Remarks by Joseph Coughlin
Honorary Doctoral Degree Recipient
151st Commencement, SUNY Oswego

Joseph Coughlin

President Stanley, faculty, family and friends and above all today Oswego Class of 2012—thank you for this honor. It’s hard to believe that 30 years ago I was sitting in those seats and thinking the same thing you are—“How long is this guy going to talk?” So, to take a twist on scripture, “Blessed are the brief for they shall be called back”; apparently I was. So I had the honor of being here 30 years ago as an undergraduate and, Oswego has been kind to invite me back. This is perhaps the greatest recognition I have received, so thank you very much faculty, Oswego, the State University of New York and all of you for this honor.

Before I share a few thoughts with you, Class of 2012, more than anything else, we have to thank the folks that got you to the chairs that you’re in today and will have had influenced where you’ll be in the future: The [folks] who taught us to be and do our best, our parents and our friends. They are to be congratulated as well today. And, in addition to our families, the faculty that taught me, and I presume they taught you as well, not just the knowledge of a course but indeed the compassion, caring and confidence to go and do great things.

I still remember that when trying to thank one of my advisers for his years of support, on the way out the door by that little grove of trees that I hope still exists in front of Mahar Hall, he responded, “Don’t thank me but the next time you’re in front of a student or someone else working with you or for you, help them out the way I helped you.” That’s perhaps the best advice I still carry with me from Oswego—give thanks to those who invested in you by being generous with others tomorrow.

I study the implications of an aging society on innovation—innovation in business, government and ultimately personal lives. Painfully for me my research team at MIT defines aging as 45 and older. When I decided that was the age, I was younger and I thought that was a good idea. Now it’s starting to be that I am a subject of study rather than actually a researcher.

Now, despite the fact that I’m an avid Red Sox fan, it pains me to quote Yogi Berra (yeah, I see all the downstate Yankees fans). The fact of the matter is that, as Yogi Berra would say, “You can see a lot by looking.” And so I want to give you some advice, not from me, I don’t want to be so arrogant to presume that I’ve picked much wisdom along the way, but I do watch people a lot, and I’ve picked up a few cues from watching older adults who don’t just survive but thrive in longevity. Hopefully I can pass along a few tidbits to you in a succinct fashion because, you know, aging well is not about how many birthdays you’ve accumulated, it’s about how well you constantly reinvent yourselves to live a better life tomorrow. Because, frankly, no matter how young you are, you’re going to be older tomorrow. And by the way, by the time you’re 90 years old, 91 will suddenly not seem that old. So let me share some observations that I’ve picked up along the way about how successful older adults live well. Their behaviors fall into the following categories: humor, agility, purpose, people and perennial youthfulness.

Oswego should be very proud we’re pretty funny people. We’ve produced a lot of writers and few faces in the center of the stage too in Hollywood and in New York. So a lot of what you hear in evening monologues and comedy skits, making fun of our snow and a few other things only those who have lived here can appreciate is because there are Oswego graduates behind the scenes and in front of the camera in programs such as Saturday Night Live as well as networks such as ESPN. I’m going to give a little tip to the guys in the audience. After 26 years of marriage I can tell you that girls like guys who can make them laugh.

The fact of the matter is that having a sense of humor is what’s going to get you past the rough times, whatever those may be, and you encounter those things that make no sense to you at all. Being able to laugh makes a big difference. The oldest old show that the capacity to laugh matters. Centenarians, those live beyond 100 years old not only show remarkable sense of humor and behaviors that help keep a smile on their face. The New England Centenarian Study showed that many read the comics before read anything else in the morning paper.

This is probably one of the most important things I can think of for the class of 2012 and for all the classes that follow. You live in a world, that as US Senator Charles Schumer just noted a few minutes ago, that is changing in real-time. Think about the fact that Facebook, iPad, iPhone and everything “i” were new when you started as freshmen—the fact is that technology is going to continue to change and change at a far greater velocity and complexity than we’ve ever seen before, so that as a result, the successful career path will not necessarily be what you majored in today.

Tomorrow’s career trek will be a successful ‘zigzag’. For those of you who are sailors or watch the folks out on the lake who do sail, the ability to tack from one position to another will be how we will all progress in tomorrow’s changing world. The oldest old often share that they have had many careers, many different challenges—in all cases those who do more than just survive, but thrive—show that they have been able to adapt to new conditions. My own career has not been a linear path, I started off in defense policy, moved to environment, transportation—I know what the faculty are thinking: this kid is an ADD candidate—but the fact of the matter is people who are successful and do well adapt to change.

Rapid and constant change on a personal and global level is the new normal. Successful people are those that are able to remain agile and successful institutions are those that adapt without breaking to constant change. Your time at Oswego has given you more than an education—it has given you a platform to be lifelong learners—to learn and adopt new technologies, novel ways of approaching problems and maintaining the flexibility necessary to have multiple lives in one lifetime. So, for what you are today I say congratulations—but you must be prepared and agile enough to become many things planned and unplanned.

And I think that one of the examples you should look at, and you can often see the best examples right in front of you is Oswego’s President Stanley. She has done an amazing job, I have been watching from the proverbial cheap seats for 30 years. Oswego has been amazing in how well it has adapted to a changing region, a volatile economy and evolving student demands. Under President Stanley’s leadership, the Oswego faculty and community have demonstrated the agility to adapt to new conditions and new demands. President Stanley, I commend you and Oswego for that.

We have learned from older adults that having a sense of purpose as to what you want to do makes a difference. It provides both a compass and a means to sort through life’s clutter when things do not make sense. A sense of purpose for your family, for your community, for your company where you may work, for the public agency that you may serve, for society and for some, the world—having a sense of what makes you tick and what you can contribute helps make sense out of life when it makes little sense and research shows it improves your own state of well-being.

Being at Oswego and the years that follow is about inventing who you are and basically paying forward those values you have learned so far. What you gained from this school will carry you the rest of your life. Fond memories like the Lake Ontario sunsets that we all enjoyed on early fall and late spring evenings will remind you of your own expectation in youth as well as an opportunity to pause and always ask in later years what am I trying to achieve and is what I am doing getting me there? Cultivate and carry a sense of purpose and share it—older adults who have lived long and well say that it will make you happier and healthier …and often the leaves the world a little better too.

As your fellow 2012 classmate, Jonathan McDonald, said a few minutes ago people make a difference. We find that centenarians are more likely to have maintained a good, close network of people around them. But you already know that good people are an important part of life success. Recall your first year, it was probably your friends that kept you stable in all the experiences that make up freshman year. From finals, to all those things that happened over the last four years that you will never tell your families about, it was your social network that helped keep you together.

Common sense and research also advises us to choose wisely. Our choice of friends throughout a lifetime may also predict our overall well-being from work success to physical wellness. The people we choose to be with reinforce and reflect how well we will live and age tomorrow.

And finally, youthfulness—many people will now say, “You’re graduating. Time to grow up. Time to get a job.” Well, it is time to grow up. It is time to get a job. But it’s never time to get old. It is time to maintain youthful curiosity, to play, to constantly invent and to contribute. Believe it or not, Thomas Edison’s investors accused him of failing many times. Edison replied to his critics that had not failed he just found many way ‘not’ to make a light bulb. Innovation and constant personal reinvention is sometimes about learning to fail faster and not being fearful but being faithful that you will eventually get it right—youthful courage counts. And youthful means to have perennially playful optimism and inquisitiveness—whether it is about learning a new hobby, taking on a new job or simply picking up and moving to somewhere completely different. Life is serious play.

It also means crossing generational lines to learn, share and invent. Think of the great music created as a result of the collaboration between early 30-something rock musician John Mayer and 70-something jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Some of the folks here in the audience know who Herbie Hancock is, showing their age and mine. Having fun for a lifetime and bridging the generations will keep you youthful, always with fresh ideas, and make good music as well.

Humor—Agility—Purpose—People—and Youth. Yes, if you caught it H-A-P-P-Y spells HAPPY for a lifetime—to not just live longer but to live better. In part, this is how people who’ve lived to 100 and beyond have done more than survive a century but lived well for 100-plus years.

As I end my remarks, I have a challenge for you. I am fond of history, particularly science and engineering history. If you look at the people who built cathedrals in Europe during the Middle Ages, you have to ask—why? Were they building these cathedrals because they had legions of people to fill them—certainly the small cities that existed in Europe then did not have the numbers that would warrant the size of these grand buildings. Was it a show of faith? In part, yes. But it was also the desire of the architects, the mathematicians, the engineers and all involved wanting to see how far they could go, expand their horizon, explore their capacity, what was the best they could do, could they stretch themselves beyond what they were to what they might become.

Ladies and gentlemen, class of 2012, building cathedrals is a statement of optimism and a statement of stretching, stretching to see who you can be, the best you can be. Reality begins with dreams. Class of 2012, my final advice is dream big, do great things and be happy. Congratulations, good luck.

Joseph Coughlin, a 1982 graduate of SUNY Oswego who is internationally known for his work in gerontology, business innovation and public policy, received an honorary doctor of science degree from the State University of New York on May 12, 2012, at Oswego’s 151st Commencement.

(Posted: May 12, 2012)

Tags: speaker, graduation, coughlin, commencement