The year is 2075. You are in the hospital, your family surrounds you, you are on your death bed and you are looking back on your life and reflecting. You ask yourself this question:
"Did it matter?"
As I was thinking about what to say today, my mind instantly gravitated towards the word "purpose." What was the purpose of the last four years? What was the point of countless nights spent up late writing papers, cramming for tests, thousands of dollars for tuition, on and on it goes.
I confess that answering that question was a huge struggle for me, for at least the first two years of college. Not only was I having a hard time with that question, but more specifically, the question of why the Carlson School of Management? Why business? What does it mean to be a business student? What does it mean to study business? No one goes into college their freshman year claiming they want to analyze businesses. No one goes into college knowing that they want to "manage and build brands" or analyze cash flow. It's much easier to say you are going to be a doctor or teacher or engineer.
So needless to say, I was confused. I didn't know why I was in business? I questioned the point to it all.
And then I went to Africa. And everything changed, because I met that 2075 moment sooner than I had expected. I was forced to answer the question, "Did it matter?"
You see, almost a year ago today, I found myself in a remote part of southern Tanzania, suffering from a severe case of Malaria. In fact, I nearly died. For the first time in my life, I was seriously asking myself, "Does my life and what I have done matter?" I remember laying in my bed, unable to move, wondering, "when was the last time I told my family I loved them?"
Through the pounding headaches I remember my anxiety over realizing how trivial I behaved in life -- I was mad at myself for the way I had treated my Tanzanian co-workers earlier in the day -- upset that they didn't understand the world in the same way I did. I saw how meaningless my passions for wealth and attention were, I reflected on old relationships that either my pride or my ambition had destroyed. I saw the pointlessness of everything I had put status and value in: image, wealth, consumption, title... I legitimately thought I was going to die. It was the end.
I found that when you look forward to that unknown point in the future, or you experience it and survive, everything changes. Instead of focusing on yourself, you start to focus on others -- your fulfillment comes from something higher than the worship of self. Gratefulness becomes core to who you are and you start to lose the lens of self-importance.
The perspective flips from, "What experiences can I get? How much wealth can I accumulate? How much money can I make? What kind of car do I want to drive, how big of a house can I afford?
"How many people can I welcome? What good can I do? How much can I give away? How many people can I genuinely engage with and be present with?
And it changes how you view your everyday life. For example, we can walk up to this stage today and make it about ourselves. We can walk up here, smile, wave, and go sit back down with the thought that we deserve this, we worked for this, these people are here to celebrate us, and now we get to sail off into a full time job, make lots of money, climb the corporate ladder, and live the dream.
Or we can have another perspective today. We can get up here, walk across the line, and look back on the last four years with a heart of utmost gratitude for all of the people sitting here. We can realize that today is not just a celebration of all the hard work we have done, but also a celebration of all the people and resources that have made this day possible for us. We can go sit back down, and rather than dream of all the money we will be making, dream of how we are going to take these degrees and go make a difference in the world -- whether in a corporate office, start up business, position in government, etc. We can understand that today we join the ranks of about 7 percent of all people globally that have the education and backing of a college degree, and from this position we stand prepared, to go off into the world and use all we have and know for meaningful use.
In that dark moment I realized that my whole life had been about me. I worshiped myself. Though my faith in my family and my God was strong, I was disillusioned with being in the business school because I only saw it as a means to propel myself into a high paying job or a successful career -- which isn't bad in and of itself--but I didn't see the underlying point or reason to it all until I was faced with death. And what that moment showed me was that my life was devoid of an underlying meaning and purpose beyond myself, there was no authentic foundation, and there was no point, nothing higher.
But now I see the point. When you look at business as a way of serving, and giving, and putting others first, it becomes such a gift to the world. Fundamentally, business is people helping people. Business can be an avenue of love, business is how I can restore and redeem broken parts of this world, to do good, create value and meaning, employment and improving people's lives -- it's about solutions and growth and creativity -- that is NOT idealism -- that is what business DOES, and if I could go back and tell my freshman year self why I was in the business school that is what I would say.
And so, today, I encourage you, as excited as you are for the future, and dreaming of all that is coming, I would ask you to dream of how you can serve your community. Dream of how you can build up the relationships around you, and put others before yourself. How can you take all of this and all that you know to speak love and life into your co-workers, friends, and family? How can you smile, freely forgive, look with compassion, serve with power, be an advocate for the powerless -- that is what your degree gives you, and step into the unknown with confidence and courage? How can you live for something higher? Because when it's about you, and serving your wants, it never ends -- you only want more.
The year is 2075. You are laughing and smiling through your tears, because you see how blessed and full of love your life has been and how beautiful a gift every day you have been given is. You are holding the hands of your loved ones as you fall into sleep. You close your eyes, your grasp begins to fade...
Class of 2014, it's been a pleasure. Go from here today and make it matter. Thank you and God bless.
Austin Hermann can be contacted via Linkedin at linkedin.com/in/austinhermann