President Richard H. Brodhead greets students entering baccalaureate in Duke Chapel Friday afternoon. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke Photography
This winter I had lunch with a Duke couple in the Bay Area. The husband had recently retired at an early age from success in a demanding position. When we met, he was still catching his breath, marveling at the unfamiliar experience of freedom. He summed this up by quoting a line he had learned in meditation: “There is nowhere you have to go, nothing you have to do, no one you have to be.”
When he said it, this line hit me like a slap in the face. I have a fascinating yet demanding job. I had just led an event for six hundred alumni in L.A., then rushed to Orange County for meetings there, then flown to San Francisco to confer with more Duke friends, then come down the peninsula for this meeting, to be followed, that evening, by a gathering for 350 in Palo Alto where I was to interview Duke faculty who had created a research app to enable early diagnosis of autism. Each stop on my trip was absorbing, even inspiring, but the schedule involved such a hurtling rush that these words felt like a reproach from an alien world.
And then I thought of you. Here you are gathered at the site of your Freshman Convocation, with Duke Chapel renovated just for you. After four strenuous years, you are all done with college and its demands. No more running around to complete two majors along with a certificate in journalism or entrepreneurship or ethics, or to practice with your club sports team or dance group, or seek startup funds for the company you’re launching, or do tutoring downtown. That’s all done now; not a single expectation remains for you to meet. What bliss! There’s nowhere you have to go, nothing you have to do, no one you have to be.
But though some contrary evidence has emerged from your escapades at Myrtle Beach, I doubt that you’ll do well on the leisure test. The people who were starting out here four years back had been selected for certain traits. The students Duke seeks don’t just test well: we look for people who are driven to activity and achievement because they delight to use their gifts to the fullest. The hyperactive life you’ve led here gave four years’ reinforcement to your habit of setting, then meeting, daunting expectations. Our species has christened itself homo sapiens, the wise human; but you and I come from the species homo occupans, the ever-busy, ever-occupied human: you could not sit still doing nothing if you tried. This very day, your kind parents and unkind inner demons are urging you past this pause, clamoring for a new answer to the question, “Where are you going to go, what are you going to do, who are you going to be?”
You may expect me to urge you to resist this question. For sure, a dimension is lost when we live only in the future-oriented ethic of achievement. Whatever your religious outlook, entering a serene space of contemplation like Duke Chapel has the effect of pulling you out of the rush of busy time, making you feel yourself to be right here, right now, attuned to an underlying profundity. And yet: what we “are” is not accessed solely by slowing down and purging ourselves of worldly expectations. There are dimensions of who we “are” that can only be discovered through the striving to achieve.
You are the same person who arrived here four years back, but you’re also different—you have a broader sense of what there is to take an interest in in the world, and a clearer sense of where your interests actually lie. How did that happen? Let two brief stories stand for a thousand. I know a student from the class of 2015 who came to Duke expecting to be pre-med. But she found those courses only mildly interesting until she took a class studying the result of high-velocity impact on the human body, as from a car crash or an explosion. Right away, she knew that she really wanted to be an engineer, pivoted to a major in Biomedical Engineering, and is now doing graduate work in injury biomechanics. I know another student who came to Duke interested in Economics and East Asia. But at some point, he began volunteering in the Cancer Center, then studying health economics, and came to the sense that medicine was what he really wanted to do. After graduating, he spent a year studying hospital management practices in China, then enrolled in a post-bac program to pick up the premed courses he had missed, He aims to start medical school next fall.
Now, the details of these stories aren’t yours, but I trust that you recognize the plotline. People usually arrive at Duke with some vague plan of what they’re going to do—in many cases, with emphasis on the word “vague.” But then they start trying things, trying a course here, an activity there, a new friend group here, an internship or research project there. By doing so, they encounter things that kindle a deeper interest, make them feel more fully engaged, causing a new plan to come in view.
The huge privilege of a liberal arts education is that instead of fixing you at an early age on the narrow road to a predetermined career, it allows exploration and self-discovery. You are the fruit of that process. If you are feeling anxious about what comes next, I beg you to remember the lesson of this last chapter. It wasn’t your initial plan that made your education happen. It was your willingness to try things out, to throw yourself into things and see where they led you, then revise your plan based on what you discovered. The poet Theodore Roethke caught this precisely when he wrote: “I learn by going where I have to go.” You may wish you already knew where you were supposed to go; you may be punishing yourself for not knowing your life destination in advance—but how could you? The goal is found by means of the journey and in no other way. I learn by going where I have to go.
When we see people in positions that we envy and admire, it’s easy to imagine they were always headed to that very place, but that is almost never true. Steve Jobs said that you can’t plan your life but looking back, you can connect the dots. He should know: at one stage in his life, he was fired as CEO of Apple, the company he later rejoined and led to become the most successful company in the history of the world. The most impressive speaker I heard on this campus this year was Deborah James, a Duke alumna who is the Secretary of the Air Force. She is responsible for a workforce of 664,000 people and a budget of $140 billion, and she has dealt with extraordinary challenges, including a cheating scandal and security breaches with nuclear weapons, to bipartisan praise. When she came to Duke, she liked languages, got interested in Latin America, and chose to major in what is now called International Comparative Studies. By the time she graduated, she had gravitated toward an interest in the Foreign Service, and she went to Columbia to get a masters in international affairs. Which was all very prudent, except just when she prepared to enter the workforce, federal budget cuts meant there were suddenly no positions open in the Foreign Service. But having arrived at this dead end, she summoned some resilience, her inner GPS device recalculated, and she found a way to put her talent to work in the branch of government that was expanding in the early Reagan years, defense. From that point forward, she worked her way through a mix of public and private sector positions to the role she occupies today. Her advice to you is, “Be prepared to zigzag, because whatever your original idea was may not work out.”
Later in the day when I heard the line “Nowhere you have to go,” I met a graduate from two years back who was re-learning this lesson from scratch. While he was a student, he had shared his vocational anxieties. He had come from a background where not everybody had a college education, so advice on career paths was thin. He was majoring in Chemistry and thought perhaps he would go on in Chemistry, which sounded logical, if uncompelling. Some while later, he told me that he was now interested in going into consulting, but he was clearly not totally sold. When I met him this January and asked how consulting was going, he replied, oh, he had actually not gone that route, he had joined a startup promoting research on cures for rare cancers, a decision that had made him quite radiant. He has probably not taken his last zig or zag, but these have not been random ventures: each move has led to a clearer sense of what he wants to do and increased his confidence to make that choice. He learned by going where he has to go.
Friends, you are entering so-called “real life” at one of the most confusing periods in the history of work. On the one hand, statistics show that the economic returns on college education are higher than ever; on the other hand, people now seem vastly uncertain as to how such education actually delivers such value. Meanwhile, for the first time in history, a recovery that has cut unemployment from 10% to 5% has left a country feeling strangely hopeless about the future, a negativism suggesting that you’d better grab some good thing and hold on for dear life. Yet entrepreneurial disruptions have turned many sure things into dead ends, while generating new jobs whose long-term security is a total question mark.
How are you to navigate through this treacherous fog? There are no safe harbors in this new world. Building a life now will take versatility, resilience, a confident willingness to zig and zag, in which you use new moves to win a clearer sense of what fulfills you, then tack toward the thing that holds the most of that.
Shouldn’t I be telling you to make a difference and make the world a better place? Isn’t that mandatory message of graduation speeches everywhere? I do want these things, but in my experience, people can’t make the world a better place until they have first learned some things about the world. Plus in order to make a difference, you have to know what the difference is that you have it in you to make. And how to know that except by using experience to help reveal to you what you are called to do?
All your life you have been called gifted, but gifts are meant to be given, not just smugly enjoyed. There really is somewhere you have to go. You have to go on the journey to learn what the gift is that you peculiarly could give to the world, and how you can deliver it. You don’t know this yet and you will never know it once for all: you will learn by going. Time to leave Duke now—you got what you could from this stage of your journey. I wish you the courage to keep journeying toward the life you could lead at best. Go well.