Commencement Address-American College of Thessaloniki

July 4, 2016

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak today at this magnificent occasion. My parents are from Athens, and I’ve been coming to Greece every summer since I was born, but my first time to Thessaloniki was last year and I fell in love with this beautiful seaside city. I couldn’t wait to come back, so I’m delighted to be here. 


I’ve thought long and hard about what I’ve learned from my life that I could share with you, and concluded that I should look elsewhere for wisdom. Knowing that Aristotle and Alexander the Great were from around here, I decided to look to them for some truths that might be relevant to this big day. 


Aristotle said, Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. That sounds simple and obvious, but it’s easy to get fooled into chasing momentary pleasures. While some people who appear to have everything are miserable, other people who appear to have nothing are happy. You have to consider what will bring you happiness in the long-run, not just in the short-run. In fact, many times—as with addiction—it is the very thing that brings you pleasure, relief or joy in the short-term that undermines your happiness in the long-term. I call this, “The cure is the poison.” What you think is curing you is actually poisoning you.


Life has beautiful chapters, and if you’re lucky you can “have it all,” but you can’t have it all at once, so be patient, enjoy the chapter you’re in and don’t worry about what you no longer have or what you can’t have quite yet.


Happiness doesn’t always come in the package you’re expecting, but if you keep track over time, you can learn to recognize what will actually bring you long-term happiness. For example, it seems really great to renovate your kitchen, but the reality is that it’s not the granite on the counter that brings happiness in that kitchen; it’s the moments laughing at that counter with the people you love. 


When you imagine marriage, you think happiness looks like a big football player or a beautiful model, but in fact happiness is spending four hours in the car with someone and never being bored. My husband, who’s 25 years older than me, is brilliant. He’s funny, authentic, irreverent and strong. He’s not the image of how I imagined my husband would be, but we’ve had an extraordinary life together. 


Figuring out what makes you happy requires some trial and error, and it changes over time. I always thought I wanted a career and no children. I don’t know why, but suddenly when I turned 28 that all changed and I desperately wanted to have children. Our four kids turned out to be the biggest joy and the highest meaning of my life.


So, how do you go about finding happiness? I’d like to give you some advice that Aristotle may have said, or should have said, which is: get off your phones. Turn off facebook and instagram. There’s a real world happening around you: food to taste, flowers to smell, sunsets to witness, waters to swim, and music to sing.

 

Happiness requires, first and foremost, a sense of self. Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” There was a time when I dreamed of being a professional piano player who played in a bar. The sad part about that story is that the reason it never happened is not because I realized that being an entrepreneur was a more fulfilling goal, but because I wasn’t good enough at piano to do it. Find a dream that is at least somewhat consistent with your strengths. You can try to fight your genetic make-up, but it probably won’t end well.


The surprising thing about your identity is that it doesn’t really change. I’m the same person today as I was back when I was graduating college. I didn’t become more careful about decisions, more observant, more patient waiting, or better at remembering names. Who you are now is pretty much who you are. So, while you will hopefully grow as a person, don’t expect any big changes in your personality.


Being true to yourself requires discipline to walk away from other paths in life which might be easier, or bring external pleasures, like money, or the approval of your parents, friends or society. For me, it meant turning away from Math, which I loved and was encouraged to pursue, in order to try business, which was a better fit for my personality. Recently it meant choosing not to go to a startup conference where people knew me and instead going to a writing conference where I was one of the masses. 


Being authentic means letting go of the image that you, your parents or others have created for you. There are many people in the world who have accomplished any one of the things that you’ve accomplished, but there is nobody that has the combination of interests and capabilities as you, and that’s what makes you more valuable to the right employer and the right life partner. Embrace your inner freak. 


Being true to yourself requires a unification between what you think and feel, what you say and what you do. It means thinking not just about what you want, and how you’re going to get it, but also WHY. For me, it meant dropping piano after many, many years of hard work, because it wasn’t giving me the joy I got from writing.

 

The choices you make in your life will determine who you become and what sort of life you lead. Probably the most important decisions are the people you have by your side and the relationships you develop with them: your romantic partner, your friends, your children, your colleagues, and your boss. Even your extended network can be hugely valuable to you in ways you can’t imagine, so take advantage of the relationships you’ve built here and don’t lose touch.


Happiness is often found in the pursuit of your goals and dreams, which might require a little risk-taking. When I was 28, with my Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, I knew I wanted to start and run my own business, but I wanted management experience, so I applied for management positions, but I was told that I lacked the experience and I was turned down. I didn’t feel ready to start my own business, but nobody would hire me, so four of us started Z Corporation. By the time we sold the business after ten years, we had 125 employees and were selling 3D printers all over the world. I made plenty of mistakes during those ten years, but in the end it was the right thing to pursue at that time.


Sometimes deciding on your goal is the hardest part. The state of confusion and uncertainty that comes from not knowing what direction to go in next is very difficult. I suspect some of you may be faced with this in about two hours, after you receive your diplomas. There have been tough moments in my life when I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t define my goals and I felt lost—like after we sold our business. The way I dug myself out of that hole was to try to remember when I was happy and what I liked to do in the past. I started writing fiction, which had been a passion for me all through college and even into my 20’s. 


Pursuing your passion is a good starting point for defining your dream, because you’ll always work harder at what you love. But keep in mind that a huge percentage of your life is spent at work, and work is what pays the bills, so you want to find a career that is some optimum between making money and being interesting. Sometimes the best way to pursue your passion is to build a career outside your passion so you can afford your passion. For example, you could choose like Charles Ives to work in insurance and compose music in your free time. That may be a more preferable compromise than struggling as a jingle writer for TV ads. One path isn’t more true than the other.


The nice thing about pursuing your dream is that, even if you fail, you will have at least enjoyed the process. I have been writing now for ten years and I still don’t have my novel published, only a short story and an essay. I’m rejected all the time, but I always try to get feedback to improve my writing and to move in a more promising direction. Every time I stand back to question why I’m still writing, it’s because I love it. Even if I never get anything published again, it will have made my life better. When you fail—which you should do periodically, or else it means you’re not taking any risk—then make sure to learn from it. You can walk away from failure by gaining more than you lose. It’s about what you make of it. Think back on your hardest times—your moment of complete despair. And look where you are now! You learned, maybe changed direction, or worked a little harder, and all of that paid off. 


So here we are in Greece, a country of tasty food, strong families, the sea, an untiring sun every morning, the ever-blue sky, and those magic islands—most importantly, a deep fabric of social networks—the real kind, not the facebook kind. Greece is in many ways like you fresh graduates: at a crossroads, trying to figure out what’s next. This is a critical moment in its history. Greece needs to balance its need for short-term relief with its desire for a flourishing long-term future, just like you. The word “crisis” comes from the Greek, and means “a condition of instability or danger, leading to a decisive change.” As you know, the economic crisis depleted an entire swath of jobs without providing new ones to replace them. Whenever something bad happens, we as individuals or collectively as a society have a choice as to whether to complain and become bitter about what befalls us or whether to use the bad event as an impetus to make change and find a better path. Your generation has the potential to radically change the face of Greece. You are connected to the rest of the world and understand what it takes to be competitive on a world landscape. 


One of the most fulfilling sources of happiness is having an impact and making change in the world around you. Stay and do that. Greece needs clear-minded, well-educated youth to do nothing less than help steer it on a new course. In just a blink of an eye, your generation will be leading the world, and you’ll know these people: the politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, artists and teachers who shape lives and countries. You can even be one of them. Forget about the American Dream. You should create the Greek Dream. Alexander the Great said, “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” 


Congratulations to the class of 2016. I wish you all the best, so that you may be true to yourselves, achieve your dreams and find great happiness in your lives.