A Recommencement Address
Note: As we approach commencement season at our institutions of higher education, the world seems filled with speakers and writers offering their best advice to the newly minted graduates. However, perhaps it is not the graduates who are most in need of a pep talk.
Deans, department chairs, and academic leaders of all levels of responsibility:
I stand before you (metaphorically) today to celebrate the end of another academic year and the moving forward of another class of graduates from our esteemed institutions. As you pulled your academic robes out of the back of the closet, dusted off your hood, and tried to figure out what you could wear underneath your regalia for maximum comfort, you likely thought of those eager faces that would be listening to the words of wisdom dispensed by the speaker at your ceremony.
However, commencement addresses are wasted on the young. To be blunt, there is no one on earth less in need of a rousing “go change the world” address than a fresh-faced graduate clutching a diploma on which the ink is barely dry. It is those of us at mid-career or later, a little tired, a bit battle-hardened, maybe even slightly jaded, who could use a touch of inspiration. With that in mind, I offer the following pieces of support:
You are doing better than you think
When you sat among those rows of graduates, you probably had your life all planned out. You expected to achieve certain career and personal goals by specific points in your life, and the path to achieving this seemed clear and straight.
I’m virtually certain that things didn’t work out this way for any of us.
Instead, we all learned that life is less of a straight, easy path and more of a confusing meander through uncertain and rocky terrain. We have endured unplanned setbacks, achieved victories we didn’t expect, and likely are now sitting at a place we didn’t wholly anticipate being at this stage in our lives.
That’s OK. In spite of the rosy posts we all make to social media, none of us are certain of ourselves. Imposter syndrome is real, but questioning your own competence just means that you have progressed along the Dunning-Kruger curve, actually gaining competence as you become aware of your own limitations. Celebrate this as a measure of success. You are doing better than you think.
You can still change the world
There’s a reason that Pinterest is filled with pithy quotes about late successes and the desire to learn in one’s golden years. Most of us still nourish the hope that our dreams are in reach even if we haven’t met our self-imposed milestones that we set in our youth. “Life would be so wonderful if we only knew what to do with it,” Greta Garbo once said.
Now, however, you are a lot closer to knowing what to do with life than you were when you were 20. Having more perspective and greater experience in life allows you to make much better decisions about what you can do to make an impact. Sure, this experience also means that you are more aware of the potential pitfalls and more aware of the complexities of life, but that knowledge is necessary for success. What would you like to do to change the world?
It’s time to learn something new
One of the reasons new graduates are so enthused is that they have just completed a program of study that has equipped them with knowledge they are eager to try out, adapt, and make their own. Somehow, amidst the dedication to educating others, academic leaders forget to keep educating themselves.
Many of us become buried deep within our academic silos. It is a natural consequence of being part of the academy and rising to a leadership role. First, one drills down into the discipline to amass publications and presentations as part of the promotion and tenure process, then, as a department chair or dean, the world becomes made of discipline-specific tasks and controversies and administrative chores. It is easy to forget the desire to learn that brought many of us to the academic life.
I challenge you to take some time in the coming months to learn something new that is outside your discipline. Take a class in another department and revisit what it is like to be a student. Check out the programming at your local parks and recreation organizations. Try out a craft or sport you’ve always wanted to learn but never allowed yourself the time. Flexing your intellectual (and perhaps physical) muscles will help you recharge for the challenges ahead.
Take some time for yourself
As the semester ends and the new grads process out of their commencement ceremony to start their journeys in life, I encourage you to find some time this summer to relax. Sure, there are still budgets to approve, faculty to hire, courses to develop, and all of the tasks of academic life that we promise ourselves we will get done when there are fewer students to work with.
But your academic career is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t keep up a frantic pace forever. One thing that is often overlooked in the optimistic commencement speeches is that burnout is real, and the only cure is rest. Carve out some time this summer to read a book, see a play, sit on a beach, or hike a wooded trail. Do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries so that you are prepared to start again.
After all, as that great sage Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the author of Lecture is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom and The Care and Motivation of the Adjunct Professor.