SNAP OUT OF IT
Baccalaureate Address 2012
Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Good evening 2012 – and welcome to your proud parents, beaming grandparents, and any siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or other members of your entourage who have joined us here tonight.
I hope you remember your visit to campus, almost four years ago, for June advising. That day you heard me give a speech about taking the college plunge, you signed the Hogwarts Book, and you officially became Muhlenberg students. Within twenty-four hours, you will be Muhlenberg alumni. Gosh that went quickly!
There is, to use William Blake’s phrase, a “fearful symmetry” to your arrival and departure from this campus. Your freshman orientation was a turbo-charged information-infused firehose-down-the-throat experience. This week, beginning with the last lecture, continuing tonight, and culminating tomorrow morning, anybody who can get next to a microphone will try to cram you full of last-minute advice – as if you’d learned everything in the last four years except for the most important wisdom which we saved for the last minute. I will be part of this distinguished, perhaps tedious, string of counselors. Of course my words will be the most valuable you will hear during the entire weekend.
I started thinking about what I’d say to you several weeks ago. In fact, I started taking note of other commencement-related speeches and articles. I noted one particular theme this year – variations on the same topic in The New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. These articles all promised to reveal the same thing: “What they won’t tell you at graduation.” And, reading them, I was like: “Dude! You just did!”
Next I googled the words: “graduation speech” and “… follow your dreams.” I got 2.9 million hits. (Disclaimer: I didn’t actually read them all). You will be relieved to learn that I cautioned tomorrow’s commencement speaker, Mary Schapiro, not to tell you to “follow your dreams.” I told her: first of all, it’s been done (a lot); second, it’s too vague; and third, you should know that I’m speaking to the class the night before, and I’m going to tell them NOT to follow their dreams.
I know this seems perverse. After all, every day for the last four years you’ve heard the Haas carillon play the alma mater, encouraging you to “sit, and think, and dream, and oft conspire.” Every contestant on every reality show you’ve watched for the last four years has proclaimed that winning is their “dream”. The Career Center urges you to find your “dream job.” And, of course, there are those 2.9 million commencement speakers – can they all be wrong?
Well of course they can. If you’ve learned anything here, it should be to think for yourself, which is what I’m inviting you to do tonight. You don’t need to succumb to the rampant “follow your dream” virus that sweeps through college campuses each graduation season.
When I greeted you four years ago, I quoted from Heraclitus and David Bowie. Tonight, I share with you an episode from Homer’s Iliad.
In Book I, King Agamemnon – the richest and most powerful of the Achaians – gratuitously insults his best warrior Achilles, who decides to boycott the fighting and sulk in his tent. This was a stupid thing to do, but Homer makes it clear that Agamemnon was the richest and most powerful Achaian – not the smartest. And in Book II, Agamemnon demonstrates just how dumb an epic hero can be. The night after his quarrel with Achilles he has a dream. It’s a really good dream. He dreams that the next day he will capture Troy. What makes this dream so great is that he will do it without Achilles’ help. That will show that young pup a thing or two! Agamemnon wakes up and decides to “follow his dream.” He calls the troops together. With a pep talk that is arguably the most witless in the annals of literature, he sends the entire army into such a panic that it starts to flee to the ships. The other Greek chieftains rally the Achaians, and finally they attack the Trojans. The result, several books later, is a total debacle. The Trojans pursue the beaten Achaians all the way to the shoreline and start to set their ships afire before the Greeks finally rally. So much for Agamemnon following his dreams. Eventually he must go groveling back to Achilles.
So far, this baccalaureate address must sound like a big bummer: don’t bother dreaming, scrap those ambitions, give up. Living in your parents’ basement for the next few decades isn’t so bad.
Don’t panic – don’t run for your ships! That’s not my message to you tonight.
Homer tells us that dreams come to mortals through one of two gates on Mount Olympus: the Gate of Ivory from which false dreams issue, and the Gate of Horn – source of dreams that will come true. But how can you know which dreams are which? That’s where my advice to you will come in handy.
Dreams by themselves are not likely to get you very far. You are going to need more than dreams.
Step One: You need to take inventory.
I knew a high school senior named Arnold in Maine years ago. Arnold had a dream: he wanted to play quarterback for Harvard. In fact, he was convinced that it was his destiny to lead Harvard to victory on the gridiron. Unfortunately, Arnold weighed about 140 pounds, had never played football, and academically – how do I put this politely? - was not exactly “Harvard material.” Arnold’s dream clearly arrived through the Gate of Ivory, a fact soon confirmed by the Harvard admissions staff.
There are important lessons we can learn from Arnold about testing your dreams for “ivoriness” or, um, “horn-like qualities.” First, distinguish between your passions and your fantasies. What are your strengths? Your talents? Do you like playing the cello, or do you adore playing the cello? Can you conceive of life without practicing the cello five hours a day seven days a week? Have any disinterested experts (not your grandparents) suggested you might have Yo Yo Ma potential? Would you be happy playing the cello even if you never achieved celebrity status?
You should have a pretty good idea of your strengths, talents and passions after four years at Muhlenberg. Build on them, work with them, hone them – but first, assess them. Determine whether your dream is a complete fantasy, a potential vocation, or just a really great hobby.
Step Two: You need to have a plan.
Actually, you need to have more than one plan. If your dream is to be president of Muhlenberg, for example, there are several steps you will need to achieve first. You’ll need to get a PhD. You’ll need to teach. You’ll probably need to succeed in a series of administrative positions. You’ll need for me to retire. Set up a realistic timeline for these intermediate steps, and take them one at a time. Be open to other opportunities, ideas, and passions as they come to you.
I would like to urge you to take only jobs you love – or think you will love – but that may not be realistic. At the least, make sure that you learn something in every job you take. If you hate a job, find out why before you move on to your next one so you can develop a more precise sense of what you need to find satisfaction in your work. Try not to take a job you know you’ll hate in hopes that it will lead to something better. It’s a bad bet.
Above all, be receptive to new paths that might intrigue you. My original plan was to be an archaeologist, then a high school guidance counselor, then a professor, then an administrator. Obviously, my plans “evolved.”
Have a Plan B, and maybe Plans C through Z. The Roman writer Publius Syrus once wrote: “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.” So, if you can’t become president of Muhlenberg you may have to settle for something less. Like president of Franklin and Marshall. Or you may discover something you love even more. As long as you work hard at something you love, your effort will not be wasted.
Step Three: You need to check in.
I have friends who make this an annual ritual – on their birthday, or New Year’s day, or Groundhog day – any day at all as long as it becomes a habit. Ask yourself if you are following your plan; if you are still happy with your plan; if it’s time to form a new plan. Hardly anybody wants to be a valet parking attendant / wannabe movie star at age 40. The clock is ticking. Keep an eye on it.
Final step: remember that there is one overriding goal to your life: to be happy. If you have learned anything at Muhlenberg, I hope it is this: that happiness derives not from self-indulgence and mindless pleasure, but from tackling challenging tasks, doing your best work, stretching your abilities, doing good for others. Above all, happiness represents a decision on your part. Happiness is not something that happens to you, nor is it something that others can give you. Not the Harvard admissions staff, not the Tony Awards, not the producers of “America’s Next Top Cellist.” Happiness is something you choose. I have known brilliant, handsome, talented, miserable millionaires, and I have known men and women of modest means and marginal health who nonetheless determine that they will be happy.
I hope you have good dreams; I hope you learn how to sort out the true dreams from the false; I hope you take your own inventory, develop your own plan, and achieve your own goals. But most of all, I hope you will be happy.
God speed. Stay in touch. Come back to visit us whenever you can.