Fall 2013 Commencement Address
“Lessons of a Lifetime”
Roderick G. W. Chu
December 14, 2013
President Peterson, Chair Polsley, Rev, Coffman, Provost Hasan, Mr. Workman and your fellow members of the Urbana University fall graduating class of 2013, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, family and friends …
On this very special day for our graduates, their families, faculty, and the many others who have been so instrumental in helping them reach this achievement; on a weekend we will remember as challenging us with warnings of severe winter weather; in a week the world paused to remember the life and example of an extraordinary man dedicated to harmony, equal opportunity, democracy, and learning: I am honored to receive this degree and to join the ranks of you graduating today as an Urbana alumnus.
Lessons of a Lifetime
Honorary degrees are somewhat like a “Lifetime Achievement Award” issued by the Academy. Indeed, I guess I have achieved a lot during my life.
I am a child of immigrant parents who came from China to America as teenagers with very little. They worked hard and sacrificed to provide me the best education I could get.
I pursued my career, first in management consulting, rising ultimately to become a worldwide managing partner in Accenture, the world’s largest technology consulting firm, and making enough money to live comfortably for a lifetime. I accepted the opportunity serve as the Commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Taxation & Finance – second largest tax department in the nation – at the ripe old age of 34. I later moved to Ohio to oversee the policies and activities of its 140 public and private college and university campuses as the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. In the process, I became one of the highest-ranking Chinese-Americans in government and education at the time.
By any measure, I have led a successful life. I’ve lived the American Dream.
I’ve learned a lot in that journey – and I’m sure I have more lessons to come. As you leave Urbana today to set on your journey, I’d like to share a few of the key lessons I’ve learned so far.
To do that, I’ll need this banana.
Before I get to that, though, let me ask “Why should you bother listening to what I have to say?” – other than the fact that you are gracious, well-mannered, and polite, and I occupy this traditional segment of your commencement program and you don’t have much else to do – other than perhaps texting your friends.
You who are graduating here today and your family, friends, Urbana faculty and staff who have guided and supported you – this is YOUR day.
Recognizing that fact, I came to visit your campus 3 weeks ago to talk to some of your fellow students, faculty, staff, and trustees.
In that visit, I learned a bit about what makes Urbana such a special place – and thank you, Josh Brown, for showing me around campus!
Many of you chose Urbana because you could be student athletes – Blue Knights. You have developed something extra from your engagement in sports that you don’t typically get from sitting in classrooms: your character – determination, perseverance, experiencing the rewards that come from hard work and postponing gratification.
You’ve formed close bonds with your faculty, being comfortable texting them even in the wee hours of the morning – a practice many of you might continue long after you leave here.
You’ve grown through your liberal education, recognizing that everything is connected; learning not just how to tackle and solve problems, but to see things differently, to ask the relevant questions, to seek out and find the problems.
You’ve become part of this warm, caring place where people are committed enough to you and your future to keep challenging you, yet at the same time to stay focused on your individual needs – be it advice, coaching, a kind word, or just a piece of chocolate – to let you build the confidence you need to realize the potential you’ve always had.
With your Urbana education and experiences, you leave here, like Johnny Appleseed, with the challenge to better the world – or at least your part of it.
Yet, I must confess, for the last few decades, we who have graduated before you have left that world with much more to make better. We Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have been so focused on our own need for immediate gratification and amassing personal wealth that we’re leaving our succeeding generations with trillions of dollars of debt, immeasurable environmental damage, a crumbling infrastructure, and governments in which our elected officials feel they can’t even talk civilly with each other, let alone develop answers to our most pressing problems.
Your college degree today is not the guarantee of success that mine was over 4 decades ago. Your degree is only a ticket to enable you to compete.
On this, your graduation day, I don’t mean to deliver a downer of a message, for there is, indeed, great hope in what I have to say.
You are, after all, members of the best-educated generation America has ever seen. You have a passion and commitment to help others that reflect the values and ideals of a prior generation of Americans: the one Tom Brokaw labeled “The Greatest Generation.”
What will you do, though, with that education, that passion, that commitment, to address the challenges you are inheriting?
In the issue of The Lancer announcing my selection as your commencement speaker, your fellow graduating student Zach Iiames, stated his hope that I would “deliver a speech that is honest and real.” Well, Zach, be careful what you ask for, for you may get it.
Lessons & advice
If you are to fix the mess that prior generations are leaving behind, you are going to have to work hard – really hard.
The experience that most of you have had at Urbana, though, shows that you know how to work hard. I’m afraid that you’re just going to have to keep that up. These are not simple problems we are leaving you – after all, if they were simple, we would have solved them by now.
So in addition to working hard, you’re going to have to be smart.
Your professors and years at Urbana have taught you how to learn. But with knowledge doubling every 2-5 years in most fields, about half of what you’ve learned since starting at Urbana may already obsolete.
So you’ll need to keep learning. To do so, you’ll need to be thoughtful. You’ll need to keep an open mind. You’ll need to think critically. Don’t let yourself be lulled into thoughts and actions made on autopilot.
As I said, you’ll need to keep learning. I certainly have. Remember my banana? Of course, I’ve eaten bananas almost my entire life: A wonderful fruit, with delicious flesh that comes in its own handy, stay-fresh wrapper. Getting it out, though, is sometimes a challenge. The stem is quite hard when it’s not very ripe.
Well, just last year, I learned there’s another way to open a banana: Turn it around, pinch each side of the nipple end, and pull. Voila! It’s said that this method was discovered by observing monkeys eat bananas; monkeys don’t have energy to waste on inefficient methods.
Now if you already knew about bananas, come see me after the Commencement and ask me about the new way I just learned to eat an apple!
Keep an open mind and don’t be lulled into doing things the way you’ve always done them.
But the problems I spoke of are a lot bigger than opening bananas. Most recently, I’ve been studying research in human behavior, behavioral economics, learning theory, and spiritual growth. Look for the problems that need solving – for example, creating a new economy that unlike the one you’re inheriting, is efficient, fair, and sustainable for future generations.
To put a new spin on an old saying, you will need to work both harder and smarter.
You’ll also need to figure out what you’re working harder and smarter for. Is it to make a lot of money? That certainly was my answer when I left college. But here’s something I’ve learned in the 42 years since I left grad school: The root of success is not money.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
I’ve read a lot of research in the past few years that concludes that chasing money to increase happiness is a losing game. Beyond a point of basic subsistence, when asked how much money do people think it would take to make them happy, there’s a surprisingly universal answer: Twice what I have now. Unfortunately, you never reach that point. For if you’re fortunate to get twice what you have now, that becomes another base point for needing twice as much. Seeking happiness through money becomes a never-ending rat race for twice as much.
Alas, this everlasting quest for ever more – consumerism – has become the lynchpin of our capitalist system. But the dirty little secret is that increased consumption doesn’t make us happier.
America is the wealthiest nation in the world, but studies on happiness find that we’re way down in the pack in terms of our individual and collective national happiness. We have the world’s biggest economy, based on the stuff we consume, but I’ve learned that the old maxim “he who dies with the most toys wins” just isn’t true. I have a beautiful house in New Albany, full of a lifetime’s collection of “stuff” that doesn’t make me inherently any happier than I was with my teeny apartment in NY with far less “stuff.”
My advice to you: Collect experiences, not things. Don’t get trapped in the money-grubbing rat race. Look for what makes you truly happy and gives meaning to your life.
Figuring out what you’re working harder and smarter for may change during your life. In fact, I hope it does, for that would indicate your are continuing to grow in your understanding of yourself and taking charge of creating your own life instead of letting your life be driven by “isms”– capitalism, consumerism, conservatism, liberalism, Liberatarianism, or the many other “isms” – that are set by others.
As you do figure these things out, you may eventually recognize that fulfillment comes from thinking of and serving others instead of just yourself.
We’ve heard it all our lives, especially at this time of the year: “Tis better to give than to receive.” But honestly, I went through a lot of my life thinking how foolish this aphorism was.
Yet the exhortation to be generous is as old as the Bible and as new as current research.
When you finally recognize that questing for “twice what I have now” is a losing proposition, you’ll find the joys of giving – of your money, your time, your passions – to someone or something other than yourself is fundamental to building deep personal happiness.
Alas, as we’ve all seen, from the financial antics of those on Wall Street to the buying of political influence in Washington for corporate gain, there are some who don’t recognize this reality.
But there are many others with whom we’ve been blessed with having in our own lives – our parents, our families, our teachers and professors, our neighbors, and friends – who through their generosity have found this answer and made themselves happier through their love, support, and caring for us and others.
I know that almost no one remembers what speakers said at their graduation – I certainly don’t – though some of you might remember the lesson of my banana. So if some day you wonder who spoke at your graduation and what was said, instead of trying to remember me, Google Ashton Kutcher – the celebrity who was the first with a million Twitter followers – and his acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards, and you’ll get a very tweetable Cliff Notes version of my lessons: Work hard. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be generous.
As you leave Urbana, with testy memories of Rose in Brown Hall, but knowing you can now safely touch the Rock after dark, I offer you my congratulations and best wishes for finding happiness and living up to your potential of making your community, your state, your nation, and the world better places to be.
Thank you and Godspeed.