- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

As millions of American students graduate from high schools and colleges in cap-and-gown ceremonies both solemn and festive this spring, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on their prospects for successful living and working. Of course, those entering the working world are doing so at a time of great uncertainty and financial distress, with tight employment and credit markets.

It’s possible, though, that the recession could be a fleeting concern compared to a more personal and lasting challenge they face: finding their moorings amid a sea of choices in a culture that sends them profoundly mixed messages. Decades ago, the life and career paths of the young largely were spelled out in advance, but today’s youth must forge their own path. That can be liberating and unnerving for young people without much basis for making such vital decisions.

Graduation speakers across the land already are dispensing lessons learned and wisdom earned. What have we learned in recent decades about how to live - about how to lead productive, successful, rewarding and fulfilling lives?

Fortunately, a lot.



Not long ago, a sea change swept through the field of psychology, flipping the focus from debilitating conditions and diseases (i.e., what makes people suffer) to happiness and success (i.e., what makes people thrive). The emergent “positive psychology,” led by such luminaries as Martin Seligman (author of “Authentic Happiness”) and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow”), resonates not only with new research on youth and adult development, but also with surveys of key factors leading to success in life (from books such as “Success Built to Last”) and studies of people in their twilight years reflecting on how they lived. It also gibes with ancient ideas of happiness dating back to Aristotle and his concept of “eudaimonia,” or a full flourishing of self through excellence and virtue.

One could synthesize this convergence of research and thinking with two key words: meaning and service. That is, find ways to have meaningful connections with and make significant contributions to others. Meaning and service.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the rising generations get this. Countless surveys have indicated they are civic- and service-minded, and that many are not only “life shoppers” - searching for a lifestyle that suits them - but seekers of meaning and connection as well as success and wealth.

Take, for example, two high school seniors who recently received AXA Achievement scholarships: Joshua Wortzel and Brittany Bergquist. Mr. Wortzel started the Garden of Giving, which grows and donates organic produce to local homeless shelters via a solar-powered greenhouse located at a Pennsylvania retirement home, with 20 students and 10 senior citizens running it. The project fosters intergenerational connections while serving homeless people and cultivating environmental stewardship in the community.

Ms. Bergquist started Cell Phones for Soldiers with her brother, Robbie, when they were 13 and 12, respectively. To date, they have raised almost $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers overseas. The project started when they were getting ready for school one morning and saw a TV report about an Army Reservist in Iraq who unknowingly racked up a cell phone bill of more than $7,600. Outraged, they ran upstairs, drained their piggy banks, hit up their friends at school for donations, and got to work.

Mr. Wortzel and Ms. Bergquist powerfully demonstrate how we can build meaning and service into our lives and work.

Capturing this spirit in his recent baccalaureate address, Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead advocated “a shift from looking at the world as a set of already established places to viewing it as something you can help make through your energies of invention.” Citing examples of enterprising students who have made that shift, he said, “We need a fresh imagining of what is of value and what is worth a sacrifice. … With so much to be done, your time of apparent constraints turns out to be a time of large opportunities. Yet … it’s not the nature of opportunities to just sit there waiting to be seized. Opportunities exist only to the extent that they are created.”

America’s grads, take note: Make connections, and make a difference, all while fashioning a life that suits you, not borrowing one from stale conventions. As you pursue higher education, enter the work force, start families and author your lives, ask yourselves this: Are your days infused with meaning and service and marked by your own distinctive stamp? If not, what are you waiting for?

• Gregg Vanourek and Christopher Gergen are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at [email protected] lifeentrepreneurs.com.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide