This past weekend, I had the blessing of speaking to graduating students from this special place. Here is what I offered…
(intro at 35:51, speech at 36:56).
The remarks received a standing ovation, which is apparently not usual. Most special is that it was started by the students.
Text as follows:
JCU Commencement, May 22, 2022
“Empathy is your compass to an inspired future”
Good morning and congratulations! What a beautiful day and a profound moment. It’s awesome and humbling to be part of this day, looking at you and thinking of all of the amazing people who have launched from John Carroll University. A day like this can feel overwhelming, but as Andy Samberg said, “You are graduating from college. That means that this is the first day of the last day of your life. No, that’s wrong. This is the last day of the first day of school. Nope, that’s worse. This is a day.”
I thank you for letting me be part of that day, so I can tell you about an internal compass you have to achieve an inspired future, no matter what life throws at you. You already have it inside, and you always will. It’s just up to you to remember. It’s simple but not always easy because the world sometimes makes us forget. It’s your human superpower of empathy, your sacred inheritance.
Now, take a minute to reflect on what it took for you to get to this moment. What hard things did you overcome? How did you do it? Did anyone help you or did you do it on your own, through grit and resilience? Only you know exactly what it took for you to get here. From here on, I hope that when you face difficulty, you sometimes have empathetic people to keep you company. I have found, especially recently, that just knowing you’re not alone can make a big difference.
I should be dead months ago, so it’s something of a miracle that I stand before you.
I was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in February of 2020, so I was fighting for my life as we were all navigating through a global pandemic. I feel for you students because our kids are 18 and 19. You’ve had to adjust in so many ways in the last 2 years. So have I. I was otherwise very healthy and strong going into the cancer journey so I fared well through traditional treatment of surgery and chemotherapy. I worked. I cared for my family. I ran – slowly, but I did – I lifted weights, practiced yoga, and ate clean and healthy food. But, for this cancer like many other difficult ones, traditional treatments don’t usually work. By October 2021, the cancer was growing again and my oncologist gave me 3 months to live and put me in hospice. That’s why I should be dead already, but, I’m still here, in no small part because I used my internal compass of empathy and sought integrative care in Istanbul, Turkey for the last 6 mos. I’m fresh off the plane and so utterly joyful to be home and with you today. The other key to surviving for me? Empathy and love from family and friends. I was never alone.
I share all of that to say that even if life throws you THAT kind of curveball, you can continue to live into an inspired future by staying in touch with your internal compass of empathy.
What do I mean by empathy? The ability to understand the feelings of another and have an appropriate emotional response. That last part is really important and often forgotten. In many ways, empathy is the foundation of so many spiritual teachings, because it’s the gateway to love.
You heard my background, so you already know that empathy was NOT my starting point! It wasn’t part of the chemistry curriculum at MIT. It was not the focus of business or McKinsey. What woke me up to remembering empathy were two people very much like you were years ago – our kids, Sophie and Grant. It turns out that hands-on parenting increases empathy in the brain. It doesn’t mean you have to have kids to be empathetic, but parenting and early childhood are both times when our empathic circuits can grow like crazy.
Sometimes the world works to sap our empathy, getting in the way of our inspired futures. Competition in work and school pits us against each other. Our work/life balance challenges our ability to take care of ourselves, much less anyone else. The news – including what we absorb through constant social media – is so negative – or worse, falsely positive making our lives look boring by comparison – that it can make us numb. And that’s why you have to work to remember your empathy.
The good news is that you can do 3 simple things to live into an inspired future while growing your superpower of empathy: 1) find meaning, 2) keep growing, personally and professionally, and 3) focus on being whole. You are built for all of these things. They feel good. I’m not sure exactly how each of you will do it, but I can tell you some of what I’ve done so you have some ideas.
Inspired Future secret number 1: Find meaning. It’s an active sport. I remember struggling with “what should be my mission in life?” when I graduated college and beyond. Maybe you can relate… What I came to understand is that it wasn’t so much about what I did as how I did it. No matter where you work if you can help at least one person, you are making the world a better place. You’ll likely have several jobs or even careers. I have. I’ve been a scientific researcher, a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, an author, a speaker, a wife, and a mom. Frederick Buechner said, “your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” The world has many great needs now. Solving global warming. Making business more human. Eradicating war and disease. Feeding a hungry planet healthier food. But let me clear – while I’m hopeful about what you’ll all do, it’s on us, the generations before you to clean up these messes while we’re still here too. I’m not counting on you. I’m with you. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve been zeroing in on what I can uniquely do. First, I made molecules that were new to the world and might help clean up the planet. I helped companies grow, trying to focus on the ones that were doing more good than harm. Eventually, I started digging into the power of empathy – redefining leadership and helping organizations become more human. Like the Cleveland police, in a time when people think police and empathy don’t overlap. Oh, but they do, and it matters. Cleveland is leading the way. Right here in our backyard, we’ve decreased the use of force by 29%, citizen complaints by 45%, and helped officers find more meaning in serving people. THAT’s how you weed out psychopathy and reform policing. Since I was thrown the cancer card, I’ve used all my scientific, business, and personal experience to advocate for integrative care that will help others beat the odds as I’ve been doing.
You will evolve into many missions too, because of the world’s many evolving needs and your many gifts. You don’t have to spend them all at once, and you’ll develop more over time. I hope you’ll spend less time stressing about what you do and more time marveling at the mystery of all that is possible for you and how it will be revealed. That you’ll be open to the gift of the “present.” Try to be patient. Your mission in life will come and come again. I promise. Wherever you can, in the work you do and the way you live, choose as much meaning as possible. You’ll know because it will resonate with your soul. You’ll be excited.
Inspired future secret number 2: never stop growing. College can be such a time of growth. Here at John Carroll that growth is often guided by deep, timeless values and shepherded by professors. As you go out into the world, you’ll find that your growth is more of your own responsibility and not always the priority of places or people of work. My advice to you is, whenever possible, choose to put yourself in organizations where growing people IS a priority. They exist and you deserve that. Where they care about whether and how you learn. Hopefully, you have good partnership, as I did at McKinsey and with the hundreds of clients with whom I worked then and after. So much of learning is personal too. I’ve dug into many passions throughout the years. Some benefitted our family, such as cooking, nutrition, and early childhood development. Some turned into work in the world, like understanding how to grow empathy. Whatever your passions are – whether they include singing, philosophy, sports, or anything else – dig into all that life has to offer. You are in charge of your “curriculum” from here on out, and you get to fill it with fun stuff. Enjoy that!
Inspired future secret number 3: live a whole life. Here is where we Americans often fall down, out of cultural habit. It starts early with the worst parental leave of any developed country and continues with some of the worst work/life balance. We put up with all of that, but your generation knows better. Your empathy depends on you staying connected to your core and that requires time to care, for yourself and others. Caring for yourself starts with honoring who you are inside. Not contorting yourself to fit someplace or someone that doesn’t deserve you. Actually, do more than take care. There is a beautiful Turkish saying, “Kendine iyi devran.” Treat yourself well! Enjoy beautiful food. Get out in nature. Be with your friends or by yourself, as you need. Listen to music. DANCE! Wear the fun shoes! Do the things that bring you joy and bring all of that – all of YOU – to work and to life. We need that. We need YOU. The only way to build heaven on earth is to include everyone as we really are. So do what you need to get in touch with that inner soul, regularly, and let it shine out. The world can be loud – telling you to do this, wear that, be like them – but tune yourself to the whispers of your own divine spirit. It’s in each and every one of us, connected in ways we sometimes glimpse when our eyes and hearts are open.
So, preserving your compass of internal empathy and living into an inspired future requires 1) Finding meaning. 2) Growing. 3) Being whole. It’s simple but not always easy. The world may work against you, but you always have choices in how you react. Sometimes, you can hit it on all cylinders. At 50, I became a certified yoga teacher so I could teach the police – what meaningful time that is. Plus, it’s kinda fun to tell the people capable of giving you a ticket to get into downward dog! In all of it, I had the chance to grow and learn through a new discipline and found more wholeness in my life, spiritually and physically.
Now, at 53, cancer has thrust me into a whole new search. I’m finding meaning in understanding and reversing the epidemic of cancer so our kids and everyone in your generation will never know what it feels like to take chemo. I’m also advocating for integrative care so other patients with difficult diagnoses might thrive instead of die. To be clear, this is nothing I wanted, but apparently, I was built for it, and all of my experiences until now are useful.
There is another benefit of coming face to face with your mortality. Sometimes letting go is the hardest part of growing, but it’s so important. I’ve learned a lot about letting go while nearly dying. Of what I thought life would be vs what it is now. It’s not all bad. It’s often good. Cancer has a way of chiseling away at a person, removing what doesn’t really matter, leaving behind what does. Like a sculptor with marble. I’ve lost my hair and vanity, my identity as a healthy working parent, the busyness of life as it was…but I’ve found freedom from society’s gaze, empathy for people with illness, a willingness to be vulnerable, and an ever more authentic voice. Once you’ve faced dying, what’s left to be afraid of?! And that helps me be whole – here or anywhere. I’ve realized that limits make meaning. Knowing we don’t have each other forever really does make us appreciate the time we have together more. There’s nothing I’d rather do than spend precious time with my husband and kids, and other souls who allow me to be authentic…including our dog, Rocky. He may not be the smartest or best-behaved dog but as you can see he gets by on his good looks!
My priorities have gotten clearer and clearer. There’s nothing like cancer to give you the excuse you need to say NO to all of that stuff and/or people you thought you should accommodate but you don’t really have to and YES to what brings you joy. Don’t wait for an illness! Just do it.
Because what IS an inspired future after all? You can think about it as your art. I don’t necessarily mean painting or singing, although if you’re talented in those ways, go for it! Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote, A Wrinkle in Time, said that all true art is “channeling cosmos into the chaos.” No matter what work you do, you can think of it as channeling a bit of heaven into life on earth. Doing that would be inspired, don’t you think? Making it clear that actually, heaven can be right here on earth and creating your corner of it for yourself and others – personally and professionally. You will always be aligned with your mission in life if you do that. It’s hard to do it alone though. So connect with each other to co-create a better world whenever you can.
In closing, there are 3 simple though not always easy ways to live an inspired life. Learning to say no helps make room for when you should say yes. And your internal compass of empathy is your guide. That’s the best news of all. You already have the superpower of empathy inside. You just need to remember to keep growing it. In doing that, no matter what, your future will be inspired!
Thank you, congratulations again, and God bless you!