Keynote address by David Brooks

Photo/Mike Lovett

David Brooks

Hello Brandeis

As I look out on this audience, the first thing I realize is that the Rapture must actually have happened yesterday, because, from the looks of it, America is now 50 percent Jewish.

The second thing I realize is that some of you may not have graduated from college before and you may not know the etiquette. It’s customary after you get your degree to give the president a little tip. Ten or twenty bucks, just to show he did a good job.

It’s also customary to give the commencement speaker a little something — no more than 15 or 20 percent of your annual tuition.

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The money is not for me. It’s going straight to the Yo-Yo Ma for President campaign. This country has a yawning leadership gap that only Yo-Yo can fill.

Now, even if you don’t give, I want you to know how great it is to be here on this happy occasion. The parents are happy to have produced such outstanding young men and women. The faculty is happy to have produced such outstanding graduates, despite everything their parents tried to do to them. The administrators are happy to have such an outstanding alumni, despite everything the faculty tried to do to them. The students are happy they have turned out so well, despite what the blowhards in all these categories tried to do to them.

Well, Brandeis Class of 2011, I am the final blowhard. I am the last windbag between you and your degree.

So this is indeed a happy occasion.

Over the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about happiness. We’ve learned that the relationship between money and happiness is weak. Once you hit the middle class, getting richer isn’t going to make you that much happier. The relationship between friendship and happiness is strong. Joining a club that meets just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends and sex. Not necessarily in that order. The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting.

Now, there is a tradition to commencement speeches. The university asks somebody who has achieved some measure of career success to come to campus and tell you that career success is not that important.

And I’m happy to give that speech. It’s actually true. I just had a book hit number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. I consider myself as shallow as the next guy, but I found the whole experience kind of flat. The commercial success was just a big nothing. The only thing that mattered to me was when people I admire engaged the book in a serious way, as happened to me magically last night here at Brandeis.

This confirms my general experience, which is that achieving some career success means you don’t have to feel the negative experience of feeling like a failure, but it doesn’t produce much positive sense of joy.

But I’ve decided not to talk about success and failure in the abstract today. I’ve decided to talk about the specific experience you Brandeis grads will experience over the next 5 or 10 years.

Think of this experience as leaving a chute. Over the past 15 years of your life you have been funneled through a set of rigorous and supervised institutions. The paths have been marked out, the grades you had to get and the tests you had to do well on. But, starting today, or in a few years when some of you leave graduate school, you will shoot out into a world that is unprecedentedly wide open, with an unmarked variety of lifestyle options, a global variety of places to live, an incredibly diverse number of careers, most of which you have never even heard of.

There will be an extreme contrast between the life you led until today and the life you will start tomorrow, from high-pressure structure to an extreme lack of structure.

Young Americans today live the most supervised childhoods in American history. The University of Michigan does these time analysis studies and they have found that over the last few decades the amount of time young people spend just hanging around on their own has declined by about a third. The amount of time they spend in adult-structured, supervised activities has risen by about a third: soccer practice, piano practice, SAT prep, LSAT prep.

And so we now have these public cartoon characters to symbolize the new mode of childrearing —Tiger Moms, Ubermoms, Helicopter Parents. Where I live you can see the Ubermoms coming to pick their kids up at the elementary schools in the afternoons. The Ubermoms are highly successful career women who’ve taken time off to make sure all their kids can get into Brandeis. The kids come out with these 80 pound backpacks stuffed with books so that if the wind blows them over they’re like beetles stuck there on the ground. The parents usually drive Saabs and Audis and Volvos because in my kind of suburb it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car so long as it comes from a country hostile to U.S. foreign policy. You can usually tell the Ubermoms because they actually weigh less than their own children. During conception they were doing little butt exercises to stay fit and trim, and during delivery they were cutting the umbilical cord themselves and flashing little Mandarin flashcards at the thing to get them ready for the college admissions process.

Their kids are raised for six-figure incomes and ecological sustainability. They get taken to Ben and Jerry’s because even their ice cream should have a moral conscience. I once joked that Ben and Jerry’s should make a pacifist toothpaste: it doesn’t kill germs, it just asks them to leave. They also get taken to socially enlightened grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, where all the cashiers look like they are on loan from Amnesty International, and they buy them these obscure organic snacks made from sea weed, which are for kids who come home and say, “Mom, mom. I want a snack that will help prevent colorectal cancer.”

So, by the time these Ubermom kids will apply to college, they will have cured four formerly fatal diseases, started three companies, done environmental awareness training in Tibet and competed in the Olympic trials in some completely obscure sport like fencing or competitive yoga.

The meritocracy has gotten much more competitive. Nobody my age could have gotten into the college they attended as a youth, and so everybody in your age group has been forced to do more homework assignments, to do better at sports, to do more community service, to jump through more hoops than almost anyone a generation ago.

And then suddenly it stops. Graduation comes. The supervision and the tests end. Yesterday people were paid to read your writing; tomorrow no one will get paid. Yesterday, faculty, administrators and residence heads marked your progress. Tomorrow nobody watches, except at a distance.

Tomorrow you will enter a new, unmarked, uninstitutionalized phase of life. And if you’re like most people your age, you are going to spend the next 10 years wandering around American society.

People who graduated from college a generation ago usually did four things in rapid succession. They got their degree, they found a job, they got married and they bought a home. In 1960 the vast majority of college grads had done these things by age 30. Now the situation is reversed. The vast majority have do not these things by age 30.

Today you get your degree, but if you are like most college grads, you will spend the next decade of your lives moving from city to city, school to school and from job to job, temping, bartending, teaching, interning, experimenting with different careers and lifestyles. While you do this, by the way, your parents will be going slowly insane.

Everything will be contingent and uncertain. Many of you will find yourselves in professions you’re not really thrilled to be in, but you’re really not sure what else you want to do.

Many of you will hold junior associate jobs at various companies and organizations. The 40 year olds in your offices will have their career status established, but you’ll be in these peripheral one- or two-year slots. Last month you were reading Tolstoy at Brandeis, next month, if you’re lucky, you’ll be working at a copying machine at some organization and providing the middle-aged people in the office with nothing more than fact-checking and sexual tension.

You’ll have to figure out for yourself how much you can suck up to your superiors without losing all self-respect. You’ll have to figure out what age in your 20s you should really should stop playing Mortal Combat. Most of all you’ll have to figure out how to tie yourself down.

In America we celebrate freedom. But the fulfilled existence is more like the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where Jimmy Stewart character dreamed of getting away and being free, but the real meaning of life came from the things he was irredeemably tied down to and committed to—his family, his town and his bank.

Over the next several years you will be compelled to go hunting for commitments.

This hunt for commitments will require extraordinary skill. You can’t just commit to the first thing that comes along. But you can’t wait and miss your opportunities. You have to struggle against the signals of your culture and commit to serious things that will give your life significance. Once you pounce on your commitment, you have to dig your teeth in, and hang on in good times and bad.

For example, you will be called upon to commit yourself to a husband or a wife. This won’t be an abstract proposition. It will be with a real live person, with a name, a face, unwanted odors and body hair. You will have to ask yourself, is this the person I want to marry?

This will be the most important commitment you will face over the course of your life. If you have a great career and a bad marriage, you’ll be miserable. If you have a great marriage and a bad career you’ll be happy.

I tell educators they should compel every student to major in marriage. Students should be compelled to take courses on the psychology of marriage, the literature of marriage, the neuroscience of marriage, the history of marriage. Nobody listens to me, so in your 20s you will have to assign yourself your own curriculum. You will have to prepare yourself for this enormous task.

You will also have to commit yourself to a problem. I think it’s a mistake to ask yourself, “What career do I want to have?” It’s better asked, “What problem is life summoning me to tackle?”

Some of you will find yourself in a poorly managed office. Life will ask, “Can you lead and inspire people better than that jerk?” Some of you will have a relative with Alzheimer’s. Life will ask: “Can you help cure that disease?” Some of you will find yourselves in neighborhoods were people drop out of high school, generation after generation. Life will ask, “Can you help break this cycle of poverty?”

The value of your life will derive from how fully you tie yourself down to a problem. And here I get to the crux of what I want to say to you. When you exit the world of the educational system and enter the commitment hunt, you will be called to practice an overlapping but slightly different set of skills.

Instead of answering questions others pose, you’ll have to be the one choosing the questions. Instead of completing a set of assignments, you’ll have to scan a very confusing landscape and create your own assignments.

As a commitment hunter, you’ll have to possess metis, a Greek word that means looking over a landscape and having the ability to discern the important patterns and trends. You’ll have to possess equipoise, the ability to look inside your own mind, observe your own weaknesses and correct for them. You’ll have to practice sympathy, the ability to look across a social landscape and be sensitive to the emotional cues of the people around you. You’ll have to practice mindsight, the ability to quiet your own prejudices so you can really absorb the wisdom of the people around you. You’ll have to observe propriety, the ability to practice small acts of self-control, habits, and etiquette, so that when the big moral challenges come along, you will have the character muscles to meet them. These skills overlap with, but are different from, the skills that helped you excel in school.

There’s a big difference between getting a good GPA, which requires you to do well across a range of subjects, and making a commitment to the world, which calls on you to be maniacally focused on one subject.

Some of the people who did really well in school will struggle in the next chapter of life, and vice versa. The average self-made millionaire in this country had a collegiate GPA of 2.75. Some of your friends who scraped by at the back of the class — be nice to them. In a few years you’ll have a new name for them: boss.

Some of the skills you will need are scanning skills. They are the skills of observing the world closely and making sense of what you see. Some of them are emotional skills. Being able to detect and understand your own and other people’s feelings and passions.

And so how does one develop these skills? Well, the good news is that the single best way is to get a good liberal arts education of the sort you’ve received at Brandeis. When you read history you get a wealth of metaphors and historical analogies. You can use these patterns to make sense of the world. When you read a novel or listen to a piece of music you move along with the characters. You begin to absorb and internalize their emotional states. You widen your repertoire of emotions and you are able to make more subtle emotional valuations.

When you are around creative and idiosyncratic peers, you widen your vocabulary of personality types. When you are asked to write paper after paper, you become better at arduously plumbing your own unconscious intuitions and bringing them rigorously to the surface.

At Brandeis you’ve had two educations. The first education gave you a set of conscious skills and that’s a very important education. But second, you educated your emotions. You absorbed ways of being from your professors and your peers. You absorbed ways of thinking and reacting. You absorbed standards for how a decent person lives.

This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In the formal curriculum, the teacher describes what is going to be learned and then everyone marches through it. In the informal education the information comes indirectly, obliquely. Learning is the byproduct as you search for pleasure—as you hang around with your buddies, as you get to know your teachers, as you silently absorb the ethos of this place.

In his book, “Culture Counts,” the philosopher Roger Scruton had a nice passage for how the liberal arts education subtly molds us. He wrote: “The reader of Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ learns how to animate the natural world with pure hopes of his own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ learns the pride of corporations and the benign sadness of civil life; the listener to Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.”

The decade ahead for you will be very challenging. One of the reasons America is a great is that we force our twenty-somethings to go through an uncharted decade during which they learn to take control of their own lives. But as the challenging years ahead will be, I suspect you are well prepared.

And the only question will be: Do you have the courage to throw yourself into the commitment hunt? Will you try on many different experiences and lifestyles to see which ones summon you? And the only final thing to say is that happiness is not achieved by chasing it directly. Your worth and happiness will be a byproduct of how zestfully you engage the commitments life throws in your path.

Most of us are egotistical and most of us are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only when the self dissolves into some larger task and summons. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Thanks for your attention.


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