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The Problematic Idea of Success

I had the great honor of offering a graduation speech at Colgate, a university where I used to teach. Many people told me that this baccalaureate commencement speech had touched their hearts, and they would wish that other graduates and young people (and not so young people) could hear it. So I wanted to share it with you here.


Graduates, family members, loved ones, faculty and staff. It’s wonderful to be back home. This place is and forever will be home to us.

When I had a chance to come back home and share some thoughts with you, I wanted this as a chance to give something back to you beautiful people sitting here. The first thing is, I wanted you to have a tool in your toolbox, I wanted you to have a weapon to fend off that nastiest question of all:

“What are you gonna do after graduation?”
“What are you gonna do after graduation?”
“What are you gonna do after graduation?”

So if you remember nothing else about love and justice, remember this part: that other great socialist Jew, not Bernie Sanders — the Palestinian one named Jesus — doesn’t actually become Christ until he is 30 years old.

Y’all are awesome, you are not any cooler than Jesus.

That Indian prince, Siddhartha, does not become the Buddha until he is 35 years old. You are not any more enlightened than the Buddha. That extraordinary Arabian visionary Muhammad does not become the Prophet until he is 40. Y’all are not any more luminous than Muhammad.

Take a deep breath. You all have been through so much: finishing papers and theses and honors projects, trying to figure out what kinds of internships and jobs you are going to have, wrapping up important friendships and relationships, and you’re 21 and 22 years old. Be patient with yourselves, be kind to your journey.

Institutions like this tend to preach a language: Success, Leadership, Excellence. Success, Leadership, Excellence.

Excellence is great. We all would like to be excellent human beings.

I have some questions about “leadership.” After all, if everybody is leading, who gets to follow? When do we learn followership? When do we learn collegiality? Being part of a team when you are not the alpha dog — those are important life skills too.

But mainly what I want to talk with you about is this problematic idea of success. I would even say that we preach a kind of Gospel of Success in this country. We want you to be successful in your personal life. Successful in your love life. Successful in your faith. Successful in your investment.

Real life doesn’t usually work like that. Real life doesn’t often work like that. In fact, real life almost never works like that.

Success is not some kind of a teleological process, not some kind of a linear climb up a mountain. Nor is it even something as straightforward as a cliché that “the journey is just as important as the destination.”

The truth of the matter is that life is really messy. Life is complicated. Every single one of us, even the ones who from the outside look like we have made it, stumble and fall flat on our face multiple times.

We fail personally. We fail to be kind to those we are closest to. We fail in jobs we apply for. We have many of our manuscripts rejected before someone takes it.

This graduation is not the end. This is a resting stop in a lifetime commitment to a better and more realistic model of success. I would like for us as a learning community to have a better conversation about how we process failure.
There is a wonderful quote from Samuel Beckett that I love to come back to, to guide me in this. He says:

Ever tried, 
ever failed.
          No matter. 
Tried again, 
failed again. 
        Fail Better.

Fail better. Or if you prefer Leonard Cohen, aka Shrek, “love is not a victory march.”

It’s not just about a goal. It’s not just about the path to get there. It’s not just about a victory march. It’s about the buoyancy. It’s about the bounce back. It’s about the get back up after you’ve landed flat on your face or your tiny hiney.
It’s about learning to fall better, fail better, to crack more whole. It’s about learning to break more gracefully. It’s about learning to heal better, to get back up again, and to fail again.

I’d like for us to learn to have a more generous and kind understanding of what it means to have a successful life, one that is not about individual accumulation of goodies, but actually about the transformation of communities. It’s bathed in humility. And it’s practical.

So… based on not quite a lifetime, but it sort of feels like a lifetime, of parenting and failing and learning and loving and losing, here are just a few practical lessons I’ve accumulated along the way that I’d like to leave with you graduates. There’s five of them.

Have your heart be where your feet are. If you’re sitting here, you have worked your tail off. You worked hard in high school to get to a really good university. You got to a really good university. You’re pre-med, pre-law, pre-consulting. (BTW, what the hell are you qualified to consult people on that earns you ,000 a year right out of college. Go out there and get some life experience and then consult people. I have never understood that for the life of me.)

Be pre-med, be pre-law. Do not be pre-life.

Avoid this trap that “I am going to work really hard. I’m gonna make so much money. I am going to bounce from this job to that job, this neighborhood to that neighborhood, wife #1, wife #2, husband #1, husband #2… Then I will retire, then I am really gonna start living.”

Honey… this is as good as it gets. You have hair on top of your head. Do you realize, this is as good-looking as you are ever gonna get! It’s downhill from here on! You get up in the morning and your body parts don’t jiggle. This is a good thing.

Your life will not start down the road. This is life. Be here now. Have your heart where your feet are. There will be more to come. Embrace it, hug it, welcome it, be generous to it.

I urge you to explore your hearts. Get to know yourselves. Befriend yourself. So many of you are so careful about what you put into your bodies. (P.S. Salad and Diet Coke is not a diet. It’s not. Entire food groups are missing from that.) You are so careful about the right food and the right exercise. Think about your emotions as something that you have to exercise the same level of care for.

Let me give you a very practical example. I like to watch you all. You’re purdy! You are nice to look at. You make me hopeful for the world that my generation has messed up. The reason we keep asking you, “What are you gonna do after graduation?” is because we want you to come fix it. We have not the foggiest idea. We broke it. We don’t know how to fix it. Help us. Please. We will work with you, but help us.

Here is one of the things that I have learned from watching you all enter a library or a coffee shop. (Remember libraries? Not everything is on Google.) When you all walk into a coffee shop or a library, the competition used to be over the comfortable seats, or the places with the most beautiful windows. Now when you enter a space, the competition is over the electric outlets. Because you all need to charge these satanic devices, your mobile phones. And if you want to see a young person go into a state of cosmic and existential panic, watch them when the red battery light on their phones comes on. “I must plug in. I need to charge now, now, NOW!”

Apply the same care to your heart. Know your heart well enough to know what recharges you. It is going to be different for every single one of us, and it is going to be different for each of us at each point of our lives. For some of us it may be prayer, meditation, music, yoga, a really good book, walking in the woods, a wonderful conversation with a beloved friend, sitting down with your family, silence, a great poem, and — for that alien species masquerading as human — jogging. (You’re not from my planet!)

But if that is what nurtures your soul, learn it. Make it a habit. Make time for it. And if you find that you are running on fumes, recharge yourself.

Avoid this disease of being busy. One of the things that breaks my heart, whether in the corporate world or in the academic world, is that I ask my friends, “How are you doing?” and all I get in answer is this head nod, “You know, I am so busy, so busy.” And I feel like, “You told me nothing.”

How do we remember that we are human beings, not human doings?

When someone asks you, “How are you?” Don’t shout back your to-do list. I am not asking what do you need to get done today. If we have to rephrase it, what I am really asking is, “How is your heart today?”

Take that risk with the people who deserve it, who are worthy of it, make yourself vulnerable to them, actually tell them, actually share with them: “I am really struggling today. I am doing my very best, but I can really use a hug.” You might just find that it changes the dynamic of your connection with them.

You all have done Philosophy courses, you know this: Plato. The Apology. “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human.” Examine the life. Take the time to reflect. Sit down with your own self.

Banish this word “busy” from your vocabulary and ask instead, “Is it meaningful?”

Think of success as a communal experience. Don’t think of success as being individual, as being tied to a number in your bank account. It is not about what level of material accumulation you and I as individuals can get to. It is about the extent to which we can transform the lives of our community.

You are who you are ‘cause somebody loved you.You are who you are ‘cause somebody sacrificed for you. I am who I am ‘cause Ali Safi and Pouran Safi (my parents) loved me. I am who I am ‘cause someone befriended me.

I want you to examine your circle of compassion and find out how deep and wide it is. Are your three favorite people: Me, Myself, and I? And no more? If so, OK, you have compassion, but you are caught up at the realm of ego.
You make the circle of compassion a little bit bigger, and you get beyond yourself, and get to the level of the family. Great! You’ve got to nepotism. Hooray!

You push a little bit beyond that, make the circle of compassion a little bit bigger: I love my area, my state, and no more! Great! You’ve got to provincialism.

You push a little bit more, push it to the level of the nation, and no more. Rabid nationalism.
You push a little bit more: I love people who have my shade of skin, my race, and no more. You’re a racist.
You push a little bit more, to encompass the people who pray the way you do (or do not do), you are a religious chauvinist.

Continue expanding your circle of compassion until every sentient being and every human being is included. No exceptions.
The last thing I want to tell you practically is: Don’t give up on love. Love is hard. It will break your heart, and it will heal you. But don’t give up on it.

Don’t confuse phenomenal sex with real love. If you get the double package, and get them in the same person, then get down on your knees and thank Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, and Buddha all at once, because the heavens have been good to you!
Don’t confuse the person who texts you the most with the person who actually loves you the most. Recognize that love comes in many shades and sizes. There’s the love of your parents, your friends, your classmates, your neighbor, the stranger, the teacher, the puppy, the woods… If you don’t have one kind of love, seek the others.

And remember that what we mean by love is not an emotion. It’s not Hallmark. It’s not Valentine’s Day. Love for us is nothing shy of the very unleashing of God onto this realm. It is love that brought you here, it is love that sustains you here, and it is love that will deliver you back home.

The minute that you experience real love in any of these contexts here, you have merged with that cosmic current that will carry you back home.

If you care about justice and social justice, and by God you should, because this planet is burning up and the people are crying out! At home, and globally, we need you. We need you not to be successful; we need you to be great. Greatness as measured by the extent to which you are willing to put your love into the service of others.

Here is the secret that no one tells you about justice: all that we mean by justice is love, when love comes into the public arena. That’s all we mean by justice, that we want for other people’s babies the same thing we would want for our own babies.

So let me leave you with this: You are loved. If you are sitting here, somebody has loved you, somebody has sacrificed for you. Reach back to them, and extend the circle of love. Welcome people into that circle of compassion.

You have worth not because of what you do but because of the content of your soul, because of the depth of your commitment. Remember that we do live in a moral universe, and that kindness is the greatest virtue.

When you are trying to pick your friends, pay attention to how kind they treat the people around them, and pay attention to what qualities they bring out in you. None of us are all saints, and none of us are all sinners. Every one of us is a jumbled mess of contradiction. It’s what the great mystic poet Rumi said:

“Each one of us is a jackass, with wings of angels tacked on.”

Pay attention to which one of those inner qualities different people bring out in you.

Remember that your success is tied up with other people’s well-being. Be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself and to others. Let us strive for this new kind of success.

Let me leave you with another Rumi poem, and I’ll stop with this:

You and I
should live
As if
you and I
Never heard
Of a you
And an I

May God bless you. May we get to travel together in this shared journey of goodness and beauty. Welcome to the rest of your lives. Amen.

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