By the authority vested in me by the Charter of Brown University and the Board of Fellows of the Corporation, I hereby declare the 250th Commencement of Brown University convened!
Welcome to this historic place on this glorious day! A little bit cloudy! For generations, Brown students have gathered at this meeting house for Commencement.
Now I know that many parts of this very long day are meaningful, but this part of the day is actually the most important. Because this is when your degrees are actually conferred, and you officially transition from being Brown students to being alumni of the great Brown University Class of 2018!
But not quite yet! First, I get to offer a few parting words of wisdom in your final moments as Brown undergraduate students.
I have to say, I do so with some trepidation. Over the past few weeks, I conducted an informal survey of friends and family members. And specifically, I asked them what their college presidents spoke about at their commencement.
What I heard was not encouraging. The vast majority of people I spoke with couldn’t remember the topic of their president’s speech. Even worse, many of them couldn’t recall who their college president was! Can you believe that?
So on the basis of this humbling information, I decided I should keep it very simple: to focus on a single idea—a hopefully memorable piece of advice, from CPax to you.
And it is this: do what you love. Do what you love with joy, and conviction, and integrity, and a steadfast attention to excellence. Do what you love.
And this should be natural to all of you. You’ve spent the last four years—give or take—engaged in wide-ranging intellectual inquiry, experimenting with different subjects, and discovering what issues are meaningful to you, what things you do best, and what gives you joy in life.
And I have to say, there are few things as gratifying to me as seeing Brown students make transformational discoveries—about themselves and about their interests—discoveries that may seem small at the time but that change the arcs of their lives. And I have seen this in so many of you who are graduating today.
One of you, and you know who you are, has been inspired by your work fighting homelessness in Rhode Island, and this experience is shaping your future.
Another one of you came to Brown as a veteran, and you discovered a love for public policy and the law.
And another one of you, who had never written a lick of computer code before coming to Brown, will be joining a major technology company.
Now, I’m not referencing these students because they are more extraordinary than the rest of you. I could give 1,696 of these examples—one for each of you. Because I know that each of you is leaving Brown having gained some insight into what you love, even if you don’t know exactly what path lies ahead.
So how hard can it be? How hard could it be to do what you love after you leave Brown?
Actually, it’s not easy. There are traps you will need to avoid. I will mention a few, although I suspect there may be more out there that I haven’t thought of.
First, there’s The Money Trap: thinking that decisions you make, about jobs and graduate school, should be driven by expected future income…and the more income, the better.
But, a well-known research study shows that happiness—as measured by satisfaction in life—doesn’t increase much after incomes reach about $75,000 per year. After a point, money does not buy happiness.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great if you find a lucrative career. I don’t want any of you to spend your lives couch-surfing. And I don’t want any of you to go without health insurance. And I know that your parents, who are watching this now on a big screen on the Main Green, agree with me!
But doing something you don’t love because it is lucrative is soul-crushing. And I don’t want any of you to go there.
Then, there’s The Fear Trap: the belief that doing what you love carries too much risk of failure. And I understand this one. When I was first asked if I would apply for the position as president of Brown, I said “no.” At the time, I told myself it was because I was duty-bound to complete work that I’d started in my former position. But that really wasn’t the whole story. Part of me was afraid that I wouldn’t be the president that Brown deserved.
And I can tell you that I’m glad I changed my mind, because I love my job more than I could ever have imagined. And much of that is due to the joy of working with Brown students, with all of you.
And last, there’s The Inertia Trap: thinking that it’s just too hard to deviate from whatever trajectory you’re on, even if you’re dissatisfied.
I don’t know how many of you binge-watched the first season of Westworld, but these stories of hosts who are stuck on their “loops”—often for decades—is a good, although somewhat extreme, metaphor for what I’m talking about!
Avoiding the inertia trap requires that you live consciously, and mindfully, and with purpose. Each one of you has one life to live. Your time is precious. Your potential contributions are great. You owe it to yourselves, and you owe it to the world, to avoid getting stuck in a loop.
I want to offer one last point: you could possibly take my advice of “doing what you love” as permission to be self-centered in your pursuit of happiness.
That is not at all what I mean.
Human beings are at their best when they are part a community, give to others, and make the world better. I hope you discovered at Brown that if you walk through life in a way that elevates you and those whose lives you touch, your joy in your work will be just magnified. Doing what you love and radiating your love outward creates a virtuous circle.
For many, the seeds of that epiphany were sown here on College Hill.
So Edwidge Danticat, the marvelous Haitian writer and graduate of Brown’s creative writing program, fell in love with African American literature here.
And in her remembrance, “My Honorary Degree and the Factory Forewoman,” Danticat probed a strand of her self-affirmation as an author, noting that her time at Brown was pivotal. She said, “I found small pockets of home on my own. I found my voice.”
But she also forged a vital connection with the world. In her fearless, risk-taking, powerful writing, Edwidge Danticat discovered that she could touch readers. Her words might help them escape, and heal, and find joy, or reconcile who they have been with who they wish to be.
She has said of her craft – I quote: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously ... Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”
You, too, have sown seeds at Brown. In exploring the intellectual universe, you found meaning. And in your mentoring, and your advocacy, and your commitment to justice, you’ve touched lives and made our community better. You’ve made Brown better.
So today, I am tremendously excited for you, and I am so proud of you. I know that, as you do what you love, you will continue to discover your best selves.
And the world will be better for it. So, thank you.
Now, would you like to receive your degrees? Okay, let’s do it!