2015 Commencement Address by David Brooks


“The Ultimate Spoiler Alert”

Dartmouth Class of 2015: It’s an honor to be at your tree stump. As your Commencement speaker, I have important responsibilities. Commencement speakers have to be skilled at pretentious verbiage and pompous but completely meaningless rhetoric. I think you made a smart move when you asked someone who normally teaches at Yale.

Graduates, I congratulate you. I feel like I know you. To get into a place like Dartmouth, you had to spend your high school years starting four companies; curing two formerly fatal diseases; and participating in three obscure sports, like fencing, planking, and snow volleyball.

Since you got into Dartmouth, you spent one spring break unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers. You spent another exciting summer interning at a congressional office in Washington, providing your boss with policy advice and sexual tension. You tell your friends you like Kendrick Lamar, but secretly you like Jason Mraz.

While on campus, you have mastered new skills. You’ve learned how to dominate a classroom discussion even though you didn’t do any of the reading. In lecture halls, you mastered another skill. Right now, for example, it looks like you’re staring at me with rapt attention, but you’re all completely asleep. (In response to laughter from the crowd) I’m missing something over there.

You negotiated the route between the major you are actually interested in and the mercenary major your parents wanted you to choose. Just once I’d like to have a kid come up to me and say, “You know, I really wanted to major in finance, but my parents forced me to major in art history.” That will never happen.

Now on this big day, your life takes an exciting turn. There are two paths ahead of you. One leads to a soul-crushing job as a cog in the corporate machine. The other leads to permanent residence in your parents’ basement.

I’m here to help you navigate these exciting opportunities.

I start by reminding you that you are in a beautiful spot in your lives. You are more mature than the freshmen, still sexier than the faculty. And let’s face it; you’re a lot sexier than the Dartmouth faculty.

You may not have been through other college Commencements before, so you may not know the etiquette. After you get your degree, it’s customary to give President Hanlon a little tip. Ten or twenty bucks just to show him he did a good job.

It’s also customary to give the Commencement speaker a little tip, no more than $600 or $700—$5,000 for econ majors.

This may be your first college Commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless.

First, my generation gives you a mountain of debt; then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.  

I especially like all the Commencement addresses telling graduates how important it is to fail. These started a few years ago with a Steve Jobs address at Stanford built around the message. Well, failure is wonderful if you’re Steve Jobs. For most people, failure just stinks. Don’t fail.

I’ve decided to use this Commencement to cut through all that, and I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen to you over the next 60 years of your life. So right now I’m giving you the ultimate spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know how this thing called your life is going to turn out, pay less attention to me over the next ten minutes than even you are right now.

For the rest of you, this is your life. First, you’re going to graduate today. Parts of the next year will be amazing, and parts are really going to suck. Very few will have jobs as exciting as being a college senior.  From now on, no one will be paid to read your writing or your fascinating seminar interventions. You won’t have a social life pre-organized right there in front of you the way it is here at Dartmouth.

Happiness research suggests that after your 60s, your 20s are your happiest phase of life. People are happy in their 20s and then it dips down until it bottoms out at age 47—which is called having teenage children—and then it shoots up again. You’ll have long periods of loneliness and heartbreak. If you’re like the average college graduates, a third of you will move back home at some point in the next two years, and your parents will give you blindingly obvious advice about things you’ve been doing on your own for years. A third of you will be unemployed, underemployed, or making less than $30,000 a year. In two years, half of you will feel that you don’t have a plan for life or a clear direction.

But this is part of the process. It’s part of the process of finding your loves and testing your loves. Let me explain.

All of us love certain things: certain friends, certain subjects, certain dreams, certain professional goals. But you don’t really know the nature of your love until you’ve tested it with reality.

When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew I wanted to do some teaching.  I thought I wanted to be a playwright or a novelist, go into politics, have a spouse, children.

But I didn’t know exactly what order my loves came in. So like everyone in their 20s, I got to test my loves and I got to sample some new loves. It was like trying on clothes at the mall. After ten years, some of my loves, like playwriting, just didn’t fit or faded away. Some new ones came into view. But most important, over the next ten really formless years, my heart developed some contours and I learned what I loved most—writing was more important to me than politics. I could write out a priority list on a piece of paper of the things I loved, and I could rank them and I could devote my best energies to my highest loves.

When you have the ability to write that list in order, you’ve achieved your agency moment.

I had a student who was a young Army officer. During one of his tours, he had a terrible superior officer who gave him nothing but negative feedback. During those 18 months, he said he could not rely on external validation or criticism from outside to get a sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had to come up with his own criteria to judge himself.

That’s the agency moment. When you hit this moment, you’re not molding yourself to some prefab definition of success.

You have your own criteria. You’re not relying on the opinions of others. Your own standard and your own ability to judge your own life. For most people this agency moment comes just before 30. But then you can have a few other agency moments later in life, at age 53 or 75, when your loves change order, and you have to realize that and you have to adjust.

Once you have achieved your agency moments, you can begin to make commitments.

We are not a society that nurtures commitment-making. We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberty and freedom of choice. Ivy League student culture is built around keeping your options open and fear of missing out. We live in a society filled with decommitment devices. Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, Reddit; the entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention span. If you can’t focus your attention for 30 seconds, how can you make a commitment for life?

But your fulfillment in life will not come from how well you explore your freedom and keep your options open. That’s the path to a frazzled, scattered life in which you try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.

Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not. Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you through when your love falters.

When you make a commitment to something you truly love, whether it’s a spouse, a job, a company, or a school, it won’t feel like you are putting on an uncomfortable lobster shell. It will feel like you are taking off the shell and becoming the shape you were meant to be.

When you’re making a commitment, you won’t be paralyzed by self-focus because you’ll have something besides yourself to think about.

Specifically, as you go through your 30s, you will make four major commitments, and your life depends on how you do with these four things.

First, a commitment to your spouse and to your family. Second, a commitment to a career and a vocation. Third, a commitment to your faith or philosophy. Fourth, a commitment to a community and a village.

Somewhere between the ages or 28 and 32, you will begin to realize you have already begun to make a commitment to a vocation and a career.

But a vocation is not a career. A career is something you choose. A vocation is something that summons you.

My hero here is Frances Perkins. She was a young woman in the early 20th century whose life was somewhat adrift in her late 20s. She witnessed a horrible fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and was watching as hundreds of people died, either burned to death or leaping to their deaths. She became forever after an instrument in the cause of worker safety and worker rights. This tear in the fabric of creation had to be addressed.

People with vocations don’t ask: What do I want from life? They ask: What is life demanding me to do? What gap is there in my specific circumstances around me that demands my skill set?

It’s not found by looking inside you for your passion. People have studied this. Eighty percent of you don’t have a passion. It’s found by looking outward, by being sensitive to a void and need, and then answering the chance to be of use.

A calling, like being a teacher or a nurse or a scientist, comes with certain rules, obligations, and standards of excellence. These customs structure the soul and guide behavior and become deeply woven into the identities of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching is not an individual choice that can be renounced when the psychic losses exceed the psychic benefits. Being a teacher is who she is.

The second commitment is the one you’ll make to a partner or a spouse or to your kids. I hope you’ve already had one great love affair in college and that you weren’t one of those students who controlled the love life so they could spend more time doing homework.

If you’ve already had a great love, you know that it humbles you. You’ve been captured by a delicious madness and lost control of your own mind. Love plows open hard ground, exposing soft, vulnerable soil below. Love decenters the self and reminds you that your true riches are in another person. Marriage is a 30- or 40- or 50-year conversation that ends with a confusion: I don’t just love you. I am you.

Like all great commitments, love operates simultaneously on two different levels: the level of gritty reality and the level of transcendent magic.

The level of gritty reality in marriage is the grocery shopping, the cleaning, and the compromises. Do you do the dishes after each meal or do you put them in the sink and do them at the end of the day? Does the toilet paper roll from over the top or from under the bottom? The gritty reality of love involves the particular gifts and foibles of this or that partner or beloved. This particularity was captured in one of my all-time favorite wedding toasts, by Leon Wieseltier at the wedding of Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein:

This kind of real love, Weiseltier said, “is private and it is particular. Its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctiveness of this spirit and that flesh. This kind of love prefers deep to wide, here to there, the grasp to the reach. … When the day is done, and the lights are out, there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels. It does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression and to call for the forgiveness that is invariably required. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols.”

And that is the gritty vulnerability of love.

But there is another side to it which is poetic and transcendent and idealistic and universal. This is side that Taylor Swift sings about.

Like being summoned by a vocation, this love demands you cast off cost-benefit analysis. This love demands that you enter into a different and inverse logic.

I remember the birth of my first son involved a very long and painful delivery. It happened in Belgium, and the doctor put a plunger to my kid’s head and yanked him out. He came out after many, many hours blue and in very poor health and was rushed to the intensive care ward. It was scary, and it introduced me to a level of soul-deep anxiety you’re not aware of until you become a parent. But I remember having an awareness in that instant that if he could just live for one hour, it would still be worth it. An hour of his life will be worth a lifetime of grief.

Now that doesn’t make sense from any normal cost-benefit terms. He wouldn’t have even been aware of his hour of life. How could it be worth a lifetime of grief for his parents? But every parent here will know it makes perfect sense by some other logic. Every parent here knows that every second of life for one you love has infinite dignity, and the essence of that love is not counting the cost. And fortunately he came out of it fine and is now strong and healthy and 24.

But love has its own logic that defies normal utilitarian logic. For example, most resources are scarce; you can use them up. But love is the opposite; the more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when he or she has another. A person in love is capable of more love. A person who loves his college does not love his country less. Love expands with use.

Again, against the grain of normal logic, people in love make themselves vulnerable to great suffering, and sometimes they knowingly walk into suffering. Sometimes you tell people in love that it doesn’t make sense for them to be together because they’ll be in different cities or they drive themselves crazy. But lovers rarely break off a love just because that doesn’t make sense. They’d rather be unhappy together than happy apart.

And so here we’re coming to an essential feature of commitment making. It’s sort of like quantum mechanics. It doesn’t make sense from a normal logic. A commitment spills outside the bounds of normal utilitarian logic and has a different logic. This logic is a moral logic, and it is filled with inversions. A commitment is a moral act.

The moral world is not structured like the market world. It has an inverse logic. To develop morally and inside you have to follow an inverse set of rules. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

Taking a job is not a moral act. Going on a date is not a moral act. Having a vocation is a moral act. Entering a 30- or 50-year marriage is a moral act. Making a commitment is a moral act.

A couple of months ago. I published a book around the distinction between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you bring to the marketplace that make you good at your job. The eulogy virtues are the moral virtues. They are the things they say about you after you are dead—whether you are honest or brave or caring or capable of great love.

My point in the book was that we all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but we live in a society that puts a lot more emphasis on how to build skills than how to build character. A lot of us are clearer on how to be successful than on how to be virtuous.

I wrote the book because I wanted to understand how some people become deeply good and radiate a sort of inner light. When I finished the book, I believed that goodness and character comes from internal struggle against your own weakness. But in the months since, I’ve come to see that I put too much emphasis on the individual exercise of character building. Becoming a good, moral person is not being able to control your temptations; it’s about this ability to make commitments.

Your education has opened you up to possibilities. Adulthood is about closing around commitments. Dartmouth has opened your mind. The purpose of an open mind is to close around certain beliefs. The highest joy is found in sending down roots.

There will come a time 20 years from now, or 25 years from now, when you will come back to this spot for your reunion. And as you walk and drink wine and beer, you’ll think of your former selves and your current selves and the decades of life that will still be in front of you. You’ll be with people who knew you back when, when you had no branding; no success status to fall on; when you were, like today, both very brave and very scared.

And you’ll remember some professor or some book assigned you and you’ll realize that Dartmouth had set off little time bombs in your head that give you pieces of wisdom that only come decades letter when you are ready to receive them.

You’ll see your own kids across the lawn soaking themselves with whatever version of a Super Soaker water cannon they have in the year 2040. You’ll make a mental note to take them back to the hotel to change them before dinner. You’ll be sitting in Adirondack chairs and you’ll reach over and slip your hand into the hand of the person you love most in the world. You’ll tell your old Dartmouth friends about the town you live in, the neighborhood kid you mentor, the things that really mean the most to you. Your mind will slip back to today and the incredible weather and the people who you love you who came to watch you graduate.

You’ll think at some random moment in that day, after a few glasses of wine, about the totality if your life: Where you came from, where you were when you graduated, and where you are a quarter-century later, and you’ll know that you were so lucky to have been at Dartmouth and that after a few years of stumbling, you found a place for yourself in the world, a place deeply connected to commitments of affection that will never fade.

At reflective moments like this, it feels like time is suspended and reality will slip outside its bounds, and you’ll experience a sense of gratitude that your life is filled with joy, a joy beyond anything you could possibly have earned.

There’s nothing to be done at such moments except be thankful, to be thankful for people, places, ideas, and causes that you have embraced and that embraced you back. And that is the moment come to the realization that is the full definition of maturity: It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.

Congratulations Class of 2015.

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