own? Why do you enjoy taking apart that engine? Is it the satisfaction of understanding a complex system, or mastering an intricate puzzle? Why do you enjoy volunteering your time to help a friend, or tutoring a student? Is it that feeling of knowing they’re a bit happier or a little less frustrated because of your help?
The whys underpin the whats in our lives, and now more than ever, it’s critical to understand those whys in order to better know yourselves. To know what you gravitate towards. To know your tendencies. Yes, it’s important to understand what you enjoy doing, but it’s so much more important to understand why you enjoy doing those things.
Because change is inevitable. The things you will be doing in 14 years’ time will no doubt be different than the things you’re doing at this phase in your life. A recent study by the Department of Labor showed that 65% of students going through the education system today will work in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Think about that. That means that the majority of today’s students — probably including the majority of this graduating class — will end up working in jobs that don’t presently exist. Technology is advancing at a staggering rate, it’s disrupting industries, it’s inventing new ones, and it’s constantly changing the way we live and work.
When I was a kid, I didn’t say “Mom, Dad, I want to be a web designer when I grow up!” That wasn’t a thing. And yet that’s now how I spend most of my waking hours, and how I earn my living, and how I provide for my family. How does something like that happen?
During my time at OCHS, I would try my hardest to get out of my other classes in order to make my way to Alice Walkowski and Rick Fletcher’s art rooms, where I’d spend my time painting, sculpting things out of clay, mucking around on the computer on this relatively new tool called “Photoshop”, and talking shop with the other kids that also liked hanging out in the art room.
Outside of school I learned how to play bass and played in a band with my brother Ian and my cousin. For my senior project I needed to complete in order to graduate, I chose to write and record an album of original music.
My passion for music landed me at James Madison University in Harrisonburg Virginia, where I started my college journey as a music major. And let me just take the time to say a huge thank you to my parents who supported and trusted me to pursue music, which isn’t exactly a field that screams “financial security!” So for all you parents out there that are in similar situations, it’s cool.
I ended up starting a band at JMU, which was a ton of fun and a great way to scratch that musical itch. But I found studying music formally was a bit too tedious, so I ended up switching my major into a program called Media Arts and Design. That involved playing around with things like film production, Photoshop, web design, and multimedia design.
I ended up falling in love with web design. Mom’s an art teacher and dad’s an accountant, so I found web design to be a great fusion of both the right and left sides of my brain. So I pursued it as a career. Shortly after graduating, I followed my now-wife to New York City where we lived for 5 years, and I worked long hours at agencies making websites for all sorts of clients while getting better at my craft. Eventually I moved back to the area to Pittsburgh to start my own business.
I’ve now had the opportunity to make dozens of websites for companies like Nike, Tiffany, Time Inc. and more, consulted with a bunch of Fortune 500 companies, co-hosted a podcast, wrote hundreds of blog posts, wrote a book, spoken at conferences in over 25 countries on 6 continents. And yes, I still play music on the side.
As I reflect on those activities, I realize that almost none of those things that I do now were even on my radar as I sat where you’re sitting 14 years ago. But if I take a step back and blur my eyes a bit, it makes perfect sense. Almost nothing has changed in my thinking from my time tinkering in the art room. I simply enjoy making things and sharing things, and that takes many forms.
But why do I enjoy making things? I suppose I love the challenges provided by the creative process and love the satisfaction of putting something into this world that didn’t exist before. I love sharing ideas, then seeing other people take those ideas and building upon them to make more great things.
And with that realization, I have found purpose in what I do. So long as I’m able to make things, share things, and help people, I’m confident I’ll continue to be fulfilled.
Because here’s the thing. I don’t even know if I’m going to be making websites in 10 years’ time. Technology is moving so fast that the tools and technologies that I’ve spent countless hours learning might be obsolete tomorrow. That should be a terrifying thought, but I’m not all that worried. Again, as long as I’m able to make and share things, I’ll be happy.
So that is my message to you: To know yourself — to understand why you do the things you do — is to brave a future that can never be known.
A person has on average over 12 jobs throughout their career, and that number is only going to increase. Life is not linear, even though we can’t help but think of it in that way. There are inevitably many twists and sharp turns in everyone’s journey.
So it’s less about the grades you get, the major you choose, the specific classes you take, where you get a job, or what your future job title will be. Of course those things matter, but those things don’t intrinsically give you purpose. You have to discover purpose for yourself. How can you do that? I have three suggestions:
First: Be interested in things. Be curious. Find those things you feel passionate about and pursue them. Cultivate them. Again, recognize why you’re attracted to them. Even things you might consider dumb hobbies today might prove to be pivotal to your future success. I can tell you playing in front of audiences as part of a band prepared me more for what I’m doing right this second than any university class ever did.
The second thing: Recognize you are not alone in this. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the endless love and support and encouragement of my family throughout my entire life. And I’m proud to be born and raised in Oil City, and to have formed so many lasting friendships here. Wherever you go, seek out people who will support and encourage and elevate you. And just as important, reciprocate that same support and love to the people in your lives.
And the third thing: Broaden your horizons. Step outside of your comfort zone. Be open to perspectives that are different then your own. Constantly challenge your beliefs and biases, as that’s how we learn and grow. In my work on the web, I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to interact and collaborate with people from all over the world. There’s a giant world out there full of a amazing people, and we have so much to learn from each other. Be open, be kind, and you will wind up a better, kinder, more empathetic person. Not only that, you’ll open yourself up to new experiences, passions, skills, and relationships that can help shape you in positive ways.
Class of 2017, I am so incredibly excited for you as you enter this huge next stage in your lives. I hope you find things that make you wake up excited in the morning. I hope you find things that challenge you, fulfill you, and give you purpose. I hope you surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you, and hope you do the same for others. And I hope you get out there and do great things.
Thanks so much for listening, and once again, congratulations!