This month, my brother, you graduate from college. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, will deliver the commencement address. The “banker to the poor” is an entrepreneur and humanitarian; no doubt, his speech will inspire. But if it doesn’t, take heart.
Commencement is overblown, anyway. My graduating class received parting “wisdom” from Rick Wagoner, CEO of a floundering General Motors.
You must be thinking about commencement as an end of sorts. Until now, you have followed a path set for you: from school to school to school. I followed it, too. You have had four years to grow in the most privileged and protected of environments. Now, you will start a job or graduate or professional school, make “adult” decisions, and attend reunions where you’ll be shocked to find yourself reminiscing about your “college days.”
Commencements are designed to feel like ends, but someone at graduation will inevitably remind you that “to commence” means “to begin.” When you graduate, you start. When you close one chapter, you open another. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It’s all right to take solace in clichés; they serve their purpose because they have served their purpose.
But cliché is not my purpose here. Instead, I offer a few thoughts that Wagoner never shared and that Yunus probably won’t. Consider this pre-commencement address an older sister’s welcome to the (sur)real world, or, a list of reminders I have given myself as I make my post-commencement way.
College was not the best time of your life
Oh sure, lots of people will tell you that college is the best time there is. Freedom without responsibility. The opportunity to take all manner of classes, to walk through the stacks of some of the world’s great libraries. Co-ed dorms, and no parents in sight. Late night coffees and collegiate philosophizing. Concerts. Parties. Protests. Scandals in the daily newspaper. Cheering for your sports teams. Free t-shirt after t-shirt, given away on the quad.
I’m not denying that college is fun, meaningful, productive, exciting, and formative. I hope it was all those things for you. But college is just one stage, and a short one at that. The sooner you give up the idea that you’re turning your back on what was supposed to have been the best time of your life, the sooner you’ll be ready to embark on all the other, better times that await.
Focus on you
I mean something quite different from “be true to yourself,” which is what you’re likely to hear at commencement. You have been educated in an elite institution, so the emphasis will rightly be on giving back to community, contributing to society, creating a better world than the one into which you were born. Of course, you must give of yourself to others, but you must first know who that self is before you can give of it.
Some people graduate from college with a clear direction and goal. But not everybody develops such singular purpose; I haven’t yet. It’s okay to not know who you are, not know what kind of society you want to live in, not know what work you are best suited to, not know your deepest commitments, not know how you are going to make your way in the world. It is all right if you cannot yet answer poet Mary Oliver’s question: “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Focus on you; let the business and meaning of your life remain the foremost active question in your mind. No one else is going to ask it.
Social networking is not “working”
Unless you literally work for a social networking company, networking is not “working.” Just like fundraising is not activism (it’s raising money), amassing friends, fans, and followers is not work (it’s making contacts).
No matter what academic or professional path you take, you’ll probably spend some time on the now ubiquitous social networks that seemingly structure our lives and livelihoods. You might be asked to promote your company online or even expand your department’s web presence. Don’t be fooled into thinking that any of those tools are any more than just that: tools. The hard work is always what happens after the contacts are made.
There is no dream job
You are a talented, bright, mature, and capable individual. You are fortunate—more fortunate than most—to have had over 20 years of education. Whatever fictions you have been fed about ideal majors and practical programs of study are precisely that: fictions. Your choices have worth. Your choices not to have done x, not to have studied y, also have worth. Your choices have made you who you are today. Even your mistakes.
And there is no dream job. By which I mean, there is not “one” ideal job for you. After a break-up, everyone will tell you that there are other fish in the sea. The same is true of paths, of choices, of careers, of courses.
You would be selling yourself short to think that the coursework you have completed in university has only prepared you to do one thing or one set of things. You would be selling yourself short to think that there aren’t other things in the world on which you could work and to which you can contribute.
At the risk of being overdramatic, I offer the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt: “…men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
Every day, we get to begin again. Little brother, commence commencement.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. For now. She congratulates Ananth Tharoor Srinivasan on his graduation from Duke University on May 16th.