Every year, as thousands of commencement ceremonies take place across America, the sheer number of speeches pretty much guarantees that certain themes get repeated over and over.
Recipients of diplomas are told to dream big, seek challenges, travel the world, and find ways to make society better. These are all terrific ideas. But as a former reporter, my reaction to such generalized advice is an inner voice that says, “It’d be nice to have something a little more specific.”
Based on my own observations during the past few decades (I got my college degree in the 1970's and my daughter just received her master's in International Development) I do have one suggestion that many graduates may find useful: look for opportunities to connect and collaborate.
Early adulthood can be a seriously complicated period of life. I make it a point never to ask anyone in the 18 to 22 age group, “What are your plans? Do you have a job in mind?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but in many cases the path into future is fogged over with uncertainty. My advice to travelers along that path is to always keep in mind you aren’t alone. Making friends and staying connected with them during the journey can help avoid unnecessary detours and frustrating dead ends.
To me, the world of wireless communication is astounding. In my student days, most graduates headed off in different directions and the only times we saw each other and got caught up were during holidays or summer breaks.
I’m not saying that maintaining a network of friends will provide solutions to complex questions like, “Should I take a year off?” or "Am I on the right career track?" In my experience there are not a lot of “A-ha!” moments in life when everything suddenly falls into place and the way forward is clear. But sharing information, finding out what other people are doing, and how they coped with dilemmas about what path to follow is a useful part of your own decision making process.
In college I spent a lot of time at the campus radio station and occasionally we shared news stories with other stations. I often thought it would be fun, and useful, to find out more about how other schools ran their broadcasting operations and what kind of programs were airing. But my networking tools were the telephone and US mail, and long distance calling was expensive. That's my "If only" story — If only I'd had Facebook back then.
I also urge everyone, in the strongest possible terms, to build diversity into your networks. Don’t fall into the habit of only communicating with people who are just like you. We don’t have to become best friends with everybody we meet but creating online cliques isn’t useful. Insights about our personal goals and answers to questions about the future can often be discovered by reaching out across social, cultural, and demographic boundary lines.
The value of such collaboration was the subject of this year’s Jefferson Lecture by Walter Isaacson. His central point was that science and the humanities can generate great achievements when people draw inspiration from both fields. Isaacson talked about this subject on a recent broadcast of NPR’s “Science Friday” program.
Mr. Isaacson’s next book titled “The Innovators,” due in October, looks at how shared ideas by a group of talented thinkers created the digital revolution.
Right now there is no way of knowing who in the class of 2014 will come up with historic achievements that will change society. My advice isn’t really new at all, it just has more resonance in this age of effortless communication: Stay in touch, graduates. Don’t be strangers.