Every Day Do Something that Won’t Compute


I gave this commencement address last weekend at the Veritas Prep Academy graduation ceremony. Witnessing some of the end-of-the-year activities before the ceremony, listening to four students reflect on their education at the graduation, and talking with families and teachers all left me quite encouraged by the good work that’s happening at this school.

Congratulations graduates. This day celebrates a real accomplishment, and you should relish the satisfactions of a job well done.

We don’t always do a great job of celebrating the hard intellectual work that forms mental disciplines and moral character. If you spend hours practicing a musical instrument, you may eventually have the opportunity to perform a concert and receive some recognition—maybe not from a broad public, but at least a grandparent or an aunt or a second cousin-once-removed might show up and applaud. Similarly if you work really hard in the gym and practice a sport, you might get the chance to play in a game and celebrate victory with your team.

But we don’t have a lot of occasions for honoring the achievements of intellectual practice. And the occasions we do have often focus on somewhat unreliable proxies—doing well on a test or getting into college or landing a good job. So I hope that you receive your diplomas today as a public token of the hidden, difficult, formative work that you’ve undertaken during your years at Veritas.

Yet even as you receive just recognition today, I want to challenge you not to anchor your identity in such external tokens of success. Right now, you are brimming with optimism—and at least a bit of trepidation—about plans for higher education, summer travel, or a good job. And yet as I’m sure you also know, your futures will not unfold how you expect them to. You began high school during the strange days of COVID, so you’ve had plenty of experience with unexpected challenges. And as you transition into life beyond high school, you will not always get the rewards your work merits. You will almost certainly experience career setbacks, life tragedies, and humiliating failures. It’s in those moments that the true value of the intellectual and moral disciplines you’ve cultivated will be revealed. If you were just memorizing facts to parrot back on a test or getting a credential to impress your boss, this learning won’t have much value when these rewards are stripped away.

I experienced this uncomfortable stripping away four years ago when one summer day, out of the blue, I was told that my position was being eliminated because of declining enrollment at my college. Tenure, a publication record, good teaching evals—all these external tokens of success suddenly didn’t count for anything. For the next several months, we went through a season of uncertainty, not knowing where we might need to move or what kind of work I might need to take. But this season revealed that when the external benefits of a diploma are taken away, the intrinsic value of the education it represents is revealed.

Hence my question for you this afternoon: How has your intellectual practice prepared you not just for success but also for failure?

Sorry if this is a bit of a downer on your celebratory day. But I trust that your education at Veritas has, in fact, prepared you to fail well. Maybe you’ve encountered people like Boethius, whose brilliance enabled him to ascend the political ranks of the Roman empire at a young age. But his stand against corruption caused him to go from advising the king to sitting in jail, awaiting his execution. What did he do? He responded to failure by imagining a conversation with Lady Wisdom and writing the most-read book in Medieval Europe.

Or you’ve read Dante, who was a rising star in Florentine politics when an abrupt shift in fortune led his party to be exiled. Dante never returned home, but he responded to his career disappointments by writing some of the most glorious poetry ever composed about his journey toward friendship with God.

Or you’ve read Milton, whose life was going great until his wife left him to return home to her mom. In response, Milton wrote pamphlets arguing for the legitimacy of divorce and tried to marry another woman. Despite these rather odd methods of seeking to reconcile with his wife, they did eventually get back together. But a few years later she died in childbirth. And then Milton’s second wife also died in childbirth. And then Milton went blind. And then the revolution that Milton supported ended in disaster. Nothing seemed to be going right. So what does Milton do? He writes an epic about the origins of evil in the world and the possibilities for faithful, loving work that nonetheless remain open to us.

By now you might be thinking that what I mean by “prepare for failure” is “prepare to write a great work of philosophy or literature that will be read centuries after you die.” But note that each of these three was thwarted in his actual ambitions and responded to disappointment by making something beautiful and totally useless. They weren’t writing these books as the next step in their youthful career plans; they were writing them for the love of truth, goodness, and beauty.

An example that casts this dynamic into sharper relief might be “Babette’s Feast,” a story by Isak Dinesen about a woman who was a renowned chef but was on the wrong side of a revolutionary conflict in France. When her political hopes are dashed, she flees to a rustic village in Denmark. There she labors in obscurity seeking to cook the best meals possible for an unappreciative community. When she wins the lottery and could make a new life for herself elsewhere, she instead spends all her winnings and all her culinary skill on the most exquisite meal imaginable and serves it to these rural peasants. Why? Because she is an artist who has learned to find her highest reward in making beautiful food, not in any external rewards such craft might bring.

All of these people respond to setbacks with grace because they were pursuing the internal rewards of intellectual or artistic work: they were after wisdom, virtue, and beauty rather than public accolades or cushy careers. And so even their bad fortune, as Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, offered good instruction.

If you aspire to this sort of success—not fickle, public success but the intrinsic satisfactions of intellectual, moral, or artistic excellence—I’d challenge you to follow the advice of the poet Wendell Berry. In one of his most famous poems, Berry responds to our culture’s tendency to value people on the basis of their economic productivity or their consumer habits by offering counter-intuitive counsel: “friends, every day do something / that won’t compute.”

This advice might worry your parents—why is this guy telling my teenager to do odd or foolish things? But Berry’s point, at least in part, is that the most valuable and necessary work often receives scant reward. It isn’t recognized. So if you can learn to do such work whether or not it “counts,” you will flourish, and contribute to the flourishing of others, despite the setbacks and failures that will inevitably come your way.

Doing things that don’t compute is, by definition, weird. You’ve gotten yourselves to this graduation ceremony by doing a lot of things every day that will compute. You’ve read your assigned readings, done your problem sets, studied your vocab words, written essays. Many of you have spent hours memorizing lines to perform in a play or working out to improve your athletic performance on the court. You understand that if you want to achieve a particular goal, you need to do the things necessary to help you reach it. You do the things that will compute.

And that’s good! Berry doesn’t say do only things that won’t compute, he just says do something every day that won’t compute. Now admittedly, some things that don’t compute are just plain dumb: Odysseus hanging out in a giant’s cave hoping for a swank guest gift, Augustine stealing pears with his friends just for kicks, Frankenstein leaving his wife alone on their wedding night when he knows his creature is hunting for revenge. Don’t be foolish!

But some things that don’t compute bring about the deep, internal rewards that will see you through the ups and downs of an unpredictable life. And as graduates of Veritas, you have some experience doing odd things. Your teachers have not treated you as Mr. Gradgrind, a Dickensian teacher, treats his students. He stands before the class as “a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow [his students] clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.”

No, as Veritas students, you haven’t been battered to smithereens with a broadside of facts; you’ve been invited to do things, often things that seem quite weird: You’ve studied Latin. How pointless. You’ve read a bunch of old books. How irrelevant. You’ve even memorized passages from Dante in Italian! Bizarre. You’ve experienced how sometimes activities with no obvious or immediate “use” can be deeply and intrinsically rewarding. They can form you into the kind of person who can thrive no matter the vicissitudes of your career or the disappointments of your life.

The examples that Berry gives, examples of good things that don’t compute, follow in this vein. Here’s a sampling: Love the world. Work for nothing. Love the Lord. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Ask the questions that have no answers. Plant sequoias. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

This curriculum is pretty hard to assess. It’s also wondrously diverse and impossible to definitively prescribe. So I’ll conclude today with just a few examples under two general headings.

First, do something every day that won’t compute algorithmically. So much of your entertainment is dreamed up by marketing executives and fed to you by algorithm. The diet of political and cultural news that’s most easy for you to get is produced and delivered in the same fashion. The increasing prevalence of AI-generated articles and songs and images will only make this worse.

So don’t be an obedient and passive consumer. Just because all your friends have a Stanley tumbler or a Lululemon bag doesn’t mean you need one. How boring and predictable! And don’t be cool and indie like all people who pontificate about how bad Taylor Swift’s music is. They are still defining their tastes in opposition to what’s trendy.

Read a book, listen to an album, or watch a movie that isn’t produced and marketed for your consumer demographic. Follow your interests and passions. Or ask a friend or mentor whom you trust to recommend an author or album. Then read or listen to it thoughtfully and have a conversation with your friend over coffee or a meal. Seek out writers and artists who aren’t just trying to make you angry or surprised or titillated so they can sell you stuff but who are, instead, seeking to tell the truth, praise genuine goodness, and convey a glimpse of beauty.

Second, do something every day that won’t compute for your academic or career goals. People can place a lot of pressure on you to start off your time at college or your career on the right trajectory. You can place a lot of pressure on yourself to do this. And that pressure can crowd out many good and wonderful activities. Don’t let it! Play recreational sports, just for fun. Make music. Cook delicious meals. Invite some friends over to enjoy a meal with you and practice xenia. Go fishing. Join a club. Pursue a hobby. Practice the Sabbath. Practice leisure. Volunteer in a local nonprofit—not because it will look good on your résumé, but simply because it’s a good thing to do for it’s own sake. Grow a garden or just a plant on your windowsill. What a wildly inefficient way to procure calories for your diet! And what a delightful way to know and care for a beautiful yet fragile life.

As an old man, the writer Kurt Vonnegut received some letters from a class of high school students who had invited him to come and visit their school. While declining their offer due to his ill health, Vonnegut gave them some wise advice: “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, . . . to make your soul grow.” And he went on to give them an assignment: the students must each write a poem of six lines. They must employ rhyme, and they must put their best efforts into writing the poem. Then, without showing it to anyone else, they must tear the poem into tiny pieces and discard these into “widely separated trash receptacles.” Vonnegut’s assignment forbids any extrinsic motivations: this poem won’t be shared on social media or used to ask a girl to the prom. And his extreme prohibition invites you to experience the ways that making art might discipline and form your souls.

At the end of “Babette’s Feast,” one of the villagers learns that Babette has spent her entire lottery winnings on this one dinner and says, with deep sadness, “So you will be poor now all your life.” But Babette corrects her, “No, I shall never be poor. . . [An] artist is never poor. We have something . . . of which other people know nothing.” Babette has followed Berry’s advice—she’s worked for nothing, she’s loved people who don’t deserve it, and her political and career frustrations no longer define her. If you give yourself and your talents to others, if you pursue wisdom for its intrinsic rewards, you will thrive no matter what disappointments you experience.

As I mentioned, I can speak from some experience here: I’ve unexpectedly lost my job. I’ve buried loved ones and had hard conversations with friends facing existential crises. Diplomas and degrees aren’t worth much in these contexts. What matters is the friendships you’ve cultivated and the kind of person you’ve become through your making and learning. If you’ve been faithfully doing good things for the right reasons, you’ll be as ready as anyone can be to respond to the failures and disappointments of life with grace and courage and beauty.

So, graduates of the class of 2024, congratulations. Congratulations for your real achievements—not the good grades you got or the good college you’re going to or the good job you’ve landed. Congratulations for the good souls you’ve been forming at Veritas by doing something every day that doesn’t compute. Keep it up.


  1. Thank you Jeff Bilbro for the compost of your life that prepared the soil from which these wise words have seeded. There is a bushel full of germinating and practical seeds strewn about for those graduates, and now, for those of us milling around the FPR fire pit who can likewise hear and heed … doing things that doesn’t compute and planting sequoias and practicing resurrection.

    This very minute, as a man long past high school graduation (class of ‘78; go Colts!), I am pondering people to invite for coffee (after they share an author, book, album, film … ).

  2. Very good stuff, Jeff.

    I think the interesting thing about this is that the more you get into the practice of doing things that don’t compute, the more natural it becomes. It’s like Berry’s idea of the “joy of sales resistance.” At the beginning it’s a challenge but as you start to engage in it regularly it becomes second nature.


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