Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

It's Not About You


Delivered by Kirk O. Hanson, Executive Director, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, May 5, 2013

Thank you, Father President, members of the Board of Regents, members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, faculty and administrators, parents and family, and especially the graduates of the class of 2013. I am very pleased to receive this honorary degree and to be your speaker today. Having married a young woman from a Portland Family, this gives me the unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate to her family that all their fears when I married her were misplaced. The truth, of course, is that I would not be here without her.

On another note, you do have to wonder why a Santa Clara University professor is addressing the commencement of the University of Portland. I suspect it is because Fr. Bill wanted to rub it in – you see I am a real college soccer fan, particularly of women's soccer teams – and I have become totally depressed in recent years watching Portland's men's and women's soccer teams, and its other sports teams, knock Santa Clara out of various tournaments and national rankings.

I serve on my own institution's committee on graduation and I know that commencement speeches come in two types. There are celebrity speeches where you always remember who the speaker was (Wasn't it great to have Lindsay Lohan come to the University of Portland. Actually, she was unavailable this year.) The other type are the message speeches, by individuals you may not know –I fit that description - but whom your school thought would have something useful to say. That responsibility makes me anxious, but surveys show graduates don't remember a single thing speakers say at graduation, so I can relax.

I also remember the example of my own godfather at my own graduation. He was a tough California Highway Patrol captain ( I suspect many of you Oregonians have met some of his friends and coworkers). He could not stand the commencement speaker and disappeared half way through the talk. We found him later in the hotel bar. In his honor, I give dispensation to all godfathers here this afternoon.

Okay, graduates, I am the kind of speaker who is supposed to have a message. Something you might remember on your 5th, 10th, even your 25th reunion. Get ready. Here it comes. The message is: It is not about you.

You have heard that phrase before or something like it. Howard Schultz of Starbucks wrote a book "It's not about the coffee." Brandi Chastain, the Olympic and World Cup women's soccer star, who ripped off her jersey off on scoring the winning Penalty Kick to beat China, wrote a book "It is not about the bra." Lance Armstrong wrote a book entitled "It is not about the Bike." It wasn't, it was about drugs. Well, the message for you today is "It is not about you."

We are gathered today to congratulate you, to wish you well, to wish you a life of happiness and fulfillment. To get there, we and most adults have been telling you that life is about you. You were showered with awards and trophies when you were young, sometimes just for just showing up. A big purple dinasour kept reminding you that you were special. We have followed that up with an era of personalization – of tailoring everything in life to you. There are personalized license plates, personalized search results, personalized advertisements, personalized medicine, personalized educational offerings. We tell you to develop your own personal brand to be successful. You would be justified in assuming that for the rest of your life, everything will be tailored to your tastes and your desires.

Many of your generation have bought into this idea that it is all about you. A standard Gallup Poll question of high school seniors is "Are you a very important person?" In 1950, 12% answered yes. In 2005, that had risen to 80%. Now I am glad you have good self-esteem, but I worry it has tipped over into a belief that you are so special that life is solely about your wants and desires, and that this is the way to happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To be honest, my generation laid the groundwork for all this. We baby boomers have been so self-absorbed and so focused on pleasing ourselves, that we have influenced your view of the world. We have believed there was virtue in "Looking out for #1," that self-love was our first and only responsibility, and boy are we good at it. And because it is all about us, we have spent beyond our means in both our personal lives and in our public lives -- and are now piling up a bloated national debt that we will gladly leave for your generation to pay when we check out. And despite our frequently self-centered behavior, we think very highly of ourselves. Even college professors do -- a survey shows that 96% of college professors in this country, for example, believe they have above average teaching skills. Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average has nothing on us…

The University of Portland, the Congregation of Holy Cross, and your faculty has been telling you day in and day out for four years that life is about serving others – and thank God they have! But this is not yet a widely understood nor embraced notion, in your generation or mine. A long term study of the attitudes of college freshmen has indicated a steady rise in those who say that the most important reason to be in college is to get a good job and earn more money, not to develop a meaningful philosophy of life or set of personal values. A recent survey of 25 year olds indicated that 51% of them said being famous numbered among their top two life goals.

But an increasing number in your generation has been discovering something which too often eluded my generation. Happiness, true happiness, does lie elsewhere. It lies not in a narcissistic fascination with ourselves, but in service to others, indeed in living a life of service, to people and to things that matter. New brain research studies are even demonstrating that the pleasure centers of the brain light up more brightly when we are other-directed and "lose ourselves" focusing on others' needs. Yours is the first generation of what we are calling social entrepreneurs, individuals who are finding ways to create new organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, that also serve humanity.

From the moment you walk out of this hall, you will live your life fully, having fun. But you will also be making a series of decisions which pit your interests against those of others. This brings me to the second theme of my talk – that we face in life a series of unavoidable ethical choices, a succession of decisions that shape our character, that answer the question whether it is solely about you or about others.

First, there are unavoidable choices in your relationship with your family. If you haven't noticed it yet, you are adults now, with a new kind of relationship to your parents and your family. This is an important moment to contemplate and to understand fully that your family has lived for you – caring for you when you were completely dependen, feeding you, catching you when you stumbled, encouraging you to take risks, cheering your accomplishments, and need I say it, paying for your college education. (This would be a good time to stand up and applaud your families who brought you to this moment.) But it is no longer just about you, now is the time for you to contribute to the life of your families. Start by helping your parents and families celebrate today – as you celebrate. Later you may be called on to help a brother or sister that is not doing so well, to help your parents with family finances, to care for aging grandparents. I know some of you already play these roles with your families. Each time one of those unavoidable family decisions comes up, you will be asked whether life is just about you.

Second, there will be choices at work. You will hopefully have a choice of jobs – and opportunities to advance. You should be focused in part on the pay and advancement, but you will also have chances to ask whether the work you do serves others, serves the good of our society. Pick a career, a life's work, an organization that matches your passions and values, and serves others, and you are on the way to higher performance and real fulfillment. At work, you will come across situations where your firm or an individual manager lies to customers or doesn't treat some employees fairly, where it skips required tests or misreports its sales. You will have the chance to try to change what your firm or boss is doing. At times there will be risks to your career to do this, but it is the only way to real happiness. There are many retailers today asking whether they should have done more to prevent the tragedy in Bangladesh.

You will likely pick a life partner and marry. This is the most important role in your life, and it is definitely not about you there either. It is about helping your partner have the kind of fulfilling and happy life you want for yourself, despite the rough patches and the illnesses which are unavoidable. A marriage is a series of unavoidable ethical choices – opportunities for putting your partner's interests ahead of yours.

You may have children. Your role will be to care for a completely vulnerable human being, keeping them safe and helping them to find joy and meaning in the world, and even wiping their bottoms. The first time you do that you will know it is not about you.

You will settle in a home and become a part of a community. You will have many chances to say whether your circle of concern stops at the gate of your community – or whether it embraces the poor on the other side of town, or the underrepresented kids whose public education is decidedly inferior to yours. The University of Portland, dedicated so strongly to service in the community, and honored for it, has given you a head start on those decisions.

For some of you, life will demand that you pay what seems a very high price. This is unavoidable too. You may need to postpone graduate school to care for an ailing parent, turn down a great job because your spouse cannot find fulfilling work in the new city, or has a serious disease. You may be that whistleblower who has to lose a job to prevent a harm – in Bangladesh or in your own backyard. You will be criticized by some, and thought a fool by others. But that is okay, because you understand it is not all about you, and you know it is the only way to true happiness and fulfillment. You will be able to look yourself in the mirror on your 5th, 10th and 25th college reunions and like the person you see.

So you are beginning your adult life at a moment when the world is telling you that everything can be personalized to satisfy your tastes and to your desires. Don't believe it. Your task in life is to have good fun, but to find your true joy by helping the others in your life -- your family, your spouse or partner, your coworkers and customers, your neighbors, the needy in your own community and in far off lands you have never visited. You will deal with a series of unavoidable ethical choices and decisions, and how you answer those will be your character. But you are so well prepared for this wonderful life by your University of Portland education. Good luck and Godspeed.

May 2013

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