Mitch Daniels Commencement Speech 2020

Mitch Daniels’ commencement speech: “Absent a little special effort, you will rarely make friends different from yourselves”

In an unlisted YouTube video published this weekend, Mitch Daniels gave his virtual commencement speech to Purdue grads. The 12 minute video is well worth a watch.

In it, Daniels talks about a hobby horse of mine: loneliness and disconnection despite seemingly endless ‘connection’. He notes “Absent a little special effort, you will rarely make friends different from yourselves.”

“I’m concerned you won’t make friends at all,” he says. This to an audience connected almost constantly by phones. His general advice is to turn off your phone, tune out video screens, and have more personal contact with people. The benefits of which can stave off depression, suicide, and as he notes — add years to your life. Prolonged loneliness can be as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or heavy drinking.

The effort to make friends is hard. And Daniels says he’s not been a good role model. “I’ve not devoted the time I should have to deepen acquantancines into friendships. I’ve let the call of work get in the way. I’ve told myself that jobs of broad responsibility mean one can’t get too close to coworkers and colleagues. I’ve procrastinated and skipped too many chances to spend time with people I admire and love. I regret it and I’m worse for it.”

Admittedly, he notes he thought of this speech as early as December before COVID-19 entered the lexicon. Adding to the challenges of deeper connection with people is the cumbersome and expensive ways we’ve designed ourselves away from people, made worse by the pandemic. But even before the pandemic, cities and neighborhoods bifurcated by small highways, sprawl, and the rising cost of moving around has left teens and young people without an easy way to be around each other. More to the point, many people of all incomes have designed their lives around the notion that work is all their is because we need the money to maintain a lifestyle. For some that might be food and energy. For others, it might just be to maintain a pricey car or redo a deck or patio we’ll never use for much.

Social media is not a proxy for us to “live our best lives”. People’s lives are often tragic, sad, and void of the constant prettiness of people or place so often presented to us by others.

The feelings of connectedness can be mitigated, Daniels says, by faith and marriage. I don’t disagree with that, but if one or both are not your cup of tea, even just making time to cook dinner for others can be equally beneficial. That takes two people, however. I’ve invited people to a home-cooked dinner in the past and people look at me like I have three heads.

My long-time wish has been for people I care about to reach out with regularity. Write a letter. Make a FaceTime call. Invite people to dinner — without phones or other distractions. I imagine most of my messages and emails are like yours: a constant reminder of people reaching out only when they want or need something.

A person’s success in life depends on who a person knows, and more specifically, how well you know them. That goes for our careers and our health. We can’t truly know people through a Facebook or LinkedIn profile. But darned if people aren’t trying to make anti-social media into something it isn’t. The sooner people realize Facebook and their ilk exist for people like me to sell stuff to people like you, the better.

The sadness I feel about COVID-19

The unfortunate thing I feel about COVID-19 is how sad I feel for all the silver linings.

I’ve been able to attend more events with more people virtually than I have in-person. I’ve saved money on food. Not traveling to offices has saved me hours of time. Everything is more scheduled and regimented, meaning I get more focused time on specific projects. And social media is far less performative. I like those things. Many of these things are things we could have been doing all along. But I’m most saddened by the fact it took a global pandemic scare to get us here where millions of people have lost so much.

I don’t feel bad about having to do more virtually. It’s been good for me that I can take part in more events now that I can meet the same people online instead of off. I was never going to travel an hour this way or that, or book a flight and a hotel to attend your conference. But, now that it’s online, I can. And so can many other people. We always could have been doing that, and probably should have been. The lacking factor for many events is the experience and there’s value in that. But that value comes with a price tag.

Many people are saving money and perhaps their health because they’re not eating out for lunch every day. Again, that’s grim for restaurants and eateries, but no one can dispute it’s better to eat at home. It’s almost always cheaper, and it’s usually healthier. It’s hard to come up with something at home worse for you than McDonald’s or other fast food. And when your colleagues pressure you to go out, you go out. And it’s nearly impossible to find healthy places when you do. Do a search for “Healthy” on GrubHub and you get about 4 or 5 restaurants, one of which is probably Subway.

Office space is likely to see a lot of shifts after this is over. A lot of places are likely to stay on work-from-home protocols and reduce their office space. For many places that can’t do work from home, they’re likely to expand their office space in order to maintain more distance. That’s probably a net neutral, but it’s not bad if people have more options or reduce commuting by car.

Perhaps the biggest change is the ability to have more focus. Offices are not known for their productivity gains. Everyone’s best work comes from reducing distractions and implementing an optimal workspace. That might be using headphones, or it might be a speaker. It might be a podcast or classical music or something else. That might mean starting a little later or working a little earlier. It might be the comfort of knowing your kids are just downstairs, or the dog is happy and not in a crate or alone all day.

The equalization of networking and meetings is a big win for a lot of people. If you live on one side of town and have to travel to the other, you may have two hours of your day wrapped up in a car just moving around for what amounts to just hearing someone talk. That’s a huge savings for the people who can do so.

And one thing I’m not sad about at all: social media has become much less performative. I’d be interested if academic researchers are studying the mental health effects of social media right now. When you see all your friends living their “best lives” on the beach, with friends, out at pricey concerts and shows, you feel glum. We know this. Social media straight up increases depression almost universally. But now, no one can travel or fake it. All of the superficial detritus has been removed — no fashion, makeup, glitzy travel, FOMO, or the recognition someone you wanted to talk to is now out with a bunch of other people. I don’t know if the depression that comes from social media is shifting to just being depressed about the news and state of affairs of the world. Like office space, I suspect it’ll be a net-neutral effect.

These things are generally good. Sadly, it’s at the expense of so much in people’s livelihoods. And there’s a lot of variation here. Having the kids around all day can be a huge energy suck. But if you asked more people at the end of their lives if they would have wanted to spend more time with their kids, I suspect the answer would be yes.

That should be the quandary people who are largely unaffected beyond more time at home should feel. A lot of small things are legitimately better for a lot of people. And that’s sad.