Final Exercises 2015: Bruner Speech

Robert Bruner, Dean of the Darden School of Business
Commencement Address, May 17, 2015
University of Virginia

Rector Martin, President Sullivan, Visitors, distinguished guests, members of the faculty and staff, and the Class of 2015.  

I’m grateful to the graduation committee for this opportunity to speak to you.  I understand I may be the first faculty member in quite some time to address the commencement ceremony and I must say, it’s tough to follow an entertainment celebrity and the governor of this Commonwealth, both of whom have given remarks on this stage in the last 48 hours.  I agree with them about the lamentable events visited upon UVA this year.  I agree that higher education is critical to the future of this Commonwealth. What more can be said?  I feel like the late Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband.  I mean, I know what needs to be done.  The challenge is how to make it interesting. 

So I’d like to take up a new theme and invite you to picture this:  a young girl falls down a rabbit hole and embarks on a fantastical journey.  She doesn’t seem to feel lost, but she is looking for directions.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland describes the point at which Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat and Alice says:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

From this exchange comes the adage, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”  Today is a good day to reflect on these themes of limitless possibilities, of seeking direction, of taking roads, and of trying to get somewhere. 

Now, I know from long experience that around this time of year, friends and loved ones ask students, “Where are you going?” “What’s next?” “What do you intend to make of yourself?”   You’ve probably received all sorts of advice, much of it unsolicited and pointing in all kinds of different directions:  fame, fortune, fun, and so on.  The big question is, where should you go with your life?

My advice is: You should go where you believe you can you do your best work.  You should go where you believe you can do your best work.  One could deconstruct that sentence in fine detail; but today, focus on just two of these words, best work.  These are radical in orienting you to a high standard.  And they imply the existence of a compass—-one you can turn to in every wonderland you stumble into.  Its "true north" is something called "best work."  Your time at UVA has given you the outlines of the compass and true north.  Your challenge in the days to come is to fill in the details.

The word, “best” directs you to think about what you really value, how you define success.  Here’s where the lures of fame, fortune, and fun crop up—these are the conventional view of success.  But there is a different way of thinking about your work:  what is “best” is necessarily service to a calling.  Many of you graduating today have a job lined up; and some of you don’t.  But all of you do have a calling, which is to live a life that is worth living.   To “get a life” is not about getting a job; it is about getting a calling.  This is hard work:  it takes courage, grace, strength, and wisdom.  Making a living is hard enough, but making a calling is even harder—and more fulfilling.  It is gained by going where you can do your best work.

A calling is felt, not seen.  One knows a calling imperfectly, as if viewed through a glass darkly.  One’s best work is observable.   A calling is a sense of intent.  Best work is the instrument of that intent.  Calling is mission; best work is implementation. 

There are many in the worldwide UVA community who garnered all the trappings of conventional success, but did so as a consequence of their service to a calling.  Some have jobs at the very top of their field where their service as leaders is prominent.   Others served a calling in equally important, but less obvious, ways.  Let me cite some examples.

Within the faculty and staff at UVA we have many who inspire us by the way they have lived out their calling:  I have been touched by Marva Barnett, Kenneth Elzinga, Dennis Proffitt, Ed Freeman, Amanda Mills, John Colley, Pat Lampkin, and so many others that time would not allow me to tell.  And I suppose the same is true for all of you.   These exemplars found their best work to be in one field and at this place for many years.

Other sons and daughters of UVA traced their calling down unexpected paths.  For instance,

  • Will Shortz delights millions of readers each day as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times.  One might not guess that he graduated from UVA’s School of Law in 1977. 
  • Carolyn Miles is the CEO of Save the Children.  She is taking action to address the endemic deprivation faced by millions of children in poverty.  One might not guess that after graduating from Darden, she started out in consumer marketing.
  • Toby Cosgrove graduated from UVA’s Medical School [applause] in 1966 and was inspired by new concepts of health care delivery.  He moved beyond his job as a surgeon to follow a calling into general management.  Today he is the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic.
  • Michael O’Neill majored in art history and served in the U.S. Marines.  Then he followed a calling into the turnarounds of banks.  Today, he is taking action to save jobs and to restore confidence and stability in one of the largest financial institutions in the world as Chairman of the Board of Citigroup.

Now, among all such exemplars, I see several attributes:

“Best work” comes from within.  If you’re waiting for a mentor or headhunter to tell you what to do, forget it.   You must listen for the still, small voice of a calling.

“Best work” is persistent.  It does not give up easily.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.  And when it hits an obstacle, it may drop back to pursue the calling from a different angle.  Or it may morph over time.  For instance, at some points in life one’s best work is to be a learner and follower.  At other points your best work will be as a teacher, leader, or mentor.

“Best work” harnesses serendipity.  It may dabble, experiment, and try stuff—all with a purpose.  Creative writing and curiosity-driven research are kinds of purposive wandering.  Therefore, “best work” may well not occur according to a well-crafted plan or within the conventional boundaries of a discipline or a career track.   

“Best work” sparkles most in the details, such as the ending semiquaver of a soprano; the wrist action of a surgeon; the just-right word of the poet; or the moment a business leader takes to encourage an employee.

 “Best work” heeds no venue.  It gets done both in the big-title corner offices, and at the entry level of an organization or among friends, family, and neighbors.  It could entail serving a community, nurturing loved ones, or repairing some nagging interpersonal problem.  A calling always begins with the question, “How can I serve others right here and now?”

“Best work” makes meaning.  And meaning about what you do—no matter the uncertainties you face—gives courage to take sensible risks.  Followers need leaders who give meaning.  Meaning creates resilience, with which to withstand setbacks and failures.  And finding meaning in life’s big transitions supports one’s sense of growth.

“Best work” leaves the world a better place.  It isn’t just sufficient to “do no harm.”  Your best work must serve justice, mercy, integrity, joy, and other virtues that constitute a society in which we’d all like to live.

“Best work” is its own reward.  It is not triumphal.  If you frequently need applause or a gold medal to keep you going, you’re likely not at your calling.    If your only goal is a pile of money, you will never achieve it.  Financial success is really a reward for other achievements such as invention, efficiency, strategic insight, or delighting someone.  Service to a calling is about doing something well.  And it summons achievements that transcend any resume, achievements that build character and soul, around which your eulogy will be written some day.  In the final analysis, “best work” may not feel like work at all

The foundation of your future “best works” was forged here with bonds of friendship, with teaching and scholarship that stretched you, and with the acquisition of leadership skills that can never be written in code but are now in your DNA.  Celebrate that.  Smile.  You came here to learn how to be a leader and you leave here with the obligation to lead in your life.

So the Cheshire Cat got it about right: each and every one of us is bound to wind up somewhere if we walk long enough.  But just getting somewhere does not fulfill the faith placed in you by family, friends, this University, and even by the aspirations of our founder, Thomas Jefferson.  You should go where you believe that you can do your best work.  And the best work serves a calling.  Everything else—money, fame, power, leisure—-is ancillary; don't waste your life chasing those.  And hopefully thanks to UVA, you don't have to—because you now have a compass.  Follow it.  Trust it.   And, if like Alice, you stumble into a rabbit’s hole from time to time, there is no need for the Cheshire Cat. The direction is to be found in your calling. 

Thank you for the privilege and trust you have given all of us to be your teachers.  We now become your students. Teach us about the future, which we now bestow to you with all blessings.

Now, go and do your best work. Thank you.