Brodhead to Class of 2018: On Comfort True and False

2014 convocation

Duke students take a selfie with President Richard Brodhead at undergraduate convocation.

Parents, your children are sitting in regal splendor in Duke’s glorious Gothic chapel, but you are seated far away, in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Why the distance? Well, Duke Chapel has just enough room for our entering class, so we put you in an overflow zone. But you might have suspected a deeper, darker reason: we are rehearsing you for a great separation. You have loved and nurtured these children, you have given them every means to develop their gifts, and they made your dream come true: today they enter one of the world’s great universities. Now there’s one last thing you as parents need to do -- Go home, back off, give them space to build an independent life. Dean Nowicki and I will be out front of the Chapel after this ceremony and I cordially invite you to come find us, but after lunch, it’s time to go. If that’s sobbing I hear, here’s the comfort. If you stick around, your children will just find you annoying. Leave, and they’ll miss you and love you all the more.

Now for you, Duke Class of 2018. I trust you’ve found Duke comfortable. I saw you moving into those cozy East Campus rooms with your cars full of pillows and personal effects, all the comforts of home. There you met a concierge staff keen to see to your every need, our bizarrely numerous FACs and RAs.

As the manager of this fine hotel and Minister of Comfort to Duke Nation, I now want to go the final step and remove the very last twinge of discomfort remaining. Is anyone a little homesick? You may feel you alone are experiencing this emotion, but it’s a common thing to feel when you enter a strange new world, and behind their masks of cheerful well-adjustedness, many of your classmates are feeling just the same. Duke psychologist Mark Leary, one of the world’s great experts on homesickness, notes that unlike some other animals, primitive humans lacked the bodily means to protect themselves on their own. Our earliest ancestors needed groups to survive, so in evolution, it was an adaptive trait to feel pained when stepping out of known social worlds. So if you experience such pangs, you need to say, Oh I remember! That doesn’t mean anything; that’s only human! -- a transition emotion that will quickly fade.

Now let the Comfort Doctor probe a little deeper. Tell me the truth: Duke is great and all, but in your heart of hearts, might you not be finding it a little daunting? I watched your faces as Christoph Guttentag spoke. You laughed, but I could detect another response: Uh oh! I don’t come from a place with a cute name. I was not the Tae Kwon Do champion of Myanmar. I was not conducting promising research on the Ebola virus when I was in tenth grade. What am I doing here? How am I supposed to compete when everyone else is a certified miracle of adolescent achievement? Plus what if I should be unmasked, what if some Edward Snowden got access to my private messages and uncovered the awful truth that, contrary to the big brags of my college application, I am at some level a fairly ordinary person?

Have any of you had such thoughts? How many: maybe twelve hundred of you? Friends, you disappoint me. How can you be so unoriginal? That anxiety isn’t proof of your special deficiency. That’s what every smart person thinks when they step up the level of their game. The fun thing about Duke is that it’s a community of talent where talent manifests itself in a thousand different forms, yours cheerfully included. Duke students aren’t interested in exposing each other’s limitations. They rejoice in each other’s gifts and accomplishments, they lift each other up.

You will do fine here, you will thrive; I want you to feel completely comfortable in that assurance. Very comfortable. Very, very comfortable. But let’s not make comfort your only goal.

For the first time in human history, modern consumer culture has come to hold out the ideal of comfort as a plausible full-time expectation and worthy human aim. We live in the time of comfort foods, comfort zones, humidity comfort indices, being comfortable in your own skin. But there are values that are not compatible with comfort, and those include values crucial to the adventure you’re about to undertake.

Those of you who are serious athletes or musicians know that you didn’t get to the level you’ve reached by being told that you were already perfect, or that good enough was good enough. You learned to visualize an ideal of high performance and to embrace the discipline required to raise yourself toward what you could be. That’s what you’re invited to join at Duke: a community of aspiration, a place where people work and play together to reach the highest level of their capacities. Stick to what’s comfortable and you will miss that fun.

But the fact that comfort promotes mediocrity is not the only problem. I will be amazed if you are not carrying around in your head a chatter of voices assuring you that you should already know what you’re going to be in later life, and should plan your Duke career to enable the systematic acquisition of all the merit badges that will assure your arrival at that happy goal.  There are many contributors to this inward chorus -- natural anxieties, an unreliable economy that has heightened the perception of risk, a media and political chorus convinced that education has no value unless it aims straight for a job, parents who crave assurance that you will be set for life. These voices all reinforce the idea that there is one sure ultimate comfort: a career that will purge your life of uncertainty and risk. But allow me to say: you’re still very young, you can’t possibly already know for certain the eventual career that you are meant to occupy. To find that, you need to open your horizons, learn the range of possibilities, and find what fulfills and motivates you. Duke can be just the space of exploration and discovery that you need, but only if you free yourself from the need to know the answer in advance.

Then further, whatever it is you find to do, there will be a richer and a poorer version of the self you bring to that eventual career. The really successful people in our world don’t just know how to do a job. They bring a fund of knowledge and wisdom to their life, a wide awareness of the great, wide world, various and versatile tools for understanding what’s around them, the capacity to see things from others’ points of view, an active mind that’s always integrating new perceptions and putting the world together in new ways. Those are the traits that make people thoughtful, adaptable, creative, and humane. Without these, any job will be a dead end. With them, you’re equipped for a lifelong adventure.

Those are all skills Duke can develop in you, but you won’t gain a single one of them by following the path of comfort. The comfort imperative is to avoid challenge. To be comfortable, you’re going to want to be pushed as little as possible beyond what you already know and believe. You’ll seek out subjects you already “get” -- that’s so comfortable! You’ll stick to the people whose lives have been most like yours and who share the same life attitudes -- no pressure there! If you take enough trouble, you might emerge from Duke not very different from what you are today.

Alternatively, you could court everything that challenges you: try new things, study things you don’t already understand, seek out friends not already certified to agree with you, try the Duke opportunities that expose you to the world outside the bubble of elite education. Then you’d have four years of growth and empowerment -- a big return for having been willing to risk some small initial discomfort.

My Duke colleague Gregory Jones once said that the trick for students is to learn to be comfortable in the right ways and uncomfortable in the right ways. That’s what I wish for you. To comfort can mean to soothe, to solace, to make you less frightened and upset, and as you arrive with everything so strange and new, I want for you the full measure of reassurance. But in At its root the word “comfort” bears a different meaning: it comes from cum, Latin for with, together, and fortis, Latin for strong, known to you from words fort, fortress, fortify or fortitude. I wish you enough happiness at Duke to embolden you for the adventure of Duke. Use these next four years to make yourselves strong together. Then you’ll know comfort in its deepest sense.