Commencement Speech

by Scott Barry Kaufman, May 14, 2016 in Blog

On May 14, 2016 I had the honor of giving the featured talk at the UPenn Psychology Graduation Ceremony at the Penn Museum. Here is the transcript of my talk, in which I offer the graduating seniors suggestions on how to live a happy, fulfilling life.

Hello and a warm welcome to parents, professors, and graduating seniors. Congratulations for completing a very worthy milestone in your lives! My name is Scott Barry Kaufman, and I teach the Introduction to Positive Psychology course here at Penn, and I also conduct research on imagination, creativity and well-being in the Positive Psychology Center. As you all embark on the next stages of your journey, I thought I’d offer you some suggestions, based on my research, as well as my own personal experiences.

First, I want to suggest that you all find a way to sign the paper. Please allow me to explain what I mean by this. As a child, I had so many ear infections, I developed a learning disability called central auditory processing disorder. It made it very hard for me to process information in real time. People thought I was stupid. I was bullied a lot. I was forced to repeat third grade and join special education. I remained in special education until 9th grade, when a teacher encouraged me to take more challenging classes and see what I truly capable of becoming.

This moment changed my life. I experimented with so many different things, including the cello. In fact, I fell in love with the cello so much that I practiced as much as 8 hours a day over the summer, under the mentoring of my grandfather, who was a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. By senior year I ended up second cellist in the high school orchestra, and won the all-music department award. I also caught up academically, and became college bound. This required massive catching up, taking summer classes and studying like crazy. Thinking this would all pay off, I applied to Carnegie Mellon University as a cognitive science major, with the desire to redefine intelligence. I was rejected, presumably because my SAT scores weren’t high enough to study human intelligence (how ironic!). Undeterred, I applied to the Opera program, where I sang Stars from Les Miserables for my audition. Thankfully, the voice program valued musical ability more than SAT scores and I was accepted to Carnegie Mellon.

Once I got to CMU, I went to the psychology department, trying to act as thought I hadn’t planned this my whole life. I calmly (even though my heart was beating) asked the secretary if I could be a minor in psychology. She was like “yea whatever, just sign this paper.” I remember skipping back to my dorm room that day (I was studying musical theatre, after all), thinking I discovered some secret to the universe that I wanted to tell everyone who was still stuck on the other side of the mountain. I just wanted to tell them all, and this is why I’m telling you all this today—just find a way to sign the damn paper! No one needs to know how much you’ve struggled and fought to get to your goal, or need to know that you didn’t take a traditional, standardized path. Just find a way to fill out the clerical paperwork, and shine.

By the way, the following semester, I went back to the same secretary and was like “I took another course in psychology here and loved it SO much. Who knew?! Could I perhaps be a major in psychology?’ She’s like ‘yea, whatever, sign these two pieces of paper!” I eventually graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Psychology, and have been attempting to redefine intelligence ever since.

So that’s first thing I wanted to say. The next thing I want to suggest is that you change how you measure your life. Up to this point, many of you have defined your happiness in relation to external goals such as finals being over, getting a good GPA, or receiving praise from professors and parents. This has worked for most of you. You have felt safe and secure as long as you have successfully passed the tests and made everyone happy. I just want to say, as you move forward into the next stage of your life, this way of measuring your success just won’t do. What you will soon realize, if you haven’t realized it already, is that completing goals, just for the sake of completing goals, becomes a deeply unsatisfying endeavor. You will find it increasingly important to set what psychologists refer to as “self-concordant” goals; goals that are consistent with your identity, basic needs, personality, and talents. Research shows that setting extrinsic goals (such as money, beauty, and status) tend to make much you less happy, whereas attaining intrinsic goals (such as intimacy, community, and personal growth) tends to lead to enhanced well-being. So my advice is to choose your goals very wisely, and to go toward the things that most interest you. Everything else will somehow take care of itself.

Which leads me to something else that is also very important. Don’t forget the importance of love. Research shows that the single biggest predictor of human happiness is the quality of relationships. Indeed, this is one of the most replicable findings in the science of well-being. Now, I want to make clear what I mean by love. I’m not just talking about the kind of love you have with a marriage partner or with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Love is way of being, or relating to others and with yourself. It involves acceptance of people for who they are, and not trying to change them. It involves attempting to truly understand a person; you know– really see them— like that special education teacher who really saw me in 9th grade. Giving others permission to just be themselves, to express their inner most desires and have the freedom and autonomy to express who they really are– well, to me, that is true love.

For instance, when someone says something that immediately makes you feel uncomfortable, your gut reaction may be something like “That’s stupid!” or “That’s not fair, this person has made me uncomfortable!” However, and I want you to consider this– if I take the time to really understand the intentions of the other person, where they are coming from, why perhaps they may have said what they said—then an authentic relationship blooms; one that is surprisingly beneficial to both of us. You find that both people change. So here’s my advice: Do not be scared of having your mind changed. Do not be scared of being wrong. Be aware of the fact that no one person has the truth. The truth requires multiple perspectives, and you can learn something from virtually anyone– even if you vehemently disagree with them. You will find that this way of having love for others– and even with yourself– will bring you many riches, and a much more fulfilling life.

Finally, I want to suggest that you trust your deepest self. Look, I know: in nearly every commencement speech, you will hear, someone say something like “listen to your intuition” at least once. But I’d like to be a bit more specific. There are a set of values that reside deep within you. Values for what feels right, what feels wrong, what feels like you, what feels like someone else. As you go throughout life, it will become increasingly important for you to develop an increasing trust in your ability to know what is right for you. All of us have experienced that nagging sense that something just isn’t right. Happy, healthy, growth-oriented individuals listen to that feeling. So my advice is this: Trust yourself to abandon a goal or even distance yourself from people if they are no longer appropriate for your growth, and you are no longer appropriate for their growth. Constantly consult your deep values when making choices about which goals to adopt. You, and you alone, have the power to revise your goals as you learn more about yourself and your unique place in this world. Look: You will rarely regret moving in a direction that feels right to you, but you do risk living a life with a lot of regret if you constantly make choices that pull you way from who you really are. As the great humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who I have a great affinity for, once noted, “trust the totality of your experience. It’s often much wiser than your intellect”.

So, these are just some of the things I’ve learned in my life so far that I wanted to share with you. Truth is, life is a process. You are always in the process of becoming, and you will much happier and fulfilled if you think of life in this way. I hope you find this advice helpful.

Congratulations again, and best of luck on becoming all the beautiful things you are all more than capable of becoming!


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