Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2019 Commencement Issue, published on May 20, 2019.
Dear Class of 2019,
Commencement is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on all that you have achieved at Yale — the books you have read, the problems you have tackled and the relationships you have made. Only you know how hard you have worked and the risks you have taken to arrive at this moment. I hope you will take time to reflect on your accomplishments as you acknowledge the people who have guided and inspired you to this moment.
Isaac Newton, in the midst of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history, said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” His giants were Rene Descartes and Robert Hooke, whose research helped him develop novel theories about the nature of light and color. Who are your giants? What have you seen, thanks to the scholars and teachers who have taught you and lifted you up?
Learning at Yale is special. Moments of understanding and inspiration take place not only in our classrooms and laboratories but across this campus. I hope each of you can recall moments when you made an important connection, figured out a difficult problem or discovered a new area of inquiry. No doubt you can think of dedicated teachers and mentors who shared their passion for learning with you. Thanks to them, you are leaving here ready to tackle meaningful challenges beyond our campus.
Teaching has been one of the joys of my professional life, and I know the same is true for many of my colleagues. Each class is a new opportunity to share not only what we know, but also to learn from exceptionally promising and curious students. In this way, teaching becomes itself an act of discovery, a search for new answers and fresh questions.
Investing in faculty is one of my major goals for Yale’s future — one that I know will pay large dividends by preparing future leaders and fueling discoveries. We will continue to support our exceptional faculty, so they can lift up the next generation of students.
Many individuals have no doubt contributed to your growth and wellbeing at Yale—friends, classmates and teammates; staff members who have cooked your meals, cleaned and maintained our facilities, answered questions and processed paperwork; neighbors who have welcomed you into the wider community; and family members back home who have cheered you on every step of the way.
As we think about our own achievements, it can be tempting to measure our self-worth by whatever we have done “on our own.” We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient and independent, which are indeed fine qualities. But gratitude does not mean we belittle our own ingenuity and hard work; it just asks us to reflect on how others have contributed to our success.
“I refuse the prison of ‘I’ and choose the open spaces of ‘we,’” writes the poet Toni Morrison. Expressing gratitude helps us choose those open spaces, rejecting self-interest and self-aggrandizement. It reminds us of what we owe others. It strengthens our connections to the wider community.
One of my favorite philosophers, the late Robert C. Solomon, writes that with gratitude, “our world opens up with new possibilities.” Now, as you prepare to leave Yale, you are about to encounter a world of new possibilities and new responsibilities.
As graduates, you will carry with you all the “rights and responsibilities” that a Yale degree confers. I hope you will embrace your responsibility to lift other people up — to use your talents, insights and privileges to create knowledge and foster understanding in the world. And as you take pride in your accomplishments, remember to thank the people who have taught, guided, inspired and supported you. Gratitude will enrich your own moment of celebration and open up new possibilities for the years ahead.
Peter Salovey is the current president of Yale University and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .