Few books have had such a visible impact on my life as Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
While my parents, the ones who so generously paid for 13 years of independent school and four years of Stanford University, might have hoped for a more erudite title, it is this small book from a diminutive Japanese home organizer that has had an oversized impact on my home, office, and life.
Kondo teaches her disciples – yes, I am a Kondo disciple – to only keep objects that “spark joy.” Following her instructions, I started with my clothes and eventually made it all the way to my books. Just like in the popular Netflix show, I held each item and only kept those that brought joy.
As you can imagine, my collection of books is now significantly smaller. And that is why I only have about 40 books on the shelves in my office here at Mount Tam. Today, graduates, I want to tell you about three of them. I will admit that I had five in my first draft, but I edited in hopes that you might actually listen to all that I am about to say.
You ready? Okay.
So, before you get your diploma, I offer you three lessons for high school and beyond from three books that spark joy.
Brain Rules brings together science and education. John Medina, the author, is a developmental molecular biologist and is fascinated in how the brain works and how we can best use this amazing organ. While he offers twelve “rules” about how best to use our brain, I will focus on two for your high school career.
First, exercise. The science is clear: exercise improves our thinking. As Medina write, “All of the evidence points in one direction: physical activity is cognitive candy.” Moving is candy for the brain. Sprout ball? Candy. Knock out? Candy. You might not believe it, but even the mile run? Candy.
While some of you will play sports in high school, others, I know, are looking forward to spending more time on the stage, in the studio, or in the lab. Regardless of what you do, keep moving, keep exercising.
Second: sleep. While you are done learning at Mount Tamalpais School, you are not done learning. Next up you have four years of high school ahead. After that I hope you have a lifetime of learning. And to learn, you need to sleep. While scientists don’t know exactly why, it is clear that as Medina writes, “When you look at all the data combined, a consistency emerges: Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning.”
I must warn you, though, that other things are going to compete for your sleep over the next four years even more than the current desire to Facetime your friends. Your sports games or play practices will run later. You will have more homework. You will want to spend time with friends. Your phones will light up with notifications. With all of these forces you might be tempted to sleep less. Even just thirty less minutes of sleep a night lowers your attention, your math skills, your memory and your mood. As you head off to high school, please sleep.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a book and, like Kondo’s Tidying Up, also a way of life. For over 300 pages Allen lays out a system for keeping track of one’s work and personal life. He introduces all sorts of to-do lists, including a “someday maybe list.” I have used Getting Thing Done and a few other systems gleaned from blog posts to have a pretty darn effective and efficient way to keep track of all that I have to do. I share it with you, not because I want you to adopt Allen’s system or my own system, but because I want you to have YOUR system.
At MTS you have learned to keep an assignment notebook. You have learned to write a research paper with hundreds of three by five notecards. Those non recess-club regulars have also learned how to get all of your books and homework to and from school in a reliable way. You have developed a system. Just because you are leaving this school, don’t leave behind your systems. As old school as it may seem, consider using an assignment notebook or getting out some flash cards when that first research paper is assigned.
The final lesson I want to offer you comes from Flow, the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a professor who set out to understand something rather basic, happiness. He writes, “What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune and random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them.”
Interestingly, happiness is also not what you are planning doing tomorrow – just chilling out. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.”
So happiness doesn’t just happen, you can’t buy it or command it. And happiness is not just relaxing. Then what does lead to happiness?
After a lifetime of research Csikszentmihalyi found that “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Have you spaced out? Now is time to come back. Listen up. I am going to say it one more time.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
When I think about the most fulfilling times of my life, this rings true. The long wilderness trips that I have led – remember that story about carrying the canoe in the mud? – stretched me to my limits and felt worthwhile. The hundred and ten page essay I wrote about Buddhism and education at the end of my college career was a mental stretch, difficult and, again worth while.
Over the past three years I have stretched myself in my work as Head of School at Mount Tamalpais School facing a number of wide-ranging challenges. When I look on this stage, Class of 2019, and out at the years of students to come, I know that that work I do each day is worthwhile.
Many of you have told me that the Yosemite trip was the highlight of your MTS career. Why? My guess is that it is because you were stretched both physically and mentally to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. You found flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s happiness.
As you head off to high school, look for challenge. Look to stretch yourself, mentally and physically. Though the easy way might seem more “fun,” it will not lead to happiness.
As you set forth from MTS – and for the rest of the students here, when you return next fall – I encourage you to remember the following.
Exercise and sleep
Have systems for staying organized
Challenge yourself. Happiness, flow, is found in the face of meaningful challenges.
These three lessons from these three books have sparked joy in my life and, I hope, they do the same for you.
Families of the Class of 2019, before I award the diplomas I want to congratulate and thank all of you. You all have signed these students up for countless teams and undoubtedly told them to go to bed, you helped them stay organized, getting them to and from school and, in Mount Tamalpais School, given them a meaningful challenge. Class of 2019, please join me in thanking and celebrating your families.
And now it is your turn, graduates. Class of 2019, you are ready for what life and school will bring you next.
Go forth to learn more and then come back to tell us what sparks joy in high school, college, and beyond. Remember, you will always be welcome at Mount Tamalpais School.
Thank you and congratulations.