It’s that time of year when the esteemed and well-known are asked to give graduation addresses. You remember those addresses—simultaneously inspirational, compelling, and entertaining and all in ten minutes or less!
This year, somehow, I have become one of those people, or by virtue of my position as the director of the National Library of Medicine, I am a good stand-in for one. I was invited to speak to the graduates of the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University.
It’s an extreme honor to be invited, of course, but what was I going to say?
A recent book, The Sixteenth Rail: The Evidence, the Scientist, and the Lindbergh Kidnapping by Adam Schrager, provided my jumping-off point. The book itself—a look at how Arthur Koehler, a wood forensics expert, helped capture the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby—is fascinating, but that expert’s personal story is what inspired me. His adherence to the scientific process and his willingness to serve made me think that in another incarnation he could have been a nurse or a librarian!
Koehler himself was inspired by the adage, “Go as far as you can see, and then see how far you can go.” When I read that, I knew I had the beginnings of my commencement address.
And so, to the new graduates, particularly those in the helping professions, I offer these comments.
Our work is action focused. No one gets to be a good nurse or a good librarian simply by watching. And yet we must often take the initiative to make clear to others where and how we can be of service. The moments where a nurse or a librarian may be of assistance might not even be recognized by the person in need, who may be baffled by a problem, worried about some health concern, or just overwhelmed into inactivity.
As a dictum, “go” also places control of your career solely in your hands—a reminder that as skilled and educated professionals we have the freedom to direct our efforts and shape our futures.
As far as you can see.
At graduation, each graduate has his or her eyes on a unique horizon. For some it may be the start of graduate school in a few months. For others, it’s a new job in a new city. Still others may see family, volunteer service, or travel.
Pay attention to what you see and to what you see along the way. And for those in the helping professions, pay attention as well to how you see those who need your service. What do you notice about them—appearance, action, behavior? Cultivate your curiosity but always maintain your respect. See others the way you’d like them to see you—your strengths, your good will, your desires.
Use that input and that knowledge to guide your movements, to go forth purposefully, and to be fully engaged in whatever pursuits you deem important. But remember, even as you enter this phase of life, “as far as you can see” is nowhere as far as you can actually—and are likely—to go.
Once you get to that place— that as-far-as-you-can-see place—you will be a new you, with new confidence, new ideas, new desires, new lenses, new frameworks, and new goals. You will then have a new platform to launch into whatever is about to happen next.
See how far you can go.
As you stand in that new place, pause, look around, and don’t forget to glance backwards—even briefly. Your future isn’t defined by your past, but your past is what prepared you for it.
Take stock of what you need with you in that future—friends, finances, humility, humor, knowledge. And what you don’t have, build, acquire, borrow, or buy, so you’ll be ready for the next part of the journey.
Because the beauty of the journey is that there is always a new horizon to see, to move toward, and then to move on from.
How far will you go?