Victor Chang’s graduation speech: ‘Whatever it is you choose to do with your life, do it for yourself’

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a film that really scared my pants off. Granted, I don’t know what third grade me was expecting from a movie whose tagline is: “WATCH OUT! THEY GET YOU WHEN YOU’RE SLEEPING!” Also, if you’re wondering how a sci-fi horror movie from the 70s relates to your high school graduation, just bear with me here. 

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” starts off with a bunch of alien okra pods landing in a small California suburb. The pods then quickly mind-control the inhabitants of the town. 

In the literal sense, we teens are immune to getting “body-snatched;” they can’t get us when we’re sleeping if we hardly sleep anyway. Metaphorically speaking, we already have, to varying degrees, been body-snatched, having our true desires and passions subsumed by societal pressure. And that pressure isn’t going to end in the next four years. Many of us are heading into highly competitive, dare I say, cutthroat college environments, where the pressure to succeed can feel claustrophobic. 

I’m not saying to completely cut yourself off from society Kerouac-style and live like Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah. I think there is a compelling case for the nine-to-five lifestyle if it means you can live in a house and take showers. 

What I have to say is this: Whatever it is you choose to do with your life, do it for yourself. A concept that’s thrown around a lot is the idea of different types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. According to a 2003 study at Princeton University, there are two categories of things that motivate us: intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators come from within ourselves: For example, joining the band because it brings you joy to play “Pomp and Circumstance” for 30 minutes, or learning how to integrate trigonometric functions because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. 

Extrinsic motivators come from the external world. For example, joining the band because it’ll look so, so good on your Common App, or learning how to integrate trigonometric functions because, oh god, the midterm is tomorrow, and I still don’t understand it. 

(Based on a true story.) 

Too much of our teenage lives have been governed by extrinsic motivators. But it doesn’t have to be that way now. Because for the first time in our lives, we’ll be truly independent. We’ll have the agency to determine for ourselves what we want to do with our lives.

This is where the body-snatcher metaphor starts to break down, since in the movie, there’s no possibility of redemption; once you’re body-snatched by the evil okras, there’s no escape. But I doubt any of you would want a graduation speech where I tell you to bow before your vegetable overlords, so I’ll shelve the metaphor for now. 

I know for a fact that every single one of you has something that your passionate about. I know this because many of my friends in the science research program here at PMHS love what they do, and it shows. As someone going into the humanities who won’t touch a biology textbook with a ten-foot pole if I can help it, the fact that some of you are willing to stare at hermaphroditic worms under a microscope for hours on end really shows the level of dedication and passion you have for science. You guys have won a record-breaking number of awards and accolades, and it’s all because of that passion. So, I’d like to give a shout out to the science research program at our school for developing this passion for science that you all have. 

That passion, that intrinsic motivation, is what we all must embrace in the coming years. Take courses that fascinate you. Do the things you’ve always wanted to do (preferably within the confines of the law). And remember that each of us, by virtue of being human, has intrinsic value. You have so many intangible qualities that can’t be put on a resumé or a LinkedIn bio. Inevitably, many of us will stumble while pursuing our passions, but that doesn’t make you any less human. In fact, it makes you that much more impressive because you refused to let your dreams be snatched away. 

If you only take away two things from this fever dream of a speech, let them be this. The first: Watch “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It’s amazing. The second: Hold onto your dreams and passions for dear life, even as society tries to snatch them away from you. Don’t let the alien okras win. Thank you.

Victor Chang was one of two students chosen to speak at Saturday’s Pelham Memorial High School graduation ceremony based on speeches submitted.