|Hannah at Senior Awards Ceremony, American University Honors Program|
This is the hard work of life in the world, to acknowledge within yourself the introvert, the clown, the artist, the homebody, the goofball, the thinker. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. – Anna Quindlen
Four years come and go, swiftly, like the changing seasons. When college ends, there is the sense that something significant is over, a phase of life, something safe and protected. Graduation ceremonies help us declare that another milestone has passed and something new is about to happen. A life remains to be lived and experienced.
Earlier this month, you graduated from college, joining older sister Jen among the ranks of American University alumni. On a cool Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., I sat in the bleachers of Bender Arena and proudly watched you in a sea of blue cap-and-gowns as you received your degree. Your smile that day warmed my heart. As your father, I know first-hand just how hard you worked to get where you are today. And I could not help but admire the beautiful and diverse collection of young men and women who graduated alongside you.
By traditional measurements, you (like your sister before you) are on a path to a successful life. You did well in all of the areas needed to build a good resume. You earned high grades and academic honors, gained valuable internship experience, published a number of essays and poems, and held student leadership positions. All of your hard work, the long hours in the library and the late night study sessions were rewarded with distinctions of high praise, with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For these honors, you should be immensely proud, for you earned them through individual effort and achievement. But unfortunately, while these distinctions signify academic success in college, they will not guarantee a life filled with joy and passion. Now you must engage the world outside of academia and begin to develop a life of your own.
On the morning of your graduation, I gave you two small books by Anna Quindlen, a writer and former columnist for The New York Times whom I admire for her wit and wisdom about everyday life. Both books originated from commencement addresses Quindlen has given over the years, and each contains a wealth of good advice that I hope you take to heart and occasionally come back to when you feel adrift.
“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself,” suggests Quindlen in Being Perfect. Like many young women in today’s world, you tend to internalize the many and varied societal pressures to perform at levels of perfection that are not sustainable or possible. Trying always to be perfect is counter-productive. We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Besides, as Quindlen notes in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, “It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”
When I graduated college in 1981, I also claimed good grades and academic honors (which you easily exceeded). But as I quickly discovered, once I landed my first job, no one really cared how well I did in school. Later in law school and in every job since then, I learned that there will always be people who are smarter, more talented, and more driven than me. As Quindlen notes:
When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
American society has a remarkable ability to resist change. Since the Industrial Revolution, many Americans have preached the Gospel of Success and bought into the belief that success equals money, wealth, fame, power, and prestige. Our educational system does little to resist these conventional parameters. Colleges and universities market success by touting their famous alumni and most generous donors. Donald Trump has built his entire presidential campaign on a series of inflated half-truths, boasting of how “successful” he is and defining success by how much money he has made and how famous he has become. And yet, if the Donald drops dead tomorrow, the world will remember him only for his boastfulness, not for any meaningful achievements.
But Donald Trump’s version of success – the egotistical, narcissistic version that our celebrity and sports-obsessed culture embraces – is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Americans love successful people, as long as they are winning (in sports), young and good looking (in television and entertainment), and ostentatiously wealthy (in business). We know that not everyone can be a super-rich celebrity, but we nevertheless connect success to having a high-paying job, knowing the “right” people, living in the “best” neighborhoods, meeting and marrying a “successful” life partner, raising smart and “successful” children, and advancing the legacy of one’s good family name.
Except for a rare few, real life does not actually work this way. If you dig beneath the surface of most lives – even conventionally successful ones – you will find deep-seated insecurities, personal failings, rejected job offers, family struggles. Life is messy and complicated. Most of us are learning as we go. Everyone, even those who appear on the outside as if they have “made it,” stumble and fall many times. Whatever success they have achieved has been due to their willingness to pick themselves up and try again. Luck plays a much greater role in our lives than many of us care to acknowledge.
As young women, you and Jen will continue to face challenges and obstacles with which I never had to contend. The world is a far different place than when I graduated from college 35 years ago. Women then were only beginning to make strides for equality in law, medicine, business, and academia. Today, there are many women doctors and lawyers, CEOs, television anchors, clergy, Senators and presidential candidates. Due to the pioneering spirit of earlier generations of women, Jen and you can advance further and pursue your interests and dreams in ways almost unheard of a half-century ago. At the same time, you should not underestimate how much antagonism there remains against women and how many people would like to “make America great again” by returning to the “good old days” when women (and African Americans) were second class citizens. Our advertisements, our movies, our television shows, even a certain presidential candidate, continue to objectify women and value them only by how they look in a bathing suit.
As your father, I want you and Jen to be happy, healthy, and engaged with the world. I want you both to be comfortable with who you are. Understand that you are loved by many people and admired by those who count. You are smart, generous, and kind. Don’t ever diminish those qualities. Always work to improve yourself and enlarge your capacity for compassion. Develop dreams, but don’t be trapped by them. Life is not something that starts when you are older, after you have achieved more milestones. This is life. Embrace it, welcome it, accept it, and build on it.
Remember that success in life is not tied to how much money you make or your status in the social hierarchy. True success is how much love and compassion you are able to spread in this world, whether you have transformed the lives of the people around you and the community in which you live and work. As Anna Quindlen suggests, “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.”
As much as we try, it is not easy to find one’s direction in life; a sense of purpose that gives meaning and fulfillment to our everyday existence. But as the writer Omid Safi recently told the graduating class of Colgate University:
Know your heart well enough to know what recharges you. It is going to be different for every single one of us, and it is going to be different for each of us at each point in our lives. For some of us it may be prayer, meditation, music, yoga, a really good book, walking in the woods, a wonderful conversation with a beloved friend, sitting down with your family, silence, a great poem . . . if that is what nurtures your soul, learn it. Make it a habit. Make time for it. And if you find that you are running on fumes, recharge yourself.
“Your education is a dress rehearsal for the life you choose to lead,” said the late Nora Ephron at a Wellesley College commencement address several years ago. “Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Life is messy, but you should embrace the mess. The future will be complicated and unpredictable. But you always have the power to move your life in another direction. The things that are most important to you today may be less important in ten or twenty years. Don’t be afraid to shift course. As Anna Quindlen advises, “Think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.”
Most of all, be true to yourself. The best years of your life are ahead of you.