Good evening. I'm honored to be speaking to you today as you join us in our nation's oldest and most distinguished honor society. You are the newest chapter in Phi Beta Kappa's 233-year history; welcome. You've no doubt noticed that the University of Florida's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa is the Beta of Florida. The Alpha belongs to our friends up the road in Tallahassee, and that dates back to their history as the women's college in the state. Without a doubt, they will never let you forget it, and I feel your pain. I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Virginia Tech, which, like UF, is the land grant institution (aka "Cow College") in Virginia. Now, since this honor society began in Virginia, at the College of William and Mary, back in 1776, it's natural that there would be many chapters there. That's true, and the University of Virginia received its chapter long before Tech, but to make matters worse, Tech's chapter is the Mu of Virginia. A cow college with the mu chapter. Certainly an excellent joke on us.
As director of the Honors Program at the university, I've become familiar with all sorts of honor societies, both at the university and high school level. Some are well-known, others obscure; some legitimate, others less so. It seems that there's an honor society for eveything these days, and our nation's culture is drifting toward one in which everyone is honored in some way. Once upon a time, just about the only pre-college honor society was the National Honor Society, of which I'm sure most of you were members. Well, now there's the National Junior Honor Society for middle school students, and I was shocked to discover recently that there is now the National Elementary Honor Society. I don't really remember what I was doing when I was eight years old, but I'm pretty sure it did not involve padding my resume with memberships in specious honor societies.
There are at least two things wrong with this trend, in my view. The first always reminds me of the Pixar film, The Incredibles. There's a scene in which the son, Dash, who has the power of super speed, has gotten in trouble in school as a result of using his abilities. His mother is admonishing him in the car on the way home, and at one point tells him, "Everyone's special, Dash," to which he responds, "Which is just another way of saying nobody is." Well, they are both right of course, but Dash hits it on the head. As I review applications for the Honors Program or some of our scholarship programs, I see lists of credentials and honors as long as my arm, and the fact is that it is rather difficult to distinguish one student from another. Each of these students is special, but we've obscured that with the sheer quantity of honors we shower on them.
But that's not the real problem with the proliferation of honors in our society. The truly insidious part of all of this is that it is a symptom of a bigger issue in our culture, what I call the culture of striving, of making achievements ends in themselves for the purpose of documentation. And that's what I want to talk to you about today. I hope to persuade you not to strive, but, rather, to live.
Now, I don't mean that you shouldn't be successful. It's entirely natural to want a certain level of professional satisfaction and material comfort. We all want to have a job we like, a nice home, a loving family, etc., and there's absolutely nothing wrong with working hard to achieve those things. I do it, too. But you shouldn't become a slave to it, nor should you do it to please your family or impress your neighbors.
At this point, I'd like to have an interlude in which I read you a poem. This may seem strange coming from a mathematician, but I'd like to think I embody at least some of the liberal arts spirit that Phi Beta Kappa celebrates. It's called The Summer Day, and it was written by Mary Oliver, one of the greatest living American poets.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean--- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I shared that with you for a couple of reasons. First, it's just a beautiful poem, and I rarely make it to the end without choking up, and I'm a firm believer that we all need a minute or two of beauty in our daily lives. But it also has a didactic purpose---its central theme is that perhaps the most important thing you can do in your life is to pay attention. Not to mundane things like watching the road when you drive and keeping your checkbook balanced (I only do one of those, by the way), but to the smaller, more intimate places in your life.
It's not meant to be interpreted literally. I don't think you should spend everyday "idle and blessed,""strolling through the fields" (although you should do that once in awhile). The grasshopper is a metaphor for the small, quotidian items that are easily pushed aside, especially if you are too engrossed in your pursuits to stop and notice those common things that make life truly worth living---a cool breeze, the smell of gardenias in the spring, the gentle touch of your spouse as you both struggle to wake up in the morning. The poet reminds us that life is short and exhorts us to figure out what we want to do with our brief time on this planet.
Our current focus on success, on competing in the new millenium, is, in many ways, the antithesis of this message. The last three decades have ushered in a new era of every-man-for-himself, win-at-all-costs individualism, in which success and failure are measured by how much money we make, how many things we obtain, how many honors we garner. This is as old as civilization, of course, but never in history have things been so quantified. We reduce our children to test scores and numbers of community service hours performed, and judge them (and their teachers) successes or failures as a result. We discourage risk-taking, focusing instead on training people to find the "right" answer. We all but force them to strive, rather than to live and learn and explore and mature.
Again, let me say that I am not suggesting that you not work hard. Accomplishing anything takes hard work; talent is the easy part. But what I am suggesting is that you stop trying to succeed, that you not make success the focus of what you do. Rather, pursue the things you love, work hard to hone your talents and to put them to good use, and a good life will likely follow. No guarantees, of course, but a pretty high probability. But setting out to be a "success" will always leave you unfulfilled because you'll never be enough of one to satisfy you.
The capital T-truth (I borrowed that from the late David Foster Wallace, who was a really good example of what I'm talking about) is that in your adult lives you will find it all too easy to slip into a mode of striving. You'll be in graduate or professional school, or working in your first job, and if you are not careful your desire to achieve will consume you. Being products of the modern American educational system, most of you slip into this mode by default. We've been setting up hoops for you to jump through since you were in pre-school, and you're all quite adept at it by now. And since we've given you trophies and ribbons and accolades every time you made it through, whether it was a ring of fire or not, you've grown accustomed to praise, and, like all human beings throughout history, you like it.
But here's the rub: the real world doesn't actually work that way. Many of your future achievements will go unnoticed, viewed simply as you doing your job. In all likelihood you will, at some point in your life, work really hard for something and not get it. If you view this as failure, if you are too wrapped up in it, if your sense of self-worth relies on the successes and the associated accolades, then you will be doomed to a long life of frustration.
If, instead, you make your focus the simple act of living, of getting up in the morning with the intent to give it your best shot, to work hard at the thing you love, without worrying about success at the end of it, then I promise you that Thoreau's prophecy will come true: "If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
So I will repeat Mary Oliver's question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Will you strive, or live?
You did not earn an invitation to Phi Beta Kappa because you strove for one. That is my favorite thing about this honor society---it is almost impossible to try to become a member. It happens because you are a well-rounded student of the liberal arts, one who appreciates math, science, history, literature, and language. You are being inducted into this group because you have the capacity to pay attention to a broad range of things, including those things that often go unnoticed. So I am optimistic that you will choose to live.
Again, congratulations, and to borrow once more from David Foster Wallace: I wish you way more than luck.