“Inspiring hope in a cynical world might be the most radical thing you can possibly do.”
‘Tis the season for exceptional graduation speeches, in which cultural icons bequeath their life’s wisdom to a new generation of, ideally, hungry-eyed thinkers and doers — icons like Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos. This month, one of my big heroes, Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz, addressed departing Gettysburg College seniors and imparted upon them, through anecdotes from her own remarkable story, a handful of beautiful aspirations to live by, summarized below.
We’ve become a society seeking instant gratification. We want simple answers, clear pathways to success… Life does not work that way. And instead of looking for answers all the time, my wish for you is that you get comfortable living the questions.
Novogratz’s four pieces of advice, synthesized:
- Focus on being interested, not on being interesting — don’t fall for status, seek opportunities that help you grow. (Cue in Paul Graham on prestige.)
- Don’t worry about what other people think of you. (Cue in Hugh MacLeod on ignoring everybody.)
- Avoid cynicism. Pessimists can tell you what’s wrong with the world, but it’s the optimists who set out to change it. (Cue in E. B. White on the duty to elevate rather than lower down.)
- Build on what came before. (Because we know creativity is combinatorial, everything is a remix, and giving credit matters.)
Focus more on listening and learning — the rest will come.
Take risks. Ask the “dumb” questions. Fail if you have to, and then get up and do it again.
Inspiring hope in a cynical world might be the most radical thing you can possibly do. Hope may not feed us, but it is hope that sustains us.
Before you finished getting out of bed, brushing your teeth with clean tap water, putting on clothes, making breakfast, turning off the light, walking out the door, you are benefiting from the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals from all around the world. They all deserve your spirit of generosity. So walk with humility and reverence for the human endeavor, and know it’s your job to help take that endeavor forward.