Now, some graduating classes have marched into this stadium in easy times, times of peace and stability when we call on our graduates simply to keep things going, and don’t screw it up. Other classes have received their diplomas in times of trial and upheaval, when the very foundations of our lives, the old order has been shaken, the old ideas and institutions have crumbled, and a new generation is called upon to remake the world.
It should be clear to you by now the category into which all of you fall. For we gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and for the world. The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the worst we’ve seen since the Great Depression, the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibility that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices. We’re engaged in two wars and a struggle against terrorism. The threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic defy national boundaries and easy solutions.
For many of you, these challenges are also felt in more personal terms. Perhaps you’re still looking for a job or struggling to figure out what career path makes sense in this disrupted economy. Maybe you’ve got student loans. Now you definitely have student loans or credit card debts, and you’re wondering how you’ll ever pay them off. Maybe you’ve got a family to raise, and you’re wondering how you’ll ensure that your children have the same opportunities you’ve had to get an education and pursue their dreams.
Now, in the face of these challenges, it may be tempting to fall back on the formulas for success that have been pedaled so frequently in recent years. It goes something like this, you’re taught to chase after all the usual brass rings; you try to be on this “who’s who” list or that top 100 list; you chase after the big money and you figure out how big your corner office is. You worry about whether you have a fancy enough title or a fancy enough car. That’s the message that’s sent each and every day, or has been in our culture for far too long that through material possessions, through a ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf, that’s how you will measure success.
Now, you can take that road, and it may work for some. But at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go; it displays a poverty of ambition, that in fact the elevation of appearance over substance, of celebrity over character, of short-term gains over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.
Now, ASU, I want to highlight two main problems with that old, tired, me-first approach to life. First of all, it distracts you from what’s truly important and may lead you to compromise your values and your principles and commitments. Think about it. It’s in chasing titles and status, in worrying about the next election rather than the national interest and the interests of those who you’re supposed to represent that politicians so often lose their ways in Washington. They spend time thinking about polls, but not about principle. It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that came with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street, engaging in extraordinary risks with other people’s money.
In contrast, the leaders we revere, the businesses and institutions that last, they are not generally the result of a narrow pursuit of popularity or personal advancement, but of devotion to some bigger purpose, the preservation of the Union or the determination to lift a country out of a depression; the creation of a quality product, a commitment to your customers, your workers, your shareholders and your community. A commitment to make sure that an institution like ASU is inclusive and diverse and giving opportunity to all. That’s the hallmark of real success.
That other stuff, the trappings of success may be a byproduct of this larger mission, but it can’t be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff. That’s the first problem with the old attitude.
The second problem with the old approach to success is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success can lead to complacency. It can make you lazy. We too often let the external, the material things, serve as indicators that we’re doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we’re not doing our best; that we’re avoiding that which is hard, but also necessary; that we’re shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age. And the thing is, in this new, hyper-competitive age, none of us – none of us can afford to be complacent. That’s true in whatever profession you choose.
Professors might earn the distinction of tenure, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll keep putting in the long hours and late nights and have the passion and the drive to be great educators. The same principle is true in your personal life. Being a parent is not just a matter of paying the bills, doing the bare minimum, it’s not just bringing a child into the world that matters, but the acts of love and sacrifice it takes to raise and educate that child and give them opportunity.