This is the season of commencement speeches. I’ve heard a few in person over the years, seen a few viral ones on video, and read a few in the compendia that are ubiquitous this time of year.
I have deep respect for anyone finding themselves in the position of designing such a speech. The genre seems fairly threadbare at this point in time. It seems nearly impossible to be novel. Indeed, some of the outrageous attempts to be novel backfire.
Most speakers feel obliged to both praise the assembled graduates and provide wise guidance to them. Many take this as an opportunity to proffer their comments on academia and the real world, whatever that means to them.
Having now been exposed to hundreds of these over time, I have one small complaint about a common assertion. Many speeches urge the graduates to find the one thing that makes them happy, successful, fulfilled, centered – or whatever adjective they choose to describe the authentic self.
The implication that I sometimes hear in those speeches is that there exists a relatively static true state of each individual. The job of the graduate is to discern this fixed state and choose that single station in life that is in best alignment with that state.
Reflecting back on my life, such guidance seems misplaced. Acknowledging that these graduates have 70-80 years of life in front of them, the notion of a single right answer to this personal puzzle seems unrealistic. Knowing that whole ways of life are disrupted at an increasing rate through technological change, I think that the right answer for today may not even exist as an option in a few years.
The message of finding the one way forward for them also, to me, places enormous pressure on a young person. Do I need to discover myself in the next 6 months, to become a fully formed person in the real world? What a life-long, high-stakes decision!
Instead, in my way of thinking, a better message is that life options are constantly changing. Life presents different paths at different points in time. A bad decision need not be a permanent failure. The search for one’s authentic self never stops. Every year, indeed, each day, if one pays attention, is filled with choices. Every decision, even the smallest ones, manifest opportunities to find alignment between your essential self and your behavior. One is always becoming.
Lives are filled with bad decisions and good decisions. Deep discernment of the right path, based on slow thinking and careful weighing of options, is impossible for many decisions. Choice must be exercised quickly. Failure to choose an option is itself a decision. Unfortunately, humans aren’t smart enough to be both very, very fast and consistently good in decisions. The research on this seems very clear now.
So, bad choices and imperfect decisions are a way of life for all of us, including the graduates sitting in front of commencement speakers. The wonder of life is that many bad decisions are not fatal to one’s life. Indeed, one benefit of a rapidly changing external environment for all of us is that the choices will relentlessly keep coming at us. Life will continue to present us optional ways forward.
What we each need to pay attention to is the long-run track record we assemble for ourselves through these decisions. Hopefully, we make the important decisions in alignment with our true selves and our values. Hopefully, we get better over time, paying attention to decision outcomes to calibrate this alignment. In short, our behavior may radically change over time, in reflection of changed circumstances. Our life might be a series of episodes that have a theme discernible only to us. Change across one’s life is to be expected. Lighten up, graduates.