A Dean’s 2024 Commencement Address To MBAs

Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley

Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley poses with MBA and EMBA graduates after his commencement address

Ever since becoming dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in 2015, Scott Beardsley has delivered the commencement address at graduation. He typically locks himself away during the Christmas holidays for a period of reflection and writing to compose the words he will say five months later in May.

On Saturday (May 18), Beardsley did it again, delivering an exceptional thoughtful commencement address to the roughly 450 graduating MBA and Executive MBA students on the Darden campus. Referencing a wide variety of thinkers from Abraham Maslow to Charles Dickens, Beardsley encourages the Class of 2024 to recognize and harness their potential. He likens each graduate to a statue within a block of stone, waiting to be revealed. It highlights the common struggle among high achievers who often feel inadequate despite their accomplishments, emphasizing the harmful habit of focusing on gaps—where they are versus where they think they should be.

The dean offers solutions such as avoiding hasty judgments, leveraging personal strengths, practicing gratitude, prioritizing self-investment, setting meaningful goals, adopting a continuous learning mindset, and choosing optimism. The message centers on self-discovery, resilience, and the power of a positive outlook to overcome challenges and achieve self-actualization. The ultimate takeaway is to place ‘HOPE’—Happiness, Optimism, Purpose, Excellence—at the core of one’s life to navigate post-graduation challenges and contribute positively to society.

Dean Scott Beardsley’s address:

Michelangelo is often quoted as saying something like, “every block of stone has a statue inside and the task of the sculptor is to discover it”. Applied to life, it is a metaphor that challenges each of you to find your potential in life; what Maslow would call your self-actualization.

Class of 2024, you each have a beautiful, amazing statue inside. It is your unique excellence and effort that got you into and through Darden. Yet, can you see it? Do you see and feel your potential, your gifts?

Or is it sometimes like in Snow White: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” The mirror replies: “there is one who is fairer than thee”. Or on a bad day: “certainly not you, you are an imposter”.

At Darden, I get to work with many incredible people, including all of you. A mystery I have been puzzling over for many years is how talented and successful people can feel inadequate and stressed to the point of anxiety and/or depression. Covid took this to new levels. From the outside, everyone assumes high achievers are doing great. But, sometimes, inside they are not.

How can this be so?

Part of the answer I found on the London Underground. As I boarded the tube, a voice boomed,
“Mind the Gap”. And I started thinking. The gap…the gap?

Talented people with high standards of excellence are very good at diagnosing the gap. How far you are away from a goal, how many problems you got wrong on a test, what your development needs are, what your inadequacies are, how much more money someone else has, what you could have done and should have done but didn’t. It’s common for high achievers to focus on the gap: where you think you are, versus where you think you ought to be and what that means.

Some people suffer from hubris and overestimate the starting point. Yet, the trouble for many is they measure the gap with others versus rising expectations. In a world of 8.5 billion people, social comparison is the norm. “I thought my vacation was great until I looked online and saw how much more epic someone else’s was.” “I thought I was a fast writer until I met Chat GPT”.

The comparison gap influences our perception of our own progress, even if objectively we have improved a lot. When expectations rise faster than our perceived progress, we risk feeling inadequate or unsatisfied, even though we are improving. As the points of comparison move, so do the goal posts.

On the flip side, we all experience moments of exhilaration like meeting someone special, learning to ride a bike or mastering a new skill. We feel progress and self-improvement, positive energy surges and possibilities seem endless.

An internal struggle can emerge. Positive versus negative. Self-worth versus self-doubt. Possibility versus despair. I have experienced this. How do we win the tug of war? I am going to provide several ways to think about it.

First, stop leaping to judgment. Philosopher David Hume famously wrote that we cannot draw moral prescriptive conclusions from normative factual descriptions; what “ought to be’ from what “is”. We draw conclusions about ourselves as a good or bad person based on a single fact or limited facts all the time. This is called Hume’s fork (Lennox). It goes like this: you secured the job (or didn’t); you performed at work (or didn’t); you gained financial assets (or didn’t);you are liked by someone (or not). “But you ought to have been better.” This is a category mistake (Lennox). What ‘ought to be’ focuses attention on the gap versus expectations, inadequacies, and injustices, negative self-talk, regret and even anxiety from never meeting your prescriptive standards.

Second, Focus Not on AI, but I. According to James Manyika of Google, Artificial Intelligence is “any system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of achieving its goals” (Manyika p. 14). Self-Intelligence or what I call “I” (I squared if you will for ‘I’ Intelligence)-a version of the Greek’s Delphic Temple “know thyself”- is a system to learn how to learn, increase intelligence, and achieve individual goals. We must start by understanding ourselves and our strengths. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, focus on and appreciate your unique strengths, values and virtues. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, calls these signature strengths. What makes you, you. In the world of AI, building intelligence about how you as a human learn and feel-and improve your well-being- matters.

Third, Practice Gratitude. Cicero called gratitude the mother of all virtues. I believe that gratitude is a partial antidote to envy and social comparison and increases well-being. Each one of you are special and able to make a difference in this world. Believe in yourself and build conviction for this belief by understanding your excellence and strengths and exercising gratitude for what is going right, and all those who help you along your journey. A bonus comes from bringing it out in others.

Fourth, remember your most important investment is in you and your well-being. Many of you came to B-school for a “return on investment”. This is understandable; an elite graduate business education is expensive. But how should you calculate ROI over your lifetime? I have come to believe that in an objective function for your life, the letter “I” in your personal ROI is a ‘return on I’ (meaning yourself); your self-conception created by your Intelligence. The return currency is well-being and fulfillment; and the system-your intelligence-is how to maximize it. Life’s conceptual equation is both objective and subjective, very personal, iterative, and recursive. In effect, it is the goal of the goals. Yet many have objective functions with a different currency, and singularly pursue a goal with no guard rails or boundary constraints.

In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Literature is replete with examples. One of my favorites is Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations”. His character Pip seeks to overcome his very humble beginnings. He becomes a social climber but learns along the way that moral and personal growth, self-forgiveness and values matter as much as status and material wealth.

Fifth, have goals. Since first grade, I have been goal driven. My Dad tells me it all started when my first-grade teacher Mrs. Pigeon forced me to sit part of the year in the corner with my nose to the wall because I had too much energy, tried to answer too many questions, and had ADD. I concluded that to get out of the corner and stop the teasing I needed to prove I was a top student. Thus began a life full of goals. Looking back, I feel truly lucky because I was able to channel my substantial energy productively instead of getting into trouble. Goals saved me and I learned they need to be explicit not implicit.

Many things I have learned about goals over time are counterintuitive. Sometimes I would achieve something and feel no joy and wonder if it was worth it. Once I was asked to draw an intuitive chart with one y-axis being my well-being and another y-axis as my achievement and performance over time. They were not always well correlated. Goals that included root sources of well-being, like playing tennis/health, being with my family/relationships, and learning did work, and gave me the energy and drive to achieve other things. To win the internal struggle, thoughtfully develop the right goals for yourself.

Sixth, Adopt a Lifelong Learning Mindset. The Japanese call this mindset of continuous improvement Kaizen, and it is used often in production environments. To amplify well-being, I combine Kaizen with Bayes Theorem, which updates our thinking with new evidence from learning. Together they allow us to improve ourselves-our “I”- and seek continuous improvement. Trial and error. Autonomous, recursive self-learning-exactly what many are afraid of in AI- is good for you. Or as one of Darden’s most incredible alumni David Walentas puts it “no guts, no glory”. Sometimes it will work sometimes it won’t. When it doesn’t, forgive yourself versus judging yourself, learn what you can, and move on.

Observe what you have, what is improving, and the rate of improvement-your acceleration is your rate of improvement on ROI-more than what the normative “gap” is. When you see a gap, think of it as the amount of opportunity left to improve rather than a deficit.

Finally choose optimism and hope over pessimism. Stepping back, and looking at our world, I see the problems: wars, shootings, pandemics, inflation, individual struggles, inequality, global warming, social and political tensions, etc. Doom scrolling, feelings that life is not fair, despair. Each of you have your own story and challenges. They are real. I feel the uncertainty of AI and synthetic biology and hear the siren calls of a nihilistic, bleak future.

And yet, despite or perhaps because of the pessimism, I am paradoxically optimistic. I choose to be optimistic.

I am optimistic because…

I believe problems and crises create silver linings
I believe that love and kindness triumph over hate
I believe that excellence flows from effort and lifelong learning
I believe in the certainty of uncertainty and the gift of life’s serendipity
I believe in individual freedom and autonomy to determine mindset
I believe in purpose and the power of serving something bigger than ourselves, with integrity I believe it’s ok to dream of a better tomorrow, without entitlement or expectation

I am optimistic because I have hope. And I have hope because I am optimistic.

I have hope because I believe in life’s possibilities.
I have hope because humans need hope for well-being.
I have hope because it is better than the alternative.
I have hope because I believe in you. I see you on this wonderful day.
I have hope that you will believe in yourself the way I believe in you.
I have hope because you are the future responsible leaders Darden has prepared you to be.

Each of you is a special person with beautiful gifts to bring the world. You are each a magnum opus sculpture in process, and you are the sculptor.

Today, on this special beautiful day, celebrating you, I wish you HOPE; in capital letters. A special kind of hope.

H for a life pursued for happiness and well-being.
O for an optimistic life, where you can see your strengths and potential and accept with gratitude where you are and forgiveness for what might have been.
P for purposeful goals pursued with grit, determination, and meaning. And
E for excellence, with high standards and integrity in all you do to self-actualize.

Happy. Optimistic. Purposeful. Excellence.

In short, I have hope that you will place HOPE in your life.

Darden has equipped you with the ability to ask and answer almost any question. The world needs your leadership. Go forward with confidence, and joy as you answer life’s questions and make our world a better place. Congratulations Class of 2024! You are ready!

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References

Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation”
Thomas Bayes, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence
The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman
AI & Society, Spring 2022 James Manyika
David Poole, Alan Mackworth, and Randy Goebel, Computational Intelligence: A Logical Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
John Lennox Gunning for God
Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-being
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Brothers Grimm, Snow White

DON’T MISS: MEET UVA DARDEN’S MBA CLASS OF 2024 or MEET UVA DARDEN’S MBA CLASS OF 2025

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