Farouk Dey
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"What do you want to do with your life?" This is the question that I never want to get caught asking anyone again. And there is another question that I think you know well. "What should I do with my life?" It is a question that I believe is keeping people from achieving their life purpose today. In my 20 years of educating students and helping them launch their careers, I've learned that there are two types of people: the box-checkers, who obsess about predicting their future, and the inspiration seekers, who know they cannot predict their future, but they can influence it by having the right mentors and making audacious moves. You see, it turns out that seeking inspiration is the better way to go. And let me tell you why. When I ask people in my travels about how they've become successful, guess what their most common response is. "By accident." They tell me about their stories of luck, of chance events and of the relationships that made a difference in their lives. Two themes usually emerge in their stories: an audacious move that they made after a moment of inspiration and a person who took interest in them, a person who guided them and mentored them during times of loss and confusion, a person who encouraged them to take the uncertain and risky path. You know, this happens to be my story too. When I was an undergraduate student, I remember working the graveyard desk shift in my residence hall. Early in the morning as I wrap up my work, I would often greet the department head as he walked in. He had a mustache, he was wearing a suit, he'd walk in with his briefcase. He was always the first person to walk in the department. I was very intimidated by him. One day, he paused, and he invited me to chat. He asked me about my life. He asked me about my studies and my family and my interests. That conversation led to many more, and eventually, he offered me an internship in the department, where I started to learn how to make financial projections and budget reports. Over the years, he offered me more leadership roles in the department. And for me, that was what has launched a meaningful career in higher education. You see, my relationship with Scott was a consequential mentoring relationship for me because I happened to also be an international student. I had very little English speaking abilities, and I had very little resources. I was trying to find my place in this new university culture. It was an overwhelming time. I was overwhelmed by the size of the institution, the decisions that were in front of me. I was overwhelmed by the opportunities that seemed so out of reach for someone like me. That relationship and that mentoring made a difference. And I am here today living my life purpose because I was able to take some risks, but especially because someone cared, reached out and offered some mentoring and invested in my future. So Scott, wherever you are today, I want to thank you. But if achieving life purpose was this easy, and all it required was having a mentor and acting on inspiration, then why isn't everyone doing it, and why is this question so difficult for everyone to achieve? Let's break this down together. The trouble with inspiration is that it fades away as quickly as it comes. This is a problem. The trouble with inspiration is that it fades away as quickly as it comes to us. There are plenty of things that get in the way. Life stressors get in the way. Life circumstances get in the way. Life gets in the way. Transforming inspiration into an audacious move requires a tremendous amount of discipline and focus. It requires comfort with risk and uncertainty. It requires belief in our ability, and it does require conviction in our own ideas. And in order for the move to be audacious, it must scare us just a bit. It must challenge the norms around us. And then there is mentoring. Here's the challenge with mentoring. Not everyone can be a mentor. This is what I've learned during my time. For mentors to be effective, they must have three traits. They must have expertise and knowledge in order to teach us and guide us, they must have wisdom in order to offer us support and in order to offer us perspective, and they must have access to networks in order to connect us to opportunity. So, you see here what is tragic is that the path to life purpose is not equitable to all. Privilege does play a role in the path to life purpose. Privilege does play a role in our accidental moments of inspiration. It does impact our ability to make an audacious move and act on inspiration. And it does influence our access to mentors. When systems in education and systems in an organization put the onus on the individual to seek mentoring and to seek experiences that can transform their lives, we end up with a culture of haves and have-nots. Schools and colleges, for example, they invest in a tremendous amount of resources and immersive experiences like internships and research and study abroad. But they're often on the periphery of the student learning experience. Students often have to seek them out. The onus is on them to find the mentoring and to find the experiences necessary to be successful. These experiences are just too important to miss. They are the experiences that prepare students for the workforce, they are the experiences that expand students' minds, and that expands their networks. They are the experiences that inspire students to make bold decisions and audacious moves. And every single day, students with less privilege miss them. The inequity that I want to highlight here is this: the few who tend to take full advantage of these peripheral resources happen to be the privileged ones. They learned from a young age how to navigate systems that are complex. They were taught how to seek advice and how to seek support. They are familiar with the language and culture of the university and of the school systems. The privileged ones are the ones that are often reminded to partake in "optional" activities by their helicopter parents. Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate how proactive and how supported these students are, but I worry about the other students. I worry about the students who have less privilege and who do not have that level of guidance. I worry about the student who is first to go to college in his family and doesn't have anyone showing him how to succeed. I worry about the low-income student, who is spending time between classes thinking of how much money to send home to help her family. I worry about the undocumented student, who is thinking and worried about the true prospect of deportation. And I worry about the student of color, who is struggling to choose which parts of his identity he has to tone down in order to just fit in. I worry that having access to mentoring and having access to life transforming experiences is a privilege that too many of these students miss because these experiences are just too peripheral. Schools can change all of this. Schools and colleges can change all of this by making just one audacious move. Make it possible for all of your students to have access to mentoring and to transformative experience. Make it part of every student's admission ticket to have exposure to powerful mentoring and to immersive experiences. Design an educational system that integrates coursework, experience and networks and community, all in one curriculum. This doesn't have to cost more. Just rebuild the existing programs that you have to be scalable beyond the transactional, traditional services that serve the few. Our systems have been built historically in colleges and universities to serve the few who show up. We have to be honest with this. And you and I know that if everyone on a college campus showed up to have access to a service, we wouldn't be able to serve them. How is this inclusive? Fortunately, I am already seeing some changes in colleges and universities. And I happen to have just joined one of them recently. Johns Hopkins University gets this and is fully investing in making the experience for all students equitable. We are rethinking how students learn and achieve. We are designing an entire new model for integrative learning and life design that's inclusive to all. We are creating a college roadmap that integrates coursework with learning with experience and with networks. And with the help of philanthropy, we are on our way to make an education and life purpose accessible to all students, regardless of their background or social capital. You see, inclusion is not a soundbite, and equity is not an add-on. They must be baked into our systems from the beginning. Only when that happens will all students realize the true purpose of their college education. It is not to get a job. That goes without saying. They will realize that they are in one of the biggest containers of inspiration in the world. And they will approach education with all of its resources and networks to create a life purpose that is meaningful to them, regardless of their backgrounds or social capital. So to every school and organization that wants to be inclusive: this is your time. Make it possible for all your members to achieve their life purpose, not just the privileged few. Integrate mentoring and experiences that are transformative into your work. And to every parent and mentor, teacher and advisor: Stop asking your students what they should do with their lives. Ask them instead: "What has inspired you lately?" And as you watch the face light up with joy and excitement, know that your time now is to support them. Encourage them to move forward despite the uncertainty and risk involved. And to all of us, I ask this: Stop contemplating the useless question, "What should I do with my life?" Seek inspiration instead. Join a community. Engage in an experience that aligns with your curiosity. Ask someone to be your mentor. And pay attention to every moment of inspiration. And when that happens, know that this is your time to make a bold decision and an audacious move that could change the rest of your life. And every time you feel the urge to have a plan, remember this: life purpose cannot be planned or predicted. It is lured out of hiding with the help of mentors and the right mindset. So, to those of us who are still looking for their life purpose: Stop looking. You will need to create it. So get out there, follow your curiosity, and try something new. Accept the challenge, and pass it on. This is your time now. Chase inspiration, and make an audacious move. Thank you and good luck to all of you. (Applause)