Daniels urges IU graduates to find their 'discomfort zones'

December 15, 2012  

Indiana Gov. and Purdue president-elect Mitch Daniels on Saturday (Dec. 15) challenged the graduating class of Indiana University to continually step out of their societal comfort zones to avoid insulating themselves from the less fortunate.

"It's at times of discomfort that we encounter the new and are taught and challenged and stretched by it. Each of your new commencements, and perhaps especially the toughest of them, will be the times through which you grow the most," Daniels said.

The governor also urged the graduates that "when your success enables you to assist those less fortunate, as I trust you will do, don't stop at writing a check. Do it face to face, for your own good as much as those you are helping. And if it's a little uncomfortable at first, well, that was the idea."

The full text of the governor's speech is included below:

The first thing you need to know is, I gave President McRobbie a chance to get out of this. I mean, there is no shortage of more interesting speakers he could have invited. Then I went and took a next job at a different university, and not just any university, and so, I thought it might be, well, as the Daniels girls would say, "a bit awkward."

But in a display of the personal graciousness that is among his hallmarks, and, as I see it, a gesture of the spirit of collaboration that is growing between this great school and its northern cousin, Dr. McRobbie said, no, come on ahead. For his kindness and yours, many thanks.

It's worth noting on these occasions that we label them "commencement" ceremonies. Not "completion" or "culmination" or "climax" ceremonies, but commencements, and to commence, of course, is not to finish but rather to begin. Today we do celebrate what you outstanding students have completed, but much more so the new lives and adventures you are about to begin.

If you're a little scared, get used to it, because this is not your last commencement. It's the first of a series that, for folks your age in this era of life science miracles, will probably extend for six or eight or, who knows, ten decades. Why, even I, at my near-geriatric stage of life, am about to commence to something entirely new. I promise you I'm at least as scared as you are. 

That's only natural. Every commencement means leaving behind the familiar and entering -- it will often feel like plunging -- into the unknown. A new job, a new city, maybe a new continent, parenthood for sure -- each will take you from a comfort zone to a zone of distinct discomfort. I'm here to argue that's a good thing, something not to dread but to look forward to.

It's at times of discomfort that we encounter the new and are taught and challenged and stretched by it. Each of your new commencements, and perhaps especially the toughest of them, will be the times through which you grow the most. 

College is often the ultimate comfort zone, and now you have to leave it for someplace strange and very different. As you do, let me start you with a word of reassurance, coupled with a caution.

When this event concludes, you will commence membership in a highly important society, and I don't mean the IU Alumni Association. You are now members of the new American elite. It's a little bigger than the so-called 1 percent, but it's a special, privileged class by any definition. 

Unlike elites of the past, it's not based on an aristocratic name, or inherited wealth, or membership in the political party of a communist or otherwise totalitarian state. The elite of our day is a knowledge elite, comprising those like you who have acquired the skills, knowledge, or at least the credentials of what we call higher education. 

In all of history, the marketplace has never conferred so high a premium on cognitive skills, that is, on brains and smarts, as it does today. The data tell us that, on average, you will earn more money, work in safer occupations, and live longer and healthier lives than those without the kind of degrees you are about to receive. 

Statistically, you are far more likely to take the actions that produce success in modern life. For instance, you are more likely to practice prudent preventive health. You are far more likely to get married and stay that way, most of you to spouses of similar academic background. That in turn means your children will have greatly increased chances of success themselves. 

That's not to say that your success will come easily. You are more likely to exhibit the qualities of hard work and industriousness that correlate closely with prosperity and leadership. Scholars have found that the factor most directly associated with human fulfillment and happiness is not money or material things but rather what they term "earned success". That means tangible accomplishment based on personal effort, the kind that generates genuine self-respect. As a group, you are far more likely to achieve it than those outside the knowledge elite. 

All these facts are matters of averages and probabilities, not sure things. Your diploma today will not come with a warranty or money-back guarantee inside. (Will it, Michael?) But, odds are, after the inevitable scariness of the first of your series of new lives, you will find yourself in a place of relative security and comfort.

Relative, that is, to that large number of our fellow citizens who will not be joining you in this new elite, and it is about them that I ask you to think for a minute this morning.

Whatever career or geographic or lifestyle changes lie ahead, life will invite you to stay nestled snugly inside one ongoing comfort zone. Unless you take conscious steps to escape it, you may spend your entire adulthood there. I'm talking about the increasing tendency of our new knowledge elite to congregate together, cozily insulated from contact with those less fortunate. Professionally, socially, residentially, and most important attitudinally, today's new upper class is separating from those different from themselves.

In the most important book of your graduation year, Charles Murray catalogs the ways in which this is occurring. To avoid being misunderstood or misrepresented, his research deals solely with white America. It presents a troubling picture of a society that is, as the book's title says, "coming apart." As Murray puts it, "We need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with each other." And, he goes on, "It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the problems of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers."

In this audience are many future leaders of the sort he is describing. You are destined to take up positions of influence in the America to come. What will you do to make sure you are not mentally and emotionally distant from people who do not live near you, work where you do, send their kids to the same schools, and consequently do not look at life in the same way you do?

For the last decade, as a hired hand of the people of this state, I have had literally tens of thousands of personal encounters with Hoosiers of all kinds. The nature of the work naturally brought on many of these experiences, but I also have made it my goal to maximize them, any way I can. I have traveled constantly, to our inner cities and most remote rural spaces and to all the small and mid-sized towns in between, seeking out ordinary citizens and giving them a chance to speak directly, through me, to their government. I've ridden motorcycles with a lot of folks you won't find on this campus or any other.

Most usefully, I have spent all my travel nights not in motels but in Hoosier homes. A few days ago I did so for the 125th and presumably final time, on a dairy farm near the northeastern town of Stroh. You all know Stroh. It's near Valentine. Not far from Plato. OK, think Fort Wayne.

Those 125 overnights have been fun. I've slept in guest rooms, spare rooms, lots of kids rooms, and sometimes just the living room couch. I've gotten lost on morning runs, been bitten by the family dog, and taken a bath when I couldn't figure out the basement shower. I've made lots of new friends. But most of all I've learned, in those last couple hours before lights out, about the dreams, problems, and often the fears of folks very different from me and from each other.

You won't all be lucky enough to be able to mooch on the hospitality of strangers the way a governor can. But I hope you will remember to find some way, some new zone -- a bowling league, an ethnic club, a church across town, something -- to connect with people unlike yourself and your fellow graduates. When your success enables you to assist those less fortunate, as I trust you will do, don't stop at writing a check. Do it face to face, for your own good as much as those you are helping.

And if it's a little uncomfortable at first, well, that was the idea.

The last and most dangerous comfort zone to guard against is the one inside your head. It's the zone of certitude, the smug or maybe just unthinking confidence that you and those around you have all the answers.

Here, too, today's world will invite you to isolate yourself, to stay in the zone. It's never been easier. You can watch only cable news channels that select the stories that seem right to you. You can settle in to the chat rooms or internet sites where everyone agrees with the obvious superiority of your point of view. 

Supposedly, college has taught you to resist this temptation, to think critically and to stay open to opinions contrary to your own. I hope that's so. Did you learn to be suspicious about things that "everyone agrees with"? Did you tune up your b.s. detectors? (That stands for "bogus statistics" but they can help you guard against indoctrination, too.) Did you learn that someone's disagreement with your ideas is not a character flaw or a cause for personal animosity?

Most important, did you learn, as Ben Franklin urged, "to doubt just a bit your own infallibility"? The simple wisdom of Lord Keynes when he said, "When I find I'm wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?" 

I have never found "oops" a hard word to say. Someone who never finds an occasion to use it either never tried anything bold or risky, and therefore never made a big mistake, or never considered that someone else might have a better argument. I suggest keeping "oops" in your vocabulary. Take it into that most important discomfort zone, the one where you reexamine your own convictions regularly, in the light of changing facts and new circumstances.

On behalf of the taxpayers of this state, who have co-invested with you and your families in the excellent education IU provides, thank you. Our nation, and this state in particular, needs more college graduates and the abilities they contribute to our collective betterment. So you have already performed a first act of civic leadership by earning the degree you'll collect in a few minutes. 

Now please earn it over and over, in all the future commencements ahead, by seeking out and relishing new zones of discomfort where the greatest satisfaction, achievement, and contributions to the common good await you.

Congratulations and may God speed.

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