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Three Questions

127th Annual Commencement Address

By Steven B. Sample, President
University of Southern California
May 14, 2010

This is a great day to be a Trojan. Over the course of my life I’ve been a Boilermaker, a Cornhusker, a Bull, and now a Trojan. The first three were primarily athletic nicknaes, but “Trojan” refers to all of us who share a common bond – membership in the Trojan Family. And there’s another important difference: I was a Boilermaker, a Cornhusker, and a Bull while I was at Purdue, Nebraska, and SUNY-Buffalo respectively, but I am a Trojan for life!

You may be wondering how I got to be this year’s commencement speaker. Does it mean that everyone else to whom we offered this honor turned us down? No, it doesn’t mean that at all.

At USC we have a committee that chooses our commencement speaker. This committee receives advice from people across the campus about potential speakers. But the final choice is made by the committee. And this committee consists of one person – me, the president. Since this is my last commencement as president of USC, lots of people suggested that I should be the speaker. I referred this suggestion to the committee of one, and lo and behold it passed muster!

Typically commencement speakers exhort the graduating class about the unlimited opportunities they have before them to pursue rewarding careers or change the world in some fundamental way. My purpose this morning is much more modest. I don’t wish to focus on your professional or political development at all. Rather, I want to talk to you about your personal development as human beings. That’s because, in the final analysis, what determines a person’s ultimate success is not so much his professional abilities or political brilliance as it is his character.

What I should like to do is pose three questions, the answers to which only you can formulate. While the questions themselves will sound somewhat simplistic, I think you will see that the answers are not necessarily simple at all. Moreover, I hope to persuade you that these three questions underlie many of the more complicated issues which you will have to address during your lifetime.

The first of my questions is: How do you feel about money?

Oh I know, you like money, and so do I. But how do you really feel, deep down, about money? How important is money to you? And to what extent can making, accumulating, and spending money satisfy your deepest desires?

Now please don’t misunderstand me; I have no particular axe to grind here. I am not suggesting that you should turn your back on money and material wealth – far from it. Indeed, as president of an institution that depends for its very existence on gifts and contributions, I would be among the first to say that the country needs more money-motivated people, not fewer. Remember, the question I am asking here is not how should you feel about money, but how do you feel about it in fact.

Let me put this question in context. When I was in my late 20s and employed as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University, I received an incredibly lucrative offer from one of my consulting clients to join his firm full-time. I was in a quandary over this offer. I liked my work in teaching and research at Purdue, but I was also excited by the technological developments taking place at my client’s company.

Quite frankly, my parents and my wife’s parents were amazed that I was hesitating at all. To them, as commercial and professional people, the answer was clear: I should seize what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become truly wealthy.

Eventually I went for advice to a more senior member of the faculty, who had served previously as an executive at General Motors. When I had explained my uncertainty to him, he said, “Steve, you're asking yourself the wrong question. You should first decide how you and your wife feel about money. If you can answer that question, the answer to your career choice will become obvious.”

This man went on to point out that the world is full of unhappy people who have never figured out how they really feel about money. There are multitudes of priests, teachers, artists, and public servants who, deep down, would be much more fulfilled by the pursuit of wealth, and who, in following that inclination, would probably make much more significant contributions to society. Similarly there are many people caught up in profit-seeking jobs, where the principal reward and measure of success is money, who would be much happier and more productive if they were engaged in more altruistic occupations.

As it turned out, the colleague I was talking with had not discovered how he himself truly felt about money until he was nearly 50. The point he was trying to make to me, and that I in turn wish to make to you, is that if a person can discover early on how he feels about money, he will be able to address many of life’s choices in a more definitive and satisfying way.

My second question is a bit peculiar, but it is prompted by my concern that, in an insidious sort of way, America is mistreating her children.

Think about that for just a minute. Is there another industrialized nation in the world that, on average, treats its children as shabbily as we do? For example, the United States spends more money for health care than any other nation, even proportionately, and yet the quality of health care received by many American children is atrocious by world standards.

Is there another industrialized nation that subjects its children to such high levels of violence at home, at school, and on the streets as ours does? Is there another industrialized nation which has given its public school system as little attention as we have? All of you graduating this morning are fortunate to have attended good schools and an outstanding university. And yet here we are, one of the wealthiest nations in history, and we have within our borders some of the worst elementary and secondary schools in the world.

So my second question to you is this: How do you feel about children, both those you will someday call your own and those of your neighbors as well?

Let me suggest that, before you conceive or beget children of your own, you ask yourself what commitments you are willing to make to your child and what sacrifices you are willing to make on his or her behalf. As you move into positions of authority and power, ask yourself to what extent the welfare of our children should affect the formulation of public policy and the allocation of public resources.

Ask yourself to what extent you see yourself as a teacher and protector of the young. Some of you will actually become paid teachers in schools and colleges, but no matter what your compensated occupation may be, one of the greatest opportunities you will have to make a truly lasting contribution to society will be as teachers and exemplars for children. Indeed, for all Americans, our greatest single challenge in the years ahead will be the reconstruction of our society into one that is user-friendly to children.

My third question is the most difficult of the three, and by far the most personal and embarrassing. No, it has nothing to do with sex. Rather, the question is: How do you feel about God?

Say what? God? Did he say God? Why would anyone bring up God at a secular commencement ceremony? Surely most of us, as modern intellectuals, have grown beyond the point at which God or our relationship to him is a serious question. And besides, I am a Jew, or a Baptist, or a Hindu, or a Catholic, and if you want to know how I feel about God you need only consult this prayer book, or that scripture, or this catechistic text.

But wait a minute. Let me assure you that I’m not trying to sell you a set of religious beliefs. Here again, as in the case of money, the question is not how should you feel about God, but how do you feel about God in fact?

It’s perfectly all right with me if, deep down in your heart, you believe there is no God at all, or that there is a God but you simply don’t wish to have a relationship with him. What I have found, however, is that the vast majority of people duck this question altogether. It is simply too scary or too overwhelming for them to address in any serious way.

There are millions of people in this country who regularly attend religious services, and yet haven’t the foggiest idea of how they feel about God, or what kind of relationship they have with their God, or what they expect of him, or what they believe he expects of them. Similarly, there are millions of agnostics who have concluded that questions pertaining to God are simply unanswerable or unimportant, and yet who find it impossible to fully suppress their concerns for the spiritual and transcendent aspects of their own existence.

One of the painful realities we must confront is that we are, in the final analysis, fully and completely human, with all the unsettling and uncomfortable characteristics which that word connotes. We are as fully human, and no more human, than our brothers and sisters in ancient Egypt or in modern Mongolia. One of mankind’s deepest and most abiding concerns for all times, in all places, and for all peoples, is our feeling for and relationship with God.

My point is that you may be able to run from your true feelings about God or non-God, but it is very difficult to hide from them in the long term. Thus it is probably to your advantage to discover and confront these feelings sooner rather than later.

Well, there you have my small contribution to all the parting advice you will receive as you graduate from the University of Southern California. I hope what I’ve said has been consistent with your education at USC: no dogmatic answers, no pat formulas – just three simple questions:

How do you feel about money?
How do you feel about children?
How do you feel about God?

I can’t say that addressing these questions will make you any happier, in the conventional sense of that word, or protect you in some talismanic way from life’s pain and disappointments. But I do believe that giving careful consideration to these three questions in the years ahead will prove beneficial to you. For in so doing you will learn a great deal about yourself. You may even come to like and accept yourself a little better.

And if you should be so fortunate as to find answers for yourself to these three questions, you will almost certainly gain a better understanding of the meaning of life, of your place in the universe, and of how you might live in productive peace and harmony with your fellow human beings. And that, after all, is what living well is all about.

God bless you, and Fight On!