Convocation Address – University of Virginia
Thank you, and good afternoon. I echo the President’s welcome and I am so pleased to be here to share this day with you.
When Pam Higgins, who manages Major Events here at UVA, passed on this invitation to me, she said I should share wisdom and humor. I responded, “You do know you invited an engineer and physicist, don’t you?”
And then I said, “To paraphrase an old saying, ‘Physics is easy; wisdom is hard.’ But then I have been called a wise guy before, so I accept.”
She said “I don’t think that is what the committee meant…”
She was not amused, but by then it was too late to un-invite me.
But I will try to live up to both the wise guy label and to the great honor I have to address you today.
First of all, let me congratulate you on intermediate honors. All of you have completed 60 credit hours in the top 20% of your class to be here, and as your Chief Academic Officer, I am proud of every one of you.
You have learned to navigate the halls of Academe, and unlike when you were at first-year convocation, there should no longer be any questions in your mind about whether you will graduate. So this is a great time to pause and reflect.
It’s interesting for me to think back about where I was at exactly this time in my own life – October of my third year of college. My head was in a very different place. I had transferred that fall from a community college to UCLA. I had just taken my first midterm in a large calculus class of 400 people, and … I had bombed!
It was my first test at the big U. I was late; the room was full (for the first time); I got the last seat at the back; the TAs had already passed by with the exams… Finally, I got an exam and immediately dropped my pencil, which I heard rolling down the sloped auditorium floor. In short, I was a mess.
About midway through I heard the professor say “Don’t worry if the test seems a little long, just relax and do what you can.” So I did … though I noticed that others seemed to scribble faster. I finished five of 10 questions for a score of 50. The problem was when the exams were returned and the professor wrote the grading curve on the board, it ended in the 60’s! So I had a flat F.
At this point I decided my recently crafted life plan was all wrong. I threw out all thoughts of grad school and decided I needed to focus on bringing my grades up to a C so I could graduate and try to get an engineering job.
Fortunately, I went to see my professor and he generously offered to replace my midterm grade with my final grade. In retrospect, I think he had the same thoughts about my prospects as I did. But I ended up doing well on the final and was able to set myself to rights and continue on my path.
My point is, you are in a far better place than I was. You can stop worrying so much about checking boxes or completing degree requirements and instead focus on bigger questions. They might not be the questions that the new guy here at UVA keeps asking, but they are still really good ones:
• What value do you bring to and get from your time at UVA?
• How will the next two years make a difference in your life and that of others?
My plan in preparing for this speech was to think back on all the wise advice I have heard over the years and share with you just the advice that turned out to be always right. But then I would be closing now, because I would have nothing left to say!
So I decided instead to share some highlights from an off-and-on, decades-long quest to understand the secret to happiness in life.
There have been many influences in my life, and the one who came first to mind is someone I have never acknowledged before this speech, though I should have.
His name was Mr. Crawford, and he was my first year calculus teacher at Santa Monica Community College in California. In addition to calculus, old Mr. Crawford, (for he was then about my age now) used to reflect on deeply weighty mathematical questions such as, “which is more important, the rebounding or the shooting percentage for a basketball team?”
But he also shared with us that he had thought hard about happiness, and had come to a single recipe-like prescription: “All happiness comes from successful effort.”
Effort is necessary; if it comes too easily, there is not much satisfaction—but success is necessary too. It seemed simple and true enough.
Periodically I would think about his recipe, but over the years I realized that while there was some truth in it, there were obviously things missing. Case in point:
Just a few years later a colleague and fellow surfer named Donald Cram, a Professor of Chemistry at UCLA where I was a young postdoc, won a Nobel Prize. I think we can all agree he expended successful effort! But according to him, one of his greatest sources of happiness was surfing and sitting under a palm tree at San Onofre Beach.
Don’t get me wrong, he seemed pretty happy that he had won the Nobel Prize too, but clearly there was something to be said for aesthetic and kinesthetic pleasures.
So I factored that in, and continued my peripatetic quest.
A while later I came across this quote attributed to Socrates. You may be amused to hear I found it in the preface of a physics textbook I was using—when you’re studying physics you have to get your Classics education where you can! It read:
“The purest form of happiness is sharing with someone else something you have learned. “ Well, at this point I’m headed for an academic career. Aha, I thought. Now that I have expended all this successful effort at learning this material, I’ll be extremely happy because I am planning to share it. Plus, I have done a lot of surfing, so I am on the right path!
So I was excited when I became a young Engineering Professor at the University of Southern California and ran across a renowned economist named Richard Easterlin who studied happiness. He even founded a field which sounds like an oxymoron – happiness economics.
Surely, I thought, he must know the secret to happiness. I figure, here’s a discipline that’s going to provide a scientific approach to the happiness question.
He studied things like the decay-time constant of happiness from an ice cream (less than a day) vs. helping someone in need across the road (several days). If something as simple as helping someone across a road produces a lasting effect, imagine the effect of helping seven billion people on Earth!
I will return to this point of the lasting satisfaction of helping others, but let me first share that his biggest contribution came from surveying hundreds of people at all stages of life and finding three correlations with happiness: health, marriage and education. These are a little different than the hypotheses I had developed thus far, but hear me out.
Health seems obvious, but the research held a few surprises. For example, there have been studies of people who lost limbs that showed that they were depressed at first and then tended to return to close—though not quite—their prior level of happiness.
The connection between marriage and happiness was also unexpected, depending on who you ask. I am going to leave that right there.
So that leaves education. You might think that educated people are happier because they earn higher salaries on average. But in fact the data did not show a significant correlation between salaries and happiness.
What the data did show is a measurable separation in happiness between those going to college and those not, and that gap persists for the rest of life.
So you are totally ahead of the game! If you happen to be a surfer from California, you are really winning.
So what have we learned? Happiness comes from surfing and sitting under a palm tree and also working hard. It comes from taking care of your health and your family life. It comes from helping someone across the street and helping the planet. And it comes from learning.
And I would say, take your time doing it, and allow time for some important detours.
It can be challenging to persuade funders of higher education, whether they be parents or state officials, that we should take the longer road to a degree. Two weeks ago I was speaking to a group of legislators who were intent on asking if we could be more efficient, granting UVA degrees in three years instead of four.
I told them that if the goal was to capture information associated with a field of study or vocational training for a known job, then yes. But if the goal was to prepare students for careers that do not yet even exist, then no.
I told them that preparing you for a meaningful, fulfilled life requires helping you discover who you are and your place in the world; something best done inefficiently through an exploration of blind alleys as well as main thoroughfares.
You also need time to create and be involved in a community—both here on Grounds and in Charlottesville and beyond—where you can share what you have learned. (Ah, Socrates again.)
And you need to take some time to sit under a tree and think.
(Incidentally we fully plan to take full credit if you win a Nobel Prize.)
None of the legislators could completely get their heads around being intentionally inefficient in the sense of doing work that was not required for a degree. But here is why you should: Not every experience is immediately practically applicable.
As a college student I learned much from summer internships in industry and traveling abroad, but I probably learned the most that has been valuable to me in my present role while I was an ocean lifeguard in Santa Monica on weekends.
My favorite things about lifeguarding were the camaraderie of a great team, and the joy and relief of pulling swimmers (or non-swimmers) out of riptides, especially on crowded weekends when we could rescue as many as 25 people at a crack. Still, I didn’t lifeguard in preparation for a future position in higher education. It was a way to be in a place that I loved, with people I respected, doing work I believed in.
But inadvertently, I also gained experience with supervision, human resources, law, and dealing with the public, all of which have been useful to me now. For example, as it happens as a head lifeguard I worked with five different policing agencies in various jurisdictions of LA County beaches, and I saw some really terrific police cultures, and some that were awful. And I drew on that experience a couple of months ago when interviewing a candidate for Chief of University Police, Tommye Sutton, who exemplified all the values and attitudes I recognized from the very best.
So the detours from a straight line path in life are the experiences that give you diverse perspectives, which you can bring to later challenges. Almost everyone my age has a lifeguarding story. In fact, I encourage you to ask a role model or parent about the detours they took that they had no idea at the time would influence their lives. I bet they will have one.
So how do you connect the business of being a good student and completing your degree on time with taking important detours?
Well, recent research has shown that what is most transformative about college education is taking what you have learned in the classroom and applying it to real world situations while you are still a student.
UVA gives you abundant opportunities to do that, and many of you have taken advantage of them: doing an internship or a research project with a faculty member, contending for a team championship, pitching an idea in a startup competition or volunteering for something like Madison House.
But don’t stop there; take the opportunity to reflect on how your classroom learning connects to those experiences and how the combination of coursework and experience empowers you to address larger problems for society, now and over the course of your careers.
So that is the answer to the question of the value that you bring to and get from your time here, and how these two very short years will make a difference in your life, and in the life of others.
One of the things that is special about a UVA education is the strong sense of student self-governance – that sense of ownership of this place. That is the magic of UVA. And it is a powerful advantage for you and for society. If you can keep that same sense of ownership and responsibility and extend it to the community and the world beyond Grounds, you can design and realize a future that reflects your values.
So there it is. My recipe for happiness: Work hard at learning; take time to reflect; and share and use what you’ve learned to help others.
We have given you the education; you’re going to have to take care of the health and marriage on your own.
I have packed about all the wisdom and humor I am capable of into a 10 minute speech.
So let me leave you with this thought. If you have the ability to make the world better, then you have the responsibility to make it better.
I know your UVA education is empowering you to help people, to solve grand challenges and to make the world more peaceful and just, so you have the responsibility to do just that. However you choose to pursue that responsibility, Socrates, Mr. Crawford and I predict you will be happy that you did!
Congratulations on achieving honors; and good luck the rest of the way to graduation.
Thank you and Wahoowa!