Finding Something To Do

Remarks at Commencement - May 22, 2016

“Do whatever your hand finds to do…Seven days you shall wait, until…[knowing] what you shall do.” I Samuel 10:7-8

The happy responsibility of calling this assembly together on the Commencement grounds of St. Lawrence University in its 160th year begins with wonder and confidence. The wonder is that so much has happened so fast to everyone in the Class of 2016. You entered knowing a lot already, but you leave understanding better the depth of your own mind and realizing that your attachment to St. Lawrence is an anchor point that will hold.

Our confidence in you draws upon a historical pattern I have watched and lived. When college days are over, you may face a time of perplexity. But each of you will find something to do, something worthwhile, something hard, something fulfilling, something never planned. Owing to St. Lawrence, you will be given choices and chances; you will not, as a recent Broadway song expresses it, throw away your shot.

My pleasure this morning is magnified by the presence of mothers, fathers, family members, and all the friends who rightfully claim family-like status in the lives of the men and women about to receive university diplomas. With the trustees who bear witness from the platform, my colleagues on the faculty, and the hundreds of dedicated workers in office or field who also teach about life on this campus, I unequivocally pronounce that this day belongs to you, too. I would argue, not as a college official, but rather as a father, that there is no achievement in life higher, finer, or sweeter than giving a child all that this day makes perfect in love and sacrifice. St. Lawrence thanks you in measures I hope sufficient to demonstrate how much you also belong to the Laurentian tradition.


Eight graduating seniors have led our 105-year-old student weekly The Hill News to the equivalent of a team championship in taking first place for general excellence in the New York college newspaper competition. There are approximately 200 colleges in the state, so this is an extraordinary blue ribbon. One of our student writers has recently been connecting her study of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies with her mild distress of looking ahead beyond campus life.  In the final issue of the year, she gets effectively inside the head of the senior class when she makes two related points held in dynamic tension: “We always face choices, we all have a checklist of things to accomplish, and we all question the next steps. All I can say is that we need to try harder to live in the present.”

About those next steps, there is already much exciting news to tell. Some of you will report to work, some will report for duty, and some will be showing up for class, just not in Canton. There are at least three members of the class who will serve in the U. S. military. Others will be joining AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. A few of you are heading to Washington to work on Capitol Hill in Senate and House offices, and a few of you have signed on to work in political campaigns. Many of you will be teaching, some will be overseas advancing the cause of English language skills, but members of your class are also joining the faculties of Franklin Academy, St. Paul’s School, and Brunswick Academy.

The list of new jobs is growing, but let me offer a sampler of the companies and organizations that are career entry points for class members. St. Lawrence will be represented at Accelent, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Ameson Foundation, Brown Brothers Harriman, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, GE Energy Financial Services, Inland Brewing Company, Ketchum, Liberty Mutual, Massachusetts Audubon, Northwestern Mutual, NOAA, State Street, Sullivan and Cromwell, Wells Fargo, The World Bank, and the NHL Florida Panthers. Some of you are doing post-grad internships in museums, land trusts, NGOs, theater and film companies. I especially admire the candor of two seniors who reported to their classmates about next steps as “unknown” and “no idea.” I hold no worries about their capacity for finding something to do.

Within the next five years more than half of the class will predictably pursue studies in graduate or professional schools. Some will begin this fall and the list is stunning: Boston College, Brown, University of Prince Edward Island Veterinary School, Copenhagen University, Cambridge University, Duke, Emerson, Emory, University of London, Syracuse, Simmons, Columbia, Stony Brook, and Yale. Our graduates will be at the Universities of Arkansas, California (San Diego), Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho State, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Vermont studying in such diverse fields as medicine, philosophy, and geology. One of you will study for the next three years at the Violin Making School of America. Another will learn the artful craft of bricklaying in Colonial Williamsburg.


While The Hill News essayist described the responsibility of bearing the crown of achievement by mentioning Shakespeare, who is now 400 years dead in this anniversary year 2016, she also gave her readers a juxtaposed caution about trying harder to live in the present. I would like to discuss those knotted threads for a moment longer. There’s a story going around the theater world that when the musical “Hamilton” was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards, a stranger on the street stopped Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s author and lead actor, “Hey, congratulations on your play Hamlet.” Miranda corrected the well-wisher, “Another guy wrote Hamlet; I wrote “Hamilton.” And the passing come-back was, “Well I hope his parents were nicer.”

The two plays are more alike than just the names sounding alike. They are dramas about two young men who are extremely goal-driven. Hamlet is anxious about living without a known plan, but when he makes a plan, it turns out to be worse than he ever imagined. To plan or not to plan is perhaps the question. Coleridge said Hamlet was paralyzed by an excess of thought, that is, his brain worked overtime in fashioning a great design of his future.

In Alexander Hamilton, both versions, the historical figure and the theatrical character, reveal a young man’s obsession with getting it all just right, angling for every advantage in circumstances that were otherwise understood by him to be a severe disadvantage. There is a continuous hip-hop refrain throughout the play about Hamilton’s undeviating ambition; it’s his shot at honor, glory, and recognition. The same shot has the unmistakable double meaning of the impulse that eventually killed him in a duel with Aaron Burr. So, he sings:

I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot
I’mma get scholarship to King’s College
I probably shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish
The problem is I got a lot of brains, but no polish
I gotta holler just to be heard
With every word I drop knowledge
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin’ to reach my goal, my power of speech: unimpeachable

There is a little bit of Hamlet and Hamilton in all of us, especially when hearing a voice inside perpetually asking, what’s your plan? I have an alternative proposition for you, one that may confuse your parents. Not having a big plan is actually a good plan. The story of tragedy following those who over-calculated their choices makes good theater, but it is, more importantly, no mere fiction.

Unplanned acts in life are usually the most important and most decisive. Few outcomes in my life and career had anything to do with a strategic design I drew up for myself. I was first led to St. Lawrence as a student largely because, when I was sixteen years old, someone told me I wasn’t good enough for Johns Hopkins. Right after St. Lawrence, I worked the night shift in a printing plant, but eventually went to a graduate program at Harvard; and that unplanned sequence was all because I was a disappointed runner up for a Rockefeller fellowship. I was once turned down for two very attractive jobs in Boston, but then another door fortuitously opened in Washington, and on the other side of the door was my future wife.

I am not recommending a bland, blithe confidence that somehow things will always turn out right in the end. There is no impropriety in planning and naming goals, but too much advance structure will fail because we cannot fully anticipate or accurately foresee significant life-changing events.

I love the ancient story of the old king who chooses a young man as his successor. There is a touch of ceremony in the formative scene, the old anointing the head of the young, imparting the words, “Do whatever your hand finds to do…Seven days you shall wait, until… [knowing] what you shall do.” In other words, every one of you will find plenty to do and touch many milestones, but wait, even for a short while or for a time beyond seven tomorrows. Wait, if you must, because you will get many shots and you may waste a few, or so it will seem. It is just not my wish, but my assurance: you will each know soon enough what to do, once you grant yourself clearance for events in life that shall be unplanned.