May 27, 2016
Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here.
Most of this year has been about “firsts” for me and Julianne, and almost all of them have been nothing short of fantastic. Being here with you for Baccalaureate is one of the very special firsts.
For our students, it must seem like a blur. One minute you are carrying your boxes into “The Bricks,” you’re on “Pre-O,” you’re putting your tray down on a table in Moulton or Thorne for the first time, and you’re sitting down for your first class, and the next minute you are here, less than twenty-four hours away from moving on to join our amazing and devoted alumni, a group you will be a part of forever. Take great pride in what you have accomplished here, and know that we are so proud of you.
You are poised to leave “the Bowdoin Bubble” and enter the “real world,” a world filled with challenges, problems, and opportunities. It has been no different for the 214 years that Bowdoin has stood here. Those who graduated before you have entered worlds of war—civil and global, hot and cold, state-sponsored and stateless—economic calamities, great political dysfunction, religious strife, and civil unrest. I promise it gets better from here.
Our world—your world—has much of the same. But our graduates have also seen the dawn, development, and power of the greatest democracy; the wonders of industrial, medical, and technological revolutions; the ability of capitalism to lift so many out of poverty; the triumph of good over evil; and the realization that differences among us are reasons for celebration, and not division.
Your lives have been shaped by 9/11, the global financial crisis, and the challenges facing our environment, to name just three. Your lives have also been shaped by a technology revolution that connects us in powerful ways and offers bold new answers, that has upended old ways of considering questions, problems, and solutions, allowing us to engage in work and pleasure in ways unimagined just a few years ago. Huge strides have been made in the treatment of disease. Same-sex marriage became a settled issue in the blink of an eye. And so on and on. We have made huge progress, but our institutions are imperfect, we are human and subject to mistakes, and so the work is unfinished.
With this in mind, and as you prepare to leave the realm of the student and enter this world, I offer for your consideration three ideas: objectivity, faith, and joy.
The challenges and opportunities that you’ll face, especially those that are most fulfilling and important, will be fiercely difficult and daunting. So, my first thought is drawn from the wisdom of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American to be held prisoner of war in Vietnam. Stockdale, who was in captivity for seven-and-a-half years and went on to be awarded the Medal of Honor, survived his ordeal with a combination of a brutal recognition of the reality he was facing and faith in the notion that he would prevail. In interviewing him for a book, business author James Collins coined the phrase the “Stockdale Paradox”—drawn from Stockdale’s experiences as a POW.
Taking some minor license, my version for us is that worthwhile, difficult work will require a combination of, first, being ruthlessly objective about the nature of the challenge and about what is required to make progress. The hardest problems and biggest opportunities are almost certain to be incredibly difficult, and filled with failure and disappointment. Understand and acknowledge this. Do not fool yourself that there is an easy way. But, second—and this is critical—you cannot lose faith that there is a way to prevail. Others before you have found the way, and you have powerful skills and profound personal qualities to bring to bear on these most difficult problems.
Joy. Seek work that brings you joy.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “joy” as: A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.
For many, this idea may seem deeply at odds with the notion of work—almost oxymoronic. I don’t mean that you should be whistling joyfully every moment of every day. That would be, if nothing else, seriously irritating to those you work with. Rather, it is the idea that the arc of the work you do should bring a deep sense of satisfaction. This joy is the fuel that you will need to get after the deeply challenging work. This joy is also something you owe yourself.
Finding this work is difficult. First, it takes us a long time to figure out what our passions are. It takes trial and error, and the path is often full of twists and blind alleys. It can be hard to make change—self-doubt and the inconvenient realities of family and financial and personal commitments make their presence felt. But—again, a critical but—we know just how talented you are and what you are capable of, and you have the benefits of a remarkable liberal arts education that gives you the tools for self-reflection, for analysis, and for success in a variety of endeavors. To not seek joy in your work is to sell short your great individual strengths, your accomplishments, and your potential.
Do not be daunted by the realities of the world that you enter. Rather, like those who have come before you at Bowdoin, be energized by the challenges and possibilities and gain confidence from the impact they have had and the progress they have made. And, as you engage these issues, seek to do so in work that brings you joy. Be ruthless in your understanding of what you are up against and have deep inner faith that there is a way for you to make a difference.
I have enormous confidence that you will each find ways to make a real difference in the world. I cannot wait to see what you will do.