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Sacrifice and Selfishness: My Advice to the Class of 2015

Jim Pouliopoulos

Jim Pouliopoulos, director of the Professional Sales management program at Bentley, presented the following Faculty Address at the Class of 2015 Baccalaureate ceremony on May 15, 2015. 

I am completely humbled and honored to have been asked to share my thoughts today during your Baccalaureate ceremony. I’ve never spoken at Baccalaureate before. In fact, I’ve never even written the word Baccalaureate before. The first time I tried to spell Baccalaureate, I froze at my keyboard and I suddenly realized what it was like for my students to try and spell “Pouliopoulos” when they submitted assignments to me. Sorry about that!

I’d like to tell you a little story.

When I was eight years old, my parents took my younger brother and me to Horse Neck Beach on Cape Cod for a day of fun on the beach. Horse Neck Beach is known for a few things: huge crashing waves, horse flies — annoying insects which are like mosquitos on steroids, and occasionally, a pretty dangerous undertow.

My father and I had been swimming for a while when we noticed we’d been dragged out pretty far by the undertow. We were suddenly in water that was over my father’s head and the waves were very high. I was scared — not because I was in deep water but because my father was starting to panic.

He started yelling to me and telling me to swim towards shore. “Swim. Don’t look back. Swim!” he was yelling. In all the chaos, I noticed another father with his daughter being rescued by lifeguards. I thought to myself, If they were being rescued by the lifeguards, who would rescue us? The answer was no one. We had to fend for ourselves.

My father kept grabbing me by the waist and pushing me forward toward the shore. “Swim. Swim harder!” he yelled. As he pushed me forward, his head would dip below the surface. Each time, I prayed he would resurface. As he resurfaced, he’d yell at me not to look back and just to swim to safety.

Eventually, we made it to shore without the help of lifeguards who had their hands full on this particular day.

It took a number of years for me to realize what happened that day. I witnessed the power of love and sacrifice. As a parent myself, I now realize that my father was trying to save my life. And, in the act of saving me, he was willing to die. Each time he pushed me forward and gasped for air as he went under could have been his last moment. He was concerned with one thing: my future.

For the parents, grandparents and guardians in the audience, you know this sense of sacrifice and selflessness very well. You have worried about your child’s future every day for over 20 years.

You have struggled with the tricky balance between giving your children a sense of independence while protecting them from themselves and all the external forces and temptations that could have derailed them from this day.

Some of you have dipped below the surface, financially or emotionally, in your single-minded pursuit of getting your son or daughter to the shore — to this day — the eve of graduation from Bentley University.

Here’s the good news: You did it. You succeeded. Your sons and daughters have made it to the shore. They are safe and they are ready to begin their own journey.

You can relax. You should relax. Mom and Dad, please relax.

Graduating seniors, each of you is here today in some part — large or small — because of the sacrifice of people who love you deeply. You owe them a huge obligation but perhaps not the obligation you might assume.

I’m sure some of you feel a sense of financial obligation or professional obligation to follow a certain career path after graduation or to do what everyone expects you to do now that you will be a graduate from Bentley University.

But I am not referring to those types of obligations. When my father successfully saved me from the undertow, I probably sat down and built a sand castle or collected some seashells.

My father’s only thought was gratitude that I was alive and happy and playing on the beach. All he wanted in that moment at the end of a life and death struggle was simply to see me be happy.

The obligation you owe your parents and supporters is simply this: Be genuinely happy in this next stage of life.

What makes you genuinely happy? It’s such a simple thing but so many people struggle with it. Why is this so hard? The majority of people work in careers for which they have no passion and often have regrets about the roads not taken.

My next assignment for you is to figure out what makes you happy. Here’s how.

Life is a not a dress rehearsal but college is a dress rehearsal for life. These last four years were a chance for you to feel a sense of independence you had never experienced before in a relatively safe environment where you could try things, make mistakes and learn from every experience with minimal impact on your future.

Reflect on the past four years. Look beyond the classes and the coursework and ask yourself:

  • When were you happiest? What were you doing? Who were you with?
  • When you were working in one of those many student teams, did you play the role of decision maker, spokesperson, analyst or peacemaker?
  • Which activities gave you the most energy without having to be pushed or prompted by a faculty member or a team deadline?
  • What clubs, organizations or activities did you enjoy the most?

These are all clues to create a professional and personal life that will make you happy and successful. Pay attention to these clues and find opportunities to do the things you love and do well surrounded by people you enjoy during this next phase of your life.

Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t have a clear picture of what makes you genuinely happy and how you define success for yourself, other people — parents, peers, colleagues — will rush to fill that void with their definition of happiness and success for you. In the absence of your own vision for your life, others will try to “help” you create a vision they feel is right for you.

Other people’s expectations can tug at you like the undertow at the beach. It’s very subtle but very dangerous. If you don’t pay attention, decades can pass and one day you wake up realizing you lived someone else’s life.

Find your true calling and find a way to use your unique gifts in environments that energize you. Be selfish in pursuit of your own path.

That’s right, be selfish. Focus on your own desires, dreams and self-interest without regard to anyone else’s expectations. You only have a narrow window of time when you can be yourself — truly yourself — without the burden of external obligations.

You will never have more freedom than this moment. Don’t wait to figure out your true passions. Don’t procrastinate on this next assignment of your life. This assignment has a deadline but it’s a deadline that you won’t know until it has passed.

Because one day you will wake up and you will be the one who has to sacrifice and worry about someone else’s happiness — a spouse, a child, a parent or a grandparent. When that time comes, you won’t have the luxury of being selfish and figuring out what makes you happy.

If finding your genuine happiness were a written assignment, the essay question would be the following quote from the poet Mary Oliver:

“Tell me what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”

The world needs the best version of you not a just a pretty good version of someone else’s vision of who you should be. Say “Thank You” to the people who have sacrificed so much for you by finding genuine happiness.

So, Class of 2015, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? We’re all excited to see.

Thank you and good luck.