“Give some advice to the graduating students” was an email request I received early in the morning on Tuesday.
I immediately thought that perhaps I didn’t have any meaningful advice to give. Norman Maclean, a renowned Professor of English at this University and author of the novella A River Runs Through It, shared my concern. He wrote: “I can seldom help anybody. Either I don’t know what part to give or I don’t like to give any part of myself. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, I do not have the part that is wanted.”
But if I did commit to give some advice, I would definitely stress the importance of focusing on the journey in the years ahead—i.e., the process—as much if not more than the outcome. It’s tempting to fixate on the destination given expectations of others not to mention one’s own criteria for success. In my experience it’s costly to ignore the rich learning opportunities of being fully present in one’s day-to-day experiences.
Here are three behaviors that I have found helpful in making this happen.
As the traveller, take ownership in shaping your journey and how you play your many roles over time. For example, occupying a position within an organization obviously sets some boundaries and expectations. But there is considerable wiggle room. You can bring your work role to life in ways that highlight your values and unique capabilities far beyond the job description. Those performances frequently benefit an organization and bring more fulfillment into your life.
Journeys often have sunsets, beautiful vistas, and memorable photos but also impassable roads, dead ends or getting lost. Careers can follow a similar trajectory. In my own years at Chicago there have been times of excitement, new ideas, new initiatives, applause. At other times, a bit of boredom, a feeling of nothing new, some fatigue and occasional boos. Loyalty and persistence may sometimes be challenging to maintain, but both can have a positive net present value.
Opportunities can arise unexpectedly and from unusual sources outside of your usual network. Some of my most important actions resulted from “blind dates,” saying “yes” without knowing very much about what was going to happen, or taking side trips. These behaviors do not imply just wandering aimlessly. They manifest from a discipline of paying attention to what is being heard, seen and felt. Attention demands a willingness to improvise, experiment, make mistakes, and being forever curious.
Someone asked me the other day how my own journey is unfolding (or has unfolded) after spending more than a half century as a member of this great institution. I think she was surprised when I suggested that the journey still continues. To use the metaphor of a sculptor, I still keep sanding away. I’m not sure I have any precise plan other than a general direction. I will continue to chip away, sand and polish to see what emerges.
I hope all of you who are graduating will throw yourself into your lifelong journey. If you do, I predict you will discover more about your “something special,” and experience outcomes that are both unexpected and deeply meaningful.