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2011 Class Day Speech by Charles Wheelan '88

Charles WheelanRemarks as prepared for delivery, Class Day, June 11, 2011

Good Morning to the Class of 2011, to your family and friends, to President Kim, and others: 

I am delighted to be here. As someone who comes to Dartmouth as a visitor, and who focuses almost exclusively on teaching, I’m flattered and honored that you have invited me to speak to you today. I assure you: I may get my health insurance at the University of Chicago, but my heart is always in Hanover.

As an alumnus, I vividly recall my own Class Day 23 years ago on a near perfect day at the Bema, with my classmates, my parents, my grandparents, and my girlfriend from the Class of ’88, to whom I’ve now been married for 18 years—nearly your whole lives, which is kind of scary to me.

I’m not going to give you a conventional graduation-type speech. I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of Dartmouth was writing speeches for the Governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds, which is ironic given that I was 23 at the time.

So this will be less conventional. My speech today is called, “Six Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said.” Every one of them is something I would have liked to hear on my Class Day. Many of them, by the way, are supported by social science research, the kind of work I do in public policy.

Number 1: Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.

Seriously, you can Google that. No commencement speaker has ever said that. Go back to the Greeks, the Romans. Never. But I am serious. Obviously my point is broader than just fraternity basements. I’m referring to time working on DOC trips, or on the Daily Dartmouth, or playing whiffle ball outside Russell Sage, or just lounging on the Green with friends on a perfect fall day. There was work you could have been doing—and there always will be. That’s the point.

Researchers are now studying happiness. They are literally asking, “What makes us enjoy life?” What we know—what comes up significant in every study of well-being using every possible methodology—is that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings: family, friends, organizations, neighbors, social movements. In other words, the people around you today.

One of our most intriguing sources of data is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Beginning in 1937, this study followed Harvard sophomores for 70 years: through graduation, and marriages, and careers, and illness, and in some cases death. The value of this kind of longitudinal study is that you can follow the same people over decades and make meaningful inferences about what behaviors in life are associated with what outcomes, in terms of health, career success, coping with adversity, and overall sense of well-being. The participants in the Harvard study were mostly white men. In other respects, particularly their education and promise, they looked just like you. The results of the study are fascinating. I will draw your attention to one. When the director of the study was asked what he has learned from decades of data on the Harvard students, he replied, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

The same pattern keeps coming up. You may have seen a reference to a recent study which found that joining a group that meets just once a month has the same effect on your sense of well-being as doubling your income.

I feel compelled to point out that the Harvard study also found that alcohol abuse is the most common way that otherwise privileged people fall upon seriously hard times. So, the good thing about the fraternity basements is the camaraderie, not necessarily the libations. 

In that vein, look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your post-graduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years. The research tells us that if you get that right, most other things will fall into place.

Number 2: Some of your worst days lie ahead.

Commencement speakers usually steer clear of that theme. I know that this is a happy day. I know that you are all rich with promise. I know that you will some day run companies, and maybe even the country. Clearly, one of the fun things about being 20 years out of Dartmouth is looking around at my classmates who are doing fabulously cool things.

But I promised you an unconventional talk. So I’m here to tell you that between now and then, and even then at some points, there are going to be some stretches that are just plain awful. As a writer, I do not choose those words lightly. If you are going to do anything worthwhile—to write, to invent, to start a company, to lead a social movement—you will face extended periods of grinding self doubt and failure. And when you get there, because you will get there, I want you to remember two stories.

The first is about my roommate from senior year, who remains a great friend. John really wanted to be an investment banker. All senior winter he attended every information session, always wearing a suit. He sat in the front row. He read books on interviewing strategies. Those of us who knew him well didn’t think that he was particularly suited for Wall Street, but that is where he aimed to go.

He did not get a job during corporate recruiting. He did not get a job during senior spring, when even the people who’d been unsuccessful during corporate recruiting got jobs at less prestigious and relatively unknown firms like Microsoft. He did not get a job during the summer. He did not get a job in the fall. (Yes, this does sound like job search handbook written by Dr. Seuss.) John moved in with his mother in San Francisco and began studying Japanese, since we were all convinced that Japan was taking over the world. (The real estate, stock market, and banking collapses were all roughly one year away.)

I visited John in October after graduation, when he still had no offers on Wall Street, and no opportunities in investment banking in his home city of San Francisco. In fact, he had only one job offer at all: assistant food and beverage manager at a hotel on the island of Saipan. Just by way of background, Saipan is 12 miles long, five miles wide, and in the middle of the Pacific. When people want to have a good time on Saipan, they fly to Guam.

John was, and still is, one of the most polite and urbane people I know. So other than being a single guy on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the hospitality industry actually made a lot of sense. We told him to go. Remember, it was October after graduation and he was living with his mother.

On that little island, John met his future wife, who happened to be there working from New Zealand. And he never left the hospitality industry. He’s now CEO of Rosewood Hotels.

Number 3: Don’t make the world worse.

I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I’m going to lower the bar here for a minute. I’m going to ask first and foremost that you do not use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Because too many smart people are doing that already.

It’s true that high school drop outs are more likely to steal cars or go to prison or end up on welfare. But if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. 

To make that point, I want to speak for a moment about an iconic photograph from almost 20 years ago that embodies the capacity of smart, highly-educated people to do really nasty things. In April of 1994, the heads of seven major tobacco companies appeared before Congress. They were all sworn in. The famous photo I referred to is of the seven executives all taking the oath at the same time. All seven of them then proceeded to testify before Congress and the nation that cigarettes are not addictive. As I said, this was 1994—not 1924 or 1934. The Surgeon General had already reported that tobacco is as addictive as cocaine or heroin. In prepared testimony, William Campbell, president of Philip Morris, stated unequivocally: “Cigarette smoking is not addictive.” 

This is, by the way, after decades during which the same companies had deliberately obscured the causal relationship between smoking and cancer, despite plenty of research making that clear and compelling link. The photo of the seven executives taking the oath has always been etched in my mind. It sticks with me because time has wiped away any ambiguity about the real facts. We can see that scene for what it was: Profound dishonesty, inspired by naked self-interest, and perpetrated by people who had plenty of other life options. In fact, I got to wondering recently: Where did those guys—and it was all men—go to school? Was it a community college? Is that why they felt compelled to lie in a way that puts millions of lives at risk?

So I asked my research assistant to look into it. Among the seven who took an oath and testified that day that cigarettes are not addictive, there were four Ivy League degrees. Three of them were from Harvard. 

You are smart and motivated and creative. You will be better than most people at most things. Of course, my point here is that you could also be better than most other people at skirting financial regulations, or obscuring climate change research, or designing sub-prime mortgages that low-income families won’t understand, or selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. You would be awesome at all of those things! Better, faster, more creative. But, to paraphrase Nike, just don’t do it. I’m not asking you to cure cancer here. I’m just asking you not to spread it literally in the case of the intellectually dishonest tobacco executives, but figuratively in the rest of your life.

Let me add parenthetically that this, too, will help make you happy. The research is very clear that leading a life with purpose, however you define that, is also strongly associated with happiness and well-being.

Number 4: Marry someone smarter than you are.

This was of the smartest things I ever did. I bring this up for three reasons. First, for all the controversy over marriage lately, there has been virtually no public discussion of the role that marriage plays in economic success. Those of you who took my economics and public policy classes may remember my favorite quiz question of all time: True or False: Dartmouth is the kind of place where assortive mating is going on. Parents, please don’t worry. This is a less sordid question than it would appear. The answer is true; it merely refers to the fact that highly educated people are likely to marry each other, as are poorly-educated people. The result magnifies many of our underlying social trends, including income inequality. 

To make it much more personal, and because I’ve vowed to speak about things that no one told me when I was in College, what I’ve learned over time is that the benefit of marrying my Phi Beta Kappa classmate, whom I met at orientation freshman week, is not merely that she is fun and beautiful, but that it’s like having another economic oar in the water. When I was getting a PhD, she was working. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a steady income. When I wanted to take a year off to write books, she had a steady income. You’re good at standardized tests; you get the pattern. In addition to all the things that Dr. Phil can tell you about marriage, I’m telling you that you’re getting a professional teammate for life. So pick wisely.

Now the second reason I bring this subject up is that a healthy marriage will make you… Yes, happy! We’ve got research on this, too. In fact, the economists even think they can quantify it. In terms of happiness and well-being, a healthy marriage is the equivalent of earning an extra $100,000 a year. That said, I would urge you not to tell your future spouse that he or she will be worth roughly a million dollars at the end of 10 years, as it never sounds as cool to everyone else as it does to the economists.

Finally, I bring up the benefit of smart partners because tomorrow is your chance! Everyone who is Phi Beta Kappa will be wearing pink and blue ribbons on their gowns. Folks, this is the equivalent of hunting smart fish in a barrel. After tomorrow, when you go into a bar or to your job or to the gym, the really smart people aren’t going to be wearing pink and blue ribbons! 

Now, let me point out to those of you wearing the pink and blue ribbons, it’s just tomorrow. When you’re done with Commencement, take them off. My wife sometimes wears hers around the house, and frankly, it’s unseemly. 

Number 5: It’s all borrowed time.

I know this is a happy day, but that does not preclude some deeper reflection. One of the things that becomes very clear after you leave Dartmouth, and sometimes even before, is that you shouldn’t take anything for granted—not this afternoon, not tomorrow, and certainly not 20 years from now. Since this is Class Day, I feel compelled to share with you that our class president, who spoke to us just as Joe [Joseph Coleman '11] spoke to you, was Karen Avenoso, who was also a good friend of mine. She was a Rhodes Scholar, a wonderful writer, and a social activist. In fact, I remember that her Class Day speech railed against the tradition of breaking clay pipes because it glorified tobacco use.

Karen died of a rare form of cancer before our 10th reunion. That happens in life. What it means for you, and what I’ve found to be one the great challenges of adulthood, is balancing present and future. If you want to do great things in a decade or two, you need to grind away now. You need to do things that you would prefer not to do, to spend time on things that you don’t particularly enjoy. Frankly, that’s an important part of your 20s. Sorry to be the bearer of that message. But you can’t lose sight of the fact that there are no guarantees in life. If you grind away miserably to become the CEO, no one can promise you that it will work out that way, or that the sacrifice will be worth it even if it does. On the other hand, if you spend most of your time skateboarding with friends and playing video games, I can pretty much assure you that your professional accomplishments will be limited.

You have to navigate that trade-off. On this point, I do have advice, which is to take joy in the journey, rather than building your life around how good you expect the view to be when you get to the top. Again, by the way, the happiness research is clear. Most people overstate how much they will enjoy that next promotion and the stuff it can buy—because we get used to them so quickly. By next Monday, it’s another job and a bigger TV that you still can’t find the remote control for.

I have a story about a literal journey and the view at the top. When my wife Leah and I traveled around the world, we spent a short time at a hill station in West Bengal, India. We had only a day or two. The locals insisted that we take a hike to the top of a nearby mountain, which, if I recall correctly, offered a stunning view of the Himalayas at sunrise. The hike was long—I want to say at least 10 kilometers each way—and we had to get to the top by sunrise, so that meant starting long before dawn.

We walked. And we walked. It wasn’t a rigorous climb. Instead, the road and trail wound through lots of small villages. As we plodded along, mile after mile, what we saw was rural India waking up: farmers heading to their fields, shopkeepers taking deliveries, children doing chores before school—all the prosaic details of human existence that turn out to be beautiful in their totality.

Suffice it to say that when the sun finally rose, the day was foggy—so foggy that at the top of our climb, my wife and I had trouble seeing one another, let alone the Himalayas. We took one picture, just for the humor of it, and all we got was a shot of grey nothingness. It was an awesome hike. We headed back down knowing that we were having one of the great days of our trip. And obviously, it was all about the journey, and not the view at the top.

To this day, that is the metaphor—that specific hike—that I keep in mind when taking on life projects that may or may not work out, like spending seven years writing a textbook, or running for Congress in a field of 23 candidates. Academics like to formalize things, so I propose to you the “hit by a bus” rule. Would I regret doing this, spending my life this way, if I were to get hit by a bus next week, or next year? Is the journey still worthwhile if the mountain turns out to be enshrouded in fog at the top?

Of course, there is an important corollary: What if I don’t get “hit by a bus”? Does this path lead to a life that I will be pleased with and proud of in 10 or 20 years? There are plenty of things you can do that will comfortably pass both of those tests. One of my favorite assignments for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine was writing a piece on Paul Tsongas, Class of 1962, who ran for president as a Democrat in 1992. Tsongas was the first declared candidate against George H. W. Bush, who had an approval rating of 91 percent at the time. Tsongas was smart, but he was not well known, not a good speaker, and not charismatic. To his credit, he was the first candidate to speak candidly about the budget deficit, which was a problem then, too, but it was not what people wanted to hear. I was traveling with Tsongas, and at one point I asked, “Do you really think you can win?” He said, “I don’t have to. I just have to run a race that my grandchildren will be proud of.” He did.

Number 6, and last, I have no idea what the future will bring.

Seriously, no clue. Maybe Conan can tell you tomorrow. I’m not that old. And yet when I reflect on the changes that have taken place since my Class Day in 1988, it’s staggering. I sat where you’re sitting and we did not even conceive of anything remotely like the internet. Not even a glimmer of a thought. But it was less than a half decade away.

When I applied to Dartmouth, Osama bin Laden was on our side, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. I typed that Dartmouth application on an electric typewriter. I wrote one of my essays on the Korean Airways Flight 007, a commercial flight that was shot down for inadvertently flying into Soviet air space. As we sat on the Bema in 1988, who knew that the Berlin Wall would soon come crumbling down and that the Cold War—the phenomenon that shaped my childhood just as 9/11 has shaped yours—would end precipitously before our fifth reunion?

On the other hand, I was an Asian studies major at Dartmouth and I focused on the Middle East. The Palestinian Intifada was going on my senior year. Of course, I didn’t say First Intifada because it didn’t dawn on us that nothing would change fundamentally in that conflict. Instead, we would just start numbering them: the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, perhaps the third.

As we sat where you’re sitting, I suspect most of us thought that we would have beaten cancer and AIDS by now, as we did polio and smallpox. Not yet. The Boston Red Sox did finally win a World Series. My Chicago Cubs still have not. Some things change so fast and so significantly that it’s hard, or at least amusing, to imagine life before. Some things have not changed much at all, dispiritingly so in some cases.

When I first started coming back to teach at Dartmouth, I was invited with my family to a barbecue at a fraternity. After the ice was broken, one of the guys came up and asked a curious question. He asked, “When you were a student and you had a party, how did you let people know?” After all, there was no internet, no cell phones, no texting. So I told him. We printed up fliers, made copies, and hung them around campus. We wrote notes on the white boards that every student had on his or her dorm room door. This guy looked at me and said, “Wow, that is so cool.”

Now fast forward 20 years. We live in a world in which Representative Anthony Weiner can send photos of his crotch to thousands of people in a split second! Not so cool. Seriously, as someone who has spent my adult life working in public policy, I spend a lot of time thinking about the contradictions, about how some things get better and better, while other things don’t change at all. We put a man on the moon when I was two years old. Now I’m 45, and hundreds of millions of people around the world still don’t have access to clean water.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the choices that we make. Technology and globalization and the other forces of change are like a stream running downhill. We cannot stop them; we cannot turn them around. But we can direct them. We design the incentives, and build the social institutions, and mediate the disputes, and make the laws, and decide how our collective resources will be used or not used, shared or not shared. We, as educated and responsible adults, shape and direct the inexorable forces as they come spilling downhill. Change is inevitable; but progress depends on what we do with that change.

And that brings us right back to Dartmouth. When my class was sitting at Class Day in 1988, nobody said to us, “Hey, we’ve given you a bunch of courses on the Internet so that you’ll be ready when it appears in five years.” There was no class on what we should do on September 12th, 2001. Instead, like you, we studied history, and economics, and languages, and philosophy, and Constitutional law, and religion. We left Hanover, as will you, perfectly equipped to deal with nothing! And yet we left well equipped to deal with everything.

Thank you for sharing this day with me. Congratulations, good luck, and, most important, have a great time tomorrow.

Last Updated: 8/17/12