Lasting Connections

Head of School Kathy Giles addressed the Class of 2018 during the commencement ceremony on Monday, May 28.  Here are excerpts from her remarks:

Class of 2018, you have been invited to consider some important ideas this year. From the United States Constitution and impeachment to hot frogs, from the United Nations and diplomacy to chasing coral, from ground zero of the 1960s Civil Rights movement to issues of inclusivity and equity in current America, the invitation to get past your initial reaction – whether you “like” something or not – and, with your well-cultivated critical perspectives, consider substance as well has been constantly available to you, perhaps no more so than in the chapels seniors have given this year. If there has been a unifying theme to those talks, it has been the story of our struggles to be accepted – our desire to be acknowledged as individuals, and our sometimes competing needs both to be “different” and to be just like everyone else. In fact, “like” turns out to be a much more important word than anyone twenty years ago could possibly have imagined; it may turn out to be the “key” word of at least the first quarter of this 21st Century. People can build empires on the concept –notably your colleague in the Middlesex Alumni Association from the Class of 2002 – because being liked feels good, and for the most part we want to be liked, just like everyone else – in fact, the more liked we are, the better, in terms of having friends and influence and, maybe, even becoming an influencer. For those of us who came of age in the last century, being an “influencer” is indeed a Gen X concept.

What is an “influencer,” anyways? What does productivity look like for an “influencer”? What does satisfaction feel like – does being followed and “liked” that much make you like yourself more? Does it make you like other people more? Hard to tell. I do wish the influencers well – they seem analogous to the California surfer dudes of my generation, riding the wave, playing on the beach, and looking good. And indeed, they fill an appetite and obviously find an audience. There is something irresistible about wanting to ride that wave, play on that beach, and look that good. So much of human experience is about looking good, being liked and accepted, feeling that one counts and has influence over others — feeling connected. It’s a truth universally acknowledged — from Romeo and Juliet to Blanche DuBois to Mrs. Bennett to Hamlet (well, maybe Hamlet had other problems), the issues you have highlighted in your chapels about trying to figure yourselves out against the backdrop of others’ definitions and expectations – their likes and dislikes — are the issues not only of being in high school but now, of life. What’s interesting, in the invitation offered by all of these characters and more, is to figure out why getting beyond likes and dislikes – the pride and prejudices? – is so important, and why tragedy results in mythology, literature, and life when one fails to get beyond that need to look good and be liked and admired.

In addition to literature and mythology, there is a growing body of data on this issue, with researchers from all bands of the social science spectrum weighing in on the rise of anxiety, isolation, and depression – certainly among kids and teenagers, but also more broadly among adults. This is your zone – you are indeed that first generation living with the quest for “likes” all the way from childhood into young adulthood, and that world is yours. In January, the Washington Post ran an article on the topic that begins, “In recent months, Silicon Valley executives have been speaking out about the potentially addictive designs of smartphones and social media, which make them hard to put down for anyone, but particularly for teenagers. Now, a new report puts numbers to the warnings by tying a sudden and large drop in adolescents’ happiness with the proliferation of smartphones and finding that the more hours a day teens spend in front of screens, the less satisfied they are. This study graphed correlations between happiness and screen activities and non-screen activities such as sports, in-person interactions, religious services, print media, and homework. For all non-screen activities, the correlation was positive; for the screen activities, it was uniformly negative.”[1]

There’s something old news about this new news, as if the studies are reminding us about what we already know. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that all of these “likes” doesn’t have much to do with actually being connected, and real connection is what we humans crave. “Likes” are the snacks; connections are the meals. Who doesn’t love a good snack? But we know that what we really need is that sustenance. A few years ago, a social scientist named Malcolm Gladwell wrote about connections and “connectors” in his 2002 book, The Tipping Point; he defines them as “an elite group of people so expert in cultivating connections that they are the reason the rest of us are connected, too.” Gladwell’s research shows that ideas and messages and attitudes spread among groups of people through interpersonal connections, and that connectors thus play critical roles in determining the outcomes for their groups – their classes, their teams, their families, their friends. Connectors may not have all the answers, all the time, but the bonds they create between people are meaningful and trustworthy, and other rely on them to feel included. You’ve been cultivating your skills as a connector, whether you’ve been entirely aware of them during those senior leadership meetings or not, and they will set you apart as you take your next steps because you will be the people who build, who include, and who lead.

Of course real connections can and do start on screens, and that is what makes those new opportunities so compelling. According to, 70-80% of you in ten years will have found a soul-mate online. Yikes. There is no need to wait to get out into the real world; we all carry the real world in our pockets, with the powerful and amazing opportunities that information and knowledge and connectivity represents. But if those “friends” and “followers” one never knows but whose opinion somehow matters, matter to us in volume alone, they are just nouns — “friends,” “followers” — words carefully chosen by marketers and salesmen but bereft of their ethical substance, at the core of which lie respect, affection, personal acknowledgement, understanding, and empathy. There is a mutuality to being a true friend or follower, a shared purpose or understanding, that gives these relationships value and makes them worth our investment. Each of us gets polished by the talent and affections of our friends; we get buoyed by the successes of others about whom we care. And we, in turn, polish and lift up others. When people talk about community, that’s what they mean. Our true friends care about what we think; our on-line friends care more about letting us know what they like. While there is room in life for both, it’s easy to see where the problems arise when caring more about what other people “like” takes on disproportionate importance and emotional energy and precious time. There are only so many hours in the day and, ultimately, so many days in our lives. Using our time and energy well is, I hope, one of those “doing hard things well” skills you’ve worked on during your time here. You know how to build those true relationships and within them, how to give and how to take. You know how to connect.

A number of these new studies point to the problems inherent with constant comparison and competition and judgment, from friends and followers as well as from trolls. Again, new intensity but old news. You have acknowledged, in your chapels, how it feels entering a new community, anxious about being judged; you have talked about how difficult it is to feel comfortable defining yourself; you have, as Ashley framed it, tried hard to figure out strategies to win approval and deflect judgment. The turning point in practically every one of your stories comes when you have realized that seeking others’ approval isn’t as important as you once believed; that being liked is not worth the struggle with yourself if the struggle involves compromising your core; that once you create real connections that you trust, the need to be “liked” loses its power over you; and that when you decided to declare yourself at least mostly independent of constant comparison and competition and judgment from people with whom you are not really connected, you free yourself up to grow.

In effect, the turning point you have highlighted, week after week in chapel and in your writing, is when you merged your internal Rinstas and Finstas, right? When your integrity, supported by connections you trust and value, won out over measuring yourself – and perhaps measuring others as well – against some moving target and finding yourself lacking, feeling alone in being not enough, yearning for approval from an audience that only seeks to amuse itself with you, rather than to understand with you. You’ve turned that corner because you’ve figured out that connections matter more than likes, and you’ve let yourself know and be known and perhaps ultimately, be inspired by the people who lift you up and make you better and ask you to do the same in return. 

All of the research written up in all of those reports advises us to limit our screen time to one-to-five hours per week, and spend the rest of our time reaching out to others – through sports, arts, in-person relationships – yes, classes and performances and practices and rehearsals and Pond-jumps and bagels in the Dining Hall and advisor meetings and plaque sessions with music and popsicles before games and StuFac dances and Spikeball on the Circle, being with people you know, people who know you, people with whom you have a bond, a shared goal, a common purpose, a connection in real time and in real life. How many times over your years here have you heard about that one hello or “hey,” that random act of kindness, that singular, seemingly insignificant but incredibly important acknowledgement that forged a connection and made all the difference? With Doug Worthen’s gentle voice in all of our ears, how many times have you taken that moment to feel where you are – to see the magnolias in front of Ware Hall this spring? To smell the amazing lilies of the valley up near Higginson, or the white lilac behind LB? To admire the steam rising off the pond in the morning or the winter sun setting red and orange over the silhouette of the trees along Lowell Road? To let beauty or peace or excitement move you? You have done all of this and more, and most importantly, you have emphasized the importance of your friends and family, the people in your lives who have made such a big difference for you.

Just as the “finding” in “finding the promise” is the secret key to the wisdom of that directive, the idea – expressed a dozen times to me during this past alumni weekend – that the connections with people turned out to be the secret sauce to Middlesex – will be, I think, the idea to which you return for your 25th reunion, with your college and graduate degrees and early professional adventures, mid-quarter life crises and significant others and spouses and toddlers and then again, at your 50th reunion, with grey hair and grandchildren and life stories that span the full range of human experience. Of course it is the people who make the difference – but I suggest today, as you leave this community and disperse around the world, your talents and training and credentials and discipline and ambition will take you far, AND continuing to work on your skills as a connector will turn out to be a most valuable contribution you can make to the people of the communities you will join over the next year and throughout the rest of your lives and yes, to your ultimate satisfaction with your own story.

People make the difference if you connect. Stay connected and build them throughout your life. Next fall, you will be in new places with new people, and you will know how to manage life and make friends, how to audition and try out and walk-on and go to office hours and reach out to people who don’t know how and take up the amazing invitations and opportunities that await each of you. You will know how to make those connections that have ethical fibre and emotional staying power that inspire you and enrich your life and make it that much harder to feel alone because you know that you are not – and that you can help others feel that way, as well. You all know how to be connectors, and our world needs you. We are all excited to see what you can do.

[1] Bahrampour, Tara, “Teens Who Spend Less Time in Front of Screens Are Happier,” Washington Post online, January 22, 2018.