C’est La Vie
Dean Scott Beardsley delivered the following remarks to graduating students on 22 May 2022.
Class of 2022, here you are. You have made it. Congratulations on your achievements and resilience!
As I think back over your journey of the last two years — your journey — could we ever have imagined it would turn out this way? That a series of Greek letters such as Omicron would chase us for over two years? That war would reappear in Europe. The list goes on. Our life context has brought many struggles — a yoyo of emotions from anxiety to fear to injustice and loss. Frustration at what could have been. My heart goes out to all who have experienced pain or loss.
And yet as sure as morning brings light to the darkness to the light, the past two plus years have also spawned great things. Kindness. Relationships. Opportunity. Innovation. Heroic deeds. Gratitude. Love. Optimism from the depths of despair. Your care and concern for the Darden community is what made it possible for Darden to be one of the only top business schools to remain open during the entire 2021 academic year for in-person classes. And for that, we are deeply appreciative.
In this context, some managed well and thrived. Others not as well. In my life too. Even with similar circumstances. Why? Some may be bad luck. And perhaps some could be attributed to perspectivism, meaning that the same set of facts and context lead to a different perspective and conclusion. It happens all the time. Just look at democracy, or what someone’s view of right and wrong is, or how one person has a cheery outlook and their neighbor bleak. But perspective and frame of mind are a choice. A freedom we each have.
But how do I get more of the great stuff on the teeter totter of life?
How is a great question, and it has puzzled me a lot. And every generation before. So, despite — or perhaps triggered by my newly found distaste for Greek letters such as Omicron and Delta — I found myself thinking of the Greeks. At Delphi, the temple of Apollo’s Oracle had two words of wisdom: Know Thyself.
But knowing thyself can be a challenge. We are each unique and have what the existentialists called facticity: elements of your life you did not choose such as when you were born, your country of origin, gender, race and parents. But could there be an approach we can all use?
To solve the problem, I went to Greece last summer with my wife. That is where Claire and I fell in love 34 years ago, and I thought it might inspire me. One of our first stops was to visit the University of one of history’s wisest philosophers: Aristotle’s Lyceum. It is now destroyed as are most of the beautiful things of ancient Greece. But it clear to me the ideas hatched there are powerful and endure. Perhaps their power is the reason Socrates was put to death and Aristotle’s apprentice Alexander went on to rule much of the world.
Walking around, I pondered “Know Thyself” and considered that Aristotle might have added, “Have a meaningful life.” I asked myself, what is your iOS, your personal operating system, for the pursuit of knowledge about yourself?
How do we learn? How do we be, well, a human … being? I hope it is fair to say that you have just learned a lot here at Darden. You put yourself out there in a new context, with new people, on new subjects in a new environment taught by professors you didn’t know. You didn’t control when you were cold called. You didn’t control COVID. You didn’t know if some classes would be hybrid or virtual. You tried new things, you failed, you succeeded, you embraced uncertainty, you observed and were given feedback about yourself. But you pursued knowledge — and in that pursuit — in those moments when you were stretched and tested and stressed, you learned.
Thus, we learn about ourselves by trying new things, in new contexts, with new people, solving new personal and professional problems without perfect certainty. And then we observe ourselves and what happened.
It is like life as recursion. Recursion is a function which is a function of the previous step. Like a Fibonacci sequence in which the next number is the sum of the previous two. In other words, you learn from your past development and plug it into the next step. Try new things, observe the result and see what can be learned for yourself, and then plug it into the next step of your development. The learning output of the previous step is in the learning input to the next step. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Call it continuous improvement, a growth mindset, or personal development. In this world, every setback is an opportunity to learn, and every challenge is a chance to improve. We don’t only measure wins and losses or money, we more importantly see what we can learn from the feedback in the game of life and become a better version of ourselves. Lifelong learning. Learning like we did as children when we found that flow …. Walk on Escher’s impossible staircase — while walking down, you discover that you are actually walking up.
But how to be? What should I be? Here are five ways of being I would urge you to consider.
- Be a critical thinker. Like Rodin’s famous “Le Penseur” statue, question your assumptions, ask questions and have an alternate hypothesis. Wonder, for example, why am I getting this newsfeed from the AI algorithm? Define your terms. Ensure you understand how others do the same. As Montaigne recommends, have “angular vision” to look at things from different perspectives. Our common humanity is much greater than we think. Notice what works and doesn’t. Seek excellence and good competition to increase learning; there is good feedback in losses and mistakes — and in winning — but you need to see it.
- Be values driven. As Martin Seligman calls them, find your signature strengths — they are you and part of “knowing thyself.” So discover them, find contexts of people and work in which to use them, and be yourself. On the yellow brick road of life, the bricks are your values, and your signature strengths will guide you toward the unknown.
- Be bold, and dream big and small. If we view stress as something to be minimized in life, we stop challenging ourselves and we stop growing. The biggest risk is often taking no risk at all. Pursuing dreams and projects is what makes life interesting. Whether or not you achieve exactly what you set out to do is important, but not the end in itself. But they are your dreams, and you are allowed to dream. Define your dreams carefully, and base them more on your personal mission and less on extrinsic quantitative measures such as money or ranking. The latter will be the result. It is a bit like the happiness paradox: The more you try to measure happiness, the less you are happy.
- Be aware of and beware of the tyranny of social comparison. Anxiety is a reaction to perceived loss. Think of FOMO, the fear of missing out. How much better does Instagram make you feel about your life? What are your perceptions and where do they come from? Where do your expectations for life come from? Have you ever noticed that the higher the expectations, the harder it is to be happy? Try gratitude instead.
- Be good and generous. Ask yourself both, “What is good enough?” and “How much good is enough?” This includes being generous of spirit and assuming positive intent. A meaningful life can come from being a responsible leader in the service of a good cause. Pursue your whys and your causes and callings thoughtfully.
In your pursuit of lifelong learning to know yourself, I give you these five ideas to program your personal operating system to improve your being: be a critical thinker; be values driven; be bold and dream big and small; be aware and beware of the tyranny of social comparison; and be good and generous.
You may be thinking, that’s all nice but how does it work with all the uncertainty the world is dishing out? The answer may be on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
I have a question for you. Did any of you stream a lot on Netflix and Amazon Prime during Covid? I never watch TV, but I know I have streamed more shows than ever before over the past 26 months. Amidst South Park, Peaky Blinders and Call My Agent, I found the Beatles documentary Get Back highly instructive.
I felt like I was literally able to watch Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa, as I watched McCartney and Lennon at work as the songs Let It Be and Get Back came together. It was messy, random, iterative, team-based, contextual, spontaneous, painful, nonlinear, emotional and absolutely brilliant. It drew on many of their past experiences. There was stress, pressure and dynamics, but there was joy, pleasure and flow. There were mini failures — it was not perfect out of the gate. Things got cut. The people and skills mattered, and they each brought something different. For some reason, I had imagined the songs were just penned at a desk and piano in one flash of brilliance and then played. No. It was like life and watching a recursive live learning performance over a few weeks. They were getting to know themselves. They captured magic in a bottle from their being. And for me one of the greatest songs, ever, was born: Let It Be.
It is much more than a great song; the lyrics are words of wisdom. What do you do when things happen? When people or the news say things that upset you? In your hour of darkness, it is standing right in front of you.
Stop trying to control what you don’t control.
Let It Be.
In the end, no matter what curveball or Googly life throws at you, remember you have one great power. The power of your attitude and mindset, and the freedom to exercise it. No one can take this away from you. Life is complicated but beautiful.
When all else fails, in French we have an expression for accepting life as it is: “C’est la vie.” It is typically accompanied by a shoulder shrug. For example, “Covid. A graduation brought indoors by 100 degree weather. Yeah. C’est la vie.” Try it some time. It is liberating.
Each of you is special. You matter. You belong in this world and are part of this world. I wish you great success in becoming the responsible leaders we at Darden have done our best to prepare you to be.
To summarize, as you go forward and seek to “Know Thyself,” remember this:
Let It Be.
C’est la Vie.
It will set you free.