Keynote address from the Service of Celebration at the College of William and Mary on May 11, 2013.

We gather here today, at this auspicious time and place, for the Service of Celebration, an annual multifaith Commencement ceremony that reflects the pluralistic DNA of the College of William and Mary. For it is right here at the College of William and Mary that students from 49 states and 53 countries, representing all the major religious traditions of the world, meet and grow with one other. And it is right here at the College of William and Mary that new religious communities and spiritual commitments emerge and flourish, as students transform the world by transforming themselves.

To the graduating students of the College of William and Mary — you embody all of the positive attributes of your generation, the millennial generation, or as I call you, the post-Thriller generation. In terms of your religiosity, you are very comfortable learning from each others’ faith traditions in a way that strengthens your own, and you have already pioneered new methods, practices and programs promoting interfaith dialogue, interspiritual engagement and interreligious reconciliation. More than any other generation in American history, you are more likely to make your faith part of the solution to the world’s great crises, and not part of the problem.

In addition to your commitment to religious pluralism and interfaith engagement, you also represent a new spiritual consciousness. More than one third of you are not formally affiliated with any religious tradition at all. And more than two thirds of you describe yourselves as more spiritual than religious. So among your generation, there is a movement away from institutional religion toward individual spirituality.

Yours is the first generation in American history to list meaning and purpose as one of the top things you are looking for in your career. You’re looking to connect the personal and the professional in your life, as well as the spiritual and the scholarly. You’ll probably earn multiple degrees and have multiple career arcs, and you’ll think deeply about how the work you do contributes to the greater good. Throughout your life’s journey, your success will ultimately depend upon how you answer a single question that epitomizes your generation, a question that is spiritual at its core, and that question is: How do I live an authentic life?

So today, I want to share five lessons that I have learned on my life’s journey about authenticity, meaning and purpose, and how to discover what really matters to you and why.

1. Ask yourself the ultimate questions in your life.

This is the best time in your life to ask yourself the ultimate questions, the enduring questions that make us human, questions such as: Who am I? What is my purpose? What is important to me? How do I live an authentic life?

These are the questions that I asked myself when I graduated from college. Looking for answers, I set off on a spiritual odyssey across Asia, from the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet to the Gangetic plains in India, from archaeological sites in Cambodia and Indonesia to temples and monasteries in Sri Lanka and Japan. At the end of my globetrotting, I came to the startling realization that no matter how far I had traveled and how much I had seen, my real journey was a pilgrimage inward, deep inside myself to find myself. Years later, my mentor at Harvard echoed a similar sentiment: His whole life he wanted to become an astronaut and go where no human had gone before, but he dropped out of the US Air Force Academy when he realized that he could leave this planet but he could never leave his own mind, and that the real adventure was the lifelong journey to find himself.

By asking the ultimate questions in your life, you begin the lifelong journey inward, a journey of reflection, contemplation and introspection. This process of self-discovery will empower you to define what authenticity means for you, and you’ll soon discover that asking the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose in your life is as important as finding the answers.

2. Embrace what makes you different.

What makes you different is what makes you special. If you are able to bring together your talents and interests in a way that only you can, you will offer a unique skill set and value add to the world. And by bringing together disparate elements of your life into a single focus, you will maximize your potential for creativity and innovation. That is because innovation doesn’t happen at the center, but at the margins. It happens when the poet does physics, and when the physicist writes poetry. In your life, innovation will happen when you take a perspective from one aspect of your life and apply it to another area, when you realize that your weaknesses are actually your strengths, and when you bring together your gifts and talents in a way that is uniquely you.

3. Think of failure as success.

You are about to graduate from the “alma mater of our nation” because you have succeeded at a very high rate throughout your life. You’ve been successful as students and leaders, as artists and athletes, and so you have a natural aversion to failure. But ultimately in your life, you will learn more about yourself from failure than from success, because that’s where evolution and growth happens.

I’ve been a die-hard fan of the Los Angeles Clippers for more than 20 years now, so I know a lot about failure and the suffering that arises from it — especially this year, which was supposed to finally be our year! But even as a Clippers fan, I’ve always admired Michael Jordan’s understanding of success as a necessary function of failure. Jordan famously said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

People generally fail and succeed at the same rate. That means that those who succeed more also fail more, because they are more willing to fail and they welcome each failure as a moment of learning and opportunity. So from a contrarian’s perspective, if you are truly invested in your success, you should aspire to increase your fail rate, because the more you fail, the more you succeed.

4. Understand causality in your life.

Causality is at the heart of every scientific and philosophical system, and every religious and spiritual tradition. It is both the Butterfly Effect and the Golden Rule. Causality is Newtonian: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Causality is biblical: You shall reap what you sow. Causality is philosophical: It is karma, it is cause and effect. Causality is biological: It is planting a seed and watching it grow.

From a spiritual perspective, such seeds are not only physical but also metaphysical. If you plant the seeds of positivity and possibility in your mind, that is how you will see the world around you. But if you plant the seeds of doubt and despair, your worldview will be tainted accordingly. Ultimately, the law of causality ensures that your thoughts will eventually become things, so be conscientious in how you cultivate and nurture your thoughts.

5. Tell new stories about yourself and your world.

For decades, scholars have debated the impact of nature vs. nurture in personal identity formation. The question is usually framed through the lens of biology vs. sociology: Are you a product of your genes or your upbringing?

But there is a third component of personal identity formation that is often neglected, and that is narrative. Whereas you don’t have control over nature or nurture in your life, you are the author of your life’s narrative. Indeed, your life is a story that you tell to yourself about yourself. So if you want to change something about your life, then tell a new story.

According to the great scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, we are all heroes in the journey that is our life. We all have obstacles to overcome and dragons to slay, our path is often treacherous and challenging, and our destination is not always clear. But ultimately, the adventure of the hero is the adventure of being alive. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

“If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else. … The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

I now ask the graduating students of the College of William and Mary to please rise.

To the graduating students — your generation is the most multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith, multidisciplinary generation in human history. You are technologically savvy, intellectually curious, spiritually evolved, globally connected, civically engaged, socially conscious and wise beyond your years. You are innovative and creative, positive about the future, ready to tell new stories and prepared to solve new problems. As you walk your path with passion and purpose, and as you find your place and way in a rapidly changing world, may you embrace the words of the great American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, who said:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

To the new graduates of the College of William and Mary — may you go in peace and prosperity, may you go with blessing and inspiration, may you keep the faith, and may we all say together Amen.

This article originally appeared on

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  • Varun Soni

    Dean of Religious Life at USC

    Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California, where he also serves as Vice Provost of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention and University Fellow at the Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy, and where he teaches courses in the School of Religion and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. A prolific public speaker and scholar of religions, his work has been featured in a number of news outlets and publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, Los Angeles Times, LA WeeklyNPR, Washington Post, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. He also serves as an adviser for a number of studios and media companies, including Showtime, ESPN, CW Network, Oprah Winfrey Network, Religion of Sports, and the video game company Naughty Dog. He holds degrees in religion from Tufts University, Harvard University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Cape Town, as well as a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.