Good morning! Now that you have officially been accepted to Duke, I am delighted to greet you for the first time as the newest members of our campus community. I also want to recognize Provost and Chief Academic Officer Sally Kornbluth, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Gary Bennett, our deans and administrators, and all of the faculty members who make this community so exceptional.
Today’s ceremony comes at the end of a very long process that began when you submitted your applications last fall. You worked hard throughout high school to distinguish yourselves and to prepare for your time here. You were selected from the largest and most accomplished pool of applicants in Duke history. And after a summer of anticipation and a particularly hot and humid morning, you have now moved in your boxes and made your beds and met those first few friends on your hallway.
Those of you, like me, who are transplants to this beautiful corner of the world may have been a bit taken aback by the heat. I spent yesterday morning unloading cars on East Campus, and I got so hot that I had to run home to change my shirt. Things aren’t much better today in these robes.
And yes, since we’re in a gym, sweat is clearly on my mind.
I’m tempted to keep with the theme, to lean on the classic advice of innumerable Convocation and Commencement speeches: don’t sweat the small stuff, it’s the big stuff that matters.
But while this tired truism is certainly well-intentioned, it occurs to me that it gets it wrong. If we’re honest, we already spend way too much time worrying about the major moments and undertakings.
So I would like to propose a minor but important variation: what you should really not sweat is the big stuff.
Now that may induce a little sweat in your parents, but I have my reasons for rewriting this dictum.
The first reason is that the big stuff isn’t always a great guide – it can even lead us in the wrong direction. Focusing on what we do rather than who we are, on the sum of our accomplishments rather than our own innate talents and gifts, can make our successes less sweet and the inevitable bumps along the way harder to overcome.
As fluent speakers of the language of the digital world, you might appreciate how easily this phenomenon is exacerbated by social media. Instagram and Snapchat reinforce the idea that everyone else is succeeding beyond their wildest dreams, is living a perfect life of flower crowns, matcha lattes, and pale pink wallpaper.
Unfortunately, the curated life hides the confusion and dissatisfaction that can come from the pursuit of perfection, especially when our peers make it look so easy. I saw a meme that summed this up: a prim, proper show dog was depicted next to a crazed, delighted doodle covered in mud from swimming in a pond. The caption: me on Instagram versus me in real life.
So, as we set off together on this academic year, your first at Duke, let’s focus on being ourselves, not our Instagram selves. Instead of worrying about failure, let’s remember that moments of adversity and challenge often teach us the most.
And most important: let’s not allow false standards of perfection or high expectations get the best of us.
Your career at Duke isn’t going to be perfect. You’re going to hit some bumps along the way: the early-semester paper marked up by a professor, the first-choice Duke Engage project you might not get, the friendships that may cool over time. When these things happen, it won’t help you one iota to be hard on yourself. What will matter is what you make of them, how you deal with them, how you learn from them.
And that brings me to the second reason you should not sweat the big stuff: It’s not really about you. At least, not about you alone. Our measure in life will largely be what we are able to do together.
As you navigate the bumps and bruises of the coming years, remember that you have the full support of your professors, your classmates, and Duke’s exceptional residential living and wellness staff. And I hope that your parents too will remember that, with time, these perceived setbacks provide an opportunity to emerge a better writer, a more engaged member of the community, a more mature partner or friend.
Take a look at the banners above you, which capture some of the great moments in Blue Devil history. Some of them celebrate individual athletes; but most celebrate our team wins. And every single one of our individual champions will be quick to tell you that what allowed their success was the support of coaches and teammates.
When those championship teams lost games, they adjusted – mainly by figuring out not just how each player could be their best, but how each could make others best; how each could lean on others to do the things that challenged them individually.
It’s no wonder that one of the most common statements we hear coming out of post-game interviews is “we’ll take it one game at a time.” By not sweating the big stuff – by taking our minds off the big prize at season’s end and focusing instead on the here and now; by leaning more on each other and lifting the burdens of greatness from our own shoulders – we begin to realize our full human potential.
We’ve all seen the desire to win drive some of our peers from time to time to try to do too much, to go it alone and not engage the full team. The burdens of great expectations should be shared.
So, let’s remember that we are all in this together. For you to be your best and for Duke to be its best, we want you to lean on the full support of your professors, advisors, and classmates.
The third and final reason I tell you not to sweat the big stuff is that if we’re focused on the endgame, we tend overlook the beauty of the little moments along the way.
Duke will prepare you very well for successful careers, and that’s probably part of the reason why you chose to come here. But don’t get so caught up in figuring out life after Duke that you never give yourself the time to enjoy life while you’re here.
Chances are, the moments you’ll remember long after you graduate won’t be the career fairs, job interviews, and hours in the library. No, the richness of Duke lies instead in the late-night conversations with hallmates about politics; the Spikeball games on the quad that first warm day of spring; in walking through Duke Gardens with a friend who recently returned from abroad; or taking those classes on a lark that open you up to an entirely new world of possibilities.
There will be few times in your life when you will be surrounded by such astounding diversity of thought and perspectives, when you will have not only the license but the charge to explore new ideas and try out new activities, when you will share a sense of purpose and passion with hallmates and classmates and future lifelong friends.
All you have to do is make the conscious choice to embrace it. Get out there, and get engaged.
But not so engaged that you forget to take care of yourself – and this last bit of advice I give in all seriousness – remember to Get. Some. Sleep. None of us get enough these days, and we can’t be our best without it!\
A few minutes ago, I told you that Duke chose you from a pool of extremely well-qualified candidates. And having heard Dean Guttentag’s presentation, I too am very confident that we made the right choice.
But now the choice is up to you: I hope you will choose to experience the full diversity and richness of life at Duke.
Choose to put the big stuff aside and embrace the small stuff, the moments of curiosity, and laughter with your new friends.
Choose to look for the growth in those times that feel like failures.
And above all, choose to become a true blue Dukie, an enthusiastic member of this noble academic community. We are so very excited to welcome you to the Duke family.
And now please join me in welcoming Katherine Waugh, Class of 2020, who will lead us in our alma mater, Dear Old Duke, a song that you will all soon know by heart.