Lincoln School – Commencement Speech

Commencement Speech by Kul Chandra Gautam

Lincoln School, Kathmandu, Nepal, 11 June, 2008

Thank you

for the kind introduction, and the honour to speak to this talented class of 2008.

Your invitation to give this commencement speech came as a total surprise to me.

Until now, I had very little contact with Lincoln School.

In my own childhood, as I grew up in the hills of Western Nepal and went to very ordinary public schools, I could not have imagined even the existence of a well-endowed school like Lincoln School.

In my work with UNICEF and the United Nations, I was heavily involved in education programmes around the world, but the schools we dealt with were generally in very poor, rural communities of developing countries.

We dreamed about upgrading the physical facilities and quality of education for the children of the poor to standards comparable to those of Lincoln School. But that was a dream for the distant future.

I did have one very special personal connection with Lincoln School. In the mid-1980s, I was working for UNICEF in Port-au-Prince, Haiti – the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. We had a major revolution there leading to the overthrow of a terrible dictator named Baby Doc Duvalier.

In the upheaval and chaos of the revolution, I had to evacuate my two children back to Nepal. And Lincoln School was kind enough to enroll them. So my daughter Jyotsna and son Biplav attended this wonderful school for half a year in 1986.

Both my children have very fond memories of their short stay at Lincoln School. But until now, I have never had an opportunity to visit the school and to thank the school community for your help with my children’s education in the middle of a distant crisis.

So I take this occasion to express my gratitude to Lincoln School, rather late, but with utmost sincerity.

Today, I join others to warmly congratulate the graduating class of 2008.

I had a chance to look at the list of your senior class project s. Wow; these were so very impressive in both the breadth and depth of the topics selected.

They ranged from the use of body language, martial arts, sports and music for personal development; to issues dealing with orphans, street children and old age homes in Nepal; and from your concern for stray dogs and animals in Kathmandu’s zoo to your empathy for victims of domestic violence, human rights abuses and casualties of Nepal’s cruel civil war.

And then you had these fascinating topics ranging from how happiness and sorrow are expressed in Korean traditional music, to how dance and music concerts can be used to inspire humanitarian action; and finally, the sublime, uplifting thoughts about how the teachings of Buddhism can be harnessed to promote peace in the world.

Well, I can easily imagine that a class with such interest, imagination, creativity and commitment is destined to go a long way.

I know you will all make your parents, teachers and the rest of the school community very proud indeed.

Congratulations, again.

Dear Seniors, today you are reaching a momentous milestone in your lives. You are not only graduating from a wonderful high school, you are also graduating from a sheltered life in your families, to the exciting independence of college life.

But you will soon discover that your independence has its limits. You will actually be only semi-independent in a very inter-dependent world.

With the march of globalization, we all live in a small, shrinking village. With climate change, global warming and other environmental phenomena, your destinies are going to be tied with the destinies of so many other people, unknown to you – near and far, rich and poor – with whom we are all going to sink or swim together.

Those of us who grew up in the 20th century were amazed at the breathtaking changes that took place in our lifetime – in science and technology, in transport and communications, in health and education, in the spread of democracy and human rights, and institutions of global governance like the United Nations.

Well, the pace of change is still quickening, and you can expect the 21st century – your century – to usher such amazing changes that the generation of your parents would find it simply unimaginable.

Things that we consider sacred and unchangeable today, will change. For example, will the United States of America still be a leading super power at the end of this century? Don’t bet on it.

Today we have about 200 independent countries in the world. How many such countries will be there in the year 2100? Might there be 1000 states or just a hundred super-states? Anything is possible.

Indeed, will the concept of sovereign nation-states still be relevant? Don’t be so sure.

There is a saying that the revolutionary ideas of one generation become the common sense of the next generation, and perhaps totally outdated during the following generation.

Consider this. Your school is named after Abraham Lincoln. He was a progressive, revolutionary leader during his time and fought for the abolition of slavery.

How do you think he would react to Barack Obama being anointed as a Presidential candidate today? You know, he would probably be shocked and dismayed.

Lincoln spoke eloquently about human rights and human dignity, and was way ahead of his times in advocating for the freedom of the slaves. But if you read his speeches and writings, you will find him to be quite a racist and sexist by today’s standards.

It was unthinkable even for a progressive leader like Lincoln to contemplate voting rights for blacks and women in his times, not to imagine them taking leadership positions.

Similarly some of the changes you will experience in your adulthood are likely to be unimaginable to people of your parents’ generation – even to those of us who consider ourselves well-educated, open-minded and progressive.

So, please be kind to your elders. They maybe a little slow to adapt, but you know they are full of goodwill for you. And never under-estimate how much your parents want you to succeed, even in a world that they may not fully comprehend.

Well, dear class of 2008:

While there will be many unpredictable and breathtaking changes in the world, certain elements of human nature have not changed since the beginning of human history, and are unlikely to change even in your life-time.

There are 2 sets of such seemingly unchangeable human traits that ancient Hindu scholars had identified.

First, in our personal lives, all of us as human beings seem to be subject to: kaama, krodha, lobha, moha (lust, anger, greed and passion).

And second, in our governance – politics and diplomacy, for example: saama, daana, danda, bheda (reciprocity, generosity, retribution and favouritism).

I am sorry I do not have the time to elaborate on these very profound concepts. But I can assure you that if you think deeply about them, these attributes encapsulate the innate nature of humanity.

So since you are going to be faced with these contrasting phenomena of an ever-changing world on the one hand, and never changing nature of human beings on the other hand, how do you carve out the path to your success?

This is a question I have myself been asked often. People ask me, Mr. Gautam, how did you manage to go from a small, isolated village of largely illiterate people in the mountains of Nepal to become a senior official at the United Nations? What is the secret of your success?

I tell them that there actually is no secret, and there is no magic formula for success in life. Every individual finds his or her own unique trajectory for success.

In my own case, it was a combination of good luck, hard work, and a few strategic decisions I made along the way.

Good luck is beyond your control (although the blessings of your parents and their merit counts heavily), and hard work is something that I know most of you are accustomed to.

So let me share with you some strategic advice on the choices and decisions you can make, based on my own experience, and that of many others, which might be helpful to you.

I call them the 5 golden rules for success:

1. First, find a silver lining in every dark cloud:

The world is so full of misery, injustice and hatred. It is easy to be discouraged. But you know, in all such situations, you can always find some glimmer of hope, against all odds, and make your mark.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Think positively, search for that silver lining. I can assure you that you will find it, and it will energize you enormously.

2. Second, Take a longer-term view of life:

In the day to day life of a person or an institution or a country, there are always things that go wrong and upset you. Let that not weigh you down.

If you persist and persevere, even against great odds, chances are that things will eventually work out for the better.

Similarly, don’t be impatient or greedy or tempted to fall for short-term gains or instant gratification. Go for things that are of lasting value, that you will feel proud of over the long haul.

This principle has served me well in both my personal and professional life, and I bet it will serve you well as well.

3. Third, Do the unexpected:

I have found it both personally and professionally rewarding to do things that surprise people, in a positive way.

We all tend to do things that our family, society, colleagues expect us to do – and do them well. That is only normal and natural.

But if you want to shine and be noticed, sometimes it is good to do things that people don’t naturally expect you to do.

The satisfaction you will get, the pride you will feel, the recognition you will enjoy by doing the unexpected are of a completely different, energizing nature than doing what everyone expects you to do well.

4. Fourth: Always go beyond the call of duty:

In every job and most assignments I have undertaken, I ask myself what my boss or my colleagues would expect me to do if I were to be seen as a high performer.

Then, I tell myself, let me do something beyond that.

I advise you too to volunteer to do things that are not in your normal job description or in your course syllabus. Don’t say, that is not my job. Try to contribute ideas in areas beyond your department’s work.

Of course, this means working much longer hours than normal, working on weekends and holidays, cutting down on vacation time.

Yes, some of these can lead to bad habits and may be unhealthy. Watch it, and don’t overdo it.

But if you do extra work not out of any compulsion, but voluntarily and joyfully, you will note that going beyond the call of duty is the true mark of rising stars.

5. Fifth and finally, Never forget where you came from:

For someone like me who came from a very humble background, it was always helpful to remember my roots, where I came from, whenever I felt a little disappointed that I did not always get what I desired or deserved.

I reminded myself, and my children, that virtually everybody in my village – and in thousands of villages in developing countries – would feel privileged to have the kinds of problems, the little inconveniences and discomforts that we often complain about.

Now, I know many of you come from a fairly privileged background. But ask your parents and they will tell you the hardships and sacrifices they or their parents went through. Remind yourself of such hardships to overcome your frustrations.

There are 6.5 billion people in the world. And believe it or not, you are luckier than at least 5 billion of those people. Half of this world’s people still live in communities where there are no roads, no electricity, no telephone, no television, and of course, no internet – all things that you take for granted.

So whenever you feel disappointed, because you did not get the grade you deserved, the job you wanted, the latest gadget you desired, or could not go on a holiday that your neighbours enjoyed, please remind yourself how lucky you still are compared to the 5 billion people who are less fortunate than you are.

In recalling your roots, especially for those of you who are not Nepalis, I hope that you will remember your time at Lincoln School in Kathmandu with much pride and fondness.

You were here at a very special time – when Nepal went through a terrible civil war, an exciting people’s movement, historic elections and transformation from a monarchy to a republic. Few people have an opportunity to experience such momentous changes in a very short time.

Cherish these memories. Consider Nepal your adopted country; your second home. Keep in touch, and come back to Nepal from time to time.

And while you are away in your colleges, introduce Nepal to your friends and faculty. Undertake some Nepal-related research. I will bet your friends will be impressed with your stories from Nepal.

This country may not be quite Shangri-La, but it is destined to rise and prosper. And you, dear Seniors, from wherever you are in this inter-connected world, you can all partake in your Nepali friends’ dream to build it into a country that we hope will soon be sundara, shaanta, bishaal (lovely, peaceful and grand).

Thank you.

And congratulations, again.

(Mr. Gautam, a citizen of Nepal, is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF)