Dean Beardsley at the Lectern outdoors

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2021 Graduation Remarks

When the World Calls, How Will You Respond?

Short Outdoor Remarks

Thank you! I’m Darden’s Dean Scott Beardsley, and I want to pile on to what the faculty said to offer my deepest congratulations to you, graduates!

In the Darden tradition, I must start my remarks with a cold call. This question is for all of you graduates — from Darden, Law and McIntire — including McIntire undergraduates, who we hope will come to North Grounds someday! It’s even for your parents and loved ones, here and watching Livestream.

Here’s my question. Most of us have with us today a smartphone.

How many of you woke up with your smartphone today? Raise your hands.

OK, now how many of you feel that you spend way too much time with your device? Please, raise your hands!

Ah! Not surprising! I feel the same way.

So you might ask, ‘Scott, why are you talking to us about smartphones at graduation?’

There are several reasons.

Screen time around the world has skyrocketed as we have worked to remain connected though physically distanced. And technology is quickly changing the future of your work.

Another reason is that someday, I don’t know when, you might get a special call on your smartphone.

It might be the world calling.

And when it does, how will you respond?

Will you accept or decline the call?

This call will be one of the most important of your lifetime. This call will ask you, Darden graduates, as responsible leaders, to act on your values and dreams and to play your part in helping to change the world responsibly. 

This call could be serendipity knocking. A beautiful new relationship. A chance to learn. Are you open to something new and unexpected that was not part of the plan?

This call might ask you to step up – to see in tomorrow’s problems the opportunity to make a difference. It will likely require courage and making hard decisions with imperfect information.

In fact, it just might be your higher calling.

The core values you have learned at Darden and at UVA will guide you.

Here, you have learned honor and integrity. Your business ethics classes have taught you that business and society belong in the same sentence and the importance of all stakeholders. You have met new people and learned new things.

When that phone rings, follow your heart and let your values guide you. Build real relationships with people you can learn from. Pursue your purpose and say yes to meaningful work that fulfills you.

We have learned a lot over this past year, graduates. You have endured and are prepared for most anything. You have very worked hard to make it to this day.

Darden graduates, you are now alumni of the Darden School of Business, and your network of 17,000 alumni across 90 countries welcomes you.

The world, even the unknown, is calling.

And your faculty and I, we know that you are well-prepared to embrace the unknown and to push ‘accept.’

My sincere, heartfelt congratulations to you, your families and loved ones on your incredible achievement!!!

It’s now time for Darden student awards, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Senior Associate Dean Tom Steenburgh.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Full Graduation Remarks

Hi. My name is Scott Beardsley. I am dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. It is the tradition at Darden for the dean to give the commencement address, and it is my honor to offer a few remarks for the Darden Class of 2021 on the special occasion of your graduation.

Normally, I would give share some parting thoughts and advice in Flagler Court under the sun here at the Darden Grounds in Charlottesville, but I come to you today from the Darden studio. I wrote this for you in the greatest depths of the Covid crisis this winter and spring, and I call it the certainty of uncertainty, the unknown known, and life as a rolling stone.

As you re-enter the working world, you may feel some uncertainty about the future. Over the last 15 months uncertainty has amped up to levels we never knew were possible.

Prior to the advent of the Covid vaccines, depression had tripled, and anxiety seemed to be almost as commonplace as the absence of it. When you entered Darden two years ago, no one was thinking or talking about a pandemic and the associated economic, political and social tremors that would shake our world and this country. It was not what we were expecting, but I am proud of your perseverance. To top it all off, many of you were and are asking yourselves the big questions of life, questions like: What should my career be and why? What will happen in the fall? Or longer-term questions like, ‘what is the meaning of life?’

All of these existential questions further raise the specter of uncertainty. Humans dislike uncertainty. Uncertainty is the unknown; certainty, the known. But isn’t it the other way around? The unknown is certain; the known is not certain. What we think we knew is now uncertain. Our challenging context has made one thing clear: Uncertainty is certain and the unknown, known.

While I don’t know the answers to all of the big questions, I do have some thoughts on how to approach them and how to face uncertainty gracefully and at peace. And even how to use these unusual times as a reset to embrace the present moment.

As I reflect on all that has happened, I wonder if it’s possible that we may look back at 2020 and Covid as the great RESET? Will this be the time when we found a way amid turbulence to actually improve our lives and well-being? Will the crisis make us realize that uncertainty is certain and that we should reset our expectations accordingly? Think about the challenges you have overcome in the past 18 months and imagine how resilient you will be when the external context is easier. 

Expecting uncertainty in life

I often wonder, “What level of certainty should we expect from life? What is it exactly that you and we need to know?”

When I was 28 years old, I got a phone call from my brother Andy. I was in Eindhoven, Holland — and he needed to speak with me urgently. Andy never calls. It was a great time in my life as I was a newlywed, had a good job, and our first son Edouard had just been born. I was completely absorbed in my work and new life in Belgium.

My brother told me that our mom had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreas cancer at age 51, and only had a few days to live. I dropped everything and raced back to the U.S. with my wife Claire and son Edouard. Mom was in the hospital on morphine and overjoyed to see her first and only grandson. He took a nap next to her over the next two days, and I remember she commented on how he had the same long neck as me. And then she died. It was the worst day of my life. It shattered my world of certainty, where my mother was part of my true north. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t supposed to happen. It was similar to the lives Covid has stolen prematurely.

But looking back, it was also one of the most important days of my life. Because only at that moment did I more fully appreciate the gift of life. I had taken it for granted.  Mom’s parting gift to me was understanding life and how fragile and ephemeral it is. And how each day is a blessing. It was a big reset moment for me. Could Covid be like that for all of us – for all of society? 

When we are born, we enter into the world knowing nothing. Everything is unknown.  Initially, we explore all aspects of existence with the curiosity of a child and no judgment or stress.

At some point, things change. We are put into a highly structured system to learn. The pathway to “success” is clearly laid out. Go to school. Get good grades. Get into a better school and then college to get a great job and then a top master’s degree program.

At that point, we are asked relentlessly what we want to do for the rest of our lives. Stress creeps in as our expectations for mastering the future rise.

What if the right answer is, “I don’t know exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life”?  

Let me ask you, what would you do if Aladdin rubbed his lamp and the genie popped out and said, “I will reveal for you the rest of your life and make it all certain for you. What is your command?” I would say, “No.”

Living your life is a little like a sculptor revealing beauty by chipping away what was hiding underneath. Michelangelo famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That is like you and your skills and gifts; you are the sculptor of your life. Can you see the beauty in others you love … can you see your own gifts? 

What if you don’t know your purpose in life and are stressed because it is unknown, and you think you need to know now? The key is time. This allows for trial and error. Experiential learning. Continuous improvement. Time to carve the marble. To make adjustments to our own self-knowledge, self-awareness and calibration.

For much of your life, this means exploring the unknown about yourself, until eventually certain things move from unknown to known over time. As a child, it is natural, but somehow over time we deprive ourselves of this mindset.

Does this mean we shouldn’t have goals? Or dreams? No. Something to hope for is a beautiful thing. And goals provide focus so that we don’t have self-analysis paralysis.  Contemplating goals and having them is fine as long it doesn’t prevent us from living our life now. I am often asked about how I ended up at Darden and how I planned it all out.  Looking back at many milestones, I didn’t know where I would be or what I would do.

Did I know my family would move suddenly from Maine to Alaska when I was 10?  When I was 18, did I know what I would major in? When I was I college, did I know where I would meet a girl and who she would be? When I started business school, did I know about consulting and Belgium and McKinsey? And did I plan it out that I would become the dean at Darden? No to all of them.

Looking back, it all makes so much sense, but in the moment it did not. I feel like in some ways, it was a random walk. The foresight was not 20-20. I did have goals. To do a great job at what I was doing. To try my best. To try and get a job — get out of debt. To work very hard to keep my options open and to try and improve something. I am not here to tell you to be like me or to hold myself up as a paragon — I know I have many shortcomings. But I do hope to reduce your stress about the future and to increase your fulfillment in life.

You don’t control the future, and you can’t change the past. What you do now, though, is not uncertain. You control what you do. So, what can you do? Here are six ideas to consider when you are faced with uncertainty:

  1. Give yourself time to build optionality. Life is a lot about trial and error on different dimensions. Strategy under uncertainty is about creating scenarios for certain variables. Life is a lot like that. Work hard to give yourself a portfolio of life options if you will, each with different exercise prices and dates. Option value rises with the volatility of life.
  2. Adjust your expectations. Hold yourself to a high standard and dream big but slay the expectation monster of certainty. Expect the unexpected.
  3. Know that it’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” But here is how I am thinking about it and how I will find an answer and here is why it is important to me. Doing that is OK.
  4. Learn with the passion and abandon of a child. Don’t be a perfectionist afraid to make mistakes — we got to where we are speaking, learning, etc. by making mistakes and learning.
  5. Allow yourself to be in the present to maximize the future. Life is lived in the now. Worrying about the past and the uncertainty of the future reduce our ability to make a difference now. Develop good habits such as sleep, hydration, mindfulness and not being distracted by technology to allow you to be your best self, moment by moment.
  6. Frame why YOU are doing what you are doing in terms of your values and what you care about and what you can control. Don’t worry about what you don’t control. Framing and reframing is one of the most powerful freedoms you have in life and increases your optionality.

As you graduate, what is certain? Know this: 13% of Americans get a master’s degree or doctorate. You have learned how to learn and thus become experts in making decisions with incomplete information. You have made friends for life and survived Covid and one of the worst health care crises of the past two centuries. You are amazing people. And Darden and I and so many others here today love you, the unforgettable Class of 2021.

Your journey will be filled with uncertainty of specifics, but can be filled with certainty of purpose and values. If you remember that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and no one has a crystal ball, you may be able to seize on the beauty of the moment.  Like this moment … to be your best self. And the more moments you can be your best self and add meaning to each moment, the better life you will have had. As my Nana used to say, “The secret of life is not to do what you like but to like what you do.” Believe in yourself and be yourself.

I know I speak for all of your friends here at Darden when we say we believe in you and your ability to go on and make the world a better place as responsible leaders in the settings you will pursue. Congratulations to you all, and thank you so much for joining us on your journey.