The text of my address at last evening’s commencement:
Welcome parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, extended families, friends, deans, faculty and staff, my wife Judy, and the reason all of us are here: the Boston University School of Management Class of Two Thousand Ten.
First, I must note the passing last December of our law-faculty colleague Jeffrey Beatty. Some of our students know Jeffrey’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher. All of our students know Jeffrey as the talented co-author of our law textbook. I would not be teaching here, but for Jeffrey’s call eleven years ago to tell me of an open faculty position. I am forever indebted to him.
Next, this is Dean Lataif’s final School of Management commencement ceremony. Thank you, Dean Lataif, for your support over the years, and for your inspiring vision of the social role of management education. You made this cynic a believer.
Recently, one of your classmates had occasion to see an old picture of me [full-size image]. I am about 23 years old, sitting on the battered wooden stoop of a dilapidated apartment building—for those who’ve heard the story, the same building where I was on rent strike for over three years. The numerals “one eight three” are painted freestyle on the front door. In one hand I’m holding a pocket knife and orange; with the other I’m pointing at a newspaper. My narrowed eyes stare at the camera behind chronically unkempt hair and a thick beard. Your classmate studied this picture, saying repeatedly “that is not you.”
She was right. The young me in that picture had a life plan guaranteed not to include teaching law to business students. When I graduated in 1976 from what was then Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts, I planned to continue working for a few years as a paralegal handling prisoners’ rights issues, to attend the country’s best public-interest law school at Northeastern University, and to use my law degree to represent society’s have-nots. Five years later I graduated from Northeastern Law into Plan B: representing society’s haves, as an associate at a corporate law firm. Today, many changes later, I am eleven years into what may be Plan Q, although I lost track of the labels long ago.
Some say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. I’m the latter, one wary of binary explanations to complicated problems. I’m a lawyer, inclined by nature, and accustomed by training, to deal with complexity, nuance, and changing facts. To lawyers, the answer to every question begins with two words: “it depends.” [Actually, before getting to “it depends” we say “my rate is $500 an hour and I’ll need a $10,000 retainer.”]
A few years ago one of my students struggled with his inability to find black-and-white answers to legal questions. Frustrated by my explanation of the first exam he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. For the next few weeks he sat in the front row mumbling “ridiculous” and “multiple choice” and “picky” to himself, and glowering at me while I taught. Then one day he ran into my office to share an epiphany. “I understand!” he yelled. “We have to think in the space between black and white. We have to embrace the gray!”
Unfortunately, he never did figure out what that means.
Many of you believe that everyone, but you, knows what they are doing with their lives. Everyone doesn’t. Many of you believe that everyone, but you, is moving ahead with certainty. Everyone isn’t. Those with step-by-step career plans will discover that there are plans on paper, and then there are plans in the real world. Plans on paper rely on binary assumptions: if I attend a top-tier law school, then I will have a lucrative career in corporate law. If I work on Wall Street, then I will earn enough to work for Teach for America. If I live at home to save money, then my parents will treat me as an adult and let me come and go as I please.
It is difficult, even scary, to cut the moorings of black and white choices. Whether or not you embrace the idea that your future is uncertain, it is the nature of plans to encounter the convoluted world, and to change. My plans changed because of love, marriage, real estate, mortgages, children, youth soccer, the 1990’s savings-and-loan crisis, business opportunities, innate restlessness—and love, again.
This last love affair does not involve another individual. (Remember, my wife is here.) It includes you, and my thousands of other students. It encompasses what I feel, teaching in a college classroom. It is the deep connection teaching creates between who I am and what I do. It is devotion to sharing my passion for learning. It is ardor for exploring life’s complexities through law, for encouraging students to pierce the deceptive ease of black-and-white resolutions.
Years from now, you may see a picture taken of you today, smiling in your regalia, flanked by family, holding your empty diploma cover. You will look across the years into the eyes of your younger self. You will see someone who was focused, or uncertain, someone employed, or looking for work, someone seizing life, or someone who wanted to defer graduation’s reckoning for three years—that is, someone going to law school. You may reflect on the path you’ve traveled since the moment captured in that picture. And perhaps your path will have delivered you, as mine has delivered me, to a place both implausible and natural. Implausible, because 34 years ago that idealistic future lawyer would have never imagined he might one day teach business law at Boston University. Natural, because being a part of your experience at the School of Management is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I have done with my professional life.
Embrace the gray. Thank you.