Colorado College Commencement Address
Given by Flow Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

May 20, 2002

“The True Bottom Line”

It is, in fact, almost like a homecoming to come here after almost 50 years since I first came to the Springs to climb.  At that time, I just had come from Europe with $1.25 in my pocket when I got off from Union Station in Chicago.  Even though I had to work at night to get to college, I spent the summers in the mountains, and this was the first place I came.  So, I feel rather emotional about coming back here.  I certainly couldn't have believed back in '57 that I would be standing here in front of you sharing what I have learned since, which perhaps is not much, but it's been a very enjoyable progress to get here.

I imagine that most of you here who are about to graduate are torn between two opposite feelings. One of them is nostalgia for this college, for the years you have spent in this rich hatchery of ideas and experiences. You may be starting to realize what it means to leave a way of life the likes of which you are unlikely to encounter again -- a way of life that encourages the discovery of personal strengths, and the exploration of the best achievements of humankind.  The ancients were not far off when they called the university Alma Mater, or “caring mother” -- as an institution that nurtures the entire person, the university has no equals.

But nostalgia for the past is probably overshadowed by an eager anticipation of the future. After all, at your age Alexander was already leading victorious armies all over Asia, Mozart was composing music unrivaled since, and Bill Gates was building the nest egg that made him the envy of the Western world. It is high time, many of you feel, to test yourself, to make use of what you have learned, to see what you have become.

But now that you are poised for this great transition, about to leave the safe for the unknown, it is time to ask the question: How will I measure the success of my life? Where should these years of preparation, of higher education, lead me? What is the “bottom line” that at the end of life will show whether the balance is written in black, or in red ink? The answers to these questions will serve as the compass for how to lead your life in the exciting years beckoning ahead.

At first it may seem that the answers are simple and obvious. After all, most of the messages you receive from our culture -- from the media, from advertising, even from friends and family -- tell you that the secret of success is to get the best paying job available, and start accumulating as much money, as many toys, as much stuff as you can get your hands on. Even churches send the tacit message that while eternal salvation is nice, material possessions are a much safer bet.

But reducing the measure of one’s life to material success turns out not to be as wise a move as it appears at first glance. If what you hope to achieve after leaving here is a life that is happy and meaningful -- a life you can look back at age 80 or 90 and say: “Yes, it was all worth it, and I couldn’t have chosen a better one,” -- then you should realize that dedicating all your energies to achieve money, power, or fame will not get you there.

Psychologist have been recently re-discovering an ancient truth, one that many cultures have known since time immemorial: Material possessions alone do not make for a happy life. The wealthiest men and women in the U.S. are not noticeably more satisfied with their lives than the average citizen. People who win large amounts of cash on the lottery return to their average level of happiness a few months after the windfall. People who live in Iceland or New Zealand tend to be happier than the inhabitants of Zaire or the Ukraine, but beyond a low threshold of affluence the amount of wealth does not make any difference.

So what makes us happy? Good genes help, and so does being an extrovert, and having good friends and a happy marriage.

In our current study of teenagers, we find that one of the best predictors of how happy students who have just graduated from college are is the amount of challenges they reported day by day during their high school years and how cooperative they felt in high school.  So, challenge and cooperation nine years later seem to be the best predictors.  And I think you will notice that these are almost contradictory traits -- to seek challenge in everything you do and yet to feel cooperative instead of competitive.  Having these almost opposite traits is the best predictor that we have found so far of many dozens we have studied.  But, historically two opposed paths to happiness have been proposed: The first is the one embraced by most religions and philosophies. Its prototype are the Buddha’s “4 Noble Truths.” This is the most radical way to approach happiness -- it recognizes that the root of suffering is desire, and by abolishing desire one can abolish suffering -- and thus come as close to happiness as it is humanely possible.

The second and almost diametrically opposite approach is the current Western approach to happiness, based on the control of nature and on affluence. This project has of course been very successful in abolishing many ills that in the past have plagued humankind. But, we are also starting to see its downside: Without self-imposed limitations on selfishness and greed, the human species runs the risk of destroying itself.

Fortunately, I think, a new option is now dawning: the realization that we have become the pilots of spaceship earth, and that we must learn to navigate our planet before it crashes. Knowledge -- science, technology, the ancient wisdom of the humanities -- must be used in the service of a conscious stewardship of the planet.

This realization entails that we are all responsible for the shape of evolution. The keys to the future are in our hands. Whether life is going to be happy or not depends in large part on whether you will find a way to contribute to evolution in a positive way. If you take this responsibility on and make it part of your life goals, it is guaranteed that no matter what happens, your life will be well spent.

Easy to say? Is this just academic idealism unrelated to the real world?

In a current study I'm engaged in in which we interview some of the leading CEOs and business leaders in this country, I have found that there are at least as many leaders in business as there are in the universities who understand this situation quite well, and who are trying to implement an atmosphere in their organizations which is conducive to a more genuine happiness.

For instance, the CEO of a Venture Capital investment firm reflects on current trends in a recent interview:

I meet a lot of twenty-somethings who are just like, "Rape, pillage, make my millions, buy a Ferrari, get a huge house, O.K., and now I'll just do it again and again and again and again."  And that's not what it's about.   It's about building stuff, and learning and growing and making a difference.  So I worry a bit.  Look at all the day traders, they started getting margin calls and they started shooting their families.

Or the president of a firm that makes diesel truck engines says:

Too many of the young people that we get out of schools, their major aim is to say, ‘Well, I want to make a million dollars before I’m thirty’ They don’t say: ‘I want to do a good job, or help build a company, or something like that.’ There’s nothing much selfless in them, and they are doomed to failure if there isn’t a selfless quality in their own values.

It is true that my talking about young graduates wanting to make their first million in a great hurry might have been more appropriate to the class of 2000 than to the present graduating class. Times have changed in a short two years! At this economic juncture, some of you might be worried about getting any job at all, let alone one that will make millions quickly. Some might be now thinking about how to persuade your parents to take you back in, with full meal and laundry privileges.

If that is what occupies your mind, rest assured that things will change soon. Heraclitus was right, and the only assurance we have is that nothing remains the same for long. And in the meantime, count your blessings: You have more time on your hands to prepare yourself for a well lived life. Sooner or later, however, you will be called to a job, and preferably to a career -- or even to a vocation. Then you will be able to say what this former CEO of a leading aerospace firm said in describing his working life: 

I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world . . . and being happy while doing it. . . . You have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile . . . if either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.

These words describe succinctly the true bottom line of life. Happiness consists in spending your life doing what you enjoy doing, and contributing to something larger than yourself in the process. So as you walk away from here clutching your sheepskins don’t necessarily go looking for the job that pays best. Look for one that presents you with worth-while challenges and that allows you to grow and to make a difference. Some of the best opportunities these days are in non-profits, in NGOs, where one can confront directly the problems that stand in the way of a better future. And if you don’t find the right job the first time, look again until one feels right. Remember, you are about to become a knowledge worker in a world shaped by ideas and creativity, as well as by hard work. Pretty soon you will be sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. What you have learned at Colorado College will help you chart a safe course for spaceship earth, and make your life, and the life of others, a happy and productive one.

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