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The Formula of Happiness: Be Kind To Yourself

June Huh’s Commencement Speech at SNU

Treat Ourselves as Others

June Huh’s Commencement Speech at SNU (source: SNU Youtube)

June Huh is an accomplished Korean-American mathematician who won Fields Medal in 2022. From his recent commencement speech at Seoul National University, he provided a unique meta-scientific perspective of how we should treat ourselves as others dwelling in past, present, and future. I am here to translate and share great phrases from his speech that I could deeply resonate with. You can find the translated and original versions of his speech at the bottom of the page.

Be Kind to Your Past

“Many volatile coincidences, exhausted others, and more than anyone else, you can be harsh on yourself, so I hope you prepare yourself.” – June Heo

My mother taught me that the key to kindness comes from refining our speech to others. She runs a business and often experiences the employees failing to meet expected performances. No matter what her initial thought is, she said she tries to run through the kindness filter to make sure unrefined feedback does not get out of her mouth. Just like my mother, people try to speak kindly to others by refining what they speak. Ironically, we are not as nice to ourselves as we are to others. June’s advice to treat ourselves as others is his solution to be more kind to ourselves.

“Me in the distant past, me here now, and me of the distant future, these days sloppily connect three strangers.” – June Heo

Have you ever had moments in your past (usually during puberty) that you regret so much? Sometimes when I am in bed, those memories jump out to my consciousness randomly, making me kick a blanket out of embarrassment. When that moment comes, I recommend you treat your past selves as someone else, like your younger cousin, sibling, or your child. Will you still condemn the poor child? For me, I could not be that harsh. Therefore, the first step of showing kindness to yourself is separating that moment from your ego and treat as someone else. In my case, whenever I talk to myself with kind words of encouragement after any mistakes or failures, I feel much better and liberated. 

Value your Future 

“I wonder if I can accept others as myself in the distant future that I do not yet remember, and accept myself as others who are full with me here.” – June Huh

Have you sacrificed something for others? It does not have to be as noble as taking care of your family. Have you cooked a meal for your family? Or proofread your friend’s college essay? Or volunteered at a cat shelter? If so, you understand that people feel joy in making other people feel special. June Huh says we should start treating our future self as others, and value as someone special.

“Do not get distracted by preparing for employment, marriage, parenting, promotion, retirement,  old age, and to die in a fancy single room in a hospital.” – June Huh

If you genuinely value someone, would you feel comfortable seeing that person stressing over completing societal checklists like preparing for employment, marriage, parenting, promotion, retirement, old age, and dying in a fancy single room in a hospital? I will advise the special someone that what you do is not a happy life and that we should look for something truly valuable, together. If we can say that to others, we should do the same to ourselves. When we discover ourselves being stressed or sad, we should be our own best friends, discuss if it is something worth crying over, and cheer each other up.

Be Kind, Especially to Ourselves

June Huh’s message to students who are about to commence their journey to the world is the same as what I want to say to my past self. I want to tell JB at Middlebury that he should value himself more than anyone else. He is not someone who treats others with harshness, and he should not do it to himself. If necessary, he should act the opposite (just kidding)! When I feel bad about myself due to failures, I write myself a letter, “JB, you have done great so far, and you are valuable no matter what.” Surprisingly, I feel much better. So if you are reading this, try it! 

June Huh’s Commencement Speech Script (Translated to English):

Hello, I am June Huh, a mathematician who graduated in the summer of 2007.

If we assume that we live 80 years in good health, that means we will live about 30,000 days, which is quite a large number for our intuition to handle. I’ve been through roughly half that, and most of you have gone through about a third. Have you ever counted how many of them you remember? The days we will hold for a long time, breathing in and out without rest, are only a fraction of 30,000 days.

Me in the distant past, me here now, and me of the distant future, these days sloppily connect three strangers. Today’s graduation ceremony, which ends and starts anew, can be one of those days. I am very happy to be able to share such a day with you.

One of the risks of attending a graduation ceremony is probably not a graduation congratulatory speech. Because there’s a chance that you’ll hear the clever self-bragging of a highly successful person who benefited from luckily aligned chance, will, and temperament. I didn’t come here 15 years ago either because I was scared or because I was ashamed of my college life that I didn’t do well, but you’ve come here at your own risk (of hearing a bad speech) to celebrate something worthy of celebration.

What kind of story should I say at the graduation congratulatory speech? I think it would be worth thinking about the congratulatory speech you would like to give to yourself as you become yourself ten years from now, and think about the congratulations you would like to hear from that person now. Think about it. There are no words that come to mind.

All the expectations and disappointments, kindness and absurdity, good fortune and misfortune of the past few thousand days or thousands of days to come, these terrifyingly repetitive details of everyday life are hard to say or hear, and they do not fit the original purpose of encouragement and celebration. The embodied mind is inappropriate or humble.

My college life was a series of getting lost, even if it was packaged well. Looking at the countless friends around me who were smart, healthy, and sincere, I wondered what a person like me should do for a living. It seems that the words of a teacher who told me to get a good rest and come back are still looking at me on the sparse report card.

I believe that those of you who are listening now have gone through essentially a similar process over the past few years, although to some degree and in different directions. And now we are facing a bigger challenge, a daily repetition that is uncertain, opaque, and has an end but is elusive. It may be harder than you think, or it may be as hard as you think.

You are now an adult in earnest. Don’t be afraid to fail and try. Deny the comfortable and safe path. Don’t compromise and follow your real dream. All of this is good advice and especially useful from the point of view of society, but you may have already considered that individual views may differ. According to a few blunt criteria of the zero-sum relative, only a few will be exceptionally successful.

Many volatile coincidences, exhausted others, and more than anyone else, you can be harsh on yourself, so I hope you prepare yourself. Every day from today answers the old question of how to live when I grow up.

Do not get distracted by preparing for employment, marriage, parenting, promotion, retirement,  old age, and dying in a fancy single room in a hospital. I hope that you will not get accustomed to the rudeness, hate, competition, division, comparison, indolence, and sweetness of emptiness, overcome all kinds of meaningful or meaningless violence, experience each day fully, and welcome the future strange self who has been waiting for you for a long time in the end without any regrets.

A long time ago, I thought about what I should say if I came to the graduation ceremony, but I couldn’t conclude. The days my past self will experience are both sad and heartbreakingly envious. I wonder what kind of congratulatory congratulations you have in mind for yourself.

Mathematics allows any definition that inconsistency tolerates. Mathematicians’ main task is to choose which of them to write, and the measure of its value comes from which of the many possible promises of how to use language derives the most beautiful structure. On a special day like today, with special people in a special place, every attempt seems precious with excitement. I wonder if I can accept others as myself in the distant future that I do not yet remember, and accept myself as others who are full with me here.

Graduates, congratulations on the long-awaited completion, and congratulations on a fresh start today. May we be kind to each other and to ourselves, and pass on that kindness to us in the distant future. I cheer for you. Congratulations. Thank you.

(Translated by Jungbin Oh and Google Translator, refined by Grammarly)

June Huh’s Commencement Speech Script (Original Korean):

안녕하세요, 07년도 여름에 졸업한 수학자 허준이입니다.

우리가 80년을 건강하게 산다고 가정하면 약 3만 일을 사는 셈인데, 우리 직관이 다루기엔 제법 큰 수입니다. 저는 대략 그 절반을 지나 보냈고, 여러분 대부분은 약 3분의 1을 지나 보냈습니다. 혹시 그중 며칠을 기억하고 있는지 세어 본 적 있으신가요? 쉼 없이 들이쉬고 내쉬는 우리가 오랫동안 잡고 있을 날들은 3만의 아주 일부입니다.

먼 옛날의 나와, 지금 여기의 나와, 먼 훗날의 나라는 세 명의 완벽히 낯선 사람들을 이런 날들이 엉성하게 이어 주고 있습니다. 마무리 짓고 새롭게 시작하는 오늘 졸업식이 그런 날 중 하나일 수 있겠다는 생각이 듭니다. 그런 하루를 여러분과 공유할 수 있어서 무척 기쁩니다.

학위 수여식에 참석할 때 감수해야 할 위험 중 하나가 졸업 축사가 아닌가 합니다. 우연과 의지와 기질이 기막히게 정렬돼서 크게 성공한 사람의 교묘한 자기 자랑을 듣고 말 확률이 있기 때문입니다. 저는 겁이 나서, 아니면 충실하게 지내지 못한 대학생활이 부끄러워 15년 전 이 자리에 오지 못했습니다만, 여러분은 축하받을 만한 일을 축하받기 위해 이를 무릅쓰고 이곳에 왔습니다.

졸업식 축사에서는 어떤 이야기를 하면 좋을까요? 십몇 년 후의 내가 되어 자신에게 해줄 축사를 미리 떠올려 보는 것도, 그 사람에게 듣고 싶은 축사를 지금 떠올려 보는 것도 가치 있지 않을까 싶습니다. 생각해 보세요. 당연하게 떠오르는 말은 없습니다.

지난 몇천 일, 혹은 다가올 몇천 일간의 온갖 기대와 실망, 친절과 부조리, 행운과 불행, 그새 무섭도록 반복적인 일상의 세부 사항은 말하기에도, 듣기에도 힘들거니와 격려와 축하라는 본래의 목적에도 어울리지 않을 것입니다. 구체화한 마음은 부적절하거나 초라합니다.

제 대학 생활은 잘 포장해서 이야기해도 길 잃음의 연속이었습니다. 똑똑하면서 건강하고 성실하기까지 한 주위 수많은 친구를 보면서 나 같은 사람은 뭘 하며 살아야 하나 고민했습니다. 잘 쉬고 돌아오라던 어느 은사님의 말씀이, 듬성듬성해진 성적표 위에서 아직도 저를 쳐다보고 있는 듯합니다.

지금 듣고 계신 분들도 정도의 차이와 방향의 다름이 있을지언정 지난 몇 년간 본질적으로 비슷한 과정을 거쳤으리라 생각합니다. 그리고 이제 더 큰 도전, 불확실하고, 불투명하고, 끝은 있지만 잘 보이진 않는 매일의 반복을 눈앞에 두고 있습니다. 생각보다 힘들 수도, 생각만큼 힘들 수도 있습니다.

이제 본격적으로 어른입니다. 실패를 두려워하지 말고 도전하라. 편안하고 안전한 길을 거부하라. 타협하지 말고 자신의 진짜 꿈을 좇아라. 모두 좋은 조언이고 사회의 입장에서는 특히나 유용한 말입니다만, 개인의 입장은 다를 수 있음을 여러분은 이미 고민해 봤습니다. 제로섬 상대평가의 몇 가지 퉁명스러운 기준을 따른다면, 일부만이 예외적으로 성공할 것입니다.

여러 변덕스러운 우연이, 지쳐버린 타인이, 그리고 누구보다 자신이 자신에게 모질게 굴 수 있으니 마음 단단히 먹기 바랍니다. 나는 커서 어떻게 살까, 오래된 질문을 오늘부터의 매일이 대답해줍니다.

취업 준비, 결혼 준비, 육아 교육 승진 은퇴 노후 준비를 거쳐 어디 병원 그럴듯한 일인실에서 사망하기 위한 준비에 산만해지지 않기를 바랍니다. 무례와 혐오와 경쟁과 분열과 비교와 나태와 허무의 달콤함에 길들지 말길, 의미와 무의미의 온갖 폭력을 이겨내고 하루하루를 온전히 경험하길, 그 끝에서 오래 기다리고 있는 낯선 나를 아무 아쉬움 없이 맞이하길 바랍니다.

오래전의 제가 졸업식에 왔다면 무슨 이야기를 해줘야 할까 고민했습니다만 생각을 매듭짓지 못했습니다. 그가 경험하게 될 날들이 안쓰럽기도 하고 가슴 먹먹하게 부럽기도 합니다. 여러분은 자신에게 선물할 어떤 축사를 떠올리셨을지 궁금합니다.

수학은 무모순이 용납하는 어떤 정의도 허락합니다. 수학자들 주요 업무가 그중 무엇을 쓸지 선택하는 것인데, 언어를 어떻게 사용할 것인가에 대한 가능한 여러 가지 약속 중 무엇이 가장 아름다운 구조를 끌어내는지가 그 가치의 잣대가 됩니다. 오늘같이 특별한 날 특별한 곳에서 특별한 사람들과 함께하니 들뜬 마음에 모든 시도가 소중해 보입니다. 타인을 내가 아직 기억하지 못하는 먼 미래의 자신으로, 자신을 잠시지만 지금 여기서 온전히 함께하고 있는 타인으로 받아들일 수 있을까 궁금해집니다.

졸업생 여러분, 오래 준비한 완성을 축하하고, 오늘의 새로운 시작을 축하합니다. 서로에게, 그리고 자신에게 친절하시길, 그리고 그 친절을 먼 미래의 우리에게 잘 전달해 주길 바랍니다. 응원합니다. 축하합니다. 감사합니다.

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