The man stared down at us from the podium, his eyes glittering as he gazed out at the sea of upturned faces. “Motivation,” he thundered. “Motivation is the guiding force, the one driving energy that I hope you all have.”
His voice was resounding, drowning out the rustle of four hundred graduates in ill-fitting plastic robes. I could hear someone talking behind me, holding a whispered conversation with their neighbor. I tried to block out the noise, focusing on our speaker.
“Motivation,” the man repeated. “Sadly, I can tell you right now, from right here, that most of you will fail this simple test.
“All it takes in life to survive is motivation. And I say that, so simply, it sounds so easy! All you need to do is know what you want, work for it, and all your dreams will come true. It sounds like the kind of advice we tell to naive young kids, the kind of sugary crap that is bottled up and sold by every half-hour animated kids show on television. ‘Work for what you want, and you will succeed!’ And we all know, inside of us, that it will never be that easy. We have all learned to see the more cynical side.
“And yet, there’s a reason why we continue to bottle up and sell this garbage. At its heart, when you dig past the layers of bullshit and overly sweet goo, there is truth there. Motivation, hard work, really is the key to success. The problem is that nobody truly understands just what hard work truly is.”
Around me, I could hear more fidgeting. People were getting antsy. We had been cooped up in this hot auditorium for hours, waiting in a gigantic, single-file line to receive our high school diplomas. Now, people wanted to leave, to head off to the parties, the celebrations, the drunken bonfires and pointless cheering that would mark our leaving of this level of education.
“See, here’s the issue,” the speaker in front of us continued. “When we hear of hard work, we think of a long day’s effort. We think of hard work as the dedication to show up at a job every day, for eight hours each day, five days a week, for forty years. We imagine doing that, and we think to ourselves, ‘that is hard work. That is the motivation that will get me to where I want to be in life.’
“And when we imagine that, we’re wrong.
“The problem is that working eight hours a day, forty hours a week, two thousand hours a year, is not the maximum. That’s the minimum.
“Working a job, putting in the hours, merely establishes a baseline. It’s not just holding a job, because everyone does that! No, for true motivation, you must rise, head and shoulders, above the rest of the world. If you’re at the top of your class, you need to find a smarter class. And if you’re not at the top of your class, you had better fight to get to the top of it.
“To succeed, you need to take on all the work you can handle, to set your sights on the highest peak and never waver in your constant fight to get there. And yes,” he continued, pounding on the podium, “it will be a fight. It will be a fight that will take years, a fight that will be fought in a thousand battles every day. You will question the path many times, be constantly tempted to abandon your course. And most of you, at some point, will give in to temptation.”
By now, whispered conversations had sprung up all around me. The man was gazing out into the crowd; he had to have noticed. But I almost felt as though his eyes were resting directly on me.
“Motivation,” he said firmly. “Motivation is key. Do you have it?”