"Imperfect Means and Meaningful Ends: Leading a Fulfilling Life after Penn"

May 17, 2010 - Commencement Address
by Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann

Chairman Cohen, Trustees, honored guests, families, friends, and alumni: Welcome to the 254th commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

A special welcome to the members of the Classes of 1960 and 1985. It’s great to have you -- and all returning alumni -- back on campus!Everyone -- let’s hear it for the graduates of the great Class of 2010!

Graduates, you have met Penn’s requirements; you have survived your final Spring Fling, and you have completed the epic trek from Center City to Smokes. Well done!

This day is a beautiful expression of all that your loved ones knew you could achieve. They believed in you. And, now, they share in your success. Find time to return their calls. Let’s hear it for your family and friends.

Only these commencement exercises separate you from the so-called “real world.” I’m sure you’ve heard much about this foreign locale -- workdays begin before 11 a.m.; weekends are short, and vacations are even shorter.

I was reminded of the difference between Penn and the real world just last week when, in shockingly cold, 48-degree and rainy weather, I put on a beach party for the Senior Class at my house, complete with Penn-themed beach balls, pails, and flip flops. “I don’t want to leave Penn,” many a senior said to me, “but I know that it’s about to get real.” If, like Thoreau, you subscribe to the notion that one ought to “distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes,” -- or anything more formal than flip-flops -- then the demands of life post-Penn will seem very vexing.

And if, like Oscar Wilde, you believe that “quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit,” then my send-off is certainly off to an auspicious start.

Take heart, graduates. Rumors about the real world have been greatly exaggerated. Life after Penn can be as fulfilling as life at Penn has been. Of course, can does not imply will. So, how will you approach your entry into the real world?

Far, far better if you let go of trying to be perfect. How many seniors remember your convocation precisely because it poured and you got drenched? You impressed me by your spunk and spirit far more than you otherwise could have, or would have, had the weather been perfect. Remember that people can be near perfect without being especially good. People who try to be perfect often avoid risks. They miss opportunities to grow and to cultivate lasting relationships.

Nothing truly important in life is perfect. Even the idea of striving for perfection is overrated. I learned this lesson early in my career. Fresh out of graduate school and in a tough job market, I was absolutely elated to be hired as an assistant professor. But I soon discovered that my teaching experience -- a single 45-minute lecture that took me a month to prepare -- did not exactly match my new teaching load -- four lectures and six seminars per week.

Facing 150 hours of classroom time and the imperative to “publish or perish,” I did what many a newly minted faculty member does: I quietly panicked. There was no time to make every lecture a perfect lecture, and even less time to write my magnum opus. So, I stuffed my book manuscript in a drawer. And I took a big risk. I threw myself into teaching. And instead of proving that I could drive home perfect truths in political philosophy by the end of every lecture, I decided to pepper my students with provocative questions to get them thinking along with me. I discovered how enjoyable it was to lead lively discussions that did not reach cut and dried conclusions.

Ultimately, my students and I learned more from my letting go than any of us would have from striving for perfection. And we all had more fun while learning together by thinking out loud, openly and imperfectly.

Is this a valediction promoting the pursuit of mediocrity?

Not at all! This is a call to be bold and courageous in facing the unknown. Let your reach exceed your grasp, enough to stretch your talents and make them, and you, expand. After I panicked, instead of playing it safe, I took a big chance. I let go of the certainty of what would come next in a perfectly scripted lecture; just as we all must let go of perfectly scripting our lives to succeed. I asked my students to confront with me some of the most complex and intriguing questions. I discovered that I could inspire students to join me on what would become a life-long journey in pursuit of our own best answers.

You will achieve greatness only by realizing that not every step is the beginning of an Olympic-quality 100-meter dash run as fast as Usain Bolt. Take the chance that you will sometimes stumble. Remember that you can achieve perfection at many small things without being especially good at anything truly important. Your Penn education has cultivated in you the courage to lead yourself and others -- not in certain directions, not with perfect, pre-ordained answers -- but in bold, creatively crafted, and life-transforming directions.

Embrace not perfection, but the ecstatic greatness of human life by being creative, courageous, and far ranging in your pursuits. Avidly pursue your passion for poetry, your love of invention, your ardor for athletics, or your fanaticism for film as you cultivate a great career and -- of course -- stay connected to your Penn friends and to Penn.

Your life, like your time at Penn, will have periods of deluge and drought -- not to mention a few epic snow days here and there! And you will find, as I did, that some of those epic snow days, those panicked moments early in your anxiety laced and uncertain careers, are precisely what incite you to achieve new heights and enjoy the most fulfilling adventures of your life.

“The blessed work of helping the world forward,” George Eliot wrote, “happily does not wait to be done by perfect men [or women].” The challenges facing our world, like those confronting me as a first-year assistant professor and those facing you as “it is about to get real,” demand our boldest, most creative ideas and our greatest energy now, not a perfect solution later.

Over your years at Penn, you have put many great ideas into practice. (Not to mention some not-so-bright ideas fueled by too little sleep and other absolutely endearing imperfections). By triathloning through the semester and sprinting to the end of finals, you have passionately pursued excellence inside and outside the classroom.

You strengthened our campus community and West Philadelphia through your community service. You traveled to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to help rebuild a city with your own hands.

And when a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti a day before this semester began, you sprang into action, hosting vigils and benefit events, and collecting necessities to support your fellow human beings in need.

Great lives and great deeds are not perfect. They reflect the boldest efforts of women and men with the talent and the fortitude to make a meaningful difference. You are those women and men--and I love you for your Penn spirit. That spirit -- our spirit -- that does not let perfection obscure the path to creative, courageous, bold and transformative action.

Graduates, how will you confront the daunting challenges of what lies ahead? By making courageous choices, by cultivating far-ranging interests, and by passionately devoting yourself to meaningful action, you will live a life that is every bit as fulfilling--and fun--as your life at Penn has been. You will tackle the greatest challenges of your time by leading others, not perfectly, but creatively and constructively.  You will be the generation that both imagines a truly bright future and avidly works to bring it into being.

You have made me tremendously proud to be Penn’s president. Yes, it’s about to get real. So, now, go out bravely into that real world, boldly stake your claim, and -- not perfectly -- but passionately make a difference. I wish you all the greatest success and the utmost happiness. Go Quakers!