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Undergraduate Commencement 2005

Address by President David E. Maxwell

As most of you know, a while back I sent an email to the senior class asking for suggestions for a topic for my commencement remarks. Remarkably, and to your collective great credit, no one took advantage of what was an obvious and highly attractive opportunity for sarcasm and displays of wit, such as “why don’t you talk about 30 seconds.”

I was very struck by how generous—and trusting—you were in sharing your hopes and fears with me, and I thank you for that trust. I wish that I could address all of the questions and suggestions, but I can’t, of course, so please know that even if you don’t hear an echo of your words in what I say today, I heard them and I thank you for them.

There were two major themes that predominated in the emails that I received—one of them made a great deal of sense given the life event that you are undergoing today, but the other I found rather surprising (and I’m going to leave you in suspense for a few minutes as to what it was). The most frequent theme expressed a bit of anxiety about leaving the warm and supportive confines of Drake University for the real world—comments such as, “I think a significant number of students are still apprehensive about finding that first job after graduation. I think some words of advice on that topic would be greatly appreciated.” Another person said, “Could you talk about how we can get over the fear of leaving all that we know here at Drake and the fear of going into the real world and actually making our mark. How do we deal with the fear of failure?”

“How do I achieve a successful professional life and a successful personal life?” asked another of your classmates. Of course, given the giant step that you are about to take, it would be surprising if you were not just a little apprehensive, if you were not asking those of us who’ve already made that passage what it’s like on “the other side.” And that leads me to the questions that were surprising, the questions that asked me to share something of my own personal experience, that were asking, in essence, “did you go through this too?”

One of your classmates wrote, “I would like to hear something about what you know now as an accomplished adult, compared to what you knew when you were in our shoes…and what you might have done differently along the way.” Another said, “I’m asking you to speak about a time in your life where you felt lost and worried about your future. . .give us some advice; in the long run I know I’ll be fine, but how do I get through the next couple of months? Were you ever in this situation? How did you ‘make it?’”

One person wrote, “I would really be interested to hear about sometime in your journey when you had to leave a place where you were comfortable in order to seek out new challenges. Bettering yourself through facing new challenges, having the courage to jump into a new, scary environment…that kind of thing. You could make it up. We’ll never know.”

I hope you’ll understand if I don’t spend too much time enumerating the many failures I’ve accumulated in my lifetime—the fact that you had to ask suggests that I’ve been reasonably successful in covering them up, and I have no interest in jeopardizing my continuing tenure at Drake by bringing them to public attention. Believe me, I’ve had them.

But I will share some thoughts with you that do derive from my own experience. The first is that some fear and anxiety about the future, and about your ability to meet the challenges ahead, are perfectly normal and even productive—they’re certainly preferable to arrogance and over-confidence. Channeled in the right way, you can use that rush of adrenaline to focus your thoughts and energies, to “get up for the game.”

I was the president of Whitman College in Washington State in the late 80s and early 90s, when the bungee jumping craze was spreading across the country. One day, a group of students burst into my office, and said, “You’ve got to come with us! We’re going bungee jumping off one of the bridges in the Columbia Gorge!” When I asked, “why on earth would someone do that?” they responded, “It’s an incredible feeling—as you go out on the bridge and look down, it’s absolutely terrifying! You can feel the fear in the pit of your stomach, and your mouth tastes like you’re chewing on metal—and then you jump off, and for a moment you think you’re going to die, and it’s an amazing release!” I looked at them in amazement, and said, “That’s how I feel when I come into the office every morning.”

Perhaps more to the point is the conversation that Maddy and I had when I was offered the presidency of Whitman—she’s a lot smarter about life than I am, and many of the important things that I’ve learned since I was your age have come from her. We were sitting in our kitchen in Massachusetts, talking about Whitman, and I admitted that having spent 18 years at one university, the idea of moving 2500 miles across the country with two children, two dogs, and 200 cartons of books was scaring the daylights out of me. And Maddy looked at me and said, “Then I guess we’d better do it. If change is still scaring us at the age of 44, it’s time to grow up!”

Fear of the unknown, of change, of doing something dumb is natural, and to be expected. Self-doubt, questioning whether or not you’re on the right path, weighing the options, challenging your assumptions are healthy and necessary processes—in proper measure, they’re the characteristics of an intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective person. It’s the people who know they’re right about everything and wouldn’t question it for a minute that are a danger to us all. The major challenges in our lives are too fraught with ambiguity and complexity to allow for that kind of certainty.

And what about fear of failure? It all depends on what your criteria for success are. The fact is that you have the opportunity to define for yourself what your criteria for success are, and define for yourself what failure is.
If your criteria for success are wealth, prestige, status, power, and “who’s got the most toys,” then there is a very real chance for failure. Or at least for success that ultimately has no meaning. But if your criteria have to do with your qualities and aspirations as a human being, there’s a much more powerful likelihood of success—for ultimately, you have total control over who you are, what you do, what you say, and what you might contribute to the common good.

Each of you is going to have to decide for yourself what those criteria are, but since you asked, I’m happy to share a few ideas with you—and I’d like to suggest that you strive to become well-bred aristocrats. That got your attention, didn’t it!?!? I doubt that many of us equate “well-bred” and “aristocrat” with the personal values that inform what I’ve been saying thus far. I suspect most of us would equate those terms with privilege, snobbery, and pretension. But that’s the problem with labels—you can never be sure what they mean. In this case I’ve borrowed and combined those terms from my favorite Russian author (you knew I’d get one of those in here, didn’t you…), Anton Chekhov, and from the British novelist and essayist E.M. Forster.

In 1888, Anton Chekhov wrote a long letter to his brother Nikolai, who, he felt, was squandering his immense talent and wasting his life in the bars and brothels of St. Petersburg. In his letter, Chekhov offered the following instruction to Nikolai (and I’m going to provide you with a substantially abridged version; you’ll be able to infer some of Nikolai’s transgressions from the details of Chekhov’s remarks):

To my mind, well-bred people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser.
  2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye cannot see.
  3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.
  4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. The do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes.
  5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy.
  6. They are not preoccupied with vain things.
  7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, wine, and vanity to it.
  8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities.

And Chekhov closes, “You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.”

Now for the aristocratic component of my aspiration for you, for which I’ll turn to Forster’s “What I Believe,” an essay in his book Two Cheers for Democracy, which was written in the dark days of the Battle of Britain during World War II.

I believe in aristocracy...Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the con- siderate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke. I give no examples - it is risky to do that - but the reader may as well consider whether this is the type of person he would like to meet and to be...

What gives me the most hope that you will achieve success—not just in your professions, not just in your personal lives, but as human beings, as well-bred aristocrats, is the questions that you’re asking. The thoughtfulness and introspection that they convey, the legitimate worries about the challenges, uncertainty, and ambiguities ahead, suggest that you’re well-equipped for everything that lies ahead.

I want you all to know that while you may be worried about your future, we’re not. You’ve shown us here at Drake University what you’re capable of, and what you aspire to, and we’re not at all afraid that you’ll fail—we’re very proud of you and of who you’ve become. What you’ve accomplished in the classroom and the laboratory, in student organizations and Greek chapters, on athletic teams, in your internships and jobs, what you’ve done in and for the community are powerful indicators of your ability to achieve the goals that you set for yourself.

And, you know, falling on your face every once in a while isn’t a bad thing—I’m not sure it builds character, as the cliché goes, but you can learn from it, and it reminds you to be humble. So when those inevitable bouts of self-doubt strike you, remember, all you have to do is be compassionate, respectful, honest, sensitive, considerate, and plucky. The rest of it is easy.

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