Answering the question - "What Matters Most?"

May 18, 2009 - Commencement Address
by Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann

Chairman Riepe, Trustees, honored guests, families, alumni and friends: It is my great privilege to welcome you to the 253rd commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Please join me in congratulating the graduates of the GREAT Class of 2009!

Jay Furman, Penn Class of 1934, is also here celebrating his 75th reunion! Let’s hear it for Jay and all returning Penn alumni!

Graduates: You have passed your exams … and you have survived Walnut Walk!

But just when you were putting your final exams and dissertations behind you, a global economic crisis confronts you with an ever tougher exam – maybe the toughest test of your lifetimes.

So: what’s the test question? “Will I find a job?”

Finding a job will be a far bigger challenge than you probably bargained for – but it won’t be the toughest test you’ll take.

Pretty soon, every one of you will have landed a job, if not a spot in post-graduate school.

No, the toughest test you, I, and all of us will face boils down to one overarching question (to which there is no one correct answer): “What matters most to me?” When economic bubbles burst, individuals and institutions need to focus all the more keenly on what matters most to them.

A pessimist, Winston Churchill remarked, sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

But you don’t need to be an optimist to make the most out of a tough situation. You do need to be broadly educated to figure out what truly matters most in your life, and then pursue it.

So if you want to find out who you truly are and where you are going in life, ask yourself: “What really matters most to me?”

In my own life, family and friends have always come first. When I became Penn’s president in 2004, I made the most of the opportunity, gaining thousands of new friends—my Penn family.

Graduates, be sure to demonstrate how much your friends and family mean to you in some small way EACH AND EVERY DAY. Let’s seize this moment to thank all the parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, partners, and friends here today with a Penn round of applause.

When I ask what else matters most in my life, my thoughts quickly turn to Penn and higher education. I find it not only satisfying, but also thrilling to be educating the most creative minds to make the maximum possible difference in our world.

“Genius,” Wittgenstein said, “is talent exercised with courage.” By combining intellectual talent with a bold spirit, you will be courageous enough to pursue what matters most to you.

It takes talent and courage to teach for America and devote yourselves full-time to transforming young lives.

It takes talent and courage to expand micro-finance in impoverished communities and to empower women so that they can support their families and give their children a far brighter future.

It takes talent and courage to pursue breakthroughs in health care and to serve the world’s poorest populations, some of them right here in our own communities.

It takes talent and courage to branch out beyond traditional roles and career paths and to follow the road less traveled.

I don’t see any of you forever following a single straight and narrow path to maximum security, which has a ring of prison about it. Rather, I see all of you taking the road less traveled to a more satisfying life.

You won’t find the road less traveled on any roadmap – because it is waiting for YOU to determine its direction and then blaze its path.

Where will your road take you? Perhaps it will lead you to create a groundbreaking work of art that expands the frontiers of human understanding.

Perhaps it will lead you to discover an elusive cure for a disease, a way to alleviate world hunger, to reduce political strife, to put our economy on firmer ground, and to sustain our planet.

Penn’s dedicated faculty has educated you to be successful in the world of work—but we have educated you not only, or primarily, to be so successful. We also have empowered you to ask yourselves AND ANSWER the most fundamental question in anyone’s life: “What Matters Most?” How YOU answer this question has never mattered more than it does today.

“The mind,” Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “is its own place. … (It) can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.”

Over the past four-plus years, I have been as proud as a parent can be that you have made the most out of your time at Penn, which you and I know is the nearest approximation of heaven here on earth.

And I have marveled at your courage.

You have never been afraid to take risks.

From the moment you arrived on campus … right up to the end, you seized every opportunity to make the mistakes you always dreamed of making in college.

Tell me, graduates: How did that last chance to cuddle at Smokes work out for you?

In all seriousness, you definitely are ready to make the most of this moment in your lives and in human history.

Seize this moment as the consummate opportunity to pursue what matters most in your life.

I urge you to start now, because now will never come again. If you do, you will enjoy the longest and happiest lives in both Penn and human history. You also will return to PENN IN DROVES for a GLORIOUS 75th class reunion … in 2084.

And when you process behind your Class of 2009 flag with a smile on your face and a spring in your step, just remember: On a glorious day on Franklin Field WAY back in 2009, you promised yourselves what we wish for all of you: a lifetime of true happiness – and many happy returns to Penn. Bravo!