Earlier this summer, New York Times columnist David Brooks sent an unfamiliar message to college graduates: “It’s not about you.” This is in great contrast with commencement speakers who often urge students to never settle, display individuality and “march to the beat of a different drummer.”
As graduation looms for the class of 2012, my graduation class, I’ve been thinking: Brooks’s message is only partially true.
In a past column titled “The Summoned Self,” Brooks wrote about a successful businessman who, during his college years, spent an hour every night contemplating his future plans and solidifying his life purpose. This approach is rare, Brooks notes: “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”
Yet, Brooks claims college students are still being told to focus inward — to figure out what they want and then to live their life — exactly at a time when they need to start thinking about things bigger than themselves. “The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy,” he wrote.
However, such commitments are a lot to ask for. How can we choose a definite career path when we’ve only held two part-time jobs? And where to live, if we’ve only lived at home and at college? Or to even contemplate marriage, when we’ve had one major relationship, and our parents have been divorced twice?
Universities don’t require students to choose their majors immediately, since they obviously haven’t taken enough courses yet to know what they like and what they don’t. How can we be expected to make decisions that will affect the rest of our lives when we haven’t had enough experience to know what we want and what we don’t?
We can’t. It’s more likely that Brooks is suggesting that we start to think about these important decisions, not that we rush them. It’s more likely he believes the terms “finding yourself” and “gaining experience” should refer to experimenting and tinkering with relationships, jobs and lifestyle niches with the intent to learn what’s out there and what we want, instead of merely checking items off our ever-growing bucket lists.
I don’t want my commencement speaker to tell me that it’s all about me. Or that it has nothing to do with me.
I’d prefer she speaks about not only how we can help others, but also, how we can help ourselves. I’d prefer she acknowledges that it’s at least partially about us.
She would recognize Brooks’s main point: We should construct our identity through interacting with the real world, realizing and acting upon where we can make the most positive impact and not stay isolated in our rooms, or in the desert of a foreign country.
She would call the businessman’s actions mentioned in the beginning of this column potentially imprudent, because the time he spent planning his life in advance may have cost him other opportunities he couldn’t have planned for that could have altered his life plans for the better.
She would add: Think about most of the important decisions you’ve ever made. Most likely, they weren’t planned years in advance. It’s more likely they came about through a combination of diligent preparation and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.
On the other hand, she’d also emphasize how imprudent it would be to avoid internal reflection. She’d criticize the person who reacts to his every whim, never examines if he feels fulfilled by his activities and never corrects patterns in his mistakes.
She’d say it’s best to do both. Look inside: Think about what you want, what you can do and plan accordingly. But also know that life will probably force those plans to change. Be open to opportunities, to experiencing things you didn’t plan for. Then go back to the drawing board: reflect, tinker.
She’d make the following analogy: Let things hit you like a bruise. Embrace a person, an experience, an ideology, live it, and reflect afterwards. Did you like the bruise? Did it identify with everything you want to represent? If it didn’t, don’t let it hit you again.
I’d like my commencement speaker to close with the following: Today’s commencement speakers often tell you students to help yourselves, and Brooks tells us that by helping others, you’ll help yourself. I agree with him.
But I also believe that by helping yourself — through pursuing your passions, maximizing your talents and achieving self-contentment — you will be helping others too.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.