Reject the mindset of scarcity, says the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns in his 2011 Santa Clara commencement address. And hold fast to the watchword of this University: Be men and women for others.
Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of today’s celebration. It is a privilege to be a member of the SCU community—and a special honor to be asked to speak to you today. It’s actually kind of fitting in a lovely, circular way: This class read The Kite Runner the summer before [their freshman year]—so you started your college education with my book, and now I’m seeing you off. There’s a nice little cosmic karma with that.
At the time I graduated, I was preparing to become a physician. I can admit now that being a doctor was what I thought I should be, rather than what I truly in my heart really wanted to be—but nonetheless, it’s what I thought my education was preparing me to do. I did become a physician and practiced that craft for more than eight years before I was fortunate enough to realize my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. But, thinking back, I can see that much of what I learned on this campus is more relevant to me now, today, than I could have ever imagined. And I think that, in at least one aspect, both you and I will walk away from our Santa Clara educations with one thing in common.
And that thing goes back to what this University is all about. Because when it comes to identifying the one thing to which you can hold fast throughout your life—regardless of the career you choose, where you live, or how much money you do or don’t make—the founders of this University, members of the Society of Jesus, were spot on. Their aspiration was for you and me to become “men for others.” Or as we would say today, they hoped we would be “men and women for others.”
I’d like to tell you what this has meant for me and why I think this notion is not only the “true north” of education, but also of what it means to live a fulfilling life. Because being a man or woman for others is not only a great responsibility, it is also a great gift. But, in order to accept this gift, we have to first reject the prevailing mindset of our culture—which is the mindset of scarcity.
In the West, sadly, the mindset of scarcity is so deeply entrenched that even at an unconscious level, we believe things are scarce. Think about it: We don’t have enough time, we don’t enough money, we don’t have enough bandwidth, friends, clothes, we don’t have enough opportunities … you can fill in the blank. The list is endless. We have been trained to believe in scarcity because we are constantly being told we need more of everything, that there isn’t enough to go around.
Food is a great example. Every night on this planet 1 billion people go to bed hungry, and we are told that this is because there is not enough food. But that’s not true. The truth is that right now, this very minute, there is enough grain to feed the world twice over.
We are bombarded daily with messages that reinforce our belief in scarcity—and in our own incompleteness. These messages tell us that we should buy more, that we should have more, and that we should be more, because what we are and what we have is not enough. How can we possibly think about being for others, when we are convinced we will never have enough for ourselves?
Of course we can’t.
“To accept this gift, we have to first reject the prevailing mindset of our culture—which is the mindset of scarcity.”
So in order to be a man or woman for others, the first thing we have to do is break free of the scarcity mindset, and try on a new way of thinking, something that author Lynne Twist calls The Great Truth of Sufficiency: “When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, which is usually what we are trying to get, it frees up immense energy to make a difference with what you have.”
Right now, your parents may be getting worried that I am suggesting that you don’t need a master’s degree, or a job, or a car, or a home. So let me reassure them, and you, that this is not what I mean. (Laughter)
What I am suggesting, though, is that each of us, me included, already has enough to begin thinking about how to be a man or woman for others. We don’t need to wait until we land a good job, have sufficient savings, or retire. And the best part is, that the moment we begin to live for others—even if only for a small fraction of our day—we feel a release from the mindset of scarcity. Because making a difference in the world, no matter how large or small that difference is, will change your life in extraordinary ways. And connect you to a sense of purpose.
Being used for a larger purpose does not mean responding to the next natural disaster by getting rid of all the things in your house and texting a donation on your iPhone. (Although I do encourage you to do these things as well.) It means using your knowledge and your heart to gain wisdom by doing something for someone else. Something that requires you to learn something different, think in a novel way, and imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.
A lot of you do this already. You volunteer as tutors, raise money for breast cancer and AIDS research, you work for environmental groups, you deliver meals to the sick. You are, I am sure, helping hundreds of causes. And I am certain that your knowledge, your ability to learn quickly, and your enthusiasm are of tremendous value to those you are helping.
The truth of the work itself
Being a writer has given me an amazing opportunity to see just how much of a difference young people can make—even those with little money and limited time. Every day I get letters from young readers around the world. And in these letters they tell me that my stories have moved them to want to help women and children in Afghanistan.
They tell me that those books have helped them discover their own strength and desire to effect change. And they do effect change.
In the fall of 2007, I took a trip to Afghanistan. On that trip, I met families who lived on less than $1 per day. I spent time with women who sheltered their children in holes that they had dug in the ground because they could not afford a home and needed some way to protect their children from freezing to death in wintertime. Everywhere I went, I met people who experienced real scarcity—not enough shelter, food, water, medicine, and certainly not enough opportunity for education. As a father, I was overwhelmed and heartbroken by what I saw and heard. As an Afghan, I felt connected to this suffering in a way that I hadn’t before.
When I came home, I created The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, to provide shelter, healthcare, and education for the people I met in Afghanistan. This is my way to effect change. Along the way, I have been joined by young people just like you. One of them is actually sitting in this audience. Her name is Alicia Wrangel. (Hi, Alicia.) She has been interning for my foundation. Thank you for your tireless efforts.
Some raise money for my foundation to help us build shelters. Others raise awareness about the plight of refugees in countries besieged by war. Others just awaken from the numbness that can set in after seeing so many photographs of people suffering in places and circumstances we know little about. And all of these things make a huge difference. All are expressions of being a man or woman for others.
The payoff for these efforts exceeds anything I could have possibly imagined. When we hear that a 16-year-old girl in Afghanistan is finally able to attend school or that a family of refugees has a shelter to see them through the winter, I feel hope—even though in my heart I know that the environmental and humanitarian problems are overwhelming, perhaps even impossible to solve. But I have learned not to be afraid to begin the work for fear it can never be completed.
The Christian mystic Thomas Merton counsels: “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps bring about its opposite. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value of the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
I have been told that one of the most profound Jewish teachings says that you are not required to complete the task of “healing the world,” but neither are you free to refuse to start it.
All of these teachings aim to prepare us for the fact that we should practice generosity in life without expecting necessarily to see the world change as a result of our efforts. It’s hugely freeing to come to terms with this—especially for you, after all these years in which your achievements have been measured and graded by others, and in which you have lived with the expectation that things can be completed, in order, in a predictable and timely manner.
That brings me back to today—your day to celebrate being free from class schedules, and from finals, and from grades, at least for a while. (Cheers) I am very grateful to be here with your friends and family to celebrate your accomplishments. You have worked hard and you deserve the accolades and attention you are receiving. And I hope you take it all in. You’ve earned it!
But tomorrow, or next week, you may notice that things are already starting to feel a little difficult. Most of you will find that the world is not going to roll out the red carpet for you. Jobs may be hard to find in spite of how brilliant you have just proved yourself to be.
So here is my advice: When and if this happens, don’t get caught by it.
Instead of letting the voice of scarcity take over, remember the watchword of this University, and be a man or woman for others.
If you do, you will not only fulfill the aspirations of those who founded this great school for you, you will always have work, you will always have purpose, you will always have community, and you will always remember the promise of this great day.