A few words of (hopefully) wisdom for Michigan’s graduates

It’s graduation season – and last Friday, I had the honor of giving a commencement address to those earning economics degrees at the University of Michigan.

There’s an old joke that plagiarism is when you steal from one author; research is when you use many sources. Here, in the interest of research – and fresh for those who need material for their own speeches -- are, free of charge, excerpts from mine:

In flat world, watch your speed

Whether you’re going from commencement straight to a job or off to get another degree, you are entering a world that is very complicated, moving very fast, and one over which you don’t have much control. Good jobs are tough to find, especially when you’re trying to figure out how to repay your student debt.

And at the same time, of you are anything like what I was when I graduated way back in 1960, you’re hoping that you might just wind up doing something significant, something beyond merely supporting a family on your pay check. These feelings are strong, elusive and important. Don’t ignore them. They may turn out to be the most important things in your entire life.

Seek to live a significant life

We all struggle for success, that’s true. But many of us, whether when we’re young and or as we come to the ends of our lives, are also searching for significance. The distinction is important because it seems to imply you have to choose between having a good, well-paid career and harboring aspirations to do something truly significant and out of the ordinary with your life.

I’m here to tell you that these two options – secure careers and aspirations – are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I’d argue that in important ways one reinforces the other.

A seed that became the Peace Corps

I’m going to tell you a story that might help hone your legitimate interest in career success into sharper aspirations for significance. When I was an undergraduate at the university way back in the late 1950s, I joined a group called Americans Committed to World Responsibility. The group was led by two sociology graduate students, Judy and Al Guskin. There were 10 or 15 of us. We stayed up talking too late at night. We drank too much coffee … and far too much beer …

And of course we wrote a manifesto! (We said) young people in America should seize the opportunity to volunteer to work in less developed countries abroad. At that time, I was an editor at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, and we ran the manifesto in the paper. It drew an enthusiastic response.  Eventually, our manifesto wound up in the hands of Theodore Sorenson, a Wall Street lawyer who was writing speeches for a sSenator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who was running for president.

And that manifesto triggered the famous speech Kennedy delivered at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, on the steps of the Michigan Union. He called for young Americans to aspire to help their country and test themselves … and in the process to change the world for the better. That speech led to the formation of the Peace Corps … and life-changing experiences for many thousands of Americans.

So here’s one lesson I learned from all that: There is nothing more powerful than a good idea whose time has come.

Sure, the idea needs to be a good one. And of course, it needs to be presented to the right people in the right way and at the right time. But if these preconditions are met, the story of one tiny group of Michigan students shows that one good idea can, indeed, change the world … and in the process, define your own career.

On ideas, don’t hesitate

When you see a great idea – an idea whose time has come – jump on it … with both feet! Get involved; talk with others; let loose your passion. And in listening to your aspirations, you’re on the path to finding that your visions of significance have become a big part of your career success. We all want to get a good job that enables us to succeed …  But if we add to that the fantastic power of aspiration, we tap into our deepest hopes and values and we open the door to fulfilling ourselves as complete human beings who not only achieve success but also find significance.

It’s like paddling a kayak through Class I white water rapids: exciting, chaotic, challenging, even dangerous. But once you reach the calm pool at the base of the rapids, you’ll find you are far better off, far happier, far more fulfilled for taking the chance and having a great ride! You all know the Latin: carpe diem, seize the day!

Seize the day and you’ll have done yourself a great favor for the rest of your life.

In spring, wonders large and small

The graduates seemed to like what I had to say.

The next morning, my wife, Kathy, and I hiked up to the woodlot on our property, searching for trillium that escaped the voracious deer. Carefully, we dug a few up, keeping their delicate roots buried in the woodsy loam. And we transplanted them to our garden, under the rhododendrons and inside the deer-proof fence.

We checked on them Sunday morning. They were all standing upright, looking healthy.  A few delicate white blossoms had opened. We gazed in wonder at these small signs of spring. Significance, we realized with a start, comes in all sorts of packages, small and large. Recognizing it is among life’s greatest wonders.

Carpe diem!

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Gene Golanda
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 11:57am
I have been under the impression that trillium was a protected species of plant life that was to remain undisturbed: Not so?
Charles Richards
Tue, 05/07/2013 - 6:28pm
Me, Power fails to realize the difference between "significance" and "sistinction." A lot of people lead "significant," satisfying lives by virtue of contributing sufficient economic value to society to earn a good living, being a decent human being to his family and friends, and a good citizen of his community. Does that make him distinguished? No. There are tens upon tens of millions like him, so he is not distinguished. That does not diminish the genuine, well-deserved satisfaction he can take in his life. Being "distinguished" is by definition, something that only a few can aspire to. And being "distinguished" does not necessarily connote a life of "significance." It is a good thing to inspire young people to aspire to great things. A good many of them will soar and make notable contributions to the world. But a good many will crash and burn. I suspect that those with the talent to make exceptional contributions will do so in any case. Indeed, they probably couldn't be prevented from doing so.