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Atul Gawande ’87 tells graduates, ‘Say yes to everything’ (at least until 40)

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Prominent surgeon, humanist and healthcare expert Atul Gawande ’87 urged a socially distanced crowd of over 3000 freshly minted Stanford graduates on Saturday to continue their education in the world by trying new things while they still can.

“In your formative years, you don’t know — you can’t know — what will ultimately matter to you; what will grab you by the shoulders and awaken you and stay with you,” he said. “So you have to be open to trying stuff — to saying yes.”

Gawande delivered the commencement address for advanced degree candidates; actress and activist Issa Rae ’07 will speak at the commencement ceremony for undergraduates on Sunday.

Standing in the place where the late Steve Jobs once famously stood, Gawande undermined the idea of singular static passion and instead urged Stanford graduates to think of their wide-open futures in terms of enthusiasms, changes and commitments.

“People say ‘follow your passion.’ But how many of you know what that is?,” he asked. “I didn’t. I had my share of enthusiasms, but sitting where you are, I wouldn’t have called any my passion. I had no idea which would endure and which would fade.”

Such remarks may have surprised graduates, as the doctor is a juggernaut in American public health. Gawande, now a Harvard professor of medicine, has been described as one of the greatest public intellectuals in American life, a household name for both his incisive New Yorker pieces and bestsellers such as “Being Mortal.” He’s also a prominent advocate for medical reform.

Soon-to-be-graduates from across campus await Stanford’s 130th Commencement. (ANANYA KARTHIK/The Stanford Daily)

 But he told graduates that, like them, he was once a classic overcommitted Stanford student, precariously balancing doing research, learning guitar, following politics and flaking on a 2 a.m. time slot in the KZSU lineup. But, “Over time, however, I came to tell the difference between things that merely absorbed me — the way TikTok videos now do — and things that energized me,” he said.

So even as his infatuations with electric guitar and KZSU faded away, his passion for following new medicine discoveries and talking political science late into the night grew into what would become his life’s work.

“I was pulled in three directions — to surgery, public health and journalism,” he said. “Over and over, people told me to choose. These things don’t fit together, they’d say. And for a very, very long time, they didn’t. All I saw was that each separately added something that fed me. And eventually each fed the other.”

To learn to combine these disparate interests, Gawande said he had years where had to say yes to everything. And he said that his Stanford classmates, who now often have jobs unimaginable in 1987, had had to do the same. They had grown and pruned and grown, without ever having a static or fully formed mission.

In place of the Jobsian emphasis on monomaniacal passion, Gawande suggested graduates instead turn to a quote he picked up from University of California, San Francisco’s medical department chair. 

“Say yes to everything before you’re 40, and say no to everything after you’re 40,” Gawande surmised.  

This quote, Gawande acknowledged, is a bit glib. As President Marc Tessier-Lavigne later pointed out, there were numerous graduates over 40 among Stanford’s six schools. 

Gawande clarified that the transition from saying yes to everything to saying no is something that happens not by law at 40 but naturally over the course of a life. Commitments that energize remain, and those that weaken are trimmed. And this process has a magic to it, as energizing commitments tend to be noble and adaptive. 

“The most meaningful goals are usually slow to achieve,” he said. “They are also usually the ones that bind people together rather than push them apart, that feed their purposes. For it turns out that the beautiful secret of how our species is made is that we are often most energized when we help others express their worth.”

When President Tessier-Lavigne asked the graduates of Stanford’s six schools if they accepted Gawande’s challenge, they replied, “Yes.”

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Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck, and contact him at cveit 'at' stanforddaily.com.