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To college grads: Love life and work

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
New York University students celebrate graduation on May 18 at Yankee Stadium.
New York University students celebrate graduation on May 18 at Yankee Stadium.
  • William J. Bennett speaks to graduates this commencement season
  • Bennett urges grads to be good-humored optimists, engaged in the world
  • He tells them to approach work with passion, avoid cynicism, keep an open mind
  • Don't pursue happiness, he says; if you live your life well, it will find you

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Five years ago, I delivered what I believe was the first national commencement address on radio. Given this season of graduations, I thought I would take this space to offer those thoughts to the audience as well.

First of all, for your perseverance, your hard work, your stick-to-it-iveness, your intelligence and your drive, I congratulate you -- that's for the parents.

Now I want to offer the graduating class four pieces of advice, general but personal advice to each one of you about the parts of the real world to which you are being transferred. I don't wish to speak of life in the government or of public policy or some burning public issue of the day, but rather of some steady and enduring issues of every day. Of the particular blessing of civilization and literature and history and philosophy that has advised us about these things.

My first piece of advice, my longest one: Try to like life. Be good-humored about your mortality. I don't mean that you should like all parts of your life, or all parts of the world, or that you should be happy with everything that occurs in your life -- you certainly won't be. My advice is that your attitude be one of optimism, engagement and interest, and that's largely under your control.

William J. Bennett
William J. Bennett

Writing about disappointment, the great novelist George Eliot once wrote, "Everything depends not on the mere fact of disappointment, but on the nature affected and the force that stirs it." Let disappointment, when it comes, and it will come, stir you, stir your force. So that is practical optimism that I recommend to you.

If you think about it, living with interests and engagement is an attitude to which there is simply no reasonable alternative. Beware the cynics; beware the dampers. Cynicism, gripping a state of chronic disappointment and complaining about the world, is no way to have life work for you or to live it. And those who start out feigning cynicism soon become cynics for real. Cynicism corrodes. It corrodes passion. It corrodes commitment. So take into your enterprises what the writer E.M. Forster calls "pluckiness." Pluckiness of spirit. Take good will and take a good sense of humor.

My second piece of advice is a corollary of the first. Look forward to work, don't dread it. Look forward to it and approach your work with passion and engagement. Listening to my contemporaries, I can tell you that I have found over and over again that those men and women who like what they do from day to day are happier than those who do not like what they do, even if the latter make twice or three times or five times as much money as the former.

Think of your work in terms of what you know and what you love. Try to expand the number of things that you know and love. There are blessings, ladies and gentlemen, blessings to be won in this way, blessings to be won from work that cannot be won from idleness or leisure. The humanities have long taught that work killed fewer hearts than boredom or idleness do. Modern medical science bears this out.

Perhaps for some of you, your first job may not be the one you really want. It certainly wasn't for me. That's not unusual. The idea that every person should be able to choose the job he or she wants is in fact, as history goes, a very new idea, still a relatively rare reality. So if that's your situation, the only reasonable thing to do is to make the best of it. But, while making the best of it, don't let your passions dry. Don't lose the passion to do what you know and what you love. We are at our best when we do that which we know and which we love.

In the movie "Chariots of Fire," the great English runner Eric Liddell told us he loved to run. "When I run," he said, "I feel God's pleasure." I think all of us have the opportunity to feel God's pleasure through us, but only if we're willing to stay at it. To be at one with one's work, whether it is dentistry or running or sales or teaching or farming or even government, is worth a very great deal.

My third piece of advice has to do with an old issue and a contemporary occupation. You see it all the time on television, and they talk about it in the movies, and no doubt the subject is still a late-night dormitory conversation. That subject is called happiness.

Here is what I've learned about it. First, I say to you that I wish happiness for all of you. But my advice to you, strange as it may sound, is not to seek happiness. There are all sorts of people who think that happiness is a condition that can be sought, then caught and then maintained indefinitely, kept in a jar or in a cage.

Some also believe that the quality of a life is determined by the number of hours of happiness you can chalk up. That's not true. The thing is, the irony is, that you will have a much better chance of finding happiness if you don't bother your head about it, if you worry about other things.

No doubt, some of you have already discovered that happiness is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure comes and pleasure goes, but happiness is a different thing. The point is, as Robertson Davies has written, "The nature of happiness is such that happiness retreats the more intensely you pursue it."

Happiness is like a cat. If you coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it won't come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you will find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap. So forget pursuing happiness. Instead, pursue learning, pursue work, pursue honor, pursue your commitments and keep them, pursue the truth, pursue decency, look honestly for God. Be faithful to your spouse, to your children, to your friends, to your country. Forget pursuing happiness; pursue other things and with luck happiness will come to you.

Finally, the fourth and last piece of advice, is about your mind. A very smart man, a philosopher, once said, "The sole purpose of education is to be able to detect when a man is talking rot." I hope you know it when you hear or read it. I hope you haven't read it today. For this advice, this very brief last piece of advice, is about your mind. Here I offer this saying: "Keep an open mind. An open mind is a very good thing. But don't keep your mind so open that your brains fall out."

Thank you. Congratulations. I wish you and your families well.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.