David Gould, Obermann Public Scholar, is spending this fall semester introducing University of Iowa undergraduates to a cast of amazing, inspiring visitors. From a master storyteller from The Moth and musicians from the Cirque du Soleil , to the co-founder of Girls on the Run and the creator of an online funding company, this eclectic group of guests will help students consider what makes for a meaningful life and how their particular skills and passions can align with their definition. Gould has done tremendous research into the topics of 20-somethings, the value of higher education, life purpose, happiness, "flow," and other concepts that all point toward designing and creating a meaningful life. The following talk, which he wrote for his niece and nephew, is the product of his thinking and teaching around these topics. We found it so inspiring that we wanted to share it with you.
To the Class of 2019
By David L. Gould
Dedicated to Amanda Mihalke and Preston Gould
While I love an uplifting college commencement address, the advice always seems to come a bit late. It’s a little like learning the destination after all the bags have been packed. Though the stirring words are nice, they do little good when one runs out of clean underwear.
So, what I have decided to do is deliver your commencement speech four years early. We’ll skip the robes. Trust me; nobody looks good in one. But if you feel the need to randomly scream out, or take a photo with me, I won’t stop you.
Designing Your Life
Peter Senge is a professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, where he works with a program called the Learning Laboratory. A question Senge likes to ask his students is, “Who is the leader of a ship crossing the ocean?” The answers seem predictable – the captain, the navigator, the helmsman – but they are all wrong. As Senge eventually reveals, the leader is the designer because all operations are a result of design. It is the first signal of human intention.
While college is not the last opportunity one gets to design his or her life, it is arguably the best. The twenties have been called the “defining decade,” a time when young people get to stand outside of the world for a few years and contemplate their next move. Far too many squander the opportunity, only to figure out what they missed years later. My goal is for you to make the most of your chance the first time around.
So Where Do We Begin?
So where do we begin? I’d suggest with the fundamental questions: “Why are you here and what do you want to learn?” Some of you will answer that it’s about acquiring a sensible major, strategically linked to a promising career. Others recognize that a college degree is now fundamentally tied to nearly every good job, and know simply that you want one.
Both of these perspectives are informed by the rising cost of higher education, and a growing angst to get it “right.” Since 1978, the average college tuition has increased a staggering 1,200 percent, and there is great trepidation that selecting the wrong course of study could jeopardize everything. Don’t get me wrong; money does matter. The fear of living with too little, and owing too much, is real indeed. But is college only about the paycheck? Will its value be determined just by some future bottom line?
Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, thinks not. “If we are going to treat college as a commodity,” Rawlings argues, “we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the ‘buyer’ to do most of the work to obtain its value.” In other words, your intellectual curiosity, perseverance, focus, and commitment—or lack thereof—contributes far more to the educational outcome than what curriculum you are studying. This experience demands the kind of learning Canadian designer Bruce Mau likens to being “lost in the forest.” In that context, Mau explains, there is urgency. Everything in the environment must be scrutinized as a potential clue in one’s effort to move on. It requires making disparate connections, and identifying hidden patterns. Pushing a little closer each time. Now compare this type of education to the “going on a picnic” variety where material is prepackaged and distributed to an indifferent audience, lounging on blankets. To these students, it’s an egg salad sandwich for everyone…like it or not.
Though learning is both fun and rewarding, it can also feel daunting and arduous. Prepare yourself; this is the nature of every hero’s journey. I’ll let you in on a secret, however. Those who rise up and slay the dragons draw strength from something larger than themselves. Be it Luke Skywalker’s Force, Batman’s murdered parents, or Dorothy’s Auntie Em, there is always something beneath the surface. It is why actor Danny Glover dedicates every performance before taking the stage. Whether it is to Nelson Mandela, or the elderly man guarding the stage door, Glover is always working for someone else.
If you were to dedicate your college education today, who would it be to and why? It might be someone who never had this opportunity, or cares more about your future than they do their own. Whoever it is, hold her close. Vow to never let him down. They will become your secret weapon.
Plan for the Unexpected
Here is your next challenge: Select someone you admire and then ask them to share the path that got them where they are today. How closely did their initial plan in college match where they are now? What part did mentors and unforeseen opportunities play in altering their course? How did disappointments and roadblocks send them in new and unexpected directions? If they are honest, they will likely ask you to get comfortable, and inform you it’s a long story. You will hear the expected acknowledgements to hard work and aptitude, but the tale will twist and turn whenever “Destiny” appears.
Destiny is the moment in the story when the agent walks up to Ashton Kutcher in an Iowa City pizza joint and asks if he’s ever considered modeling, or when a teenager named Paul McCartney decides to go and hear a group of school-aged musicians perform at St. Peter's Church Garden Fete, and comes home with a new friend named John. As a colleague of mine describes, “It’s when all three legs of the stool—hard work, talent, and fate—touch the ground at the same time.”
In his Commencement address to Stanford’s 2005 graduating class, Steve Jobs reflected on the kind of trust it takes to embrace opportunity. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs told the graduates. “You can only connect them looking backwards.” Author Daniel Pink writes that, “It’s nice to believe that you can map out every step ahead of time and end up where you want, but that’s a fantasy. The world changes. Ten years from now your industry might not even exist.”
Let me give you a few examples of what they mean: Mick Jagger, the lead singer for The Rolling Stones, majored in economics; for novelist Kurt Vonnegut it was anthropology. Former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan studied music; Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall initially wanted to be a dentist; Kiss bassist, Gene Simmons, could have been your 6th grade teacher. Though we have been conditioned to view success as a systematic process, finding one’s way in the world is never a linear path. While each of us is working hard and applying our talents, life is playing its role as well, opening some doors and closing others. Being prepared not only allows us to capitalize on an opportunity, but recognize it in the first place.
The First Step Is to Take One
Young people are encouraged to “find their passion,” but this advice can be a bit misleading. Passion finds you, and rarely the other way around. In fact, according to Stanford University’s Bill Burnett, only 20% of us know what we are passionate about doing. For everyone else, passion will appear after a lot of hard work, test-driving many things we ultimately don’t care about. It’s a bit like falling in love.
While a few people may simply lock eyes across a darkened room, and live happily ever after, the rest of us are more likely to plod through a series of relationships—good, bad, and indifferent—until we recognize one we can’t live without.
Burnett also thinks that college students have a lot of what psychologists refer to as “dysfunctional beliefs.” One is the opinion that their major is going to determine what they do for the rest of their lives. “Ten years out of school less than 20% of the people are doing anything that has anything to do with their major,” Burnett asserts. While the freedom to build one’s life is electrifying, the plethora of choices can be paralyzing too. Where is one to start? And what if you guess wrong? As former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz concludes, this isn’t “a choice between one thing and everything, but one thing and nothing.” You’re going to be a very different person in four years, so the only pertinent question is what do you want to do right now? What needs are being unmet? What problems demand a solution? What keeps you up at night?
This is often messy work, and you will be encouraged to forsake your open exploration in favor of collecting more tangible workplace skills and credentials. With all of the economic pressures ahead, you might also question dedicating precious time to the study of such topics as literature, history, or theatre. I urge you to leave room. Higher education needs to be a place for dreamers. It must remain a safe house for idealism. What gets lost in all the practicality is the evolutionary trail the humanities provide on how people have come to terms with being human.
These are the same questions you are likely to ask yourself one day when you glance up from your profession and see your life. “It is through our shared sense of beauty,” writes Bruce Mau, “that we will find not only the solutions that we need to confront the challenges of our future, but perhaps more importantly, the means by which we will inspire, engage and excite each other to care.”
“To ask what college is for,” concludes Deresiewicz, “is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for.” It all starts right now; so don’t delay packing the provisions you will need to force your way through the untrammelled snow. While it would be far easier to travel in the tracks of someone else, this is not why you are here.
David Gould is the University of Iowa’s first Obermann Center Public Scholar and a member of its adjunct faculty.