Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2014

Remarks as prepared for Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels for the universitywide commencement ceremony on May 22, 2014.

To our honorary degree recipients, alumni, and trustees; to our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends; and most especially to our graduates: Welcome to the Johns Hopkins University commencement for the great Class of 2014!

I recognize that you are a class that has put up with some extreme conditions to reach this day. The churning construction on Charles Street. The onslaught of organic food at the CharMar. The endless Polar Vortex and seven-and-a-half snow days this year alone. The teeming rain at 5 o’clock this morning, just before you went to bed. And you’ve even tolerated my inexpert forays into Bollywood beside Hopkins’ graceful Masti dancers. Truly commendable. And I want to thank you for that, and so much more.

A few years ago, each of you arrived at Hopkins with a sense of optimism and infinite possibility. We exhorted you to draw on your passions and your values, and to chart your course. We hoped you would use your time here to figure out who you truly are and what matters most to you.

And, of course, you did.

Through classes in Gilman, Mudd, or Shaffer halls, you took steps toward mastering the foundations of a major or—in vintage Hopkins fashion—multiple majors. You took on internships, directed research projects, organized late-night study groups in the Brody Learning Commons (and, for some reason, took pictures of other students sleeping there), joined sports teams and dance groups, published your data and your poetry and made friends who may be sitting beside you today—and who may still be sitting beside you 30 years from now.

But in some ways, we set up a deceptive progression. Because here, freshman year (usually) leads to sophomore year, just as Calculus I (usually) leads to Calculus II. Convocation leads to commencement. We set a path before you and, though each of you made countless choices that shaped your experience, you are here today because you finished what you started. The path that began with point A ended with point B.

But after this day, the process of becoming you may not be so linear. I know many of you are wrestling with the paths ahead, wondering about the choices before you. If you say yes to medicine, what happens to your dream of becoming a concert pianist? If you take the corporate job, do you have to put aside your desire to combat drug-resistant TB in sub-Saharan Africa? If you accept the internship in Seattle, does that mark the end of your romantic relationship forged with that first furtive glance on D level?

These are quandaries. And that sense of infinite possibility may have just started to feel not quite so infinite.

For perpetual overachievers, people who always knew the path ahead, this is a moment of great anxiety. What if the choices you make now aren’t the right ones? What options are you foreclosing? How do your choices impact your grand plan?

Obviously, choices are necessary. But no one choice ever defines a life or a career. Indeed, you’ll find the greatest careers—and the greatest lives—are often forged through a series of seemingly discordant or even contradictory decisions, driven by interests and passions, and woven, thread-by-thread, into a coherent tapestry more colorful, more bold than you could possibly imagine today.

When I sat at my undergraduate commencement some three decades ago, I was conflicted in my own choices. Economics? Medicine? Entrepreneurship? Then, perhaps surprisingly, I embarked on a career in the law, my life seemed set. A choice finally made.

But even when I became a law professor, the pulls of other options did not fade. Over time, I found ways to indulge competing interests in ideas, policy, business, and community.

And, step by step, my zigzagging and contradictory choices led inexorably to the perfect destination … here. A place where I, a Canadian law professor, am about to confer your degrees at a great American university with no law school.

My story is not unique. Our renowned commencement speaker, Susan Wojcicki, is here today because 15 years ago, she chose to leave a solid job at Intel and join a startup—because it was interesting. A few seats down, Edith Windsor is here because she chose, against the advice of so many, to carry her 40-year love story all the way to the Supreme Court—because it was the right and courageous thing to do. And, as you know, she triumphed there.

Some of you may know exactly where you want to be in 25 years, and exactly how to get there. But for the remaining 99 percent of you, my advice is simply … forget the master plan.

Instead, if you embrace the challenges at each step, taking risks propelled by your core passions and interests, the choices you face will not be either-or dilemmas. There will be time for medicine and music, for public and private, for Seattle and sub-Saharan Africa. By following meaningful opportunities, you will arrive inevitably—and perhaps improbably—at a perfect place, a place imbued with meaning, fulfillment, and impact. By worrying less about the final outcome, you may find that the grand destination, the tapestry of your life, will reveal itself with time.

Today is one of those tapestry moments for me. My son Drew has spent the past few years largely avoiding me on campus. But on this, the last day of his undergraduate career, Joanne and I will be unavoidable. Drew, not to put too fine a point on it, but the only way you get to graduate is by shaking my hand in front of these 10,000 members of the Hopkins community. And that moment—which I never could have imagined when I sat at my undergraduate commencement 33 years ago—will surely stand as one of the unexpected highlights of my life.

Graduates, today I have the great honor, as both a president and a parent, of joining every family member gathered here with admiration, a sense of wonder, and infinite optimism about your future. We are so very proud of you all.

So, members of the Class of 2014, choose wisely. And if you don’t, don’t worry—you’ll have the chance to choose and choose again.

Godspeed—and congratulations!