‘Tis the season of commencement speeches. Graduates around the world are gathering with their peers, hoping that some speaker will be able to tell them exactly what they should do now that they can’t take any more classes.
On Saturday, May 19th, our very own Duff Stewart gave the commencement address at the University of Texas Department of Economics graduation ceremony. While, of course, students and recent graduates will find this particularly relevant, it also is a great reminder for us grown-ups on how to cope with quarter-life, half-life and any sort of crises.
I want to begin by congratulating all of our graduates today. You’ve done something great and I’m thrilled to be here with you to help celebrate. But it’s an unexpected honor to be with you today. 28 years ago, when I sat where you are, I never expected that one day I would be the one up here at the podium.
You know … life is like that.
And it’s life that I want to talk about today. What else would a commencement speech be about? This is a very big day in your lives and it’s my job to offer a little perspective about what’s ahead. And most importantly, it’s my job to offer that perspective as quickly as possible and then get out of the way. After all, life awaits.
So that’s my job. Let’s talk about yours: Gratitude. I don’t expect you’ll remember much about what I say today. And that’s OK. It’s a time-honored tradition not to have any idea what your graduation speakers talked about. But please don’t forget to be grateful today. Thank the teachers who got you here. Thank your parents and other family who made more sacrifices than you can yet imagine ensuring you got the foundation you’re standing on right now. And thank your friends and classmates for being a part of the wonderful story you’re building. So that’s your homework assignment: say thanks to all the people who have lifted you to this great height.
The rest of my talk today is really just a postcard to me. I’ve learned a few things on my journey that began where you sit right now. If someone had shared those future lessons with me before I began … well … I have no idea if it would have made a bit of difference. We all still have to take those steps, make those mistakes and earn the wisdom we accumulate. As the great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt said: “You cannot count the miles until you feel them.”
So I’m not going to be precious about this speech. And I don’t want you to think of my remarks and advice as a prescription for you. The only person I’m really talking to is me. Me, when I was you. But … maybe there’s something in here you can put to use.
So here goes:
Dear Duff ….
First: Relax. It’s all going to be OK. Sometimes it’s going to seem like your world is falling apart. And sometimes it will be. But life is about the falling apart and the building up. Demolition and construction. It’s the tough things that bring meaning to the great things. The key is to keep moving. Keep doing. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, during good times and bad, then everything’s going to be OK. I promise.
Second: Keep it simple. You’ll hear that a lot throughout your life. And every time you do, take that chance to renew your dedication to that idea. The simplest solution is ALWAYS the best one. Getting to simple is never easy. But it’s always worth the work.
Third: Define your values. It’ll be much easier to keep things simple if you carefully consider who you are. What you believe in. And write those values down. They are the pavement for your road ahead. You’ll always know the path if you stick to your values – and you’ll always know when you’ve strayed from where you should be.Fourth: Discover your purpose. What do you want to do during your relatively short time on this earth? I’m not talking about making money here. And I’m not talking about accumulating stuff or experiences. A true purpose is really about the difference you are trying to make in the world. What will your contribution be? It’s OK if you have absolutely no idea what that purpose might be. Remember I said “discover” your purpose … not define it. A personal purpose isn’t the same as an organization’s purpose. Companies – the good ones anyway – are formed to make a difference in the lives of its customers. That purpose is present at the beginning of the enterprise. For individuals, it’s rarely that apparent. Instead, it’s a process of discovery. It’s a matter of following your head and your heart and paying attention to the lessons you learn. And most of all, it’s about wanting to make a difference. You will have an infinite number of chances to make a difference for the people in your life. Take those chances to do good things. Build. Uplift. Support. Contribute. And then, when it’s all said and done, your purpose will be there, almost as if it had been there all along. And it was. You’ll recognize it as your life’s work.
Fifth: Listen. A big part of building your purpose is the ability to listen. It’s said that 90% of people listen to respond and only 10% listen to understand. Work every day to be part of that 10%. You’ll find that there’s no better way to enrich yourself and form bonds with others than to listen. If life is ultimately about making a difference for others, you have to be tuned to what the world needs. You have to get out of your own head and learn something from every person you encounter – from the good and the bad, the wise and the lowly, the old and the young. Do that by listening to what they’re telling you. You’ll find one day that one of the most meaningful compliments you’ll ever receive is that you’re a good listener. Don’t waste any time in building that fine reputation.
Sixth: Be present. Listening is really part of a larger idea – and that is to be there when you are there. This isn’t about perfect attendance; it’s about genuine engagement.
At no time in the history of the planet have there been more opportunities for distraction. We all walk around holding in our hands the complete library of human knowledge and access to everybody we’ve ever known. It’s mind boggling. Many of you probably have one of those magic devices in your hand right now….
The tempo of living today has us all thinking five steps ahead or time-shifting our day so we can experience it later. As a result, far too many of us are missing out on the very substance of life. The sweet humanity of watching a band perform, hearing the ocean or holding a hand can never be replaced by a YouTube video, an Instagram picture or a text message.
The human spirit is nourished through engagement. Be present for each brief, precious moment that you’re so fortunate to have.
Seventh: Stay curious. This world is a miracle and it doesn’t make any sense to wear blinders during your journey. We’re all born curious as a natural instinct for survival. As we grow older our curiosity begins to wane. We make rash judgments about what matters and what doesn’t. We settle into routines and rage against the forces of change that threaten the ruts we’ve so carefully carved.
I’ve found, that’s a form of dying. Instead, cultivate an insatiable appetite for understanding. When you don’t know something, take great pleasure in discovery. Ask questions, read and dedicate the time to filling your storehouse with as much knowledge as you can – because information is the fuel of professional success and personal fulfillment.
And don’t limit your curiosity to the world around you. Stay engaged with how you’re feeling about your own life. Self-examination is one of the most powerful ways to channel your curiosity and it’s an invaluable process for growth. Every night at dinner our family does what we call “High/Low.” Each of us shares our high and our low of the day. It’s not just a good way to stay connected with those we love most – it’s a way to take measure of ourselves. Having the curiosity to honestly consider the peaks and valleys of your own life will provide insights that help define your tempo and direction on the long road ahead.
Eighth: Make good decisions. It doesn’t matter whether someone chose pre-med, English Lit, Poli-Sci or any other major at school. In life, we all major in decision-making. There is no greater art or science imaginable than the ability to make good decisions. Within every scientific breakthrough … every work of art … every relationship and achievement … every life led … there are countless decisions that guided the hearts and hands of the people involved. Your life at any given time is a collection of the decisions you’ve made thus far.
And I’ve found that Economics is a great foundation for good decision-making. At its heart, Economics isn’t about supply and demand curves, their elasticity and the math behind an efficient market. At its core, it’s a social science. It’s about people. It’s about accepting that we live in a world of scarcity and applying our values within that context of limited resources. Economics is all about decision-making. And that academic foundation will serve you well throughout your journey.
Within our world of scarcity, one thing we all have in equal measure is time. How will you spend yours? Where will you spend it? And who will you spend it with? Those are big decisions – decisions with meaning that we will all face. But don’t get too wrapped up by the weight and gravitas of decision-making. There’s a saying that perfect is the enemy of good. So don’t shoot for perfect. Because the good stuff of life comes after you’ve made that big decision. So as the Avett Brothers say, “Decide what to be and go be it.”
Of course, that bold approach requires a special ingredient ….
Ninth: Have courage. You’ll learn that it’s the secret sauce of accomplishment. There’s nothing more debilitating than fear … and nothing more empowering than courage. Everything you do – from getting out of bed to scaling the highest peaks to living your convictions – takes courage. It’s the fiber in your being. It’s the bones and rebar within everything you say and do. And when you combine that courage with energy you get a wonderful result: momentum.
Which leads me to my final lesson – and I’ve saved the best for last. Because everything I’ve said thus far can be rolled up into these ultimate goals … the secrets to a happy, fulfilling life.
So listen up young Duff…
Tenth: Love & Momentum. That’s it. That’s the secret. Life as a human being on this planet is all about just two things: loving the people we’re so privileged to have in our lives and moving forward. As I said at the outset, there will be tough times. But if you love and are loved … and just keep moving forward … then your life will be everything you want it to be. I promise.
Stay relaxed and keep things simple … stay true to your values and your sense of purpose … listen, be present and stay curious … and make good, courageous decisions. But most of all, remember: This journey is all about love and momentum.
Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today. If my younger self were out there with you I know he’d be ready for me to give up the mic. But he’d also be trying to figure out how his grades and his attitude in general could ever lead to his 50-year-old self being up here.
So I’ll leave you with this thought: Never accept any prescription for your life. It’s your journey and no one else’s. There are no dead ends or inevitabilities. Your past is the raw material – not the blueprint – for what you will become. It’s all up to you to decide.