Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman at Commencement 2021

May 25 2021

Members of the Class of 2021.


Your four years with us have not been what you expected. The battle against COVID-19 has limited our ability to move around. Even when we were stuck in one place, the pandemic has changed what we think about, what we do, and how we do it. 


In earlier times, commencement was a moment when NYU Shanghai graduates asked themselves what they should do to flourish as adults after graduation. This morning I would like to consider how the pandemic might lead your class to think differently about that question.


Flourishing has never been about meeting someone else’s definition of “success,” and that is true for you as well. To flourish you must fill your life with a collection of activities that you feel lucky to be doing. Your personal collection will probably include a combination of family relationships, other social relationships, and productive work for which you may or may not get paid. The balance among family, friends, and work may shift across the different phases of your life, but all three will probably be at least somewhat present at all times.


Let me say a few words about the work element. There are many excellent reasons to do a particular job. Reasons like earning money or acquiring prestige, helping other people, using all your skills, using your favorite skill, having colleagues who are talented or whose values you admire or who treat you with respect. A good job may be all-consuming, or it may allow you to spend significant time doing important things unrelated to your job.


A full life involves adventure, in which you search, explore, solve problems, overcome challenges, invent, and create. No one job can give you all of those things. That usually requires a series of jobs across a career. For that reason, many people promise themselves that on every fifth birthday – when they turn 25, when they turn 30, etcetera – they will think seriously about whether the time has come to change jobs. They do not change jobs every five years, but they do consider it. They think carefully about whether the time has come to try something different. 


This practice of five-year re-examinations has come to seem even more sensible during the pandemic. This past year, we have all been reminded that we do not control how long we will live. We will probably live very long lives, but nothing is guaranteed. If you know one kind of life experience is especially important to you, perhaps you should not keep postponing it for too long. 


In addition to this mix of family, friends, and work, flourishing has always called for both positive activity and careful self-protection. On the positive activity side, please sustain the habits that you developed here that nourish creativity. Those habits include protecting time for yourself to feel bored, to do things that you are bad at, to do things that have no value for your resume. They include engaging with people whose first culture was very different from your own. 


They also include reading at least six books each year, regardless of whether they are fiction or nonfiction, biography or fantasy. These days I am strongly recommending two different kinds of books about pandemics. One is an old book, The Plague by the French novelist Albert Camus. The other is a new book, Variants! by the American scientist William Haseltine.


On the protective side, please be smart about how you interact with the online world. When you present yourself to others online, please remember that your tone matters way more than your content. If you use a tone that is 10% less confident than you actually feel, you will protect your ability to change your mind without looking foolish. If you use an angry tone you will never persuade anyone. 


Protection in an online age involves more than what we post; it also involves what we read. Algorithms today send us the information that is most likely to trigger our emotions, whether or not it is the complete truth. You will be happier if you assume that what you read online is at best incomplete. Do not pass it on to others unless you have triple-checked it for accuracy.


Speaking of others, to flourish in the modern world you must not allow social media statistics to determine how you spend your energies. Do not pay attention to numbers of followers or likes, or the ratio of followers to likes. Those numbers include people who don’t care about you as a person. To flourish today you must focus on a core group of two to five or ten people whom you respect and whom you are absolutely certain care for you. 


During this pandemic, many of us have found that our core group includes people whom we can only see online, like some of your classmates today. To flourish you must schedule online meetings with them – sessions that do not include agendas or action items. To prosper you need to remain emotionally connected with your core group.


Finally, recognize that to flourish, you must deal well with your own failures. Everybody fails, frequently. People who flourish know how to get back up, dust themselves off, ask forgiveness if their mistake hurt somebody else, and move ahead. 


During this pandemic, we have all been failing more seriously and more frequently than ever before. That is because the world keeps shifting beneath our feet, undermining our assumptions and wrecking our predictions. We cannot afford to be fragile. Resilience is indispensable.


Members of the NYU Shanghai Class of 2021, those who are here in the Oriental Art Center and those of you who are with us remotely, as you embark on lives of worth and purpose, lives of service to a world that desperately needs you, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:


May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.


May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.


May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.


May you always find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.


May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, or arrogant.


May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.


May you build long and loving relationships with people whom you respect.


May you know enough bad weather that you never take sunshine for granted, and enough good weather like today that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.


May you be once again able to travel frequently beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, so that your appreciation for the miraculous diversity of life grows ever stronger.


And may your steps lead you often back to Shanghai. Back to Pudong. For you will always be members of the NYU Shanghai family. And even after we move to our campus in Qiantan next summer, we will always be happy to welcome you home.




The President of NYU Andy Hamilton and the Chair of NYU Board of Trustees William Berkley also sent their congratulations from NY City.  Let’s watch the videos.