The Saturday Read ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ by Anna Quindlen

Do you remember who spoke at your graduation ceremony? The Saturday Read this week is for all of you who forgot, but would welcome a bit of ‘life advice’ in this season of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.

In 1999, author Anna Quindlen was invited to deliver the commencement address at Villanova University. And then this happened:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Anna Quindlen has withdrawn as the commencement speaker at Villanova University this Sunday because of what she said were objections by a “vocal minority” to her support of abortion rights.

Quindlen, who was also to have received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, said in an interview yesterday that she did not want to “ruin the day or cast a shadow” on the graduation ceremony.”

A graduate student requested a copy of the prepared text and posted it on the Internet. (This was before Facebook, Twitter et al.) The post went viral, and the resulting essay was published in 2000 as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’.

Seventeen years later her words still resonate. In the opening paragraphs she signals her values, and offers a hint at why she withdrew.

“My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know…Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work…The second is only part of the first.”

Real life collided with an opportunity to address Villanova’s Class of 1999, the alma mater of several of her family members. Fortunately her publisher provided an avenue for Ms. Quindlen to share her personal life experience with a broader audience, to encourage ownership and balance.

“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.”

“But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just the life at your desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”

“People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

Some may disagree that a resume is easy to write, especially a recent grad who has spent the past months engaged in the job search. A resume is limited to a list of accomplishments, full of key words designed to cut through the barrier of digital applicant screening. It’s the values expressed in that experience that define who you are, your spirit.

The recurring theme of ‘Short Guide’ challenges the reader to question commonly held definitions of success.

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

“So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.”

“Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.”

‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ is a compact book to be kept close for a periodic reread. It’s a reminder to all, at every career stage, that “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.”

One of those moments is revealed in the recollection of a conversation with a homeless man on the boardwalk in Coney Island, New York.

“And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

Commencement is the beginning of a life of learning, sometimes from the most unexpected of teachers. Enjoy the Saturday Read, and don’t forget to enjoy the view.

 

 

 

Praise to the Rituals That Celebrate Change, a poem by Dana Gioia

High school graduation and university commencement celebrate major life transitions. The changes that come after are rarely celebrated with the same pomp and ceremony. For today’s Friday poem, Dana Gioia recognizes the rituals and suggests “the old be touched by youth’s wayward astonishment at learning something new…”

Change is the essence of our world today. At work and in life small quakes and seismic shifts alter our direction. We adapt and transition. Perhaps we should celebrate change, our evolution, with ritual and recognition. Eliminate the fear and reward transformation.

Praise to the Rituals That Celebrate Change

Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
old robes worn for new beginnings,
solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
surrounded by ancient experience, grows
young in the imagination’s white dress.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
but our trust in what they signify, these rites
that honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
or a newborn washed with water and oil.

So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—
and let the old be touched by youth’s
wayward astonishment at learning something new,
and dream of a future so fitting and so just
that our desire will bring it into being.

Dana Gioia  2007

Neil Armstrong @ USC and the Class of 2005

Ten years ago today, Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut and first person to walk on the moon, addressed the graduating Class of 2005 at the University of Southern California. The man who announced to the world, on a July afternoon in 1969, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” never mentioned his achievement.

The day was about the graduates. Not about the man who walked on the moon.

But even the youngest family member in attendance knew who was speaking. A little boy climbed up a grassy hill behind a giant screen projecting the event. He had not come to watch TV, but to see the astronaut for himself, in person. This was his connection to dreams beyond. “Mommy, that’s the man who walked on the moon.”

Can you imagine your life defined by one historical, ‘out of this world’ event?

There are few things today that take our breath away. We have forgotten the mysteries of space travel as we contemplate only the familiar. We go about our work day as a space station circles above, with no thought of the explorers at work outside our atmosphere.

On that May morning, the parents, graduates, faculty and staff shared an historic moment with a legend. And the legend expressed his doubts about his ability to give advice.

“I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions deserve your attention.”

He encouraged the graduates to “appreciate the elegance of simplicity” and continued his address following his own advice.

“The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident, you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources.

What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation is your principles and your values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.

Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but it will be exciting.”

His challenge to us all is to lead a life of continuous learning and continuous improvement, even after you have achieved your ‘signature’ career experience.

Do you deserve the extra cookie? Leadership lessons from Michael Lewis’ Commencement Address

‘Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie’ was the title of the 2012 Princeton University commencement speech delivered by alumnus Michael Lewis. His message: “recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation.”

Michael Lewis graduated from Princeton with a degree in art history believing he “was of no possible economic value to the outside world”.

The experience of writing his senior thesis introduced him to the possibility of building a career on his talent for words. With no experience and little encouragement from his thesis professor:

“I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn’t the first clue what I should write about.”

And one night he makes a connection at dinner and ends up working as a derivatives expert at the financial firm, Salomon Brothers. Two years later he realizes he has found something to write about.

“I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.”

Imagine, reader with the perfect resume and highly regarded credentials, that the luck of a seating arrangement could lead you to a position that allows you, in time, to connect the dots back to your passion.

“People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

But accidents do happen and the best you can do is consistently put yourself in front of the oncoming ‘career possibilities’ truck.

And now, about the cookies. The leadership lesson is humility, and Mr. Lewis illustrates with a story of a ‘teamwork’ exercise.

Two Cal researchers recruited students for an experiment.

“…they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”

We probably cannot remember our commencement speaker or their message. That’s why each year at this time we should reflect on the words we missed, now that we have the context of experience to help us understand.

There are no straight lines along a career path. Michael Lewis is a highly regarded, bestselling author who has written stories of Wall Street and baseball. The lessons he shared that spring day:

Don’t put too much distance between you and your passion, because you may forget the feeling.

Be Humble. Don’t eat the last cookie. You may sit at the head of the table and truly believe you deserve the extra cookie, “But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”