2019 Ouachita Commencement address
Lives of Meaningful WorkMay 15, 2019 - Ben R. Sells
Class of 2019 – congratulations! We are proud of you! I’m proud of you!
At the beginning of the academic year, I used my Convocation address to help us initiate a university-wide conversation on our theme, “Lives of Meaningful Work.” It’s a phrase from our mission statement. It speaks to one of Ouachita’s desired outcomes for graduates: that you will be prepared for lives of meaningful work.
It’s also a topic of national attention. For example, recently the Gallup Organization released a report entitled “The Future of Work.” It highlighted a decade-long study surveying 2 million employees. Their research focused on how engaged employees were in their work, and that was a sign of how meaningful their work feels to them.
The Gallup president stated this about the study: it was “the single most profound, distinct, and clarifying finding in its 80-year history.” What did they learn that was so astonishing, and more importantly, relevant to you, our 2019 graduates? Gallup found that only one-third of Americans feel they are doing meaningful work, that their work matters.
So, should you be concerned or pessimistic about what awaits you on Monday and beyond? On this happy morning, I’m happy to tell you that you should not be pessimistic. As a Ouachita graduate, you have every reason to be optimistic that a life of meaningful work awaits you because of what you’ve experienced at Ouachita, and because of what you can do.
Your experience here gives you reason to be the most optimistic of the more than 1 million-plus people receiving undergraduate degrees this month. Why is this? It’s because the Gallup Organization also discovered that employees who feel their work matters and is meaningful were those who reported two particular experiences in college.
First, “they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning, and cared about them as a person.” The second was the opportunity to engage in experiential and deep learning where they were “able to apply what they were learning in the classroom.” Those who reported enjoying these benefits in their college years were twice as likely to say, “I’m thriving.”
You’ve had untold opportunities to develop relationships with faculty, staff and coaches. Stop for a moment and think of someone on this campus who made you excited to learn and who cared about you. Get his or her name in your mind. He or she spent focused time with you, believed in you – invested in you.
Furthermore, they extended themselves to enrich your learning by creating opportunities inside as well as outside the classroom for hands-on learning. This has better prepared you for work or graduate school – it’s better prepared you to lead a life of worthy faith, hope and love through your contributions in whatever place or settings you choose. And those people are here today to celebrate your growth, your development and your success as a final gesture of support as this chapter in your life comes to a close.
So let us, then, not lose this point. They – faculty, staff and coaches – made their
work more meaningful for themselves – and for you – by investing more of themselves
in you. You made your time more meaningful by investing your hope, your faith and
your energy in them – and in your belief in your future.
So you see, meaningful work is not only what an employer gives to us but what we discover in the dedication and human decency that we bring to every task. I think meaning accrues like a savings account for our ongoing benefit when we pour out our best efforts into every hour and every day that God gives us.
That’s what your Ouachita education and experience have given you, and what you’ve achieved through your diligence: a foundation from which you can begin your quest to find meaning in your work in all the God-honoring roles and careers that await you. But this is a foundation to build upon, not rest upon.
As a Ouachita graduate, you also have every reason to be optimistic that a life of meaningful work awaits you because of what you can do. In my own journey this year, I read again the Book of Psalms. It’s the longest book in the Bible with 40,000 words, and it reflects on every possible human experience. From the passages I underlined and the notes I made, I want to share three insights that I hope will help you experience a life of meaningful work. They are: know God, be humble and do good.
While the recommendation to “know God” seems obvious in this place, Psalms tells us (106:13) that the people of God often forget God and what He has done for them, especially when they experience success. And this is important because so much success awaits you.
The Psalms remind us that powerful forces can compete for our attention, and the loyalty is due to God. However, the Psalms also proclaim that the God we love and honor at Ouachita is greater than all gods (135:5) and that none can compare with God (40:5).
Even better, declares the Psalms, this God who made you (139:13), wants to be known by you (111), loves you (136), watches over you (121:3), will be near to you when you call on Him (145:18), is your salvation (118:14), is for you (124:8) and so much more.
Amidst all the hopes, and maybe even the fears, that accompany this next step in your journey, we’re reminded from the Psalms when we know God, we don’t have to be afraid (118:6) and that our deepest longings will only be fulfilled when we know Him (112:10).
To have a life of meaningful work, surely the Psalms remind us that we must begin each day of our personal and professional lives – seeking to know God.
Graduates, this is your day and you should rightly be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Today is big. It’s significant. Soak up every moment of the joy and celebration. On this day, I think you also know that you didn’t do it alone. Parents have sacrificed, faculty and staff have served and alumni have given on your behalf.
As a Christian university, we acknowledge that God has worked in you and through others to fulfill the promise of this day. Because the Lord has been at work, the Psalms tell us your labor has not been in vain (127:1). This day, and all it represents, is a gift from God.
This awareness humbles us. The human tendency is toward the self-centered. But the story of scripture and the life of Christ shows us that it’s in becoming self-forgetful that we truly experience life. Indeed, the Psalms tell us God saves and sustains the humble (18:27, 147:6).
It’s interesting that sources beyond scripture confirm the importance of humility. Jim Collins’ best-selling book, “Good to Great,” discovered two characteristics of effective leaders of great organizations. The first trait was unsurprising: effective leaders are often strong-willed people. The second trait, however, was very surprising: effective leaders possessed personal humility.
Truly effective leaders, and you will be among them, are humble. To find a life of meaningful work, I encourage you: be humble.
As I read the Psalms, I was stirred again and again of God’s heart for the “least of these.” I particularly underlined Psalms 37:27, which captures it by declaring: “do good.” Over and over, we are admonished to do good by helping people who have been marginalized – marginalized spiritually, physically, socially and in many more ways.
The Psalms call us to remember that there is much that’s wrong in the world. However, the good news is God will one day make it right, and this is often accomplished by working through us for the benefit of others. The Psalms declare blessed are those who act justly and always do what is right (106:3).
To have a life of meaningful work, indeed to have a meaningful life: know God, be humble, and do good.
It’s my privilege to address you for the last time as students and for the first time as alumni. You have every reason to be optimistic that a life of meaningful work awaits you because of what you’ve experienced at Ouachita, and because of what you can do.
Finally, my prayer for you is taken from a passage in thinking about you and this day, Psalm 20:4. “May God give you the desire of your heart, and make all your plans succeed.”
Class of 2019, I’m excited about all that God will do in and through you in the coming years.
Walker, Sam. “One Fix for All That’s Wrong: Better Managers.” Wall Street Journal, 3 March 2019, p. B1-2.
Ray, Julie and Marken, Stephanie. "Life in College Matters for Life After College." Gallup, 6 May 2014. https://news.gallup.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx
New International Version Bible, Book of Psalms.
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... And Others Don't. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001.
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