If You Are Floundering, Read This

Let me begin with gratitude.

Sixty years ago, my mother emigrated to this country from Taiwan. Like you, she’s a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

Were it not for Penn, my mother—who was rich in spirit but nearly penniless–wouldn’t have kept her visa. Were it not for Penn, my mother wouldn’t have been allowed to stay in the United States, wouldn’t have met my father, and wouldn’t have given birth to me, right here in Philadelphia.

So, thank you Penn for letting me sneak in here three times: ten years ago to join your faculty, five years before that to earn my PhD, and decades before that when you offered my mother a full scholarship to the School of Design.

Gratitude and responsibility are two sides of the same coin: From those to whom much is given, much is expected.

Like most maxims, this one is true. You’ve each been given so much—you know you have—and with those many blessings…comes the burden of responsibility.
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At my college graduation, my mother wept. I thought at first they were tears of joy. But then she pulled me close, and said with great sadness: “Oh, my little girl. I’m worried for you. So much weight on your shoulders.”

Somehow, through all the pomp and circumstance, my mother understood exactly how I was feeling.

Many of you today are likewise experiencing mixed emotions: appreciation for all you’ve been given and apprehension as you contemplate what is now expected.

After all, your parents have been bragging about you for four straight years. You’re newly minted Ivy League graduates. And yet, with few exceptions, you, the bright and beautiful Class of 2018, have no idea what you’re going to do with the rest of your lives.

Don’t panic! I’m here to tell you that’s perfectly normal.

At your age, I was exactly the same. If someone had told me that I’d become a professor someday, I’d have laughed out loud. I didn’t think I was smart enough. I didn’t think I was intellectual enough. And I knew for sure I wasn’t boring enough!

For a full decade after graduating from college, I wandered through a half-dozen jobs: running a summer school, speechwriting, management consulting, helping manage an Internet startup…I taught math in the public schools. Maybe the only certainty in my mind was that I would eventually settle down far, far away from where I’d grown up.

It wasn’t until I was 32 and pregnant with my second child that I had the clarity to enroll in a doctoral program in psychology—in, yes, a university literally down the street from where I was born. So much for certainty!

When I finished at age 36, I was older than many of my professors. In other words, it took me quite a while to figure out what to do with all the good fortune life had handed me.
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Today, my research specialty is grit and high achievement. I’ve surveyed Green Beret soldiers and finalists in the National Spelling Bee. I’ve interviewed Olympic gold medalists and Emmy-award winning musicians. Basically, I study the sort of people who are supposed to show up behind the podium at graduation.

In every domain I’ve studied, I’ve found that grit is a common denominator of high achievers. What is grit, exactly? Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Instead, grit is working incredibly hard at something for an incredibly long time. But it’s not just perseverance.

Ask world-class performers how they feel about their work, and without taking a breath, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you: “I love what I do.”

Grit is passion and perseverance.

Having earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania means you already know a lot about perseverance: You’ve worked hard. You’ve overcome setbacks. You’ve finished what you began.

But what about passion? What about loving what you do?

My guess is that many of you know all about determination but are struggling to find direction.

For you, I have three suggestions.

First, understand that the seed of passion is curiosity. Everybody is interested in something, and nobody is interested in everything.  So think for a moment about what drew you to your major, how you chose to spend your time outside of class, where you mind wanders when you have a free moment—these are all clues to your interests.

Second, motivation is at its apex when what you do is not only interesting–it also aligns with your deepest personal values. In my data, passion and a desire to improve the lives of other people go hand in hand. You may not know what you want to be when you grow up, but…you may know about a problem in the world that needs solving.
My final piece of advice is this:  try stuff out. Passions aren’t discovered through mere introspection. Instead, they’re developed through trial and error.

Developing passion is a lot like dating. It can be fun. But also unpredictable and sometimes exhausting.

You start your first job and find you like some parts but can’t stand others. After a few years, you move on, and again, you’re disappointed. Time and again, it seems like you make wrong turns. Slowly and sloppily, you figure things out.

Perhaps I might have found my way a bit sooner had I reflected on my interests and values. But there’s no way it would have happened the way I desperately wanted it to happen, like it does in the movies, in a single instantaneous flash of insight.

Now, with my 25th college reunion in the rear view mirror, I can tell you that I love what I do. Even so, angst is no stranger. I struggle to balance work and family. I take bets on projects that don’t work out. I’m behind the podium at your graduation, and yet I’m still figuring things out.

Soon after my mom completed her degree here, and married my dad, and gave birth to my brother, and then my sister, and finally me, she started a little business selling hand-painted needlepoint canvases. The idea was my dad’s—he saw my mom’s talent and could imagine Lee’s Needle Art becoming a multi-million dollar international conglomerate.

Told by her own mom that her chief responsibility was “to be a good wife,” my mom dutifully carried out my dad’s directives. She ran that needlepoint business for most of her adult life. It didn’t become an international conglomerate, but she did a fine job of it.

Even still, it was never a passion. It took her a lifetime to figure out that, really, she isn’t an entrepreneur at heart but rather a painter.

Only in the last few years has my mom rediscovered fine art. She’s converted an extra bedroom in her apartment into a studio. She’s painting every chance she gets. She’s finding her own style.

My mom is here today—Mom, Happy Mother’s Day! She’s 83 years old. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you, truthfully, that she’s still figuring things out.

Graduates, there may be times in the months and years ahead that you feel like you’re floundering.

Knowing how much you’ve been given, you may fear that you’re falling short of everyone’s high expectations.
Take comfort in this: you’re not floundering. Like me, and your own parents, and my mom, and every person I’ve ever studied, you’re figuring things out.

Thank you very much.