December 2015 Commencement Remarks

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to our grand tradition, the University of South Carolina commencement for the December Class of 2015. I ask you to please remain standing as the USC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence McNeil Casey, Jr., accompanies Jacob Rothman, a master of music in opera theater student, as they lead in singing our National Anthem.  Afterward, an invocation will be given by Reverend Emily Hylden, Episcopal Chaplain.  

Welcome again, everyone.  It's so great to see you here—the Class of December 2015. Members of the graduating class, friends, family, faculty and other guests, warm greetings to one and all. I love December Commencement because it arrives during this beautiful season of peace, hope and, if we are all a little lucky, rest.  You may not know it, but this commencement is the largest single commencement exercise of the entire year. 

And you, as December grads, are special.  Some of you are here because you accelerated graduation day from May 2016, and have gotten here early.  You many have taken advantage of AP classes taken in high school or by taking summer classes.  We call that, "On Your Time" and you did it. Congratulations to you. 

Others of you also graduated On Your Time. And families, I think you know what I mean, in 4 1/2 years or a little bit more! I am also very proud of each of you and congratulations. I wish all of you the very best as you graduate and move into the next phase of your life.  

Before we move to the reason we are all here, I have an observation to make.  I'm pretty sure you'll find it reasonable.  It's a criticism really, but one that I, myself and nearly everyone else in the arena today—not just the graduates—will own up to...I think. I only wish I had better advice than I do about what to do about it. 

My observation is our addictive attachment to our smart phones is resulting in an inability for us to focus and concentrate...to focus and concentrate...on most anything important for more than a few moments at a time. 

Anybody agree with that? 

First the facts.  We Americans spend a staggering 4.7 hours a day using our devices.  That amounts to about one-third of our average hours awake.  We depend on them to call, text, tweet, search, shop and pay, and we even play with them. They can wake us up or help put us to sleep, but they can also keep us up at night. 

So go forth! Live an engaged and really connected life, and always, always stay connected with us.  

Thirty-four percent of people say they check their phones the moment they wake up (I'm not going to ask you to raise your hands), and 21 percent confess to checking their devices in the middle of the night.  It's the same or even worse in other countries by the way...so the phenomena I describe are universal. 

At a certain level, I do get it...we want to make sure our friends and family are okay, make sure the world as we know it is okay...we live in a scary world and I get that too.  But we now substitute brief communication snapshots for more valuable, complete and accurate information, and for more valuable and meaningful forms of communication. 

I know you graduates are already boxing me into the "old fashioned" corner...you think I'm pining for the days of an afternoon newspaper, mailing letters, and maybe even enjoying a fountain pen.  You'd be right about that, but that's really not why I chose to speak to you about this. 

It's because, as you leave us today, I want to try to not lose your ability to focus and concentrate, the kind of practice that helped you succeed in college.  That's important for your personal and professional well-being, and for our society's. 

The opposite of concentration is distraction and author Tony Schwartz, recently commented in a NY Times op-ed that we have become, "addicted to distraction." He writes that his own addiction to the internet, "...feels like  a relentless pull that becomes so compulsive that it ultimately interferes with everyday life." 

Graduates, were you ever in a class and just dying to check your text messages or emails, or possibly send one? Of course you were. Not great for classroom concentration, you would agree. Or have you ever seen two people at a restaurant together both on their smart phones? Sometimes, if I'm walking by, I muse that they may actually be "talking" with each other across the table! 

Why does this matter so much? Well imagine how some of the world's great historical discoveries might have been affected if the protagonists had been addicted to distraction. Would Einstein have produced the Theory of Relativity? Would Mozart have gotten as far on composing The Requiem? He actually died before it was completed so I'm pretty sure the answer to that one is "no."

My goodness, would Steve Jobs have perfected the iPhone if he were addicted to distraction?!  Again, I think "maybe not" because overabundant exposure to new information overloads our limited brain.  It's an incredible brain (and yours greater than most because you chose the University of South Carolina) but when we overload it with a constant barrage of stuff...weather reports, "What's on sale at Amazon," and "your bill is ready," or "someone would like to meet you on LinkedIn," and all of that other stuff...how can we focus and concentrate? 

Graduates, my ability to read for more than a few minutes at a time, my ability to allow my own creative juices to flow rather than responding to the ideas of others, and especially my ability to engage in meaningful conversation with friends and colleagues, all of these without distraction, are everyday habits that we all need to practice, before they're gone...before they become extinct. 

So what do you say we go on an internet diet together, okay? 

Great, so here's the diet...or at least my less than perfect advice: 

  • Don't pick up your smartphones the very first thing in the morning.
  • Leave the smartphone in another room when we eat and when we sleep. 
  • Take a cyber vacation one half-day a week.  Start with a Sunday, maybe, and let's see how far we get. 

And, finally, ask yourself from time to time, "What could I be doing that would be more productive, satisfying or relaxing than checking my phone? 

I encourage you to be in control of your time and your life; be intentional. Control it, or you will become dissatisfied about how it controls you. I'm going to try some of my own advice too. I think I'll start tomorrow. (That's easier than today, isn't it?!) As for my real addiction, pizza, I'm not even going to go there! 

To the graduating class of December 2015, I am honored that each and every one of you chose to attend the University of South Carolina - from our Palmetto College on line programs and our Palmetto College campuses in Allendale, Walterboro, Lancaster, Sumter, Union and Laurens, to our amazing comprehensive universities in Aiken, Beaufort, Bluffton and Spartanburg; to our medical school and clinical education programs in Greenville and Florence, and right back here to our research university in Columbia, the heart of the Gamecock Nation.

We are all so proud of your accomplishments - please know that our Trustees, our dedicated faculty, our staff and I have never taken for granted that you chose to study here.  So go forth! Live an engaged and really connected life, and always, always stay connected with us.  We'll be emailing or texting you soon!

Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me as we celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of December 2015.