The Four Things I Believe Will Make You Happy and Successful

Following is the commencement address I gave on Saturday at my alma mater Wakefield School in Huntly, VA. The various comments below about amputees, homicide detectives, Native Americans, etc. are all references to their senior thesis papers. Enjoy.

Thank you to the faculty and administration of Wakefield School. Thank you to the parents, family and relatives attending today. Thank you to head of school Ms. Lindstrom for this kind invitation. And most importantly thank you to the Wakefield class of 2015 for your time this afternoon. For on this occasion we are gathered to acknowledge your hard work, perseverance and to celebrate this next chapter of your life.

For after all, a commencement means just that – it means to commence, to begin, to start anew, to set off. So this ceremony is certainly as much a beginning as it is a celebration of a closing.

Since I graduated from this school, on this campus 28 years ago and have since been out traveling, working, living in the world, I can report that the journey before you will be littered with problems to fix, and challenges to correct, wrongs to right. The world needs you.

However, I can also report that in my experience and my work I have learned that your generation is arguably one of the most sophisticated, knowledgeable, globally connected, astute, and indeed optimistic generations in some time.

Just two weeks ago I interviewed experts and authors of a new book which is called, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business.

As I discovered from reading your own senior thesis papers, you are already grappling with robotics, artificial intelligence, US-Chinese nutritional differences, self-identities of Native American cultures and even taking a hard look at depression, among many other important and meaningful issues.

You are clearly already in the thick of it, making a difference. Myself, having attended Wakefield School myself back in the day, I’m familiar with the kind of classes and preparation that might challenge you to take on such important issues.

I recall conjugating Latin verbs, studying medieval history and making replicas of the Parthenon – all in pursuit of that greatest of educations – a broad-reaching education steeped in classical languages with a deep respect and understanding of history and sciences. All to give you an expansive, thoughtful mind – a mind able to see varieties of perspectives and ideas. As the cliché goes, its supposed to be the kind of education which teaches you not skills per se, but rather of course “how to think.”

And this cliché has been worked over enough so you get the point that now finally – thanks in great part to Wakefield – you have figured out “how to think.” I hope you’re not offended that this has been interpreted to mean that previously you couldn’t think at all.

But this ability called “How to Think” is not enough. It’s not enough to see many sides of ideas and situations and circumstances because you must then choose “What to Think.” Because after you see all choices available you then must decide which ideas to give energy to, which ideas to strengthen by asking more questions. Yes, that’s right – simply inquiring after an idea gives it greater strength and value.

So when for example in your own papers, you consider the economic merits versus the environmental evils of Fracking, or perhaps becoming a musical historian, you are giving value to that choice simply by asking the question.

Because remember that while you can indeed do almost anything, you can’t do everything. You will have to make choices along the way. So the small bits of advice I have to share are on how to go about thinking about these choices we make every day, consciously or unconsciously.

If we start with this premise that anything, yes anything is possible, this encourages the notion that the world exists for us to excel within, for us to make our mark, get our just rewards, achieve our better ends, and accomplish whatever we set our minds to.

And I think that the idea that now embarking upon this next chapter of your life that you can get anything you set your mind to misses the mark, it falls short.

And here’s why: When we believe that with the right amount of perseverance we can get whatever we want out of life, that idea plays to our default settings to satisfy our own aspirations, our own needs, our own wants,..

What happens is that we frame our constant dialogue we have in our heads to see people, circumstances, events, surroundings all in terms of either allies or obstacles in our quest for whatever it is we are after. Because after all, we start this world, and live this world, and see this world, interpreting events and listening to others through the lens our own eyes and the arguments we make in our own minds. Our default setting is WIIFM? What’s in it for me?

Here’s a little parable about this idea:

Airport-Waiting-AreaA young woman is waiting in a busy airport. She has some time to kill so she buys a little bag of cookies and sits down with her book to read. Pretty soon a young man comes and sits beside her and starts reading a magazine. They keep to themselves and after a minute he reaches into the bag between them and takes a cookie.

She can’t believe it, but she’s too astonished to say anything so she takes a cookie and keeps reading her book. Time goes by and she keeps reading and eating her cookies. But every couple minutes this strange guy keep reaching in to the bag and taking a cookie until there’s only one left. Then he takes the last cookie, breaks it in two and offers her half. She can’t believe his gall! She stands up, and without a word boards her flight.

Sitting in her seat on the plane she can’t believe this guy. Then she reaches into her purse to get our book out and finds the bag of cookies she bought earlier.

The moral of course is to be careful of our assumptions. Or better, assume best intentions.

So the real question to constantly be asking is not what can I gain, but what can I contribute. Not what can I get, but what can I give. Not how can this person hurting or even helping my goals, but rather how can I help this person before me. And to frame the whole goal thing in terms of “what is necessary along the way for me to make the greatest impact?”

So if the end goal is to help alleviate clinical depression, then along the way it might be helpful to become a counselor or psychiatrist, or pharmacologist, and you might be adored, celebrated, and paid well for your efforts and degrees, but remember that’s not the point.

Or if the goal is to help amputees better take advantage of available technologies to be more physically mobile, capable, or to be able to live independently, then along the way you might be to become a roboticist or an entrepreneur, and enjoy interesting travel and famous colleagues, but again that’s not the point.

Or maybe if you want to rid the world of serial killers you might have to go to a police academy and become a detective, and one day the mayor will hang a medal around your neck and give you the keys to the city. But again, that was never goal. The goal is to make a difference.

You get the idea, that whatever place you go or dreams you wish to accomplish, I encourage you to frame that aspiration in terms of what it will allow you to accomplish for someone else, or in service of what positive end.

Any other alternative is a trap.

If you wish to be smarter than anyone else, then you never will be, because someone will always have more degrees, accolades and a higher Mensa score than you. And if the goal is to be rich, you will forever feel poor. And of course if the goal is fame you need only look to the Kardashians to agree there is no amount of personal disclosure that can keep up with them.

That’s my first piece of advice. Always consider your goals in terms of what positive social impact you can make. Sure, you can certainly enjoy winnings and triumphs come along the way, but play the long game.

So yes, read that famous graduation book by Dr. Seuss “O The Places You Will Go”. And envision and dream of those places you will go, but in your dreaming see yourself not getting just the applause, the success, the fame, but instead envision what you are contributing, what you are giving that will make a measurable difference in the lives of others.

And here’s my final piece of advice – which will be difficult to follow. It’s going to take some serious effort to follow this one.

After you have applied your great ability of how to think and you are heading into What to Think, ask someone who has been there, done that.

Here’s what I mean. Say you are trying to figure out whether to be a nutritionist, or a homicide detective, and you spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the effort it will require, the impact you might be able to make in the world, and maybe even considering how much it pays. Do this: ask someone who has done it and consider very seriously following their advice.

That seems like a simple and obvious thing to do. But here’s why it’s difficult. When you are considering anything like changing majors, visiting your boyfriend in Idaho or dropping chemistry, you may ask someone who has done it and they may tell you. And you will plug that opinion into your head and then think “But they aren’t me.” “My situation is different.” “They are nothing like me.” “How would they know if I would like it or not?” And so on.

And the reason you will discount their opinion goes back to that default setting I mentioned earlier.

Our initial reaction and belief is that we are unique and very different than they are. And I will suggest to you, that we are all more similar than you may believe. We all carry similar hopes, aspirations, fears, doubts, and even annoyances.

And the more we work to understand others with empathy and kindness, the greater progress I believe we can make toward the first of advice which was making a difference. In fact, did you know the #1 most desirable trait when looking for a spouse, a mate in life? It’s not beauty, it’s not money, it’s not even intelligence which came in at #2. The #1 most desirable characteristic when seeking out a mate in life, is kindness.

I want to quote from one of your own thesis papers. I intend to honor, not embarrass, Ms. Ashlyn Ramey who is graduating today. But to quote her own senior thesis on the subject of Lakota Indians living today in America. Ms. Ramey writes:

“According to the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, ‘a single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’ When we stereotype others, we reduce them. We imprison them in our own small view, a dark and tiny place with no light and no room for growth.”

Isn’t that the truth. When we only see the world through our own fixed lens and refuse to listen deeply and empathetically to those we encounter along this path of life, we reduce and belittle them.

And so to close, my encouragement to you all is:

  1. You can do anything, but not everything – Consider thoughtfully what to think about and ask and trust others what to give your energy to
  2. Measure your success by what you give and not what you get for it will make everyone – yourself included – happier in the long run
  3. Give compassion and kindness as generously as you can.
  4. Remain fiercely optimistic

Thank you and good luck.