Graduation – Now What?

On August 16, 2017, I gave graduation advice to an MBA class receiving their diplomas that summer. I think it is time again to address the graduation classes that are passing a significant life milestone. As you know, we are in a very different place from August 2016.

I join the many others who are congratulating you on graduating from college. This is a significant milestone and will be a memory you reflect upon for many years. Also, my goal is to give you some ideas when you attend graduation and afterward. I have three ideas for you to consider.

First, before you walk into the graduation ceremony and immediately afterward, be sure to embrace those who supported you and offered you advice, financial backing, and friendship. While you think it was your hard work that created your success, you may want to realize that it was the village that made this day possible for you.

Universities are important institutions in crafting possibilities and creating connections. A college president asked a graduation audience to think about a reality – that there are only 85 human institutions that have been in continuous operation for more than 500 years. Two you could get with a little thought: The Catholic Church and the British Parliament. If I were to tell you there were eight cantons in Switzerland, you’d be up to 10.  But the striking point is that of the remaining 75 human institutions that have been in continuous operation for more than five centuries, 70 of them are universities beginning with Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, considered by many scholars to be one of the oldest university in the world, founded roughly the same time as the city of Cairo in 969 AD. [note added April 26: Abdou Lachgar, a colleague at Wake Forest University, tells me that the oldest university is Al-Quaraouiyine University, which was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco. Al-Quaraouiyine University has been in continuous operation for more than 500 years. If the record is correct it was also founded by a women. Thank you Abdou].

That universities endure in this way testifies powerfully that universities are special institutions, and all of us are privileged to be the inhabitants of such a place. If you attend the larger commencement you will hear repeatedly that your diploma from Wake Forest comes with rights and responsibilities.   

I’d like to repeat a commentary about graduation from David McCullough, Jr. a longtime English teacher at Wellesley High, and son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough:

“So here we are…approaching commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?”  Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective.  Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away.  No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator.”

But this ceremony… Wake Forest University commencement … a commencement works every time.  From that day forward … truly … in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from Wake Forest University, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part. I ask that you use your education wisely.

Which leads me to the second piece of advice. I suggest you make a bingo-like card with the likely words you are to hear in the graduation ceremony.  This process is not an original idea as I played this game at earlier graduations I attended. My experience is in over 50 graduations being a professor and father. Now, with the bingo card, when you do get a “BINGO” from listening to the various speeches and ceremonial acts, do not scream out but quietly smile in self-satisfaction. Yelling out will only impede the ceremony – with one crucial exception. If any speaker tells you to find your passion or some rendition of this phrase, yell loudly “BOOOOOOOOOOOO.” 

Finding your passion is wrong-headed advice. Few agree with me as this phrasing occurs in many speeches and college entrance brochures: speeches by Tim Cook, CEO of Apple (Auburn University 2012), TV personality Katie Couric (Williams College, 2007), comedian Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane University, 2007), and David Brooks (Rice University, 2011), the columnist. David Brooks qualified his statement with a “passionate commitment” a phrasing that is more grounded and should solicit just quiet displeasure. 

Lots of people don’t have a passion at your age. Listen to the May 9, 2013, NPR segment “I Know I’m Supposed to Follow My Passion. But What If I Don’t Have A Passion?” One of your contemporaries, Max Kornblith, two years out from an Ivy League school, was honest about his predicament and his and the narrator’s suggestions are sound for moving forward in life. 

My problem with passion is not only its origins, which are grounded in a narrow sense in religious traditions but with its drive for your self-centered focus. Follow your passion means you do not have to listen to others; that you feel a sense of entitlement; that you are the center of Earth.  Well, this selfish behavior may be acceptable when trying to obtain optimal outcomes in an economic system, but when it comes to family, friends, the community at large, self-interested behavior will get you a lonely seat at the table. 

Engage people in conversation and be involved in their tales and reflect on their lessons learned.  You will be amazed at what you can learn.  This lesson came late in my life.  Yet, do not put up with the bull that drags you down – the people who only tear down institutions, tell you that you are not “suited for this work,” that you should “be realistic,” and that you should be nice to fit in  Push them and yourself to be positive and encouraging yet continually try out new behaviors.  This mindset helps you commit to a life full of well-being and one that will make a difference in this world. 

My suggestion is that you use the techniques you learned in your science classes. Do experiments. Create hypotheses and test them. Be a working scientist. The only difference is that you are experimenting with your future – trying to identify ways that you can live with well-being. This analytical process is one of the only reliable ways to go about your life.

You will fail several times – embrace it and know that you are not alone!  Stop going to the forums with CEOs – they have nothing to tell you unless they are discussing their strategy or business practice and lessons learned from formulating or implementing strategy. 

Beware of advice from retired CEOs and self-absorbed managers. Your dreams of creating a new business will not be helped by knowing a CEO had a clear vision or liked to do volunteer work.  Biographies never have access to the internal thoughts or unedited progressions of successful people. The most dangerous case of all is when successful people say, “to follow your passion.”  That sounds reasonable the first time you hear it. Would you give a loan to someone following his or her passion? Also, it is easy to be passionate about things that are working out. What about when things do not work out? 

If you are interested in career success, forget about passion. Forget about goals.  As far as I can tell the people who use systems – who work hard, who analyze their life, who commit to something, and who keep slogging away are the ones who gain success. Find out what you do well and do it – do it everywhere. Also, do not discount luck and your network – the most useful thing you can do is stay in the game. The universe has plenty of luck and you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. For this reason, I have been offended by those who have repeatedly not attended class or not got involved. A real missed opportunity for you and your classmates.

My advice is to look for something you can commit to – commit until your research says to do something else. There are lots of ways to live our lives, and there are lots of lives to live before you kick the proverbial bucket.  Enjoy and help others enjoy.

To achieve some of this listening, design one question you want people of the world to answer. Please take your question and post it on social media sites of your choice. Please share the answers with colleagues and create active dialogues with world citizens. We are interdependent in this global world so let’s create connected, world-wide dialogues to better empathize with each other and develop a greater tolerance for differences among us.  Create narratives that solve problems and create business solutions to solve social challenges. And do so to be inclusive of many different people.

Jerry Zucker (director and movie producer – Airplane; Ruthless People) gave the graduation speech at my alma mater, University of Wisconsin, in 2003.  He said “…it doesn’t matter that your dreams come true if you spent your whole life sleeping.   So, get out there and go for it, but don’t be caught waiting.  It’s great to plan for your future, just don’t live there because really nothing ever happens in the future.  Whatever happens, happens now so live your life where the action is – now!  And one more thing.  If you are going to be on television don’t call your friends and tell them to watch until after you’ve seen it.”

Therefore, two of my favorite animals are the bumble bee and turtle – the bee because it is not supposed to fly given its design and the turtle because it must stick its neck out to get started.

My third idea is to use your education to craft possibilities and to create and maintain connections to address important issues we face in our world! 

When you graduate, you will be closer to the Wake Forest University family which, to me, is a special privilege, accomplishment, and resource.  You are part of a special, wide network of people dedicated to use their education to attack important problems, sharing the pro humanitate value, that is, that we use our education to service our society – however society is defined for you.  

And in a global world, this value is so important.  The quest for truth, the quest for a better society, the quest for what mark we will make on this world … all presuppose allowing others to speak, allowing victims to be visible, allowing social issues to be put on the agenda of those with power.  We anticipated that you will have the power to make a difference and to hear about and act on the needs of our world! We have tried to arm you with tools, knowledge, and perspectives to craft possible approaches to the critical problems our world faces, and your organizations face, but not to do so alone – to use your connections to Wake Forest to make a difference – to make your mark on the world.

Only those of you who are looking for a technical trick to contribute to civilization, or more personally for you, using MBA education just to get ahead or to find fast, formulaic solutions to persistent problems in our society, will feel despair. But those who believe, in all modesty, in the mysterious power of their own human being, in crafting possibilities and in creating and maintaining meaningful connections to people and to important institutions — have no reason to despair at all. 

Your involvement in your profession and the larger world in which we live is asking a lot of each of us. I’ve emphasized environmental issues, being involved in the global world and servicing those not as privileged as you as an opportunity to contribute and make a living. I believe that you will thrive by being persistent, being involved and maintaining the connections to those who have shared this educational experience with you while using your education with a social perspective.

I’ll tell you a little-known story about Dylan Thomas, the amazing poet from Wales who died at 39 and which helps me to think about our world.  Some years back the critic John Malcolm Brinnin wrote a book about Dylan Thomas which embodied a faithful but very particular perception of the poet, one that stressed his sad, last, drunken, coming apart days in New York. It was an affront to Thomas’s widow, and she engaged in heated exchange with the critic using a phrasing that was profound.  Caitlin Thomas did not say that Brinnin had told lies, or that what he had reported had not occurred. She did not say he was in any narrow or measurable sense “wrong,” because he was not. She said, “I know a better truth.”

A better truth, not necessarily a more positive or friendly or comfortable one, or even a contradictory truth, but one that is larger, roomier, more complex and more authentic than any one-shot version can be. That is what an education offers you – to create a larger, roomier, more authentic future that addresses important issues in our world and allows for all sorts of identities to enter.

I’ll end with the last stanza of Tennyson’s short yet dramatic monologue “Ulysses,” a vivid reminder of the constant struggle to solve life’s problems – staying in the game, keeping your hand raised. Ulysses, old and restless as king of a remote and savage island, sets forth in search of knowledge and experience, accompanied by a few veterans of battles. As the small band pushes to sea, Ulysses says,

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Now craft the world you desire, as your future is created when you use your education to craft possibilities and maintain and create connections to attack important issues.


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