What a “well-lived life” is and how to achieve it

(An aside to the students:

I have been asked for a standard commencement talk, aimed essentially at your parents. Before giving it, I address to you comments too Politically Incorrect (on leadership) or too
pedestrian (on habits) for them.

A) Your Horace Mann education was designed to prepare you for “leadership,” a formerly benign term implying “noblesse  oblige” (more is expected from those given more). In ancient Greece, young leaders becoming Ephors pledged to transmit their city to future generations “enhanced if possible but in no way diminished.” My generation cannot claim they did; let’s hope yours will.

B) Habits, for better or worse, imprison us all, and wise people develop good ones. Being well-informed, traveling widely, reading for pleasure, remembering that “the magic of compound interest” works against debtors and for savers, and similar ones make you who you are and determine your reputation. What you did yesterday determines your reputation today and becomes your “stock in trade” tomorrow—so guard it carefully. Now, for your parents. . .)

Congratulations, friends, and welcome to the happy ranks of those who have benefited from all that Horace Mann offers.

As honor graduates of one of the most respected schools in the nation, you are on the way to becoming educated people. Your past and your present speak for themselves; my role today is to discuss your future. In the American colleges toward which you are heading, that increasingly means being vocationally trained for high income occupations, with a smattering of exposure to the humanities for social polish.

Yes, material well-being is one of life’s rational goals—“necessary but not sufficient.” You will short-change yourself if it is your only aim, or if you let the search for it be life-deforming rather than life-enhancing. Eventually, when you are well paid, you are apt to find Veblen’s “conspicuous waste and conspicuous consumption” less fulfilling than satisfaction from challenging tasks well performed.

At Horace Mann you have learned to read and listen carefully, to question, to think critically and creatively and to express yourself clearly. You have been trained to understand an adversary’s point of view, to solve problems and to achieve results. Those skills are applicable to more than earning a living, so choose your goals wisely.

At my Horace Mann Commencement in 1947, former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (in his last public appearance) made the point that pursuing a career whose work you enjoy and whose goals you care about will give you a greater chance of achievement and more fun in the process. He emphasized that one’s idea of success changes over time, and that you should make provision early for the intellectual, cultural, civic and “pro bono” activities that will enrich your life later.

In contrast to the narrow view of “education” so widespread today, consider the German concept of “bildung” (as in “bildungsroman”), which implies a sense of personal growth and the development of character and culture, in addition to the acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Participate fully—personally, professionally and intellectually—in the best your society has to offer; contribute to, as well as benefit from, the life of your community; participate in activities whose “by-product” is happiness. These are the goals of truly educated people. With luck, you will reach yours—if you are willing to pay the price.

Powerful forces in America today are marshaled against you. If you aim at excellence, you may be labeled an elitist; if you work hard, you may be called a nerd or a wonk; if you look forward to a traditional family, you may be called square; if you aspire to familiarity with what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” some may assume that you are arrogant, conceited and out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” people. If you are goal-oriented, disciplined and aware of the “10,000 hours of effort” theory of accomplishment, you may be considered an oddity.

In our evolving society, racism, sexism and classism are fading—and good riddance—although the descendants of the Robber Barons and those of their servants still do not compete on a completely level playing field. But age-old problems remain; and what a “well-lived life” is and how to achieve it are questions we no longer ponder.

Aristotle (in the Nicomachean Ethics), Confucius (in the Analects) and others have posed the questions for us. But part of becoming mature involves determining one’s own approach to such questions. This is where philosophy, history, literature, art and music play their part. Inspiration comes from a broad spectrum of sources.

Life as a journey rather than a destination is best expressed by the poem Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy; the value of persistence, by the children’s story The Little Engine That Could; the goal of a civilized life, by Adam Smith—not in The Wealth of Nations but in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, with its exhortation to live so as to be “praiseworthy.”

Those of a religious bent may ponder the standards implied by the Kabbalistic legend of the “Lamed Vovniks.” These were 36 righteous individuals (anonymous even to themselves, one being born as another dies) put on earth by God, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to justify the preservation of the world.

For the rest of us, the definition of success was best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    To laugh often and much;
    to win the respect of intelligent people
    and affection of children; to earn the
    appreciation of honest critics and
    endure the betrayal of false friends;
    to appreciate beauty; to find the best
    in others; to leave the world a bit
    better, whether by a healthy child
    a garden patch or redeemed
    social condition; to know even
    one life has breathed easier because
    you have lived. This is to have

In Emerson’s name, I wish you all success.

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