Dr. Lynn Vavreck on Embracing Uncertainty, Living Life Between Great Moments

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Just when you thought you had escaped commencement speech season! I am a little late to post this, but the content is truly timeless. This post is an excerpt of a graduation speech that one of my favorite people, my professor and mentor Lynn Vavreck, delivered to this year's graduating Political Science students at UCLA.

Whether you graduated this year, five years ago, or 20 years ago, Lynn's advice about embracing uncertainty and living life "inbetween moments" is touching and powerful. Lynn has always been an inspiration to me - she is the reason I took a leave of absence from UCLA to work at the start-up company without much of a clue about what I'd be doing. She believed in me and taught me many, many things about life and work (including how to cook a sweet potato).

I am also VERY excited to announce that Lynn's book, The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns, comes out today! For one of the graphs in the book, my friend and I spent a summer analyzing decades of New York Times archives on microfilm, so you can definitely say the book is thoroughly researched!

Excerpt from Dr. Lynn Vavreck's UCLA Commencement Address

What no one tells you about graduation day, is that it is, ironically, one of the least uncertain days you’ll ever have.

Well, sure, there’s that whole “future” thing out in front of you.  And, yes, the job market may be making it difficult to know what is coming next. But today – today you know what you’ve accomplished and what it means to those around you.

You know what you spent the last four or more years working for.  You know who you are today – you are a college graduate.  And you know how that makes you feel: good, proud, satisfied. The truth is, though, that most of the rest of your days will not have this clarity.

You will leave school confident that you will succeed in what you do – and so you will.  And you will gather accomplishments and responsibilities along the way. You will get a job and then get promoted; and maybe one day you will become someone’s boss. You will meet interesting, engaging people; maybe you will marry one of these people, and buy a house or two – combine your assets, maybe start a family. You will lose people you care about, sometimes slowly and quietly, and other times dramatically and profoundly. And the constant throughout all of this will not be the clarity, like today, but in fact just the opposite; the constant will be the uncertainty you feel.

No matter how much we have taught you, no matter how much I tell you that science, discovery, and imagination will save us as a society – unless you learn to love the unanswered questions in your life the tension between what you want for yourself and what others expect of you – none of your knowledge and accomplishments will matter. No amount of imagination and reason will save you if you do not know how to make yourself happy.

And to me that means one very specific thing: learning to live with and embrace the everyday tensions that your life will bring to you. Life is a series of pushes and pulls – and most of us never end up on one side or the other – we just live somewhere in the middle. You want to do one thing, but have to do another.  You know you should feel one way, but you actually feel the opposite.  We live somewhere in the middle.

But the middle can be good. It can be very good, but you have to stop worrying about figuring out whether you should be pushing or pulling at any given moment. Live the uncertainty, live the questions, live in the middle and love it.

The key to doing this is figuring out what sustains you. How do you make yourself happy? What will it take to get you out of bed in the morning after you’ve been up late working and all your suits are at the cleaners and there’s nothing for breakfast and you’re big presentation is less than hour away? How do you live with failure and still believe you can succeed? Most frightening of all, what will you do when you achieve your dream, when you reach your goal, when the thing that is supposed to bring you ultimate joy has been accomplished? What will sustain you then? Too many people learn the hard way that achieving your dream isn’t the same as achieving happiness. They find they are still living in the middle with no idea whether to push or pull.

So let me return to where I started:  I should probably tell you that no idea is too small and no ambition too great…that you can achieve your dreams.  But I fear that sets you up for disappointment, because life isn’t about days like today – life is about all the days in between days like today.

Enduring happiness comes from embracing the on-going push and pull of typical days – From finding beauty in the mundane, From celebrating the small moments of contentedness, From understanding that 100,000 “pretty good” days is better than 6 “amazing” days.

Life happens in the middle. In the middle of the push & pull and in the middle of all the truly celebratory moments.