2002 Commencement Address

USC Commencement Address
Delivered by David Halberstram

Friday, May 10, 2002

Congratulations to the class of 2002.

First, some housekeeping. At my own college graduation 47 years ago, the speaker was Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of West Germany. He had clearly wanted to come to America for a very long time. It was very hot and he was very old – in fact, his nickname was der alte, the old man – and he had a lot to say and he said it very slowly, and he spoke in German. What I remember about the speech reflects the unkindness of youth: I remember only that his face was old and very wrinkled, and he looked much like a famous character in the then-popular Dick Tracy comic strip, Pruneface. In addition, his words had to be translated into English and the translator enjoyed his moment in the limelight and translated at a languorous pace. So I will try to be brief – 20 minutes, if I can. We will not do this in German, and there will be no need for translation.

For those of you who have not exactly prospered academically, let me give you a second bit of good news – you are being addressed by someone who was in the bottom half of his class at college. Or, in fact, if we want to be a bit didactic about it, quite possibly the bottom third of his class. So there is life after college, and I’m proof of it. And so, might I add, was Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor company, who went off to Yale in the late ‘30s, where he proved to be a devoted playboy but regrettably, an indifferent student. In time, with a critical paper due in an English course, he paid a classmate to write it for him, was caught in the act, and was unceremoniously bounced from Yale without his degree. Still the future was not that black for him; he managed to get a job after college – with the Ford Motor Co. of course, he did not change his name – and he soon rose to the top, becoming in almost record time the president of the company, and thereby, one of the most powerful and richest industrialists in the country. Much later, a somewhat rueful Yale, always on the lookout for a new building or two – the Henry Ford School of Business Administration, perhaps – the idea must have danced through the board member’s heads – invited him back for an honorary degree. That day Henry Ford stood up, held up his beautifully written speech, looked at the assembled Yale officials, waved the speech in front of them, and said, “And I didn’t write this one either.”

Well, unlike Henry Ford, I wrote this one myself. A graduation speech is a part of the rite of passage – the platitudes of June, Emily Dickinson once called them. As a commencement speaker, I am supposed to do what your parents, your most cherished faculty members and other people crucial to your lives have failed to do in the previous 22 years: set you on a course of happiness and prosperity and away from a life of indolence and crime. All in under 20 minutes. So considered yourself warned.

Let me talk about where we stand here today. A not so funny thing happened on the way to your graduation. First, the economy which had been so vibrant – up 6,000 points in about six years – started going the other way, and the tide of supreme affluence which had been coming in so relentlessly for all your recent predecessors began to go out, just in time for your own graduation. The long lines of eager representatives of wealthy companies hoping desperately to entice people like you to sign up with them began not merely to shrink, but in time to disappear. They were replaced by lines of eager young would-be graduates like yourselves hoping to get some kind of job. So you graduate into what is, by comparison with those who went before in the previous 15 years, a soft economy. Not soft by the standards of the rest of the world, but – in comparison with an America which was for a brief moment, enjoying unparalleled material success – soft. Whether that was an entirely good thing for those who were entering that super affluent economy and being so eagerly catered to is of course an intriguing question.

Let me give you an illustration. A couple of years ago, in the midst of that booming economy, I went back to the college in Cambridge from which I graduated and visited the undergraduate newspaper where I had been the managing editor, and I visited with a few of the graduating student editors. A number of them wanted to be reporters but two of them had already decided to go to work for a consulting firm which was going to pay them roughly $85,000 a year, about three times the beginning pay for a starting reporter. Leaving aside the bizarre question of why anyone 22 or 23 years old should be going around consulting and giving advice about anything to anyone else, I had a sense that they did not particularly want to consult, but this was the best offer, and seemed to connect them to something from which I and most of my generation were luckily spared: the dreaded fast track. And I, who had headed off after my own graduation to the smallest daily newspaper in the state of Mississippi for the grand total of $46 a week, asked them, “Did it ever occur to you that the salary you are being offered reflects the fact that this is a choice that you might not make were it not for the size of the salary? And that in some way that you do not yet entirely comprehend, you are being manipulated.”

So perhaps there is a rule or a law of some sort here – if you are at too young an age being offered too heady or too large a reward, perhaps it is not being offered with your own best long-term interest in mind.

Today I know, in addition to the softness of the economy, that your own confidence in your future is clouded slightly by the fact that you graduate into a dramatically changed America, one which has been challenged by the cruelest kind of terrorism, and which is in a kind of suspended state between war and peace, and where much of our focus is now in trying to discover potential terrorist cells, and where so much of our normal agenda has been brushed aside.

And many of you, quite rightly I suspect, wonder – what does all this mean for me, where is my place in all of this? Has my own life – my career curve – been if not damaged at least greatly altered by events outside my control? Am I doomed, because of these events, to something of a lesser life?

And the answer to that is you will have as good and rich a life as you want and as you are willing to reach for. If anything, you may now have a chance for a richer life – one more connected to others around you – than if you had graduated into that high point of the booming curve of the ‘90s, where the concerns tended to be more material, and to be blunt, more selfish.

First off, we would to well to remember there are people who went before you in previous eras who graduated into much crueler and often more dangerous times, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, and many of them came out of those experiences, stronger for them, finding sources of strength within themselves that they might otherwise never have discovered, and were thereby subsequently able to use their lives in many wondrous ways that otherwise might have come as a great surprise to them.

If anything one of the more positive things which has happened in recent months – post-Sept. 11 – is a sense of many in your generation wanting to give something back and be of greater value, not just to their country but to local communities. The applications for teaching positions and for other community service job positions has risen dramatically. There is already a sign that your generation wants to do more in the way of public service, and understands that when a community has been threatened as this country has been, you tend to think in broader rather than narrower terms.

We should, after all, all be aware of the blessings of our lives. The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of your generation. You have been given a priceless education in an age where work is increasingly defined not by muscularity but by intelligence, and therefore you are already advantaged. More, you have not only been given an exceptional education, but perhaps more importantly, you have been part of a rare community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing, never-ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life.

In addition, you are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest, but the freest society in the world. Our courts continue to uphold the inherent rights of ordinary citizens to seek the highest levels of personal freedom imaginable. In this country as in no other that I know of, ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. In America we have the right to choose who and what we want to be: to choose if we so want, any profession, any venue, any name. As much as anything else this is what separates us from the Old World, the one across the Atlantic and the one across the Pacific, where people often seemed to be doomed to a fate and a status determined even before their birth. We have the words of the great physicist I. I. Rabi to remind us of that special freedom, of the privilege which comes with the unique freedom of being American. On receiving the Nobel Prize, a reporter approached Rabi and asked him what he thought. “What do I think?” Rabi answered, “I think in the old country I would have been a tailor.”

So what do we do with all that freedom? Freedom after all, does not come without burden and without responsibility: indeed the greater the freedom, the greater the burden of choice, and the greater the chance of choosing the wrong thing. Worse, if we make the wrong choices, we have no one to blame save ourselves. We cannot, as those in other countries can, rant against the fates or against an authoritarian government which deprived us of our rightful possibilities. So how do we handle the burden of being responsible for our destinies? That’s what I would like to finish with today, for you are at the threshold of one of the most important choices that most of you will make in your lives, the choice of your careers. We have after all in this country an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notice that wording, for we are not guaranteed happiness – merely the pursuit of it. Notice, as well that the wise men who authored that phrase did not say “pursuit of wealth,” for the pursuit of happiness and pursuit of wealth are by no means the same thing, nor do they by any stretch of the imagination generate the same inner sense of contentment and personal validity.

This is a critical decision for you. For other than the choice of a lifetime partner, nothing determines happiness so much as choosing the right kind of work. It is a choice about what’s good for you, not what’s good for others whom you greatly respect, your parents, an admired professor, your friends, a significant other, whom you suspect may be dazzled by a greater or loftier choice of profession. The choice is not about what makes them happy, but about what makes you happy. Not what seems to show that you are successful by the exterior standards of the society. Not what brings you the biggest salary – particularly in the beginning when those things seem so important – and the biggest house, or the greatest respect from Wall Street, but what makes you feel complete and happy and makes you feel, for this is no small thing, like a part of something larger than yourself. In my college’s 40th reunion book where we periodically update each other about what’s happening in our lives, the best and most succinct report came from a classmate of mine named David Wise who teaches school on the north shore of Cape Cod. His report consisted of one sentence: “I am having another magical year teaching.”

So how can you tell the difference between a life and a career, between the authentic and the inauthentic in life? How do you seek out a life when so many others tell you to have a career? You cannot simply sit down upon graduation and chart your career, come up with some fool-proof mathematical graph, and have it work out on schedule: such and such a title by 30, an even bigger title and salary by 35c etc. It doesn’t quite work out that way. At best if you are lucky, you are pulled into a profession or a job which you sense that you like, and if you are even luckier, it’s indeed the right thing for you. Even then the road is not by any means easy: You inevitably stumble around for a time, and make a few mistakes and then gradually find your way, and with a bit more luck it finally works out. I am, however, suggesting that by now you should know something about your inner self, what’s fun, what you’re good at, and what makes you feel good about yourself. And I am suggesting as well that that often has very little to do with this society’s external reward system.

So try and use your lives wisely, and try and make choices – even in your professional lives – that are of the heart. Do not be too readily caught in the material snare of this society. If you want to be a botanist, poet, actor, teacher or nurse, if that’s what your heart tells you to do, don’t go to law school or some other graduate school on the theory that it’s a great ticket, and that it will get you to a higher level in the society, that you’ll make some money for a while, and then you can go on and do the things that you really wanted to do in the first place. It doesn’t work that way.

Do not be afraid to make some mistakes when you are young. Do not be afraid to try and fail early in your life. We often stumble towards the things we will end up doing best; do not be afraid to take chances when you are young, to choose the unconventional over the conventional. Often it is the experience in the unconventional which prepares you best for the conventional. Be aware that it’s all right to make mistakes, and it is all right to try at something and fail. The price of failure when you are young is much lower than when you are older. I suspect that you in the audience may look at us on the stage and see people who seem like we have always succeeded, men and women who have led flawless professional lives. What you don’t see is our own anxieties, not just when we were your age, but throughout our careers, when again and again – in our own minds – we seemed to be on the edge of some new failure.

You do not see me, at the moment a few days short of my 22 birthday, when the editor of that small daily in Mississippi came to me and told me it was time for me to leave, that in fact he would pay me for that last day and that he wanted me to be gone from the office and from the town by the next morning, and that he had already hired my successor who was scheduled to show up the next afternoon – and he did not think it a good idea if we overlapped. Fired, as it were, from the smallest daily in Mississippi after less than a year. What an auspicious start for a career!

Let me come back to where you are today amidst your own quite normal anxieties. Is there a place for you out there today even though this is something of a harder time? Absolutely. Can you have a life that is rich and of value – not just for yourself, but for others as well? Again, absolutely yes. Will it be hard? Yes. Where will the reward be? Answer: The reward is in the doing.

So let me leave you – on this day where we did not get hit with the heat of Southern California – with a few last words. In all things in life, choose your conscience and trust your instincts and lead your lives without regrets. It’s simply easier that way. I mention that because life, under the best circumstances, even if you’re lucky, as I have been, to choose the right profession, is very hard. First you have to choose the right profession – and then you have to work very hard for the rest of your lives to sustain the thing you happen to love. As the noted philosopher, basketball player and sports commentator, Julius Erving – Dr. J to the Laker fans here – once said, “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days when you don’t feel like doing them.”

God bless – enjoy the richness of your lives. Thank you very much.