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Penn Commencement 2010
May 25, 2010, Volume 56, No. 34

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Penn Commencement Address by Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, given on Monday, May 17, 2010

Putting Life in Perspective

Jon M. Huntsman, Jr

It was worth that trip from all the way from China just to hear that introduction. And you don’t get one today, you get two. That’s pretty awesome.

To members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty—we’re very, very proud of you too, proud parents in the audience—and you, class of 2010. What do you think? The question now becomes what do you do without your bursars in hand.

Graduation is one of life’s great milestones. I guess the others would be your birth, your death—and anytime Penn wins the league championships. Way to go, team! 

So, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. No, I’m not the guy after whom the great building on campus is named. But he would be the first to admit that the Huntsman line isn’t very good at following conventional wisdom. You see, he’s upset with my career choices—just as his dad was upset with his own.  

My grandfather was an educator in a small town in Idaho and he expected all in his family to be educators as well—nothing was more honorable, respectable, or important. And as he always told his three sons, “If you can’t cut it as an educator, you will always need a fall-back position … you can always go into business.” 

So, I got the same lecture growing up from my own dad—maybe some of you can relate—that was before he had any spare change in his pocket. “Son,” he would say, “if you really want to make a difference in this world, create jobs, contribute meaningfully, control your own destiny—you need to go into business. Nothing else is more important. And if you can’t cut it in business, you will always need a fall-back position—you can always go into politics.”

So to put this in perspective, I stand before you as the loser of a loser of an educator. We started with noble intentions. Something went wrong along the way.

So no, you didn’t get Lady Gaga. You didn’t get Oprah. Snoop Dogg came to the Fling. You didn’t get Dick Cheney; he’ll be at Yale.
This university has flourished over the years, but never more so than under the leadership of my good friend, Amy Gutmann—we love you, Amy. And she’s beautiful!

An amazing thing took place in my studies here after taking time to work and live overseas, whether in the lectures of Professor Alvin Z. Rubinstein or Allyn Rickett, I found my passion. Now I ask that you do the same because your direction in life will remain uncertain until you do.

You know, I wasn’t quite sure how best to spend my few moments of wisdom-dispensing, until a recent visit to see an American citizen detained in a Chinese prison. While there, I was reminded that some folks, when all of their freedom is deprived, are able to put life in proper perspective. Perhaps being held for two and a half years without a trial or proper explanation will do it. But I couldn’t help but be impressed by the words this inmate was giving me to pass on to his two kids—because he wasn’t sure he’d ever see them again. But more on that in a moment. 

Today, I stand before you not just as a fellow alumnus, but as a United States diplomat. My main points of reference and world view are not  from College Hall, Smoke’s or the original Lee Anh food cart, not even this beloved field, but rather managing the diplomatic, military, intelligence and economic infrastructure of the United States in China—the hard and soft power that bridges the sometimes considerable gaps between the American people and the world’s most populous and culturally complicated nation of China. 

But make no mistake about it, the years ahead for both countries will hold a mix of promise and peril, euphoria and depression, where the most important stabilizing element will be holding true to our values of liberty, human rights, equality, and rule of law and, more effectively, identify our shared interests. Spoken in Chinese: Help each other. Learn from each other. Progress together (as translated into English).

Like you, I’m a product of our place in history. So, first, some perspective, then some advice which I offer in great humility … knowing that my own failures and shortcomings in life are probably no different than yours.  I’m just a little older and as a public servant they’re a bit more on public display!  

My earliest memories were Vietnam, civil rights, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a time of tumult, uncertainty and great change. So much so, that many wondered with the assassination of beloved leaders, the overhang of imminent nuclear war, a failing economy, troops deployed in a foreign quagmire, and the resignation of a President … if our nation would ever survive. It has survived … like every generation since independence. 

You see, each wave of graduates has a set of circumstances that make it seem like the wheels are coming off a bus … wars, depression, social revolutions. In each case, we recover, we learn our lessons, and we become ever more resilient. 

But just as important, our system requires the infusion of new thinking, driven by a fresh generation of innovators, leaders, risk takers, entrepreneurs, scientists, community activists, and plain old citizens—that’s you! The generations before you have risen to their challenges … I trust the same will be said of yours.

So the world you now step into, regardless of your point of origin on the globe, should be cause for excitement, not fear; anticipation, not anxiety.  The prospect of driving knowledge deeper into deprived communities, breakthroughs in conquering human disease, lifting the poor from desperation, and bringing about greater world peace.

You now will begin to take ownership and responsibility for our future.  And what you discover may surprise you … life at all levels still requires the human touch, the displays of goodness, selflessness, tolerance and compassion that make this world beautiful if you’re fortunate enough to find it.  And I hope you do.

And, make no mistake about it, while technology will drive us to mind-bending destinations during your lifetimes, the world is still managed at all levels by human beings and human emotion; happiness, sadness, mercy, thankfulness, and forgiveness:  all attributes of living human beings—but the traits of the most successful among us for the foreseeable future will require the most precious of all attributes – good judgment.

So finally, I will display the truly bad judgment of dispensing some advice. 

You remember my mention of the great building that carries my family’s name. Now let me tell you something else that carried my family’s name—my sister Kathleen, who died last month succumbing to life’s challenges. I dedicate these comments to her because she inspired them.
So now that you’ve graduated, where you were constantly reminded never to get an F in any of your classes, I am telling you that to have a life fulfilled, you will need F’s of a different kind.  So far as I can tell, these five F’s may help to get you a passing grade in life.

1) Find Yourself.  So, just who will you be? And how will you change the world?  Whether you realize this or not, you have a gift … a genius that no one else has. Find it and nurture it. By this I mean, you need direction; not just a profession, but a pathway in life that is uniquely yours. 

You see, life isn’t a straight and narrow path that is the shortest line between two points. In fact, life is full of turns, hills, alleyways, sometimes cliffs, lots of speed bumps and potholes. But your passion will never be complete unless you learn to follow your heart. So quit asking others what they think you should be … ask yourself—and follow your heart—it will never let you down.

2) Find A Cause. Find something to be passionate about, something to save, something to free. And when you have found that cause, don’t hide behind your MySpace page—speak out—because you’ll soon find that the world is “Our Space.” Take action and never let it be said that you were an anonymous blogger—too timid to be counted, too weak to stand by your cause. 

One of our distinguished honorees here today found a cause, a cause that showed how one individual can truly make a difference in this world.  Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, showed us that through determination and passion, we can overcome fear and extremism. I’m honored to be on this stage here today with people like him, and the other honorees, all of whom have done their part to make the world a better place.  They have found their passion.

3) Face Failure. I’m aware that some of you haven’t yet landed the job you wanted. I’m aware that many of you have faced hardships, some deeply personal—I know I have. Failure only hurts if you were unable to turn it into a learning experience that makes you stronger and wiser.  As much as you’d like to hope it, life will not provide immunity from failure for any of you.  

All you can do is prepare to face adversity head on. The band Incubus puts it nicely in their song called “Dig:” “We all have a weakness; some of ours are easy to identify. We all have something that digs at us.”  Always remember that your weaknesses in life can be turned into your greatest strengths. Just as Ben Franklin said “There are no gains without the pains.”

4) Find Someone To Love. Love is life’s most powerful emotion. And there are people all around us who need an emotional lift that only another human being can provide. Mary Kaye and I have two adopted daughters, one from India, the other from China. We never thought we could love something or someone as much as we do them. This past year, we had the opportunity to visit the humble vegetable market where our daughter Gracie was abandoned in Yangzhou, China. For the first time, she was able to see where she had come from. Many of the women who nurtured and provided for her in her orphanage were still there and they remembered her.  Gracie came to realize that love can transcend race, geography, religion and class. As we were there, I couldn’t help but reflect on Gracie’s biological mother, who wasn’t there, but, some 10 years ago, left her in plain sight, so as to make sure that she would be found and have a chance at life. I’m sure her love for this little girl was no less than our own.

There are people who need friends and others who need hope—reach out your hand and give them your heart.  You will be better for it.

5) And finally. Find Meaning. You’d be surprised at how many people go through life without ever discovering its true meaning, or at least attempt to put it in proper perspective. I mentioned a moment ago that I learned a valuable lesson from a recent visit to an American citizen who has languished in a Chinese prison for more than two years without being charged with a crime or given a trial. 

During my last visit, sitting in the sobering and sterile surrounding that has become this man’s existence, guarded by the ever watchful eye of public security officers, I brought him photos and letters from his family, and as he read the cards he was clearly moved and visibly shaken. As he wiped the tears from his eyes he stated that he hoped his children would learn three simple lessons so that their lives would have meaning. 

First, they should always have goals. 

Second, create an intellectual framework or personal philosophy to value the world and the people around them. This, in turn, will lead to wisdom. 

And third, they must remember that experience is the most valuable of all training grounds. Everyone will make mistakes, they are the dues owed to life, but learning from them, in order not to make them again, is the key to a happy and successful journey… Pretty profound statements from a man who has had everything taken from him, but only wishes the best for his children.

So, finally, let me conclude with what is probably the best wisdom you will hear today. It comes from one of Ben Franklin’s closest associates, who helped give birth to this republic just a few short blocks from here. “The most valuable of all talents,” said Thomas Jefferson, “is never having to use two words when one will do.” I think I’ve probably used my quota for the day. Congratulations, and good luck, graduates! Go Quakers.

Penn Class of 2010



Almanac - May 25, 2010, Volume 56, No. 34