It is that time of year again… graduations! As we come to the end of spring and start of summer, high schools, colleges and universities all offer commencement ceremonies where students wear long colorful robes and square hats, often sport a flower lei around their necks, and perhaps find something cute, creative and unique to put on their mortarboards as well. They’ll listen to a typically well-known local or national celebrity guest speaker give an inspiring talk and watch their peers walk across the stage to receive their diplomas and jesture enthusiastically to the assembled crowd.
In recent years, the take-home message of so many commencement addresses seems to be “follow your passion.” As a college professor who has sat through these events every year for several decades here at Santa Clara University, I have to admit that I actually enjoy these occasions a great deal. I love watching my students, and those whom I don’t know, experience such hope and happiness. It is also fun to meet their parents who are typically beaming with pride and joy for their child. It is all a very beautiful moment to witness.
However, I’m afraid that in our increasingly narcissistic world where the message seems to be “it’s all about you all the time,” the common commencement message to follow your passions and interests may make graduates feel good and motivate them, but it may also just add more fuel to the narcissistic fire that is spreading uncontrolled throughout our society. Rather than telling students that they should follow their interests and passions, I think what they really need to hear, and take to heart, is that “it’s not all about you but rather it's all about us.” Rather than follow your heart and do what you wish to do perhaps one should ask how you can use your hard-earned degree and both your natural and developed talents to make the world a better place for all. Sacrifice for others might be a more important message than go and be self-satisfied.
The world is in a dangerous place on so many levels with ongoing suffering in every corner of the globe and future human extinction a real possibility. Certainly students who are privileged enough to earn advanced degrees could spend some quality time trying to discern how they can become part of the solution to the troubles of the world and not part of the problem. Passions and interests are great but making the world a more humane, sustainable and compassionate place is more important and perhaps a better message for our graduates. With the rewards of higher education comes some responsibility, don't you think?
After following so many students for so many years, the surprising secret is that those who work to make the world a better place for others and engage in self-sacrifice tend to be happier and healthier than those who move through life with more narcissistic and selfish interests. Research supports this too.
I hope that students follow their passions only if they result in a better world for others: A win-win in my book.
So what do you think?
Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP