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August 23, 2008


THE BUILDING


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Chances are that if you were born in the ’70s or ’80s, which most of you were, the messages you’ve been hearing throughout your lives go something like this:

            #1. You can become anything YOU want to be.

            #2. Follow YOUR dreams.

            #3. Believe in YOURself.

            You. You. You.

Although these messages have SOME merit, they are, I believe, INCOMPLETE. Because in reality, in order to become what you WANT to be, you’ve got to want what you are MEANT to be. In order to follow one dream, another dream may need to be put on hold or sacrificed altogether. And if truth be told, even if you have the kind of high self-esteem that your parents and mentors have tried to instill in you with the message INDIVIDUALISM and BELIEF IN SELF, you will STILL experience challenges, failures, and disappointments. BECAUSE IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU. It’s ALSO about your co-workers, your boss, your family, your community — all with complex facets and deep-rooted history. And chances are, when you experience failures, YOU WILL NEED the support of those around you to overcome, to move forward. Because if there’s anything that WE SOCIAL SCIENTISTS should understand, is that we are NOT islands unto ourselves. We ARE, because we ARE TOGETHER.

For those of you who saw this year’s Academy award-winning film, Crash, you will recall being introduced to a set of characters who were living as though they WERE islands unto themselves ... where they lived in isolation with no REAL connectedness nor the ability influence one another. The film made me wonder whether in fact our interactions with each other are nothing more than completely INSIGNIFICANT accidents. Because if so, wouldn’t we be justified in CHAMPIONING individualism, where we tended ONLY to ourselves, only to our own edifice, lest all other needs and structures crash and falter?

If this is where the film had ended, its message could help defend a life ethic that fuels FIGHTS and FLIGHTS, but not the ability to FOCUS and tenaciously figure out ways to STAND BACK UP and dust ourselves off from the falls, to tend to the healing of others’ wounds, and learn and implement ideas to prevent falls from happening in the future.

In my current professional role in the publishing world, I’ve unfortunately encountered MANY young professionals who when faced with a conflict, or a nasty fall, believe that their only options are to FIGHT or FLY. This is particularly a shame for those professionals who I KNOW ARE MEANT TO BE in the world of publishing.

One young professional not too long ago explained to me that in response to the challenges of certain work projects, that she would be calling it quits and giving her two weeks’ notice. She further explained that she was interested in finding a work environment where she could build what she called, AN EDIFICE OF HER OWN. In other words, an island where she could be what SHE wanted to be, where she could follow HER dreams, and where she could believe in HERself.

But as the characters in the film Crash eventually demonstrate, we DON'T live on islands. The interactions that we have with each other — in the work place, at family gatherings, within political movements, and at social outings — those interactions do connect us, and they influence the processes that eventually LEAD to the building of programs, policies, publications, companies, and important bodies of knowledge ... EDIFICES can be dreamed up by ANYONE, but they RARELY become built by a SINGLE ONE. Because it’s ALWAYS been about more than just you or just me.

One of my all-time favorite books is The Little Prince, a short book for children and adults authored in 1943 by a French pilot and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In the story, The Little Prince has toiled for what seems to be an ETERNITY, to cultivate the life of a rose on his small planet. And because of this long-term relationship with TENDING to the rose by pulling out unwanted weeds, exposing it to proper elements like the sun and water, and protecting it from inclement weather, he is INTIMATE with the challenges that this rose has gone through, and in RETURN, the rose is intimately aware of The Little Prince’s character. They have TAMED each other, they have developed TIES with one another, they have allowed themselves to be affected by each other. Their INDIVIDUALITY has become actualized THROUGH A RELATIONSHIP.

But one day, the Little Prince decides to leave behind his small planet and his beloved rose to search for something more — perhaps something better — perhaps something more GRAND that he can discover ALL BY HIMSELF. Immediately, his journey brings him face to face with a whole host of new characters. But no new character satisfies The Little Prince’s search so he continues on his journey, in hopes to find what he is looking for. There is eventually a sense of desperation that The Little Prince feels ... much like the desperation that the characters in Crash were feeling ... a sense of hopelessness where isolated units endlessly and arbitrarily crash into one another, without EVER becoming tamed or ever becoming special.

In the middle of his journey, The Little Prince meets the fox who states to him that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.” It is through the fox’s insight that The Little Prince learns that it’s EASY to encounter a multitude of new things ... it’s easy to FIGHT ... it’s easy FLY ... but it’s difficult to make one thing special, meaningful, and impactful. He learns that meaning doesn’t exist without a relationship. A planet, an edifice, a career, a family, ... they become built when we are ready to STOP FIGHTING, TO STOP FLYING, AND START FOCUSING.

When we look at those who have accomplished great things, we could mistakenly believe that BELIEF IN SELF is what it took for such accomplishments to be achieved. But I invite you to consider the accomplishments of the MANY leaders who are standing before you today —  like Provost Gottfredson, like Vice Chancellor Gomez, like Dean Dosher, and like UCI student leader Vanessa Zuabe. Though you may believe that edifices such as the UCI campus, the School of Social Sciences, or important student organizations were built solely through these individuals’ dreams and efforts alone, I am certain that they would be the FIRST to tell you that they are ONE OF MANY who have contributed to these structures ... structures that will continue to evolve LONG AFTER their contributions have been made.           

Provost Gottfredson, Vice Chancellor Gomez, Dean Dosher, Vanessa, and many of us here today realize what the fox helped The Little Prince to eventually realize ... which is that our work becomes special, influential, and meaningful only when we dare to put our hearts into it, to dirty our hands as we toil over it, and to care for it, ESPECIALLY when it becomes difficult. If we build it CORRECTLY, the results of our work will belong to no SINGLE one of us, and therefore to ALL OF US.

For all that you have TOILED OVER and FOCUSED ON for the past several years, to FINALLY reach this day ... the day that marks the completion of your contributions and achievements, I proudly and happily join your fellow students, faculty, staff, and family in honoring and cheering you on — the graduating class of 2006. Congratulations.

[Per the invitation of UC Irvine, on June 17, 2006, I was honored to deliver this commencement address to the 2006 graduating class of UCI’s School of Social Sciences.]

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Comments

This is truly lovely.

What a powerful speech, Jenny. I wish it was the one given at my graduation from UCI years ago, that one was pretty much the believe in YOU YOU YOU kind. (it was the 70's!)

You couldn't be more right. I hope a ton of people will read this and take it to heart. thank you.
xo Lidy

Jenny, what a simply wonderful commencement address and message you sent those fresh young graduates off into the world with. BRAVO!! xox

Just brilliant! I hope it sunk in, because in my opinion you're absolutely right. I remember in particular one talented young woman in my magazine days, assistant to the art director (her first job) who would come to my office and cry because she wanted to do her own thing, carry out her own ideas, rather than work WITH the art director. I told her that we all have to work our way up, as I did, take direction, learn, but she just couldn't see it. In the end she quit. Impatience. Want it now kind of thinking.

Bravo! I applaud you.

Wonderful commencement address. I couldn't help but read it twice. I was born in the 70's and grew up in the 80's where "He who has the most toys wins" was the motto. As a counselor by day and an artist by night I couldn't agree with you more. I do hope many take to heart your wisdom.

Invaluable, lovely. I'm glad the graduates you spoke to were able to hear these concepts at their age. It's a hard lesson to learn on your own.

Community. That's what it's all about. Everybody wins.
Colette

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