Thank you, Marie. And thank you esteemed members of the faculty, proud parents, devoted friends, squirming siblings. Congratulations to all of you but especially congratulations to the magnificent Berkeley class of 2016!
It is a privilege to be here at Berkeley, which has produced so many Nobel Prize winners, Turing Award winners, Astronauts, members of Congress, Olympic gold medalists, and that’s just the women.
Berkeley has always been ahead of the times. As Chancellor Durke said, in the 1960’s you led the Free Speech Movement. Back then, people used to say with all the hair, how do we even tell the men from the women? Today we now know the answer: man buns.
Early on, Berkeley opened its doors to the entire population. When this campus opened in 1873, you had 167 men and 222 women. It took Alma mater another ninety years to give out just single degree to a single woman.
One of the women who came here in search of opportunity was Rosalind Nuss. Roz grew up scrubbing floors in the Brooklyn boarding house where she lived. In high school her parents pulled her out of school to help support the family and it was a local teacher who talked to her parents into putting her back into school. In 1973, she sat where you sit today and she became a Berkeley graduate. Roz was my grandmother. She is one of the major sources of inspiration in my life. I was born on her birthday and I am so grateful to Berkeley for recognizing her potential. And I want to say a special congratulations to the many who today become the first in your families to graduate from college. What a remarkable achievement!
Today is a day of celebration. A day to celebrate all the hard work that got you to this moment. Today is a day of thanks. A day to thank all the people who helped you get here, the people who taught you and nurtured you, cheered you on, and dried your tears. Or at least didn’t write on you with a sharpie when you fell asleep at a party. Today is a day of reflection. Because today marks the end of one era of your life and the beginning of something new.
A commencement address is meant to be a dance between youth and wisdom. You provide the youth, someone comes up here to be the voice of wisdom, that’s supposed to be me. I throw you all the things I learned in life, you throw your cap in the air, you let your family take a million photos and hopefully post them on Instagram and then we all go home happy.
Today is going to be a bit different. We will still do the caps and you still have to do the photos. But I am not going to tell you today what I learned in life. Today I’m going to try to tell you what I learned in death. I have not spoken about this publicly before and it’s hard. But I promise not to blow my nose on these beautiful Berkeley robes.
One year and thirteen days ago, I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected. We were in Mexico, celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday party. I took a nap, he went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable, I walked into a gym to find him lying on the floor. I flew home to tell my children that their father was gone. I watched his casket being lowered into the ground. For many months afterwards, and at many times since, I was swallowed in the deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart and your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe. Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.
I’m sharing this with you today in the hopes that on this day in your lives, with all the momentum and the joy, you can learn in life the lessons I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, about strength, and the light within us that will not be extinguished.
Everyone who has made it through Cal has already experienced some disappointment. You wanted an A but you got a B. Let’s be honest, you got an A- but you’re still mad. You applied for an internship at Facebook, but you only got one at Google. She was clearly the love of your life but then she swiped left. Game of Thrones the show has diverged way too much from the books and you’re mad because you read four thousand three hundred and fifty-two pages. You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity. There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or crime which changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity: the sharp sting of prejudice when it happens. There’s loss of love: the broken relationships that can’t be repaired. And sometimes there’s loss of life itself. Many of you have already experienced the kind of tragedy and hardship that leaves an indelible mark. Last year, Radhika, winner of the University Medals, spoke so beautifully about the sudden loss of her mother. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. What I want to talk about today is what you do next about the things you can do to overcome adversity, no matter when it hits you or how it hits. The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days — the days that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.
A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity Dave would not be here to do. We came in with a plan to fill in for Dave. But I cried to Phil, I said “I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do next? As a representative of Silicon Valley, I’m pleased to tell you that there is data we can learn from. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s— personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence — that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events of our lives.
The first P is personalization—the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility, which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.
When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have or should have done. It wasn’t until I learned about the three P’s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not diagnosed his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I? Studies show that getting past personalization can make us stronger. Students — teachers who have students who fail who believe that they could do better revisit their methods and have future classes that excel. College swimmers who under performed in a race but believed they can do better do. Not taking failures personally allows us to recover—and even to thrive.
The second P is pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life. You know that song “Everything is awesome?” This is the flip: “Everything is awful.” There’s nowhere to hide from the all-consuming sadness. The child psychologist I spoke to encouraged me to get my children back to their routine as quickly as possible. So ten days after Dave died, my kids went back to school and I went back to work. I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a total haze, thinking “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter?” And then I got drawn into the conversation and for a second—the briefest of all seconds—I forgot about death. That second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful. My children and I were healthy. My friends and family, some of whom are with me today, were carrying us quite literally. The loss of a partner often has severe negative financial consequences, especially for women. So many single mothers and fathers struggle to make ends meet or don’t get the time off they need to care for their families. I had financial security, the ability to take the time off I needed, and not just a job I loved but one where I was encouraged to spend all day on Facebook. Gradually, my children started sleeping through the night, crying less, and playing more.
The third P is permanence — the belief that the sorrow will last forever. This was the hardest by me for far because for so long it felt like the overwhelming grief would never leave. We often project our current feelings out indefinitely. We’re anxious and then we’re anxious that we’re anxious. We’re sad and then we’re sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings but know that they won’t last forever. My Rabbi of all people actually told me and this is a quote that I should “lean in to the suck.” Not what I meant when I said “lean in”. None of you need me to explain the fourth P, which is, of course, pizza from Cheese Board.
But I wish I had known about the three P’s where I was your age because there were so many times they would have helped. Day one of my first job out of college, my new boss figured out that I didn’t know how to enter data into Lotus 1-2-3. That’s a spreadsheet — ask your parents later. His mouth dropped open and he said in front of everyone, “I can’t believe you got this job without knowing that” and then he left the room. I was sure I’m getting fired my very first week of work. I thought I was terrible at everything but really I was just terrible at spreadsheets. Understanding pervasiveness would have saved me a lot of anxiety that first week. I wish I had known about permanence when I broke up with boyfriends. It would’ve been a comfort to know that that feeling was not going to last forever, and if I was honest with myself, neither were any of those relationships. And I wish I had understood personalization when boyfriends broke up with me. Sometimes it’s not you, it really is them. That guy really didn’t shower. And all three P’s ganged up on me, when in my twenties I got divorced. At that time I thought that no matter what else I did, I was a massive failure.
The three P’s are common emotional reactions to so many things that happen to us —in our careers, in our personal lives, and our relationships. You’re probably feeling one of them right now about something in your life. But if you can recognize you are falling into these traps, you can correct because just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system and there are things you can do to help kick it into gear.
One day my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, suggested that I think about how much worse things could be. This was completely counter intuitive to me. I would have thought that getting through something like death was about finding every positive thought I could. Worse, I said to him “Are you crazy? How could things be worse?” He looked at me and said “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” The minute he said it, I felt overwhelming gratitude that my children were alive and that gratitude overtook some of the grief. Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. People who take the time to list the things they are grateful for are healthier and happier. My New Year’s resolution this year is to before I go to bed, write down three moments of joy and this really simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to bed thinking of something cheerful. Try it. Try it tonight when you have so many things to be joyful for. Although maybe before you go to Kip’s and don’t remember what they are.
Last month, eleven days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down crying to a friend of mine. We were sitting of all places on a bathroom floor. I said “Eleven days a year ago, he had eleven days left and we had no idea.” And then through tears we asked each other how we would live if we knew we had eleven days left. As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you have eleven days left? I don’t mean blow everything off and party all the time, although I’ve already said, tonight is an exception. I mean live with the understanding of how precious every day would be because that’s precious everyday actually is.
A few years ago, my mom had to have her hip replaced. Before that she walked without pain but as her hip disintegrated, every step she took was painful. Today, years after the operation, she’s walking without pain but she is grateful for those steps. Something that never would have even occurred to her before. I stand here today, a year after the very worst day of my life, the worst day I can imagine and two things are true. I have a huge reservoir of sadness, it is with me always. It is right here where I can touch it. I never knew I could cry so often or so much. But for the first time, I’m grateful for each breath, in and out, I’m grateful for the gift of life itself. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and my friends’ birthdays sometimes. Now I celebrate always. I used to go to bed every night worrying about all the things I did wrong that day and trust me the list was long. Now I go to bed, trying to focus on that day’s moments of joy.
It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude. Gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude, not just on the easy days like today, but on the hard days when you will need it.
There are so many moments of joy ahead of you. That trip you always wanted to take. A first kiss with someone you really like. Finding a job you believe in. Beating Stanford. (Go Bears!) All of these things will happen to you. Enjoy each and every one. I hope that you live your life, each precious day of it with joy and meaning. I hope that you walk without pain and you are grateful for each step. And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It’s a muscle, you can build it up and then draw on it when you need it. And in that process you figure out who you really are and you just might become the very best version of yourself.
Class of 2016, as you leave Berkeley, build resilience.
Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have deep within you the ability to get through anything and I mean anything, I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined. Build resilient organizations. If anyone can do it, you can, because Berkeley is filled with people who want to make the world a better place. Never stop working to do so, whether it’s a boardroom that is not representative or a campus that’s unsafe. Speak up, especially at institutions like this that you hold so dear. My favorite poster at work reads, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” When you see things that are broken and you will see things that are broken, go fix them. Build resilient communities. We find our humanity, our will to live and our ability to love in our relationships with each other. Be there for your family and friends and I mean in person, not just in a message with a heart emoji. Lift each other up, help each other kick the shit out of option B and celebrate every moment of joy. Go Bears!