Today you make a fresh start on an altogether new life. In it, you’ll have one and only one mission: to become the person you have it in you to be, a person equipped to lead a fulfilling life and to give the world the benefit of your gifts.
Now how are you going to perform this exalted task? Let me share an insight from one of Duke’s great teachers. Last fall, Duke was delighted to learn that our longtime faculty member Robert Lefkowitz had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was honored for discovering the so-called G protein-coupled receptor, the mechanism on cells that detects a chemical change in their environment and produces a corresponding change inside the cell. You see a bear, your body secretes adrenaline, its molecule fits like a key into the receptor, unlocks it, enters the cells, and sets your heart racing. The discovery of the action of receptors now forms the basis for hundreds of drugs, including beta blockers and antihistamines.
I got to interview Dr. Lefkowitz last year, and I asked him, what can a teacher really do for a student? He said, “I try to get them to reach the point where they feel absolutely absorbed in the inquiry they’re involved in. Once they’ve felt a taste of that, they’ll never be willing to give it up.” He added: “President Kennedy used to paraphrase Aristotle, giving the ancient Greek definition of happiness. He said, ‘Happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.’ ”
Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You begin your assigned homework, when suddenly you find you’re truly engaged with the question, propelled forward by your curiosity. Or you join a tutoring program in a local school because it was expected, but then some internal power switches on, and now you’re fully inhabiting the work, connecting with the students and reaching levels you did not know you could attain.
“Happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” We all know there’s pleasure to be found in knocking off or lying about, but the height of pleasure comes through engagement. But even more, engagement is the precondition for learning and growth. The things we do in a halfhearted way leave no mark on us, even when we’re extremely good at them. The things that inspire your deep participation are the things that expand you and transform you, releasing the recognition of what you can be at best.
Under the influence of Dr. Lefkowitz, I am visualizing Duke as an organism pumping thousands of stimuli out at you, things that can wake you up, shock you into responsiveness, and call forth your full powers of aspiration, curiosity, creativity, and concern. These stimuli are partly academic but not exclusively so: Every course, every activity, every conversation at a place so rich in intelligence and spirit can be a chance for self-discovery. But just being at Duke won’t guarantee you this enlargement. If you insulate yourself, if you hold back or shut yourself in from Duke’s provocations, your Duke will be a land of missed opportunities. To receive what Duke can give you, you need to be a receptor, actively opening yourself to the opportunities around you.
So if you ever face a choice between hanging back and leaning in, remember what your president told you: receive, connect, engage. And I mean engage broadly, reaching far beyond what you’ve done before, even at the cost of taking risks. Duke students have always done so well in high school that when they arrive here, there’s a danger that they will do only the things they are certifiably already good at. Taken to extremes, this can even lead to premature certainty about what you’re going to be for the rest of your life— a restriction parents can be guilty of abetting. But smart people seldom stick to scripts composed in their teens. More often, they only begin to find what they might do or be while they’re in college, or even later. As a dutiful son, Dr. Lefkowitz set off to be a doctor; only later did he find that his true calling was to research.
People are always telling students to “follow your passion,” but you’re a little young to know what passion should direct your whole life. I prefer a variant on this advice: “Give your passion a chance to find you.” That’s what college is for. Your horizon is about to be thrown open wide, to possibilities intellectual, social, global, and local that you have scarcely imagined. So why stay trapped in the little world you used to inhabit? Step out, step up: Let Duke help you find who you might be.
This is an edited version of the address delivered at the August convocation for new undergraduate students.