“You Are Not Special”

I finally (it has been an open browser tab for over a month) watched David McCullough, Jr.’s terrific 2012 Wellesley High School commencement address. “We have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement . . . building a Guatamalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatamalans . . . climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” I may assign it to this fall’s incoming freshman colloquia students.

Commence Real Life

Congratulations to today’s School of Management graduates. I can’t count the number of graduating seniors I’ve heard say I don’t want to graduate over the past four months, but the day (or weekend, depending on your family’s tolerance for University events) is here. You can’t crawl back inside the womb. Enjoy the beautiful spring day (sunny, temperature in the high 60s), reflect on everyone who played in role in delivering you to this moment. and get on with whatever is next.

Just let us know how you are doing.


Had it existed then I would have included this in my Faculty Address at the May 2010 SMG Commencement:

“[I]f you try to connect the dots of your career, if you mess it up you’re going to wind up on a very limited path . . . The reason I don’t have a plan is because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options.”

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg responding to a question about her next career step, quoted in “A Woman’s Place”, Ken Auletta, The New Yorker, 11 & 18 July 2011, p. 62

More on Recent Graduates and Employment

The NY Times Online followed up Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling (see And Now That You’ve Graduated) with The Downsized College Graduate, seven op-ed articles with reader comments debating “reasons besides the economy to explain why today’s group is different.”  One explanation is that it’s your own damn fault:

[S]ome older readers cited factors other than the economy for the drop in the number of new graduates in the work force: that young people have a sense of entitlement, were sheltered by their parents, and partied through college. Or, if they worked automatons, they took no risks, expecting to be rewarded no matter what.

Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,”  (see Not Getting What You Pay For), offers reasons neatly summarized by the title of his piece, Aimless, Misled, and in Debt:

  • “[P]ronounced and unprecedented” indebtedness
  • Young adults who “are highly motivated, but often directionless.”  They are “‘drifting dreamers’ with ‘high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them.’ Indeed, more than a third of college graduates in our study reported that they aspired to own their own businesses, even though there was little evidence that entrepreneurial skills were being developed.”
  • Lest you think Arum lays all blame on this cohort’s character, he states “colleges and universities are implicated in the difficulties that graduates are facing, since not only did they fail to ensure that college students experienced rigorous academic coursework associated with the development of higher order cognitive skills, but, more troubling, they typically have abandoned responsibility for shaping and developing the attitudes and dispositions necessary for adult success.”

Other contributors have different perspectives.  Overall the articles and comments are provocative.  They are worth the time as you sit in the coffee shop reading your laptop with other under-employed graduates.

And Now That You’ve Graduated . . .

. . . you face greater economic uncertainty than your predecessors.  In an article with a headline that says it all, Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling, the NY Times reports “[e]mployment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”   Some of the grim facts:

  • The median starting salary for college graduates entering the work force in 2009 and 2010 declined 10%, from $30k to $27, compared with college graduates who entered the work force from 2006 to 2008
  • 56% of 2010 grads has held at least one job by this spring, compared with 90% of 2006 and 2007 graduates
  • About 50% “of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree”
  • “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.”

Timing and luck determine for more of our circumstances than commencement speakers acknowledge.  They say follow your dreams .  Never give up.  Live your passion.  A 1989 or 1990 birth year–not lack of merit, lack of academic achievement, lack of work ethic–will diminish the number and quality of choices available to most 2011 graduates compared to those born in 1985 or 1986.  A sad but true fact of life.

Congratulations, Graduates

SMG’s commencement was enjoyable, satisfying, and efficient, distributing numerous faculty and student awards and 645 diplomas–diploma covers, actually–in less than two hours.  In the post-commencement celebration I expressed personal congratulations directly to dozens of graduates, posed for at least a dozen pictures (don’t forget to email copies), and met many parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins.  In the crowd and confusion I missed a few graduates I hoped to see, but that happens.  After 75 minutes the desire to peel off the heavy robe overwhelmed short-term goals of saying goodbye to a few more faces.  I walked out into the first sun we’ve seen in almost a week, drove home, fed and let out the dogs, and opened windows in every room.  The 2010-2011 academic year is, and feels, fully over and done.  Time for me to commence, too.

Soggy Seniors

My sympathies to BU and other Boston-area seniors who are trying to enjoy their last week as undergraduates.  Yesterday was 50 degrees, gray, and wet, today is 50 degrees, gray, and wet, and the forecast is the same for the rest of the week.   Just remember that you did not come to Boston for the weather (except for one particular reader from hot, dry, and sunny Dubai who responds with envy to my weather-related posts.)

Faculty Address

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.