Finding Your Why and Putting It to Work
Graduates: I’ve been asking myself, ‘How do I feel this morning?’ And I’ve got to tell you, I feel so happy for you. Seeing you at Final Exercises on Central Grounds and having you cheer louder than any other school made me proud to be at Darden.
It’s awesome seeing you walk down the Lawn and Academical Village.
I’m sure you have heard countless times the question, “What are you doing after graduation?” or “What’s next?”
On the occasion of your graduation from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, I would urge you to ask yourself a different question, with only three letters: Why?
In French, there is a beautiful expression called raison d’être — one’s reason for being. It’s your noble purpose in life. Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl summarized, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life” and “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one’s own way.”
For the next few minutes, I’m going to suggest some ways to find your ‘why’ and then urge you to put your why to work as a path to happiness and ultimate success.
If you are sitting here, your life has been full of measurable achievements: top GPAs, GMAT scores, ratings, promotions, money earned, awards, wins. You are, by any standard, amazing people. Future leaders of important companies.
But given that you are likely to spend the vast majority of your waking hours working for the next 40-45 years, I would like for you to periodically contemplate the following: What is your raison d’être; the noble purpose of your work? Why are you doing what you are doing?
It may seem the ultimate irony that a B-school is asking about noble purpose. After all, isn’t the convenient narrative that B-schools, their alumni and the corporations they lead are evil or selfish and greedy? That businesses only care about one thing: money. That businesses are not the solution; they are the problem.
I often meet undergraduates who tell me they don’t want to go into business. I want to do something meaningful instead, as if there is a tradeoff between working for a business and doing something meaningful.
The way I see it, everything that has employment is a business, and is either for-profit or not-for-profit. Consulting, private equity or financial services are clearly for profit. But Teach for America or the University of Virginia are also businesses: not-for-profit businesses. Government is also a form of business, with legal entities, budgets, sources of funds, governance, talent issues, procurement, taxes, and the list goes on. Government also decides the rules of private sector business.
Many of the greatest challenges of our day — such as disease, cybersecurity, education, water, climate change, sustainable and affordable agriculture and income inequality — will need to be solved by businesses; many in the private sector, I might add. And although people often emphasize job loss, let’s remember job creation. Every job is generated by some form of business.
At Darden, we ask questions such as: What is the purpose of business?
As our own Professor Ed Freeman puts it, “Business is a deeply human institution, but its purpose is not to make as much money as possible. The purpose is something else. We need to put purpose back into capitalism because business is primarily about creating value for stakeholders — money and profits follow.”
Of course, businesses need to make money. The ability of any corporation to fully achieve its mission depends on outstanding financial stewardship and a viable economic model.
So, is there a contradiction between doing something meaningful and earning money? Obviously, some professions pay more than others. But it is not true that the only way to find meaning is to earn little money, nor is it true that earning a lot of money guarantees meaning. Further, money is not the only unit of measure.
It is possible to have your cake and eat it, too. The inaugural recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal for Global Innovation, which is hosted by Darden, is a great illustration. The first awardee, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, father of Silicon Valley and co-creator of the microprocessor, set out to make the world a better place through computing. He has done so, which brought him a fortune that he has donated to his foundation that focuses on health and environmental issues.
Another example is one of Darden’s greatest alumni, Henri Termeer, who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week. He grew Genzyme into a global giant and built the biotech industry. He is credited with creating orphan drug treatments that have saved more than 30 million lives. And those that knew him best knew him as a kind, generous leader, mentor and visionary who was also a family man. He used to babysit Dean C. Ray Smith’s children when he was at Darden.
There is a contract that exists between business and society through implicit and explicit rules, which are variables, not givens; and they are adjusted when not in responsible balance.
Your generation is also keenly aware that a contract exists between you and the business you work for — explicit and implicit. The explicit contract is things like how much you make, the job scope and your benefits. But the implicit contract is with yourself, and the fit with your own noble purpose and values. You decide the frame. In your coming jobs, will you define yourself or will you let your business define you?
We at Darden believe that it is possible to advance a title and a paygrade or two while advancing a passion or a conviction.
You are the next generation of business leaders. And if there is one thing that is true about any business, it is that talent matters. All of you here today are talented, and to a person I am willing to bet that you all want to make a difference and find meaning in your work. Is there anyone who doesn’t?
Thus, it is in the enlightened self-interest of business to provide meaningful work so as to attract, develop, excite and retain the best talent. That will deliver the best business results. The mission actually matters.
Finance, accounting and even our business school and university rankings teach us to measure ROI. Return on investment. How much money did you spend and how much did you earn as a result? It is a relevant metric to be aware of because money can be a constraint, and if ROI is negative there may be real consequences. Wanting to earn a reasonable standard of living is normal. Hard, quantifiable measures should not be ignored. Fear, targets, extrinsic measures are powerful motivators to a certain level. It is just that they are not sufficient.
I would like you to also consider a different metric. Don’t just review your income statement, review your outcome statement. Don’t just think about ROI, think about your ROY. Yes, the return on your why – W. H. Y. My experience is that a focus on ROY will lead to superior performance for you and your company. The why shapes the quality of the input, and thus directly the quality of the output. Do you get better grades because you are curious and focus on learning, or because you focus on the grade? Does a senior partner at a consulting firm generate more billings because she focuses on billings, or on helping the client deliver meaningful impact?
So how can you figure out what your why is? Many tell me they don’t know what gives them meaning. That they don’t know what they don’t know. My answer to that is to examine your personal values. To know thyself.
A good way to figure out what values and character traits matter to you is to examine the work of Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness. The father of positive psychology and former chair of the American Psychiatric Society of America, he studied the universal human character traits and values of the great religions and societies of history, distilling them into a hierarchy of traits. His basic conclusion is that if you seek and find work that allows you to put your most important values and character traits to work, you will be more fulfilled. He has a survey online that you can pursue.
Another way not to be frozen by existential questions is to simply be OK in not knowing what the future may bring, or “what you want to do.” You don’t have to know precisely what function or sector or firm or geography you will work in far in the future. I certainly had no idea I would be a consultant when I graduated from college, or a dean when I graduated from business school. When faced with huge uncertainty, recognize that the answer may flow from a process, rather than a crystal ball.
You should be open to what life may call you to do. Being able to articulate why your goals map to your values and strengths is powerful. For me, this led to a self-realization that what gives me the greatest meaning is helping outstanding people achieve their full potential. Education is one of the most magical gifts in the entire world — it can take anyone from anywhere to anywhere.
Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” That got me thinking, since we just had our alumni reunion. I agree with Mark Twain but would like to contend that 20 years from now, your greater regret may not be what you didn’t do, but that what you did do was for the wrong reasons. We don’t need to have clairvoyance, but we can have a magnetic north.
Every generation or two, there are major challenges that emerge, requiring leaders to grapple with serious uncertainty and change. As we think about Twain’s “20 years from now,” at your 20th reunion, if Moore’s Law holds, computers will be between 100,000 and 1 million times as powerful as today. The rise of the machine is happening, and artificial intelligence and distributed neural networks are disrupting and reshaping many industries and society itself. Self-driving cars, precision medicine, robots, virtual reality, cybersecurity and data wars, and new forms of learning will emerge — much like science fiction movies have portrayed. There will be second-order effects such as the taxation of robots, protectionism, the questioning of capitalism, and changing rules to protect certain stakeholders and national interests.
While it’s hard to envision the future exactly, I do know this: While robots focus on IQ and repetitive tasks, the value of emotional intelligence — or EQ — is going to rise. Here, humans have a distinct advantage. And the leaders of tomorrow — you — are going to need to serve the needs of our planet, and the humans that live on it.
At Darden and UVA, we have taught you to debate and think critically from multiple stakeholder vantage points. That the right questions are more important than the right answers. That values create value. That honor, integrity, teamwork and hard work matter.
You are curious and have learned how to learn. We have taught you not only the hard functional skills and the quantitative skills, but also the soft skills. We have taught you that being a global leader means knowing how to navigate all forms of diversity that exist on this planet. We have taught you to be responsible leaders. To be entrepreneurs and CEOs.
One of my favorite books of all time is JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf and Frodo engaged in a dialogue reflecting upon the challenges in Middle Earth. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
"So do I," said the wizard Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And so do you. You have to decide what to do with the time you have. You are at the beginning of a great journey. Find your raison d’être and put your why to work. I am confident there are none more prepared to make this world a better place. We are very proud of you.
Darden Wahoos of the University of Virginia: you are simply going to kill it!