I could write out a priority list on a piece of paper of the things I loved, and I could rank them and I could devote my best energies to my highest loves.
When you have the ability to write that list in order, you’ve achieved your agency moment.
I had a student who was a young Army officer. During one of his tours, he had a terrible superior officer who gave him nothing but negative feedback. During those 18 months, he said he could not rely on external validation or criticism from outside to get a sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had to come up with his own criteria to judge himself.
That’s the agency moment. When you hit this moment, you’re not molding yourself to some prefab definition of success.
You have your own criteria. You’re not relying on the opinions of others. Your own standard and your own ability to judge your own life. For most people this agency moment comes just before 30. But then you can have a few other agency moments later in life, at age 53 or 75, when your loves change order, and you have to realize that and you have to adjust.
Once you have achieved your agency moments, you can begin to make commitments.
When you make a commitment to something you truly love, whether it’s a spouse, a job, a company, or a school, it won’t feel like you are putting on an uncomfortable lobster shell. It will feel like you are taking off the shell and becoming the shape you were meant to be.
If you’ve already had a great love, you know that it humbles you. You’ve been captured by a delicious madness and lost control of your own mind. Love plows open hard ground, exposing soft, vulnerable soil below. Love decenters the self and reminds you that your true riches are in another person. Marriage is a 30- or 40- or 50-year conversation that ends with a confusion: I don’t just love you. I am you.
Like all great commitments, love operates simultaneously on two different levels: the level of gritty reality and the level of transcendent magic.
Again, against the grain of normal logic, people in love make themselves vulnerable to great suffering, and sometimes they knowingly walk into suffering. Sometimes you tell people in love that it doesn’t make sense for them to be together because they’ll be in different cities or they drive themselves crazy. But lovers rarely break off a love just because that doesn’t make sense. They’d rather be unhappy together than happy apart.
The moral world is not structured like the market world. It has an inverse logic. To develop morally and inside you have to follow an inverse set of rules. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
A couple of months ago. I published a book around the distinction between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you bring to the marketplace that make you good at your job. The eulogy virtues are the moral virtues. They are the things they say about you after you are dead—whether you are honest or brave or caring or capable of great love.
My point in the book was that we all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but we live in a society that puts a lot more emphasis on how to build skills than how to build character. A lot of us are clearer on how to be successful than on how to be virtuous.
I believed that goodness and character comes from internal struggle against your own weakness. But in the months since, I’ve come to see that I put too much emphasis on the individual exercise of character building. Becoming a good, moral person is not being able to control your temptations; it’s about this ability to make commitments.
There will come a time 20 years from now, or 25 years from now, when you will come back to this spot for your reunion. And as you walk and drink wine and beer, you’ll think of your former selves and your current selves and the decades of life that will still be in front of you. You’ll be with people who knew you back when, when you had no branding; no success status to fall on; when you were, like today, both very brave and very scared.
You’ll think at some random moment in that day, after a few glasses of wine, about the totality if your life: Where you came from, where you were when you graduated, and where you are a quarter-century later, and you’ll know that you were so lucky to have been at Dartmouth and that after a few years of stumbling, you found a place for yourself in the world, a place deeply connected to commitments of affection that will never fade.
At reflective moments like this, it feels like time is suspended and reality will slip outside its bounds, and you’ll experience a sense of gratitude that your life is filled with joy, a joy beyond anything you could possibly have earned.
There’s nothing to be done at such moments except be thankful, to be thankful for people, places, ideas, and causes that you have embraced and that embraced you back. And that is the moment come to the realization that is the full definition of maturity: It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.