Thank you, Mr. Haskell, Mr. Murphy, and Ms. Merritt for the wonderful, warm introduction and for giving me this great honor. I was afraid I was going to be a little late because I couldn’t find my parking space. I decorated and painted it in 1983.
Well, I do want you to know how special it is to be back on this campus, a place where I felt safe to explore and learn and grow . . . and become.
It’s also a little overwhelming to know that a place I’ve held in such high esteem all these years – and carried always close to my heart - thinks enough of my journey, my personal arc, to track me down and reassure me, in this public way, that I’m making a difference, no matter how small, in this great big world. People remember their high school years for all kinds of reasons but I remember my years at Shorecrest for being full of possibility and promise.
Because your school is honoring me for the choices I've made and the work I've pursued, and perhaps because it’s also Career Day, I thought it best to spend a few minutes talking about your futures. Unexpected, I know.
I’m calling this talk “Don’t Follow Your Dreams.”
It’s a brow raising title for a Career Day speech, I know. But I think it’s honest advice.
I’ll do my best to explain.
I imagine that at your age, most of you spend a good amount of time thinking about where you want to go to college, what you’ll major in, about your goals after graduation – that is, once you’ve paid your university parking tickets and late library fees in exchange for your diploma!
I certainly was doing a fair amount of that when I was sitting where you are today. And everyone is different, but for me, I had a few different categories of possibility. I think the lines of demarcation generally still hold – and so here they are:
There are the career choices that are certain to make our parents and teachers proud. You know what I’m talking about here. I won’t share mine if you don’t share yours . . .
Then there are the career choices that feel exotic and potentially very exciting. Anthropologist was among them for me. Being a Broadway star was at the very top of my all time snazzy career possibilities.
And then there is this other, 3rd area of interest. This is the most expansive, perhaps most amorphous, category - filled with possibilities and choices. All kinds of really important work can fit into this third category – it’s a space you’ll want to hang out in and spend some time. And this is the one I want to come back to. It’s where I’m pretty sure the sweet spot lies.
I’m guessing you think I’m supposed to tell you to follow your passions, to follow your dreams. I don’t want to tell you not to, but . . . I will say that I think anything in this category needs to come with a big fat asterisk.
And here’s why.
First, lots of people don’t have an identifiable passion, especially high school students. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a person of tender years. Between calculus and memorizing sonnets and practicing soccer 12 hours a week, the very idea might seem terribly overwhelming. Second, even if you are someone who lays awake at night dreaming about fulfilling your passions, you still might want to take pause before taking that leap.
I’ll use myself as an example. I have wanted to be a Broadway star my entire life. I really mean it – you can ask my husband and kids. I still do the “what if” thing sometimes when I’m feeling plucky and whimsical and I routinely make myself hoarse by singing relentlessly in the car.
Mary as Maria in The Sound of Music during her time at Shorecrest.
But in my case – and this is NOT uncommon – my passion and my talent were never that closely aligned. Community theater? Yes, as long as I don’t have to dance. Broadway? Uhm, no. Not even close to being close.
Here’s one more example. When I was very young, much younger than you, I used to cut my Barbies’ hair. I really had a thing for cutting hair and often thought that perhaps I’d grow up to be a hair stylist. I thought it would be glamorous. I had a bit of a passion, you could say, for giving haircuts. And through the years I had lots of chances to practice on real live people – first my nieces and nephews, and then my own children. But again, my passion and enthusiasm simply did not match my skill set. It turns out that no one should ever let me cut his or her hair – ever.
In short, choosing a career should require a reality check. Now it’s true: sometimes our talents match our passions, and when that happens, watch out. But it’s probably not the norm. And that’s okay – and certainly isn’t something to lose hope over. I still love Broadway after all, but I’m also not waitressing at some deli on the lower East side hoping for a big break. I’m an environmental lawyer and an author and an advocate.
What I’m suggesting is that you should think hard before hitching your wagon to dreams that realistically are not going to propel you forward.
So maybe it makes a little more sense to seek a career doing something that you’re good at. That seems more reasonable, right? Well, maybe not. In fact, the notion feels a little backwards to me. Being good at something requires tremendous work – thousands of hours of practice, learning, honing. Even those who feel they were born to do what they do – they have a passion that just can’t be snuffed out - like Olympic ski jumping or breakthrough stem cell research, weren’t actually born to do those things. They worked at it – really hard in fact, and for a really long time.
Which leads me to the most salient question. How do you, then, find a career that you love? It may be less complicated than it seems. My advice, quite simply, is to seek meaning in your life’s work. Seek it for yourself and seek it most importantly, for others.
Pursue a career that is meaningful.
Because here’s how I see it. If you’re lucky, someday, you’re going to be old. Ride around on a giant trike with a red safety flag in the back kind of old. Imagine that person – the old you, sitting in front of a fireplace with a good book or perhaps watching the tide go out from your deck. You take a moment to reflect on what your life meant, what your work meant – what it all meant.
Maybe you solved the mystery of Zika and saved countless babies and their families the anguish of horrendous disability. I imagine you would be proud of that, knowing that you made a real difference in this world by advancing science and reducing suffering.
Maybe you ran for public office, and over the years helped combat poverty, or improved public health, maybe you helped narrow the gender pay gap, or reduced violent crime in your community. I imagine that is something you could be proud of.
Maybe you ran a small business. You provided goods or services to your community, always greeted your customers with respect and a warm smile, and people knew, intrinsically, that they could rely on you.
Maybe you became a titan of business – you weren’t meant to be a small business owner, as it turns out. You made millions, even billions, and employed thousands, with offices or factories around the world. And with all that money you gave back. Not only did you provide for your children and grandchildren, but you created a foundation; you built homeless shelters; you invested in green technology and made sure that your company’s carbon footprint was sustainable; you created job training programs for underprivileged youth. Maybe that fireplace you’re sitting in front of is much grander or that deck you’re watching the tide go out from more lavish, but you still feel good. Really good. Not because of the money, but because of what you did with the money. You made a difference. You took the wealth you amassed and made your life’s work meaningful.
I don’t say these things lightly, or just because I work in the public interest arena. All of you are smart and capable – you wouldn’t be at Shorecrest if you weren’t. So I brought a little social science to back up what I’m asking you to consider. There are multiple studies that indicate:
1. Acting with altruism makes you happier and healthier. Multiple longitudinal studies show that people who volunteer and give back report better health and greater happiness than people who don’t. Acting in others’ interest makes us happy.
2. Charitable giving makes you happier. There is a study that gave participants $20: half were told to spend the cash on themselves; the other half were told to spend it on others. The charitable half reported greater happiness after spending their cash, even though the majority of participants interviewed at the outset predicted that spending the money on themselves would make them happier. Giving makes us happy.
3. Social scientists have shown repeatedly that one of the most important factors in job satisfaction is how much your work affects the well-being of others. Feeling that you’re making a difference makes it easier to get into the rhythm of your work, and is highly motivating.
Picking a career that matters – to others – or has a positive impact on others is, I think, the best advice I can offer. The great thing is that you get to decide how that takes shape. It’s why I said a few minutes ago that this category – what I call the meaningful category, is the sweet spot. It’s the win-win option and all of us here today are lucky to be able to make such deliberate, purposeful choices.
Not everyone, after all, is fortunate enough to be able to choose their own professional path. Most people in this world have very little say in what they do to earn a living, and are grateful if they’re able to cloth, feed, and shelter themselves and their families. It really is that basic for most of those with whom we share our planet.
But you have a great leg up. You were fortunate to be born with opportunity. I was fortunate to be born with opportunity. None of us here today must ever forget that. We can make a difference, we have the luxury and capacities to make a difference, and for this reason, I’d make the argument that we must.
I ask only that you remain open to this, let the idea rest on your shoulders as you move forward into the next stage of your life. Let it lend weight to your decision-making.
And as you move forward, try not to compare yourself to others. The path toward a meaningful career – and life – is highly personal and the voice you listen to must always be your own.
Some know from an early age what they want to do, what they want to accomplish, they mark their goal and then do what is needed to realize it. My niece was that way. She was watching live surgery shows on TV when she was 6. It’s no big surprise that she’s a surgeon today.
For most of us, though, the path isn’t so crystal clear – or linear.
Some, for example, may not know from the start but have the capacity and drive to explore their world and most importantly, the contours of their own personality and talents, to transform what they do into a vocation. My husband is one of those people. He started out as an urban planner and discovered along the way that he is actually a book editor. He is meant to tell and shape stories, and in ways large and small, has made the world more knowledgeable, more reflective, and always better entertained through his careful craft.
I myself took the lazy river route. I went to law school, which was largely expected of me (remember that first category?) and never really strayed too far. I didn’t take a sudden turn like my husband but I also didn’t take the fast lane like my surgeon niece.
Although going to law school and being a lawyer was part of my narrative for as long as I can remember, I’m not sure I was ever bowled over by the idea of being a lawyer.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved law school – from the intense friendships that form from being thrust into the trenches of the Socratic Method to the lofty discussions of whether our Constitution is meant to breathe and grow and expand or whether it is a blueprint left by our forefathers, sacred, and unmalleable. All of that was intense, challenging, and intellectually stimulating. But I wasn’t at all sure I was going to love the practice of law.
Mary and classmates at a 1983 Graduation Celebration.
I worked for a couple of law firms during the summers between my first and second year and it seemed inevitable that I would work for one of them when I graduated. Don’t get me wrong: they were good firms with good people, doing meaningful work. It just wasn’t that meaningful for me. I’m not sure I even realized it at the time.
Then one day I passed the career center and saw an advertisement posted. It read something like this: if you are a highly motivated individual with top grades who wants to make a difference in the world, please call 904-555-1212. Candidates must not be afraid of snakes and should be canoe-proficient. Waders and machete issued upon completion of a short safety course.
An unorthodox advertisement to be sure. Of course I called the number. And it’s the story of how I got my first job out of law school – with a small, specialized arm of the Florida Attorney General’s office that was formed, at the time, to take on complex environmental litigation. The head of our group was a legend in the field and would become my mentor. He taught me how to use all these great skills you learn in law school to make a difference – to improve human health, to protect our coastal waterways and threatened species, to protect the natural environment. To steward.
In a nutshell, that’s how I got to my meaningful place. To be honest, it was always harboring inside me. When I mentioned how I used to cut my Barbies’ hair, in actuality, I was cutting the hair of my Sunshine Family dolls. It was a family of organic farmers who lived in a camper. I guess that should have been a clue.
There is no formula, is the point, and no right or wrong way to find what you are meant to do. But if you seek meaning in your work, if you commit to making choices that are meaningful to others, then you will be on the right track. And as I said before, you have a great head start.
I’m so grateful to have spent my high school years at Shorecrest, and I hope you are too. More often through action than words, Shorecrest helped me understand, and internalize, that every human being has value; that the journey can be even more important – and enlightening – than the goal; that pursuit of ambition is laudable but can turn hollow and barren in the absence of integrity, compassion, and respect; and that knowledge is the path to greater self-understanding and universal human truths.
These are lofty ideals, I realize, but I really do feel that way. Shorecrest gave me the confidence and clarity to seek – to insist – on a meaningful path and I’m confident it is helping to instill those same values in you.
One of the great gifts of high school – and Shorecrest in particular, is the chance to try on and walk in so many different shoes. At one point or other during my years here I was a scholar, a tennis player, an actor, a writer, a singer, a politician, an editor, poet, fundraiser, manager, saleswoman, and yes, even a teacher. I left knowing a few things for sure: I had a gift for writing and persuasion but I would not be pursuing a career in applied mathematics or foreign languages. I also knew I was ready, and perhaps that’s the greatest gift of all. Shorecrest allowed me to meet passion with action, an intersection that creates, always, the opportunity for meaningful results.
So be open, always, to new possibilities. I’m an environmental lawyer, but as it turns out, I developed a great passion along the way for issues related to international adoption, developmental disabilities, and special education.
I wrote a book a few years ago called When Rain Hurts. Our family was formed through adoption, our kids born in Russia. They were toddlers when they came home with us and so had spent the first years of their life in an orphanage.They missed the love and attention that feed the brain, not just the heart, in those first crucial years of development – something that most of us here today take for granted. Both our kids are beautiful, resilient, and rich with talent. I’m so proud of them. But our son also has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS, which means his birthmother drank alcohol when she was pregnant. As a result, his brain was permanently injured.
FAS is the number one cause of developmental disability in the world – including in this country – yet it’s also 100% preventable. All you have to do is not drink alcohol when you’re pregnant. I wrote the book, with my son’s blessing, because I wanted people to understand what it’s like to live and love in the presence of FAS, a disability that robs people of their full potential, I wanted to add our voice as an advocate against raising children in orphanages.
I came to understand that I felt very passionate about these issues, that they had become highly personal for me, and that they were under-explored. Moved by our children’s histories, the ways in which early neglect and deprivation crept into our daily lives, and the plight of our son’s disability, I wanted to make a difference. So I wrote.
Mary with her family over Thanksgiving 2016.
Through my writing I tried to give meaning to others’ experiences by shedding light on our own. In short, my son and I, together, sought to do something meaningful.
The great – and exciting - challenge for you is to discover your own path. If your underlying goal is to act with altruism, to seek work that is meaningful for you – because you made choices that improved the lives of others, you have a really great shot at living a happy and fulfilling life.
And that’s my wish and hope for all young people – my own teenage kids as well as each of you. Keep that future vision of yourself in mind – that really, really old you who feels good about her life’s work - and you’ll stay on course.
Mary Greene is a member of the Shorecrest Preparatory School Class of 1983 and is the 2016 recipient of the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award.