Sunday, June 29, 2008

In speech, Rev. Peter Gomes exhorts ‘virtue of failure’

In speech, Rev. Peter Gomes exhorts ‘virtue of failure’

a good summary and follow up:

Gomes, whose preaching style was described in a 1996 New Yorker profile as "a mix of black 'tornado' preaching and traditional English sermons," got a lot of laughs from the crowd with a speech that offered, in his words, "unconventional wisdom" and that poked good-natured fun at professors, students and their parents.

"Now, one of the great bits of conventional wisdom that commencement and baccalaureate preachers tend to offer is the notion that you're ready, you're prepared, you can do it," Gomes said. "So, go for it. Your training and experience prepare you for all that there is to do. We can't wait. That is one bit of conventional wisdom.

"The other bit of conventional wisdom is that the world is waiting for you. Somewhere out there millions and millions of people are waiting for graduates of the Class of '08 to lead them into the future. Yesterday was chaos and confusion. Tomorrow will be sweetness and light, thanks to you."

Gomes said both assertions are wrong. Rather, graduates will find that they cannot do everything they set out to do. They will see their most ambitious plans thwarted. They also will discover that they are mostly invisible. "The world will little note nor long remember what you say or do here," he added. "It's a shame, but that is the case."

Gomes instead pointed to the "virtue of failure," saying that, if education has any value at all, "it will help us to understand the constructive uses of failure." The object of an education is to "make a life that is worth living," not lots of money, he said.

"Think of the things that haven't gone right, the things that don't go well, because there will be many more of them in your lives," he said. "And how will you sort out those failures? What will you learn from them? What will you make of them?"

Gomes also encouraged graduates "to entertain the value of impossible things."

"I want to invite you into the world of the fantastic, the world of the impossible, the world of the things that don't necessarily make sense or scan," he said. "It's an invitation to do something most college graduates are unwilling to do, and that is to take risks."

He said his favorite intellectual on the subject of "impossible things" is the Red Queen, from Alice in Wonderland, because the queen describes how, when she was the young protagonist's age, she would sometimes believe "as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

"When you combine the joys of instructive failure with the persistent pursuit of the impossible, it seems to me you have a recipe, my dear young friends, for a good life, one in which the rest of us will be as interested as you are—a good life, a life worth living," Gomes said. "And literally, at the end of the day, that is what it is all about."
Changing the world

Barry W. Fischer, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering, delivered the "student reflection" following Gomes' address. Fischer said that when he was accepted to Stanford, he felt as though he had been given the opportunity to change the world.

Now, he said, he realized his "original vision of individually changing the world was naïve."

"I've come to realize that I cannot change the world. But we can," he said. "I've come to be imbued with Stanford spirit—a spirit recognizing that changing the world requires a community."

He compared his experience at Stanford to being part of a jigsaw puzzle and said that, as graduates of the university, "we should be passionate puzzle solvers who constantly seek out diverse puzzle pieces and put them together—creatively uniting individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and opinions."


Oprah talks to graduates about feelings, failure and finding happiness

Oprah talks to graduates about feelings, failure and finding happiness

So, I was juggling these messages of expectation and obligation and feeling really miserable with myself. I'd go home at night and fill up my journals, 'cause I've kept a journal since I was 15—so I now have volumes of journals. So, I'd go home at night and fill up my journals about how miserable I was and frustrated. Then I'd eat my anxiety. That's where I learned that habit.

And after eight months, I lost that job. They said I was too emotional. I was too much. But since they didn't want to pay out the contract, they put me on a talk show in Baltimore. And the moment I sat down on that show, the moment I did, I felt like I'd come home. I realized that TV could be more than just a playground, but a platform for service, for helping other people lift their lives. And the moment I sat down, doing that talk show, it felt like breathing. It felt right. And that's where everything that followed for me began.

And I got that lesson. When you're doing the work you're meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you're getting paid.

It's true. And how do you know when you're doing something right? How do you know that? It feels so. What I know now is that feelings are really your GPS system for life. When you're supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know. The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead. Every right decision I've made—every right decision I've ever made—has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I've ever made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice of myself.

If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. That's the lesson. And that lesson alone will save you, my friends, a lot of grief. Even doubt means don't. This is what I've learned. There are many times when you don't know what to do. When you don't know what to do, get still, get very still, until you do know what to do.

And when you do get still and let your internal motivation be the driver, not only will your personal life improve, but you will gain a competitive edge in the working world as well. Because, as Daniel Pink writes in his best-seller, A Whole New Mind, we're entering a whole new age. And he calls it the Conceptual Age, where traits that set people apart today are going to come from our hearts—right brain—as well as our heads. It's no longer just the logical, linear, rules-based thinking that matters, he says. It's also empathy and joyfulness and purpose, inner traits that have transcendent worth.

These qualities bloom when we're doing what we love, when we're involving the wholeness of ourselves in our work, both our expertise and our emotion.

So, I say to you, forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you.

So, how do I define success? Let me tell you, money's pretty nice. I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that it's not about money, 'cause money is very nice. I like money. It's good for buying things.

But having a lot of money does not automatically make you a successful person. What you want is money and meaning. You want your work to be meaningful. Because meaning is what brings the real richness to your life. What you really want is to be surrounded by people you trust and treasure and by people who cherish you. That's when you're really rich.

So, lesson one, follow your feelings. If it feels right, move forward. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it.

Now I want to talk a little bit about failings, because nobody's journey is seamless or smooth. We all stumble. We all have setbacks. If things go wrong, you hit a dead end—as you will—it's just life's way of saying time to change course. So, ask every failure—this is what I do with every failure, every crisis, every difficult time—I say, what is this here to teach me? And as soon as you get the lesson, you get to move on. If you really get the lesson, you pass and you don't have to repeat the class. If you don't get the lesson, it shows up wearing another pair of pants—or skirt—to give you some remedial work.

And what I've found is that difficulties come when you don't pay attention to life's whisper, because life always whispers to you first. And if you ignore the whisper, sooner or later you'll get a scream. Whatever you resist persists. But, if you ask the right question—not why is this happening, but what is this here to teach me?—it puts you in the place and space to get the lesson you need.

My friend Eckhart Tolle, who's written this wonderful book called A New Earth that's all about letting the awareness of who you are stimulate everything that you do, he puts it like this: He says, don't react against a bad situation; merge with that situation instead. And the solution will arise from the challenge. Because surrendering yourself doesn't mean giving up; it means acting with responsibility.

Many of you know that, as President Hennessy said, I started this school in Africa. And I founded the school, where I'm trying to give South African girls a shot at a future like yours—Stanford. And I spent five years making sure that school would be as beautiful as the students. I wanted every girl to feel her worth reflected in her surroundings. So, I checked every blueprint, I picked every pillow. I was looking at the grout in between the bricks. I knew every thread count of the sheets. I chose every girl from the villages, from nine provinces. And yet, last fall, I was faced with a crisis I had never anticipated. I was told that one of the dorm matrons was suspected of sexual abuse.

That was, as you can imagine, devastating news. First, I cried—actually, I sobbed—for about half an hour. And then I said, let's get to it; that's all you get, a half an hour. You need to focus on the now, what you need to do now. So, I contacted a child trauma specialist. I put together a team of investigators. I made sure the girls had counseling and support. And Gayle and I got on a plane and flew to South Africa.

And the whole time I kept asking that question: What is this here to teach me? And, as difficult as that experience has been, I got a lot of lessons. I understand now the mistakes I made, because I had been paying attention to all of the wrong things. I'd built that school from the outside in, when what really mattered was the inside out.

So, it's a lesson that applies to all of our lives as a whole. What matters most is what's inside. What matters most is the sense of integrity, of quality and beauty. I got that lesson. And what I know is that the girls came away with something, too. They have emerged from this more resilient and knowing that their voices have power.

And their resilience and spirit have given me more than I could ever give to them, which leads me to my final lesson—the one about finding happiness—which we could talk about all day, but I know you have other wacky things to do.

Not a small topic this is, finding happiness. But in some ways I think it's the simplest of all. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem for her children. It's called "Speech to the Young : Speech to the Progress-Toward." And she says at the end, "Live not for battles won. / Live not for the-end-of-the-song. / Live in the along." She's saying, like Eckhart Tolle, that you have to live for the present. You have to be in the moment. Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.

But I think she's also saying, be a part of something. Don't live for yourself alone. This is what I know for sure: In order to be truly happy, you must live along with and you have to stand for something larger than yourself. Because life is a reciprocal exchange. To move forward you have to give back. And to me, that is the greatest lesson of life. To be happy, you have to give something back.

I know you know that, because that's a lesson that's woven into the very fabric of this university. It's a lesson that Jane and Leland Stanford got and one they've bequeathed to you. Because all of you know the story of how this great school came to be, how the Stanfords lost their only child to typhoid at the age of 15. They had every right and they had every reason to turn their backs against the world at that time, but instead, they channeled their grief and their pain into an act of grace. Within a year of their son's death, they had made the founding grant for this great school, pledging to do for other people's children what they were not able to do for their own boy.

The lesson here is clear, and that is, if you're hurting, you need to help somebody ease their hurt. If you're in pain, help somebody else's pain. And when you're in a mess, you get yourself out of the mess helping somebody out of theirs. And in the process, you get to become a member of what I call the greatest fellowship of all, the sorority of compassion and the fraternity of service.

The Stanfords had suffered the worst thing any mom and dad can ever endure, yet they understood that helping others is the way we help ourselves. And this wisdom is increasingly supported by scientific and sociological research. It's no longer just woo-woo soft-skills talk. There's actually a helper's high, a spiritual surge you gain from serving others. So, if you want to feel good, you have to go out and do some good.

But when you do good, I hope you strive for more than just the good feeling that service provides, because I know this for sure, that doing good actually makes you better. So, whatever field you choose, if you operate from the paradigm of service, I know your life will have more value and you will be happy.

I was always happy doing my talk show, but that happiness reached a depth of fulfillment, of joy, that I really can't describe to you or measure when I stopped just being on TV and looking at TV as a job and decided to use television, to use it and not have it use me, to use it as a platform to serve my viewers. That alone changed the trajectory of my success.

So, I know this—that whether you're an actor, you offer your talent in the way that most inspires art. If you're an anatomist, you look at your gift as knowledge and service to healing. Whether you've been called, as so many of you here today getting doctorates and other degrees, to the professions of business, law, engineering, humanities, science, medicine, if you choose to offer your skills and talent in service, when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift. And I know you haven't spent all this time at Stanford just to go out and get a job.

You've been enriched in countless ways. There's no better way to make your mark on the world and to share that abundance with others. My constant prayer for myself is to be used in service for the greater good.

So, let me end with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King. Dr. King said, "Not everybody can be famous." And I don't know, but everybody today seems to want to be famous.

But fame is a trip. People follow you to the bathroom, listen to you pee. It's just—try to pee quietly. It doesn't matter, they come out and say, "Ohmigod, it's you. You peed."

That's the fame trip, so I don't know if you want that.

So, Dr. King said, "Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service." Those of you who are history scholars may know the rest of that passage. He said, "You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."

In a few moments, you'll all be officially Stanford's '08.

You have the heart and the smarts to go with it. And it's up to you to decide, really, where will you now use those gifts? You've got the diploma, so go out and get the lessons, 'cause I know great things are sure to come.

Gomes cites Dr. Seuss, Aristotle, Red Queen in Baccalaureate speech

Gomes cites Dr. Seuss, Aristotle, Red Queen in Baccalaureate speech

The second bit of unconventional wisdom I want to offer to you is to entertain the value of impossible things. As I look out at you, you all look very sensible. Few of you have taken many great risks. You've all done the right thing. You've all gone to the right place and here you all are at the right moment, ready to be spat out of Stanford's mouth like a watermelon seed. So, most of you are not particularly interested in the fantastical or the impossible. You will plot your lives carefully and cautiously, as you have been taught to do here. We take some responsibility for that, but remember we don't have to live with our responsibilities. You do. And so, I want to invite you into the world of the fantastic, the world of the impossible, the world of the things that don't necessarily make sense, or scan. It's an invitation to do something most college graduates are unwilling to do, and that is to take risks.

People think that your undergraduate experience should be practical and useful. I hope it has been impractical and will prove un-useful to many of you, because that means that you will have to start learning, perhaps for the first time and on your own, and that's not a bad thing to do because you have the talent, most of which has not been called upon during your undergraduate days. Most of you have got by here on 20 percent of your skills. Heaven only knows what you did with the other 80 percent. Time will tell. But when you're out there, wherever out there is, that other 80 percent will need to be summoned into active service; and my guess is it will be a surprise that you will be capable of doing what would right now appear to be impossible things.

If we are to profit from failure, to learn from it, then we are free to imagine, take on impossible things that we would otherwise avoid for fear of failure. In taking no risks, so as to avoid failure, we also fail to take the risk of success, achievement and—dare I even say it to you very solemn looking people?—joy. It is a joyful thing to have a life to live. You are meant to enjoy it. You are meant, strangely enough, to be happy.

Now, you don't look very happy right now, I suppose. Who would? Hearing an important speaker talking about failure and imagination. But you are meant to be happy; to say, I am using my time, my talent, my place, even my treasure, in such a way as to give me happiness. Now, it's the smarter of you who are saying, all very well and good, reverend sir—define happiness. Well, I'm ready for you, and I have a dead white male to support what I have to say, so it must be true.

It is Aristotle—remember him, Aristotle? He defined happiness as "The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." That describes you. "Vital powers"—you have those vital powers. Now, you're not quite as vital as you were when you were freshmen. You are in a state of perpetual decline, I'm sorry to say, and it will only get worse. There's no way to recover that élan vital that you once had, but there's still enough of it in you to make a difference. 'Along lines of excellence'—the very best use you can possibly make of your powers and your life, even the most miserable of you, your life is an exercise in "scope." You will have opportunities none of you deserve, but all of you will have to exercise those vital powers, and it is in doing all of that that happiness comes. Happiness is not what our Constitution provides. You don't pursue it but you discover it, when you are doing something useful and good. And when you do that, you will wake up and say, "I'm a happy person. I'm not a frivolous person. I'm not a person filled at every minute with pleasure. But I am happy. I have a sense of place and purpose." And that, when all is said and done, is the very best that we can hope for you. And so we do. And we invite you into that world of impossible things of which happiness may be one, the chief.

I like to quote here my favorite intellectual on the subject, and that is the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Remember, the Red Queen boasted that she believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast? How many impossible things have you believed before breakfast this morning? Most of you haven't had breakfast, I can tell, so, there are no impossible things to believe in or to think about. Most of you drank your breakfasts last night. I understand that, too, but there is something about those wonderful, impossible things that makes the world a place for you. And poor old Alice, such a little prig; I can't stand Alice. She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand it but perhaps you do, and so the great question for you will be, what wild and impossible, irrational thing will you aim for in your life? What strange unpredictable enterprise will take you from this place? How will you do it? Somebody said it is like teaching a rabbit to play a drum. You do it over and over and over again.

I cite another dead white male, probably two more than you've had here, that old cynic Voltaire, who said, "How infinitesimal is the importance of anything I do, but how infinitely important it is that I should do it." Is that just another 18th-century dude mouthing off, or could there be something in it for you?

When you combine the joys of instructive failure with the persistent pursuit of the impossible, it seems to me you have a recipe, my dear young friends, for a good life. One in which the rest of us will be as interested as you are. A good life, a life worth living, and, literally at the end of the day, that is what it is all about.