From the President: Where I have to go

This winter I had lunch with a Duke couple in the Bay Area. The husband had recently retired at an early age and was still marveling at the unfamiliar experience of freedom. He quoted to me a line he had learned in meditation: “There is nowhere you have to go, nothing you have to do, no one you have to be.”

Class of 2016, this made me think of you. After four strenuous years, you are all done with college and its demands. No more running around to complete two majors along with a certificate in journalism or entrepreneurship or ethics, or to practice with your club sports team or dance group, or seek startup funds for the company you’re launching, or do tutoring downtown. Not a single expectation remains for you to meet. What bliss! There’s nowhere you have to go, nothing you have to do, no one you have to be.

But I doubt that you’ll do well on the leisure test. Duke attracts people who are driven to activity and achievement because they delight to use their gifts to the fullest. Our species has christened itself homo sapiens, the wise human, but you and I come from the species homo occupans, the ever-busy, ever-occupied human: You could not do nothing if you tried. Plus this very day, your parents and your inner demons are clamoring, “Where are you going to go, what are you going to do, who are you going to be?”

You may expect me to urge you to resist this question. And yet: What we “are” is not accessed solely by slowing down. There are dimensions of who we “are” that can only be discovered through the striving to achieve.

The privilege of a liberal-arts education is that it allows exploration and self-discovery. It wasn’t your initial plan that made your education happen. It was your willingness to try things out—a course here, an activity there, an internship or research project there—to throw yourself into things and see where they led you. The poet Theodore Roethke memorably wrote: “I learn by going where I have to go.” You may wish you already knew where you were supposed to go, but the goal is found by means of the journey, and in no other way.

When we see people in positions that we envy and admire, it’s easy to imagine they were always headed to that very place, but that is almost never true. Deborah Lee James ’79 is the Secretary of the Air Force. When she graduated from Duke with a major in what is now called international comparative studies, she wanted to join the Foreign Service, but federal budget cuts meant there were suddenly no positions open. But she summoned some resilience, her inner GPS device recalculated, and she found a way to put her talent to work in defense. From that point forward, she worked her way through a mix of public and private sector positions to the role she occupies today. Her advice to you is, “Be prepared to zigzag, because whatever your original idea was may not work out.”

Friends, you are entering so-called “real life” at one of the most confusing periods in the history of work. A recovery that has cut unemployment from 10 percent to 5 percent has left a country feeling strangely hopeless about the future, suggesting that you should find a sure thing and hold on for dear life. But entrepreneurial disruptions have turned many sure things into dead ends, while generating new jobs whose long-term security is a total question mark.

How are you to navigate through this treacherous fog? There are no safe harbors in this new world. Building a life now will take versatility, resilience, a confident willingness to zig and zag, in which you use new moves to win a clearer sense of what fulfills you, then tack toward the thing that holds the most of that.

Shouldn’t I be telling you to make a difference and make the world a better place? I do want that, but in truth, you can’t make a difference until you learn what the difference is that you have it in you to make.

All your life you have been called gifted, but gifts are meant to be given, not just smugly enjoyed. There really is somewhere you have to go. You have to go on the journey to learn what the gift is that you peculiarly could give to the world and how you can deliver it. You will learn by going. Time to leave Duke now—you got what you could from this stage of your journey. I wish you the courage to keep journeying toward the life you could lead at best. Go well.

This essay was adapted from the president’s baccalaureate address to the Class of 2016.

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