2015 Commencement Remarks by President Herbst Skip Navigation

2015 Commencement Remarks by President Herbst

May 17, 2015

Address to the Class of 2015

(Note: These are remarks, as prepared, delivered by President Jeffrey Herbst for Colgate’s 194th commencement.)

Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, students, families, guardians, and friends, welcome to Colgate’s 194th Commencement and our celebration of the Class of 2015.
It is a pleasure to speak before you on this special day.

Before going further, I ask all parents and grandparents, friends and family of the Class of 2015 to please stand. Congratulations to you. We are grateful for the support you have provided to your students and to Colgate. While the students’ accomplishments are their own, they would not be here without you. Thank you.

I also want to acknowledge the presence of Dr. Thomas Bartlett on the stage. Tom was the eleventh president of Colgate, serving from 1969 to 1977. He was appointed at the same time that the Board of Trustees decided to admit women to Colgate and therefore ushered in coeducation, the most important campus development in the twentieth century. Tom is here as a grandfather of a graduating senior, another role I know he takes very seriously. Please join me in welcoming back President Bartlett.

Members of the class of 2015: your time at Colgate has come to an end. Between exams and good-byes, I hope that the last few weeks have provided at least some opportunity to review what you did and what happened in this place while you were a student. You undoubtedly have thought about what now seems like a blur of classes, extracurricular activities, friends, study abroad, trips home, trips back to campus, packing, unpacking. And you have surely thought about how busy you have been. In fact, Colgate students are very busy. We know from national surveys that Colgate students spend more time preparing for class, are more likely to come to class having completed reading or other assignments, and spend significantly more time on assigned readings for class than students at peer institutions. I am proud of those numbers, as you should be, and they may explain how quickly the time seemed to go by.

After this point, life will likely become more complicated. Spouses, partners, children, jobs, community service, religious observance will fill your lives and you will have far less control over your time than you do now. Even in this economy, you may personally have to adjust to an 8:00am to 5:00pm workday, or you will be expected to work around the rigidity of other people’s schedules or time zones. That may come as a shock to some of you. Experience suggests that, over time, you will, in fact, look back and think of your Colgate years as the longest period of unstructured time that you ever had. Within constraints, you could set your own schedule for intellectual pursuits, enriching activities, and friends. Some of this, no doubt, will be the gaze from rose-colored glasses, but it also will reflect the reality that no other time may offer the intellectual, social, service, and recreational opportunities you have had on this compact Colgate campus—all with friends nearby.

When not reminiscing about the past, you will have to think about how to use your time given your new, adult responsibilities. Here you will enter into one of the great paradoxes of modern life. After WWII, it was predicted that, given increases in productivity and the advent of computers, we would have to work less. A 1959 Harvard Business Review article suggested that boredom would become common. That has not happened and there is some evidence that in recent years workloads have grown heavier.

However, not everyone who claims to be working all the time actually does so. One study found that, when people were asked to keep detailed time diaries, those who stated that they were working extreme hours (75 or more per week) were sometimes off by as much as 25 hours a week. Recent evidence also suggests that a significant number of employees are able to moderate the time demands of their nominally consuming jobs through clever scheduling or subterfuge that makes it look like they are working harder than they are.

Yet, we certainly think that we are busy. Indeed, ask someone in today’s America how they are and they will almost certainly respond with “busy.” Indeed, many celebrate the long hours they work and “workaholic” is certainly not a pejorative term in much of American society. Or as Kanye said recently, to some acclaim, “I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.” It also appears that people, mainly women, who ask their employers to moderate their schedules (as opposed to faking it) tend to be punished during performance reviews.

Why the fixation on how busy we are? There are several reasons. The shift from an industrial to a service economy, and therefore from “widgets produced” to a more amorphous set of outputs, makes it hard to say what you have done, so it is more important to describe how you are doing it. Some professions bill by the hour so “busy” actually translates into income. Our electronic devices are now always with us and allow us to be in constant contact, so people may feel the oppression of work more acutely than in the days when leaving the office meant leaving work. It is hard to imagine Don Draper with an iPhone. The growth in the number of working couples has undoubtedly also increased the complexity of family life.

I have a particular perspective on this issue, which I gained living in and studying sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, especially in the rural areas, I have witnessed some of the busiest people I have ever seen. Men and women, but usually women, often wake up well before sunrise to begin daily chores that for many include tending crops and gathering firewood and water and bringing these supplies great distances so that their families can survive. Their tasks often go long into the night. The work is constant and the stakes are very high: fail to get enough firewood and your family will suffer. Yet, in many years of travelling in Africa, I have yet to hear people describe themselves as busy. They are more likely, when asked to say how they are, to talk about their families.

Similarly, some of the most successful people I have known across a variety of fields and who certainly devote enormous amounts of time to their ventures, never say that they are “busy” when asked. Instead, they will tell you what they are doing, about their successes, and, for the truly honest, about their failures. I also have seen people who do not seem to be accomplishing very much constantly proclaiming how busy they are, leading me, and undoubtedly others, to wonder why it can look so hard to seemingly accomplish so little.

It is perhaps no surprise that one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to an athlete is that he or she seems to be playing effortlessly. When watching Michael Jordan take a jumper, Usain Bolt run the 100, or Lionel Messi score a goal, no one talks about how busy they are, although all three had to practice and train extraordinarily hard to reach the pinnacle of their professions. Rarely do we hear the mundane, behind-the-scenes details. Rather, it is what they deliver that amazes us.

I am going to depart from the usual bromides offered in graduation speeches and make a very specific suggestion to you: when asked how you are, never say “busy.” Consider “busy” a four-letter word. Of course, there will be times when you are busy but that is not the point. Rather than expressing to others the velocity at which you are doing things, why not discuss what you are doing? You might very well find that those who asked about you will value hearing how you really are.

If you do not share more than you are “busy,” you also inevitably isolate yourself. As my colleague Barbara Brooks has noted to me, friends, family, co-workers and others cannot know you unless you answer them more specifically. At Colgate, you learned the importance of being articulate: to use language with nuance and particularity. You are capable of so much more than the pat answer.

Another benefit of the Colgate education that you have received is the ability to think critically. Over the last four years, you have worked to understand complex problems and issues in Anthropology, Chemistry, Economics and many other subjects by studying context, history and sequence, and being able to reduce the issue at hand to its fundamentals. These habits of mind were not developed just so that you could master the course offerings at Colgate. Rather, these are life skills, to be employed by you over the next decades to inform you about the world around you and, critically, to teach you about yourself.

Refusing the all-encompassing “busy” will require you to reflect on what you are actually doing, whether what you are doing has meaning, and if you are proud of your undoubtedly prodigious activities. There is no better way to grow as a person, a friend, a partner, a citizen -- and as a human being -- than to constantly ask yourself whether what you are doing is right. Proclaiming to be “busy” defeats all of that. Say, and think, about what you are doing rather than about how occupied you are. Eventually, when it comes to Colgate and the rest of your lives, what you will remember is your accomplishments and not the time they took.

Congratulations and best wishes as you look forward to what you will do next.