“Don’t Trust the Cricket!”, State University of West Georgia Commencement address

Commencement Address
State University of West Georgia
May 9, 2001

Donít Trust the Cricket!

Richard N. Zare

I appear before you dressed in this rather curious and uncomfortable garb to participate in the traditional celebration of graduation, an ancient rite of academic passage.  One of its many rituals is that someone dispenses advice to the graduates.  At your presidentís request, here I am!  Nor will I disappoint you. I have brought with me three pieces of advice, which I freely give you now:

To begin, Walt Disney got it all wrong!  Jiminy Cricket sings:

When you wish upon a star,
Does not matter who you are.
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

Alas, wishing a thing does not make it so. But this much I can tell you: without a dream, little can be realized — little can get accomplished.  Therefore, my first piece of advice to you is to dream great thoughts and make great plans.  Build splendid sand castles ­ the foundations will follow.

You may be surprised to learn that solving important problems takes about as much time and effort as solving unimportant ones. So do think carefully about which causes or issues or problems you are devoting your precious time to, consciously or unconsciously. I know this from personal experience. For example, I have spent untold hours researching some fine points of how molecules wiggle and jiggle, when the same time and intellectual effort could have been spent developing a deeper understanding of how molecules come together, embrace each other, and in this intimate act make new bonds and break old ones to form reaction products.  In my private life too, in relationships with people, I learned this lesson, having confused the unimportant with the important.  Just ask my wife and three daughters.

Second, when all is said and done, more is said than done! Therefore, my second piece of advice to you is to be a doer.  Reflect on what has brought you here. Various milestones and achievements have already marked your way. Most of you have completed high school, applied to colleges, made the transition from being under your parentsí care to living on your own, become a contributing member of society, and completed the equivalence of four years of college.  All these accomplishments have required you to be a doer. You didnít get here by simply talking the talk, you also had to walk the walk.  Donít stop now.

One of the most important things for you to do is to keep friendships and make new ones. Building a friendship is not a passive activity. It requires you to act in the short term in a selfless manner in pursuit of long-term goals.  Good friends can make all the difference in helping you live a happy, successful life. A good friend is not only someone who admires what you do but also someone who will tell you when you have gone off the track.

Which brings me to my third piece of advice, about love. “What does this chemist know about love?” you might ask. Perhaps he can talk about the chemistry of sexual reproduction, or the chemistry of aging, or the chemistry of beer brewing and wine making– but love? Chemists know more about love than you might imagine.  My advice to you is never underestimate the power of love.  More gets done because of it than because of any other human emotion, including ambition.  You are graduating today because of the love shown you by others ­ your parents, friends, teachers ­ mentors and tormentors. To love you must begin by loving yourself. But donít stop there; that is too limiting. Love wisely, deeply, and often. With the power of love transform your dreams into action.  If you do what you love ­ professionally and in every other way ­ happiness and success will follow.

In closing, a word about success and failure, and their relative unimportance in living a fulfilling life. I have experienced the giddy heights of great success.  I have also experienced the black depths of abject failure.  I have found that what most matters is to have a dream, to do something that you believe in and to love it passionately. Do not fear failure.  Do not crave success.  If you ask for financial reward for what you do, for peer approval, or even for thanks from others, then you are asking to be paid for what you should be giving freely as an act of love.  The true reward is not in the result, it is in the process, not in the achievement but in the achieving.

So I say to you: Have a dream. Select something that you love — something that you value. Study it. Live it. Work at it. Work harder at it than you have ever worked before. Immerse yourself totally in it. In that immersion you will find happiness and contentment in a life truly well lived.

Class of 2001, my congratulations!