What I Told College Graduates

Everyone has different goals and aspirations. But one thing I’ve observed, one thing I know, is the expression my dad would use, “it’s a lucky man or woman gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do, and thinks it still matters.”

No matter what you do or where you go, we are all striving towards the same thing — to seek that sweet spot that satisfies both success and happiness.

My wish for every college graduate is that not only tomorrow, but twenty, forty, fifty years from now, he or she has found that thing that allows them to get up in the morning, put both feet on the floor, go out and pursue what they love, and think it still matters.

Remember these points.

1. It’s All Personal

It all comes down to being personal.

It’s about being there for a friend or a colleague when they’re injured or in an accident, remembering the birthdays, congratulating them on their marriage, celebrating the birth of their child. It’s about being available to them when they’re going through personal loss. It’s about loving someone more than yourself.

Let me give an example.

After only four months in the Senate as a 30-year old kid, I was walking into a meeting with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. And I witnessed another newly elected Senator — the extremely conservative Jesse Helms excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for promoting the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When I walked into Majority Leader Mansfield’s office, he looked at me and said “What’s bothering you, Joe?” And I told him, “That guy Helms has no socially redeeming value. He doesn’t care about people in need, the disabled.”

Majority Leader Mansfield then proceeded to tell me that — Jesse Helms and his wife — had three years earlier adopted a 14-year-old boy in braces up to his hips.

He said, “Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, never his motives. Because you don’t know his motive.”

I felt like a jerk. But I began to look past caricatures of my colleagues to try to see the whole person. And when I did, it seemed to break the ice.

Senator Helms and I continued to have profound political differences. But the mutual defensiveness dissipated. And as a result — we began to be able to work together.

So one piece of advice is try to look beyond the caricature of the person with whom you have to work. Resist the temptation to ascribe motive, because you really don’t know - — and it gets in the way of being able to reach a consensus on things that matter to you and to many other people.

2. No one is better than you, every other person is equal to you and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

I’ve worked with eight Presidents and hundreds of Senators and I’ve had scores of talented people work for me. And here’s what I’ve observed: regardless of their academic or social backgrounds, those who had the most success and were most respected were the ones who never confused academic credentials and societal sophistication with gravitas and judgment.

So don’t forget about what doesn’t come from a diploma — the heart to know what’s meaningful and what is ephemeral; the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment.

3. Remember that reality has a way of intruding.

Life can change in a heartbeat.

Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever when a tractor trailer crashed into a station wagon and took the life of my wife, 13-month old daughter, and seriously injured my two young sons.

But because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family grounded in love and loyalty — and a sense of obligation which they imparted to me — I not only got help, but focusing on my sons, who survived, was my redemption.

I can remember my mother saying something I thought that was so cruel at the time, “Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.” She was right.

The incredible bond I have with my children is the greatest gift that could ever be given.

And who knows whether I would have understood that if nothing happened.

I began to commute every single day for 37 years from Wilmington to Washington — two hours each way — so I could kiss them goodnight, and kiss them good morning the next day. I needed my children more than they needed me. Some at the time wrote in the press and suggested that I couldn’t be taken seriously because I didn’t stay in Washington to attend fancy events or meet important people.

But I realized I didn’t miss a thing. Ambition is really important. You need it. And I certainly have never lacked in having ambition. But ambition without perspective can be a killer.

4. Engage the World Around You

You are part of an exceptional generation.

You’re the most tolerant generation.

You have the intellectual horsepower to make things better for the world around you.

But intellectual horsepower and tolerance alone do not make a generation great unless you can break out of the bubbles of your own making — technological, geographic, racial, and socioeconomic — to truly connect with the world around you.

Because it matters.

No matter what your material success or personal circumstance, it matters. You cannot breathe fresh air or protect your children from a changing climate no matter what you make. If your brother can’t marry the man he loves, then you are lessened. If your best friend has to worry about being racially profiled, then you live in a circumstance not worthy of us.

So engage in the world around you.

Because you will be more successful and happier.

You can absolutely succeed in life without ever sacrificing your ideals or your commitment to others and family.

That’s the honest truth.

My word as a Biden.

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