I was honored to be invited to speak to the incoming class at Carneige Mellon this past Sunday (August 28th) and kick off the University Lecture series along with two other alumni. Here's what I had to share with them.
There is nothing more powerful in this world than a question.
I thought that I got to Carnegie Mellon because I knew the answers. This is true in a limited sense. Like you, I gave enough of the right answers on my exams, papers, and SAT.
In hindsight, I think I knew the answers because I was asking the right questions, like “What if..?” and “Why?”. Curiosity made the answers come naturally.
However you made it to Carnegie Mellon, now you’re here. If you are anything like I was six years ago, your head is probably swimming with questions. During this past week, you’ve probably been met with a barrage of questions from your classmates. What dorm are you in? What are you studying? Where are you from?
You might be asking yourself some questions. Am I in the right place? What should I study? What is the deal with buggy anyways? Let me tell you: if you’re asking questions, you’re already off to a great start.
And the questions will keep coming and I hope become more interesting. Bright and early on my first day of class at Carnegie Mellon, I walked into a tiny room in Porter Hall for Professor Nico Slate’s seminar, “Barack Obama and the History of Race in America.” Professor Slate’s class asked questions worthy of answers. What does race mean? How should it relate to our politics? How does our history work itself into the present? You know, the simple, easy questions.
These questions captivated me and I had a community where I could ask them at Carnegie Mellon. They felt challenging, interesting, and important. Having a community when you’re pondering big questions is essential because your questions are enriched by others, expanded upon, and redirected.
Right now, you have a community ripe for your best questions. You can pose questions that shake your respective worlds. In asking questions, dare to be foolish. Be wary of questions that are too small, that betray a poverty of ambition. By small questions, I don’t mean ones that reflect some lack of understanding. To raise one’s hand and ask “I don’t get it, can you explain that again?” is a courageous act and an important question. But once you’re grounded in some knowledge, and knowledge you will surely get here at Carnegie Mellon, the best questions you can offer will reach beyond your chosen discipline and speak to something larger than yourself.
With that said, many of the questions you will ask in the upcoming years will be about you: what you should do and who you should be. And that’s important, because you can’t ask questions of the world without turning your curiosity on yourself. These questions will often feel like the most searching ones. There are only six years between you and I, but I don’t know if these personal questions ever fully resolve themselves.
Nor do I think that I want them to, for there is beauty in that unknowing, in that state of constant, wild becoming. During my time at CMU, I lurched to and fro, trying to get a sense of both what meaningful questions I could ask the world and the place from which to ask them.
I got involved in student life because I wanted to be part of shaping the community at the university. I organized for President Obama during his reelection campaign because I believe that politics is a frustrating yet important lever for change. When Professor Slate asked if I wanted to take part in a pilot service learning program in Qatar and India, I jumped at the chance to learn in a new environment. I felt tremors of resonance in these activities: a sense that I was becoming who I ought to be.
But I still had questions about what I should do and tried on shoes that didn’t fit. I considered journalism. At a fundamental level, I consider myself a storyteller, and investigating the world and literally asking questions is surely a way to shape our collective story. However, I found it wasn’t the way in which I wanted to, as Rilke directs us, to “live the questions.”
I pursued international development. That proved to be closer to home, though I found that there was something missing from the questions I asked there. It was actually while studying abroad in India that I realized that law – in the US – was the place from which I wanted to ask – and live – the questions. Life is funny like that; sometimes you have to travel to find home. Our team was in the midst of working with a foundation that supported women’s self-help groups and though the work was important, I found that there was a limit to how good my questions could be. There was a disconnect. I wasn’t of the communities I sought to serve and powerfully asking some of the questions I was interested in about equality and development might require additional tools.
Three years later, I’m entering my final year at Stanford Law School. I’ve found law is a flexible and powerful way to frame some of the biggest questions of our time. At Stanford, I’ve encountered another community of questioning. In a moment of national uncertainty, fear, and hurt, I’m taking part in a collective questioning of what justice means, what should be the measure of progress, and how we ought to live with one another. I know that if I’m asking these kind of questions, I’m doing okay, even if the answers feel so far beyond my reach.
The next steps in my profession as a lawyer are still uncertain. But I know how I will take them: with questions and with hope.
I think that hope is a misunderstood word. To some, it implies a naiveté – a certain kind of foolish knowing. But I’ve come to realize that hope is one of the most important instruments available to communities of questioning because questions asked with hope lead us to worthwhile, interesting places.
I don’t take hope to be some passive, flimsy thing. The hope that I know, the one that I viscerally feel animates my heroes and my communities, is a demanding, powerful force.
I’ve meditated on these 145 words from the essay “The Small Work in the Great Work” too many times to count in the last few years:
You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…
There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”
That fires me up. I hope – in that larger, powerful sense – that there is something there for you, too.
I don’t know what living my mission will look like in the upcoming years. It may be in nonprofit work, or in the government, or in politics. But I know that wherever I am, I will be standing at the gates of Hope, shouting the biggest questions that I can dream of.
But what about you? What will you ask the world?