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“Finding Yourself,” Repeatedly, Relentlessly

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.

7 thoughts on ““Finding Yourself,” Repeatedly, Relentlessly

  1. Interesting thoughts at this time of commencement ie “beginning”. . Two thoughts. One is Billy Crystal in City Slickers asks the wise cowboy “ what is yet key to life? “. The wise cowboy tells Billy who is trying to find hinself “ one thing! “ Crystal says “ what’s that? “. The wise old cowboy said “ well you’ve got to find that out for yourself! “ My second loose association is about hurrying. The wise UCLA. Legendary Coach John Wooden had many thoughtful pieces of advice but one applies to your post. “. Be quick but don’t hurry!” That applies to basketball AND. To life . Congrats to all graduates especially Hoyas. May they find out their one thing and realize it’s a process that takes time but remember to be quick—- but don’t hurry!

  2. The oratorical conundrum is indeed easy to identify and the current post does so admirably : how to maintain pertinence in a turbulent world which renders obsolete any once-and-for-all recipe for success and happiness. And yet, graduates and their families are understandably hungry for visionary advice as they try to peer over a diffuse horizon. My own mentoring experience teaches me that in this situation, less can be more. What I have often done when talking to seniors in their last semester is to offer an exercise, based on the following question : Try to describe the framework of your ideal professional occupation in five years’ time. Where are you ? In a structured environment or free-lancing from home ? What are you doing to earn a living ? What skills do you need to deploy ? Do you travel a lot on the job ? Domestically or internationally ? Now comes a counter-exercise : Describe a professional framework for which you have strong negative feelings and say why.
    These exercises are not Olympian, however they will help you walk on the valley floor before you begin your ascent to a higher elevation. And you can renew the caper once a year until you feel you no longer need them.

    • Well that’s a good comment. Where in five years? But please don’ t forget. It’s NOT just about work and career. It’s also hopefully for all Hoyas also about work life balance! Family friends AND. Service to others. As Jim Valvano said in his ESPY Speech as he was dying from cancer. “ Remember every day to think to feel to laugh and and to cry then you’ll have had a hell of a day”. Very wise man. Good advice.

  3. It may be that the speakers are encouraging the graduates to discover (or choose) their core values/visions/missions/goals and to evaluate future opportunities from their core perspectives. That fits with the idea that there wouldn’t be a single right answer, but not because there isn’t a right set of core values, etc. Sure, the opportunities might not be predictable; however, knowing where you want to go (in the sense of knowing what types of destinations fit with your core being) helps when making decisions about what to do when confronted with opportunities and helps when making decisions about trying to manufacture opportunities.

    GU offers a set of core values; so, a speaker could try to make one last attempt to encourage graduates to adopt or retain those values and then suggest ways to uphold those values when faced with likely post-graduation opportunities.

    A proponent of StrengthsFinder might encourage the graduates to find themselves in the sense of noticing their own motivated abilities (whether or not one thinks that those are innate or are modifiable over time). I do assess opportunities from the perspective of whether they would allow for the exercise of my motivated abilities:

    Key Strengths, identified as the highest rated 5 of 34 “StrengthsFinder Themes” measured through StrengthsFinder Theme Testing by The Gallup Organization –
    1. “Relator” (strongly motivated/equipped to cultivate trustworthy partnerships)
    2. “Strategic” (strongly motivated/equipped to evaluate alternate possibilities)
    3. “Maximizer” (strongly motivated/equipped to nurture better potentialities)
    4. “Context” (strongly motivated/equipped to identify underlying purposes)
    5. “Belief” (strongly motivated/equipped to follow everlasting principles)

    Speaking of belief, I also assess opportunities from the perspective of the core values and instructions revealed in The Bible. That has been an often-used source for graduation advice by speakers over the years! Here’s an excellent book that helps one think about the balance between discovering one’s core and going with the flow:

    Decision Making and The Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View by Garry Friesen with Robin Maxson

    Read more about it!

  4. Core values? Spiritual mission ? Absolutely ! However, these latter would always be central to a discourse addressing our Georgetown graduates, whatever the year. What the present provostial post articulates is the rightful puzzlement facing youth today in a world of fast-moving mutations which obscure one’s future pathway professionally and how to fold that conundrum into a valid Commencement address.

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