Words Of Wisdom For Graduates: Courage, Leadership, Community, Play

Originally published on May 16, 2011 1:30 pm

I gave a commencement address yesterday to students receiving advanced degrees in the medical sciences and public health at the University of Southern California. Since this activity soaked up my blog-prep time, I'll post the latter portion of my address here in hopes that it might speak to some of you.

And now, the obligatory words of advice from a commencement speaker. I'll offer a few thoughts relating to three concepts: courage, community and play.

First, let me counsel you to nourish your courage.

Courage is an elusive trait to define. I'll start with what it doesn't mean. Courage doesn't entail a brash rushing into things, nor is it about being pushy or self-centered. Courage entails finding a balance between self-confidence and an awareness of the limits and boundaries of a given situation.

You're courageous in the lab or in the field when you pursue something that's challenging and untested, but also feasible and within your skill set. You may need to branch out into unfamiliar territory and learn new skill sets, which in itself takes courage, but the goals are so interesting as to make that effort fully worthwhile.

Courage has a spinoff, which is the taking of leadership.

Leadership is tricky — I would say that we're pretty confused, across the board, across the country, across the globe, as to what leadership entails and, for that matter, what follower-ship entails. It could even be said that we struggle with a fear of leadership, both a fear of offering leadership ourselves and a fear of responding to the leadership of others.

But somehow we need to move past this. So I counsel you to pay close attention to the leaders you admire, and figure out ways to emulate them. Whether you're part of a large research project or a small group, finding the courage to be an effective leader is deeply important, as is finding the courage to be an effective follower when that is the right thing to do.

Leadership takes me to my second trajectory of advice, which has to do with community. I've had to chuckle when folks say to me that they could never be a research scientist because they are "people persons" and the life of a research scientist is so isolated. Maybe this was true for Einstein coming up with his equations, but as all of you degree candidates know very well, research in the biomedical sciences and public health is anything but a solitary endeavor — it's community through and through, from project groups to departments to institutions to professional societies. During your training, your days have been abuzz with interactions and feedback and helpful critique, as well as critique that might not have seemed all that helpful at the time but usually did so in retrospect.

A key word folded into the concept of community is mentoring, a word so over-used these days that it has arguably lost some of its import. But I encourage you to dust it off and take it with you. Like leading and following, there's a dynamic between mentoring and being mentored, between asking and listening and offering, that's key to the whole.

When you feel as comfortable asking "What do you think I should do?" as you are in saying "Here's what I think you should do," you'll be far better provisioned to navigate the career paths before you. We all need lots of support, and lots of hugs.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I invite you to nurture your playfulness.

When I'm puttering around in my lab, pouring cells into test tubes, weighing stuff out on balances, and watching what happens, I really get the sense that I am playing, in the best sense of that word. In fact, play is the best metaphor I can think of for the process of scientific creativity, and indeed for creativity in general.

To play as a kid is to daydream, to imagine, to be learning, to be relaxed and ready to laugh, to be open and suggestible, to come up with new things. You're doing what you want to do, as contrasted with work, which is doing what your parents want you to do.

One of my favorite stories along these lines comes from an embryologist at Duke who was out collecting sand dollars off the shore of North Carolina. He was thigh-deep in warm water, the sky was a brilliant blue, the air was soft and enfolding and he suddenly turned to his companion and said, "Christ, do you realize I'm being paid to do this?"

A career is often thought of as a thing, but in fact it's defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a person's course of progress through life. Maybe you'll have one scientific course of progress, maybe several. And maybe you'll wind up going into teaching or law or whatever and not engage in research, per se.

But I'm here to tell you that being a research scientist is now in your bones; you're always going to think like one. So whatever your course of progress, bring to it your courage and your commitment to community and leadership and mentoring. And, most of all, bring to it the delightful notion that you're going to have a wonderful time.

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