William & Mary

Who are you? Sullivan inspires graduates to consider values

Following is the complete text of President Sullivan’s commencement speech. -- Ed.

The truth is I am nervous, and I am surprised. Except for the first time, 13 years ago, I have not been nervous, that is. But this is the last time for me—and the only time for you. And then last year was Jon Stewart. His speech was magnificent—funny, profound, entirely irreverent and completely relevant, but what I remember best is what he said immediately after I finished introducing him. I sat down; he turned to me. I was sitting right there. You know what he said? He said, “Thank you, Mr. President. Until just now I had forgotten how crushingly dull these ceremonies are, so thank you.” Maybe now you know why I am nervous.

sI have told you the truth about me. What about you? Here you are perched precariously on the brink of the great unknown. Some part of you must be exuberant; another must be apprehensive. And the question that little voice that haunts us all must be whispering to each of you is, What will my life be like? The trouble is, the question can’t be answered. Oh, yes, for the briefest moment you might think you see a flickering, fluttering sign of what fate foretells. But that is self-delusion, wholly understandable, but self-delusion still. None of us can know the outcome of a story yet to be written.

So let me put to you an easier question, one that is at least partly within your power to answer. Who are you? It seems simple enough, I know, but even this question is harder to answer than you think, for the “who” is not about your GPA or what your major was or all the honors that light up the best lines in your résumé [and] the “you” does not query the depth of your longing for a large net worth or your hope for vaulting fame.

The question does not ask for answers about those things. It wants to know what lies at your soul’s center. Its purpose is to discover what about you is uniquely you. It is about the values and the strivings that will define your life and by which and for what you are prepared to sacrifice almost anything to achieve. The question, it turns out, is not really one but two: First, what is my life worth living for? And second, when my life is over, will it have been judged to have been well lived?

A wise man once wrote, “It is foolish to wait for your ship to come in unless you have sent one out.” We could debate the meaning of that thought, but we don’t need to do that and besides we don’t have the time. I think it is about the powerful and fateful connection between effort and reward. We live in a culture that is dominated by a presumption of entitlement. That culture makes us want to believe that effort and achievement are disjoined, and that’s not right. In my life’s experience, what is achieved is almost always an expression of what is valued and what is earned. Put another way, your values are your destiny. There is luck, of course, but I wouldn’t advise you to rely on it. Luck is by definition capricious and so supremely unreliable. Take care that the values by which you choose to live have the potential to earn the sort of success that will give you comfort in that oh so distant future when you have learned the hard way what matters and what does not.

It is not my intention to disparage an ambition for wealth or the hope of fame—far from it. These are the worthy objects of an honorable ambition, but wealth and fame are not alone enough, even if you have them both. They’re not enough if you would be worthy of what has happened to you here, not enough if you consider not just the privilege your talents allow but the obligations they impose.

In a long lifetime, I have learned some things about values and success. I wish I could tell you that they were profound. They are not, but they have mattered to me and they have made my life better—not because they have helped me contend with the counterfeit intoxication of success but because they have given me the strength to deal with the really big hurt of failure. In telling you this, I am mindful of how ridiculous can be the conceit of the old giving advice to the young, but we know each other. We know each other well. I have confidence or, at least, real hope that you will understand the spirit in which I speak. And here are four things I want you to know.

Be honest. All depends upon the durability of your integrity. To trifle with truth will corrupt everything else you try to do. Little lies are no better than big ones. By degrees, little or big, lies corrode the only sure basis for sustained and loving human relationships. What you gain by the indulgence of untruth is never worth what you lose, and what you lose is a part of the best part of yourself. One of my heroes—I doubt you know him—Judge Elbert Tuttle said it better than anyone I know: “For what is a share of a man worth?” Judge Tuttle asked. “If he does not contain the quality of integrity, he is worthless. If he does, he is priceless. The value is either nothing or is infinite.” So the choice is yours to make: nothing or infinite.

Be fearless. “Fearless” isn’t really quite the right word, but I can’t think of a better one. No woman or man in the whole of human history has been entirely fearless. Fear is as much a part of the human character as the capacity to love or the disposition to be cruel. What I mean is never—never—allow yourself to become the captive of your fears. To be in thrall to fear means that you are ruled by weakness and that means, almost always, bad decisions that will make a moral desert of your life. Fear is all the more insidious because of the many masks it wears. We rationalize that a fear-driven decision is the most practical choice, not ideal but the best we can do. Fear-driven decisions usually require us to convince ourselves (and it is not hard to do) that while we are perhaps afraid to make the decision we know to be right, it doesn’t really matter in the long run. There will be other chances, so we think, to retrieve the wrong, to address the insult done to decency because in the moment we are afraid to do the right thing. None of that is true, you know. Almost certainly you won’t have another chance. You won’t be given a second opportunity to make up for the first when you cravenly turned away from the honorable choice. And the worst of it is, a decision founded on courage—a choice, in other words, which defies fear—in the end is really no harder to make. And the penalty for being wrong—if the choice was made in honor—is so infinitely small compared to the consequences of a decision made in the shadows of fear and so disfigured by it.

Listen to Homer. He got it right. He wrote this in The Illiad: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all bound in a single honor, the brave and the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing as one who has done much.”

Be gentle. By this I mean be gentlemen and gentlewomen. It is not always an easy thing to do. Should you choose this path, you will have joined a company that is far too small. It is hard, but sadly true, to say that we live in a time when vulgarity is fashionable. This is the age of celebrity—a peculiarly soulless state—in which the celebrity is celebrated for nothing worthy, and those who celebrate celebrity are themselves equally empty. Both parties to the transaction have nothing to offer that should detain a sensible person for 10 seconds, and you must not allow it to detain any one of you.

Success that matters has no need to trumpet its triumphs. People who count for something worthy of emulation know that personal achievement is never a license to indulge in an orgy of overt egotism.

By gentleness I mean a quality that cultivates a serene self-containment and that reflects a self-discipline that makes the joy of great achievement all the more meaningful for its lack of self-advertisement.

By gentleness I also mean good manners, which are the sure mark of the true gentlewoman or true gentleman. On this subject, George Washington wrote, “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect for those that are present.” Can you imagine how much better this world would be if Washington’s advice mattered to more people? Do your part to bring that better world nearer. Live by Washington’s advice.

Be tenacious. Youth is impatient. You feel it in your bones. Your natural impatience, wonderful in some ways, is reinforced by a popular culture in which some of the most widely used words and phrases are “the 10-second commercial,” “the sound bite,” “the New York minute.” There is even some truth in the sort of joke that “we live in a time when, for too many, instant gratification takes too long.”

In the world you are about to enter, you will find no shortage of people with brains, winning ways and great ideas. What you will find in short supply are those with the tenacity, the simple grit, to stick to a plan when it gets tough, really tough—to hang on. You will see the backs of a multitude who were brilliant at the beginning but nowhere to be found at the end. They will have fled to new projects and new ideas from which they will yet again detach themselves when the battle is joined, when personal risk is real and failure is more than a distinct possibility.

If you care about success that really matters, steel yourself to be one of the few for whom the real risk of battle for real things is an inducement to engage, not an excuse to seek another opportunity elsewhere. A favorite popular singer of mine, K.T. Oslin, has a great line in a good song: “If you can’t take the fall, you shouldn’t take the ride.” I beg of you, don’t be one of the crowd who is afraid to take the ride, but I beseech you, when you fall, as you will, get back on the horse fast—really fast.

If you do these things, there is a price to be paid. You will enjoy fewer flashy up-front successes, but that kind of success isn’t worth the trouble. The glow of it is gone before you even have the chance to boast about it.

I have assumed since the day you arrived here that each of you has staying power, that all of you were in the game for the real thing and for the long run, that greatness was your goal and that you were out to change the world. Greatness is within your grasp. You can change the world. No, let me say it differently, you will change the world, but only if you frame your ambitions with a long perspective and only if you go about achieving those ambitions with a determination to fight through to the end—no matter that the end will prove more elusive and more difficult than you could ever have first imagined.

You don’t have to believe me. Listen to Einstein—1905 was his annus mirabilis. He published three papers: one proved the existence of the atom, another showed the validity of quantum physics and the third advanced his special theory of relativity. Not bad for a year’s work. In trying to explain these achievements, he said, “It is not that I am so smart. It is just that I stay with problems longer.”

If it is ultimate, not superficial, success that you wish to make the object of your ambitions, remember Einstein.

Having felt entirely free to offer my advice unvarnished and in terms unqualified, I should also make a confession. I have not always been honest. I have not always been fearless. I have not always been gentle. I have not always been tenacious. I am not alone. All of us will stumble. All of us will fail, time and again, to live up to the standards we know to be right. This can’t be helped. We are all human after all, but what we can do is to protect our determination to try again—to try better. Resolve inspires hope, and hope opens the door to redemption.

So the question at the end is the same as it was at the beginning. It is the question of your lives: Who are you? I know that every one of you will try to make yours a life lived to good purpose and with high honor. But you are the ones—the only ones—who can give concrete definition to that purpose and critical and specific context to the meaning of honor.

Saul Bellow in his Nobel address said, “At the center, humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom; the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul.” No one could deny the greatness of a life lived for the protection of human freedom and for the integrity of one’s soul. As I have said, the choice is yours and yours alone. Long ago, I resolved to make my quest one that Bellow would have understood, although it was only last month that I first read what I have just read to you. Believe me, I have never regretted the choice I made, even when I have fallen so far short that I despair of myself. If you make the same choice, as I hope some of you will, it is a choice—I promise—that will never make you wish you had made another.

Good luck and Godspeed.