For Sarah Lawrence’s Class of 2011—a generation that grew up in the Internet age with social media, blogs and 24-hour news—perhaps no person could’ve been a more suitable keynote speaker than Arianna Huffington.
Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group (which includes Patch), spoke to the 409 graduates at the college’s commencement on Friday morning.
Despite lively, entertaining and thoughtful speeches by the the college’s president, Karen Lawrence, and several students, Huffington kept the audience equally rapt, interspersing personal anecdotes and political observations into her sage advice, eliciting a standing ovation. She referred to Sarah Lawrence as “an amazing place” and made several James Joyce references in homage to President Lawrence, a Joyce scholar. When she first started the Huffington Post, she said, she feared it would become “Huffington’s Wake” and that even though nobody would read it, everyone would pretend that they did and declare it to be fabulous.
She told the graduates that they are entering a “split-screen world.” On one side, darkness and irrationality, where student loan debt is topping credit card debt and more than a third of new graduates move back in with their parents. She chastised this world for questioning global warming and relying on the “wrong set of facts,” which elicited applause, as did her quip that had Lehman Brothers been called Lehman Brothers and Sisters, they’d still be around.
The other side of the screen consists of creativity, innovation and empathy, “the key” to thriving in this world. Calling this generation the most connected, compassionate and engaged of all time, she was impressed that this side asks the big questions and explores the cosmic riddles.
Every generation regards itself as being transformative, going all the way back to Adam and Eve, but that this one is indeed living through a seismic shift from Epoch A, marked by struggle and survival to a new era, characterized by “meaning and collaboration” that can be nurtured through a combination of “wisdom with understanding.”
Heartbreak, she said, is inevitable. The reason why she moved to New York and embarked on her career in the United States is because a man she fell in love with in London refused to marry her. She urged graduates to persist and scoff at failure, recounting how 37 publishers had rejected her second book.
“Perseverance is the difference between success and failure,” she said. “Failure is not the opposite of success, it is the stepping stone to success.”
Fears and doubts are like the obnoxious roommate in her head, she said. In our hyperconnected world, she stressed the need for a “GPS for the soul,” urging graduates to take the time to unplug and recharge themselves regularly—and to get enough sleep.
There is no leader on a white horse. The leader will be found in the mirror. Doing for others is what gives life meaning, she said, urging graduates to write down their experiences and inspire others. She gave out her e-mail address and said she would publish their creations.
“Solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times,” she concluded. “Dare to fail.”