Work and Wisdom
May 20, 2002
Robert B. Reich
President Osgood, Trustees, Faculty, Parents, Friends, and Members of the Grinnell Class of 2002,
I am going to get a platform to stand on. I will tell you, when I began as Secretary of Labor in President Bill Clinton's cabinet I was six foot two inches. It took a lot out of me. I left the cabinet before I vanished altogether. Actually, I left the cabinet for a different reason, which I will come to. It may have a bearing on the choices will make.
You will have many, many choices. Despite, right now, a rather slowing economy, college graduates from excellent places like Grinnell can still do pretty much whatever they want to do.
Thirty-odd years ago when my class graduated from college our choices were more limited. A war was raging in Vietnam and some of us were about to be drafted. I suspected I was too short, but when I reported for my physical the examining sergeant took one look and said: Just what we've been waiting for-a tunnel rat to go under the rice paddies and flush out the VC with hand grenades. I tried to look enthusiastic at the prospect. In the end, it turned out I was too short even to be a tunnel rat, by about an inch. That one inch opened some choices.
So I took a boat to England to pursue graduate studies at Oxford, because I loved history and philosophy. And within a week I met two people who changed the course of my life. That's the other thing about choice. You never know exactly when it will be coming at you. The most you can do is to try to get in its way.
The beginning of that trip was not particularly auspicious. A few days at sea and my intestines told me I had committed a grave error. I retreated to my tiny cabin where I thought I would die. Then came a knock at the door, and I opened it to find a tall, gangly young man about my age who spoke in a smooth southern accent. He held chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other, and he said Hi, I'm Bill Clinton, and I heard you weren't feeling well so I thought maybe these would help. One thing he did not say was: I feel your pain. That came later. Twenty-five years later he asked me to be in his cabinet.
When I finally reached Oxford I met a young English woman who was auditioning for a student play I had also decided to audition for. Neither of us got a part, but five years later we married. I became leading man and she leading woman in a high drama that is still running, to rave reviews.
An inch or so taller and I would have been under the rice paddies. Without the scholarship to England I would not have been in the cabinet or found my future wife. By the way, I did spend the next two years pursuing history and philosophy, and although I did not catch them I adored the intellectual chase. And I discovered economics, too-a subject that can be best understood, at least in my judgment, within the context of history and philosophy. History and philosophy are murky waters in which economics swims. Absent history and philosophy, economics is a dead fish.
So what do I mean when I talk about choices? Matters of inches, unanticipated places and times. Do not over-plan. Do not subject your future to cost-benefit analysis. There are too many variables. Do not try to satisfy other people's expectations for you. You'll never fulfill them. And be careful about trying to fulfill your own expectations of yourself. You do not know enough about yourself yet to have clear expectations. Give yourself enough breathing room to grow and change.
Here's another thing you should know: You do not have to go to law school. Or to business school. Or to any other place where careers are packaged and prepared. By all means go if you want to, if you're genuinely interested. But do not go just to add another credential to your curriculum vitae, or just to keep doors open. The rule is: Unless a professional degree is absolutely necessary to what you think you want to do, it isn't.
Your first real job, and I can speak from authority here as former Secretary of Labor of the United States, will not last long. It shouldn't last long. It is an opportunity to get your bearings, discover some things about yourself. Your second job will count for more. You will want to find a good boss, a mentor who will teach you and give you a chance to test your wings. From then on, prospective employers won't care about grades or degrees. They will be far more interested in how well you did at the job just before---how cleverly you solved a problem, how well you worked with other people, your energy and initiative.
In this new economy, formal credentials mean less. Knowledge is important, of course. But knowledge is changing so quickly that any specific bit of it is bound to be obsolete pretty soon. The liberal arts education you have just received gives you tools to gain new knowledge, most of which you will gain on the job.
Now, here comes the hard part. Knowledge is not enough. You also are going to need some wisdom. Knowledge is knowing how to accomplish something---it's know-how. Wisdom is knowing why you should accomplish it-know-why. Wisdom involves values, judgments about what's important or worthy for you to be doing.
Wisdom requires self-knowledge. In order to make wise choices about your life's work you will need to know something of who you are, and be able to imagine the kind of person you want to become.
Gaining self-knowledge often comes from failing-crashing headlong into the wall of your character. And please have no doubts about it: You will fail, in some way, at some time. In fact, you will keep crashing into that character wall again and again until you finally realize its there, and that you have either got to knock it down or figure out how to get over it.
My first permanent adult job was working in the Justice Department in Washington. I left that job exactly as I began it-fired with enthusiasm. Nobody told me I was fired, exactly. They just said I wasn't doing the job quite as well as they had hoped, and it might be best if I looked for something else to do. That was a nice way of saying I was fired.
I had taken the job for the wrong reason, because it looked prestigious. The job title sounded impressive, at least to my young ears. I was an assistant to the solicitor general, who reported to the attorney general. And for the first few months everything seemed to be coming my way. I forgot the old adage that when everything is coming your way, you are probably in the wrong lane. Got a bit carried away with myself, to tell you the truth. Didn't pay proper attention to the work I was supposed to be doing or the relationships I needed to be building with my colleagues. Thought I knew well enough everything I needed to know for the job, but I didn't know myself well enough to do the job well. I did not have the wisdom I needed.
You hear a lot of folks talking about lifelong learning these days. And the new economy certainly does require that you keep up. But the kind of lifelong learning that counts most is continuous acquisition of self-knowledge. With self-knowledge you can make wise use of your knowledge about everything else.
Some of you may be a bit anxious right now about earning enough money. The Higher Education Research Institute has conducted a survey of college students every year for the last thirty to find out what is upper-most on their minds. One goal-"to be very well off financially"-has continued to rise over the last thirty years. Thirty years ago, only 40 percent listed it as very important; recently, more than 75 percent. Why the change? It's of course possible that your generation of students is shallow and crassly materialistic compared to my thoughtful and deeply spiritual one of thirty years ago, but I don't think that is the root of it.
Much of your concern about earning enough money, I think, has to do with the widening gap between rich and poor in this country, indeed around the world. The reward for landing on the prosperous side of the gap is far greater than it was thirty years ago, and so is the penalty for landing on the poorer side. In other words, because the high is much higher and the low is much lower, and every place in between is more spread out, the financial stakes in getting on the right career track are much greater than they were before. So of course you are going to be more concerned about being well off financially. And, I would guess, so are your parents.
But I have comforting news for you. You are about to become a college graduate, and college graduates almost always land on the winning side of the gap. Not because they have piece of parchment, but because they have the right tools to gain new knowledge.
Yet it is self-knowledge that is in short supply, and that is what you will need most in order to make a success of your life. By success I am not speaking solely or even necessarily about how much money you will earn. Too many rich people these days don't much like what they do during most of their waking hours, or they do not make enough time for their spouses and children and friends, or they do not have space and time for themselves.
Since September 11, a lot of people around this country have reassessed their priorities. Family and community seem closer to the core of our lives than wealth and status.
My advice to you: Find a job that makes you happy, ideally one that also makes the world a better place to live in, find a partner whom you love and will love you back, have children, if you wish, who will grow into decent men and women because you are a decent and loving parent, and make time for good friends. No college course I know of teaches about any of this. Your degrees, I'm afraid, are practically useless.
Which brings me back to why I really left my job as Secretary of Labor. It was the best job I had ever had, the best, perhaps, I ever will have. It paid well, and I thought I was doing some good. I didn't get fired. But the four years I was in Washington I kept looking for a better balance between a job I loved-a job I could not get enough of-and a family I loved, and could not get enough of. And, you see, there weren't enough hours in the day or days in the week or weeks in the year to get more of both.
So, after four years, after one term in that cabinet position, I chose to come home. And it was the right choice. Both our boys have now left the nest. If I hadn't come home I'd have missed their last years at home with my wife and me. I do not know much about teenage girls, we never had any, but I can tell you that teenage boys are like clamshells: Hard on the outside, but when they open up for an instant you can see the beauty and the vulnerability inside. But you can not predict exactly when they're going to open up. Sometimes days go by, sometimes it happens at one or two in the morning, for about a minute. And if you're not there when they do, you might as well be on the moon. Well, I was there.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying you will have to choose between work and family. You should try for both, with gusto. But be truthful with yourself. There may come times when one or another aspect of your lives has to take priority. It may be work, or family, or something that calls to you-a calling in the classic sense of the word, something you want and need to do-or it may simply be your own peace of mind. And when those times come, you'll need to know it. That is what I mean by the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I am not a wise man, but on this one particular choice, I did make a wise decision.
So, members of the great Grinnell Class of 2002, go forth and use the tools you have been given here to gather as much knowledge as you can. Make the world better too, if you can. Lord knows, it needs all the help you can give it. Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Most importantly, be as wise as you can be. Learn to know yourself, and be true to the very best in what you can find there, inside your very own clamshell.
Thank you and good luck.