This is the season for graduations. My own son finished high school last week, and my university sent hundreds of young men and women out into the world. Such moments fill students and parents with joy and pride for what has been accomplished. And everyone is full of hope about what lies ahead, what (greater) achievements the youth will make, and how they will transform their own lives — and those of others — in ways that cannot be imagined.
I did not have a graduation ceremony from my high school or from my university (many years ago). I did get one for my PhD, and I will never forget that one, mostly for the strong feeling of pride, and also for the joyful surprise party my friends threw for me afterwards.
I never really missed the graduation ceremonies that I did not attend. In retrospect, what I really would have loved to receive is the important advice that graduating classes usually get from the keynote speakers (when they are good).
So for the benefit of all graduating students, I would like to offer some advice, ideas I have come to see as essential, lessons I have extracted from my long experience as an educator, a parent, a scientist, and a lifelong learner.
The first advice I would like to offer, one that I always give my students (and my own children) is to follow one’s passion. Forget which field is (currently) in vogue, which one is easier to get a job in, which one pays a higher salary. Pursue the field that you are most interested in.
For you will only be truly successful — and thus get a job, no matter how few there may be, and climb the ladder in society — if you excel at what you do; I guarantee you that. And you will only excel at something if you find yourself pursuing it at all times, buying books and subscribing to magazines on the subject, checking websites and blogs on the topic, and working on it even on weekends and on travel.
On this point, Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, gave a speech recently and quoted the following statements from ancient Indian literature: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds, your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, you will find yourself in a new great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
The second idea I want to stress for the graduates, who are full of excitement and optimism (as they should be), is to be prepared for setbacks, serious life difficulties (whether personal or professional), and for failures of various kinds. Disappointments and accidents are actually good for you, they give you experience and strength, and they forge your character.
But what’s most important to remember — and this is my strong advice — is to keep your integrity, your morals, and your principles at such difficult times. Accept it when others get ahead of you; realise that life is not always fair; and whatever happens, do not try to cheat or “make up” for the loss. Always be honest, good, and generous to others; life will give you as much as you give it.
Something else I have come to realise, something that only comes after years and even decades of varied experience, is that there will be always be change, in our own lives, in our societies, and in our environments.
Some changes must be resisted, or at least steered in the right directions, but most change we will not be able to stop; we must adapt to it.
Last but not least, I would like to offer some advice from my experience as a scientist.
Science nurtures in us the innate sense of curiosity; it also teaches us a deep sense of humility (there is so much we don’t know), openness to new ideas, and a readiness to learn from mistakes.
Science also likes those who have strong imaginations and want to always discover new solutions to whatever questions or problems one may encounter. And science teaches us to be critical, to always ask why and demand evidence, to be open-minded but to check all claims. And so I really wish everyone could adopt that kind of scientific attitude.
I would like to close by quoting Andrew Carnegie, the great industrialist and philanthropist, whose words (from a century ago) can be the best send-off to every graduate: “Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success. A whole, clear, glorious life lies before you. Achieve! Achieve!”
Nidhal Guessoum heads the physics department at the American University of Sharjah.