With graduation at hand, there's a lot of thought and commencement talk about life and how to live yours. Steve Jobs memorably and poignantly noted in 2005, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." Toni Morrison told Wellesley graduates, "Be your own story." Alan Alda said, "Be brave enough to live life creatively."
There are many reminders to "find your passion," "follow your dream," "persist," "embrace your failures." Russell Baker reminded graduates to "listen." Barbara Kingsolver soothed the graduates of bleak 2008 with "hang on," "the arc of history is long."
I have seen several young students in my office this past year, struggling emotionally in the college of their dream. They're trying to find their passion. One laments he has no dream to follow. Another borrowed the dream he thinks his father dreams for him. So many want primarily to be successful and to make lots of money. Another wants to work at a hedge fund (and then own one) but discovers he hates studying finance and hanging around other finance majors. Another, endlessly playing "World of Warcraft," believes he'll have no problem creating a high-tech start-up.
Graduating seniors aren't the only ones among us confronting the next stage in life. Retirement, a job loss, an empty nest, a death of a loved one, a restlessness for something different. In spite of what we like to think about life and security and achieving what we wanted a few years back, we seek out and are confronted with the inevitability of life changing.
So many commencement speeches focus on "YOU" or, from the graduates' side, "ME." They talk of creating your life, following your special path, succeeding in your pursuits, of being true to yourself, etc. They may speak of global responsibility or citizenship, of being in the moment, of choosing how to interpret the moments in your life. Good advice -- all of it.
We all at some point in our lives want to be great, special, respected by others for our achievements. This is a Western, and especially American, way of looking at life. It is a view that keeps us striving and creating. It is a view that brings immigrants to our shores -- to make something of our lives. It is a good way for some of us some of the times.
Ellen DeGeneres quipped in a 2011 commencement address that before she started the speech, she needed to know what "commencement" meant. So she broke the word down into its parts -- "common cement." She's funny. She's on to something.
There is another way of thinking about our life and its path. We don't hear about it often. People who are deeply happy in their lives, however, give it much credit. If we were to factor it into our life work decisions, along with following our dreams, finding our passion, living in the moment, persisting through adversity and making money, it could prove, well, useful.
It is, in fact, to be of use. The pursuit of a life path that is not useful in the world seems doomed to extinction. To marry our skills and dreams with being of use doesn't make the decision more complicated. Rather, it is the missing ingredient that makes it meaningful. It answers that hungry yearning that the pursuit of only our own life seems to, ultimately, miss. To be of use is in some way our common cement. It takes us out of the center of the universe and places us in the midst of it, connected. We know that in the times we live in now, there are infinite possibilities for being useful.
So, no matter where we are in life at this moment, if we're thinking about our next step, the humble opportunity to be of use could be just the ingredient we've been looking for -- the common cement that puts us in the right place for us at just the right time for a successful life.
Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.