An Open Letter to America's Class of 2015

05/05/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Those of us in higher education are part of our students' lives and their journeys. It is our collective responsibility to educate them to understand that in today's society they must be adaptive, nimble, entrepreneurial and embrace a global perspective. Their future will be powered not just by their intellect, but also by a number of other attributes, including curiosity, disruptive innovation, and the ability to thrive, rather than just survive.

It does not matter whether they attended a state institution, Ivy League school, big university, or small college; what they leave with matters most. In today's world, knowledge will only get them so far. As Thomas Friedman conveyed in his article "How to Get a Job at Google," their success will come from showing what they can do with what they have learned.

This requires graduates to have a deep understanding of who they are. As educators, we know a journey of profound self-discovery is not ending with their Commencement; it is continuing. The adventures that lie ahead will shape their character, reveal their strengths and weaknesses, measure how capable they are of overcoming obstacles, deepen their passions and enable them to develop a more profound understanding of themselves and their mission in life, so they can do good for others as well as for themselves.

But oftentimes, graduates do not realize this. They believe their degree is the key to opening countless doors. They believe the jobs they hold and the salaries they earn will represent the true measure of their success. While Commencement is a time of celebration and achievement, it is also a time when we can impart a final nugget of wisdom to all of our graduates. Here is what I would like to tell them.

Dear Class of 2015:

Centuries ago, people known as alchemists journeyed far and wide to collect the right mix of elements that would create the "recipe" for an infinite source of wealth. Their desires are much like yours today; your graduation marks a time when you anticipate great rewards and success. You believe your journey is over--that being ready for a job or graduate school means you have reached your destination.

But graduation is not the end of your journey; rather, it signals a new beginning. You are at a crossroads, much like the one recounted in the classic novel by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist. The story centers around an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who believes he will find great treasure at the pyramids in Egypt, and embarks on an arduous journey filled with enormous challenge.

Like Santiago, you are poised to begin your new journey. What you intend to do now with what you have learned is most important. Unlike your parents and grandparents, you can expect to have more than 15 jobs by the age of 40. Your first job will be diametrically different from your second, your fifth, and all of the other jobs you will hold in your lifetime. Industries will expand and contract with alarming speed. The only certainty will be change. You must be prepared for gains and losses, experimentation and failure, shifts and these dramatic changes. The world in which you live is shrinking. You must be capable of thriving as a citizen of the world, because your future will be one without borders and boundaries. And you must be adaptive, nimble, and entrepreneurial, because the world is also filled with uncertainty and dramatic change.

In his travels, Santiago faces similar uncertainties. But he also discovers joy, friendship, success and true love. In the end, he does not find treasure in Egypt. It is, instead, beneath a tree where he slept as a simple shepherd boy. He realizes then that his journey was never about finding gold; it was about finding himself--and that is the greatest treasure of all.

Your graduation is a wonderful achievement, but you have not reached your destination yet. Life is one grand and remarkable journey that can lead you to the most important destination of all--a profound understanding of your purpose in life and what mark you intend to leave in the world. Resolve from this moment forward to become an alchemist--not to seek actual riches, but to be open and ready to learn from the adventures that lie ahead, so you can enrich your life and the lives of others in meaningful ways.

As you set forth, keep in mind some of the things Santiago learned on his journey:

  • The possibility of having a dream is what makes life interesting.
  • The simple things in life are the most extraordinary.
  • It is not just about the destination; it is about the journey taken.
  • The secret of happiness is to see and experience all the marvels of the world.
  • Let go of your fears and doubts. Whenever you feel like giving up--don't.

Above all else, do not sweat your destination or what happens next. The point is in the journey itself. Wherever you go in life, pay attention to everyone you meet; they will have something to teach you, no matter how big or small it may seem at the time. Pay attention to everything that happens; those things will shape you. If you find yourself too comfortable or afraid of change, remember the only way to learn is through action. Each step forward has meaning and purpose. And no matter how many detours or adjustments you may face, remember that the greatest treasure will be in discovering yourself and your true mission in life.