Class of 2016: Be Your Authentic Selves

“Wear sunscreen.” Nineteen years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich shared that advice in a hypothetical commencement address to the Class of 1997. It went viral in part because it was rumored to be a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to MIT grads. So as Glenbrook North prepares to graduate the class of 2016, I thought I’d share some thoughts and ideas with them as they spread their wings and leave the nest of GBN. And if you want to start a rumor that this was delivered by a famous writer at some big college, I won’t object.

Read a book this summer. And at the risk of inviting the scorn of teachers everywhere, I’ll go one step further and say this: Don’t active read a book this summer. I know that active reading has its benefits and secretly I wish I had learned some active reading strategies when I was growing up. But active reading has drained my kids of some of the love for reading they had growing up. I’m not saying never active read, but this summer find a good book, a quiet place, and re-discover the joy of reading.

Don’t be in such a hurry. I know it seems like the goal of high school was to get into college, and the goal of college is to secure a job upon graduation, but trust me when I say that your adult life will start soon enough. You don’t have to have 50 internships before you graduate from college; you can learn a lot about people and gain valuable customer service skills by waiting tables or working in retail.

Be intellectually curious and seek out people whose views are different than yours. These days, people tend to read and watch news media that reinforces what they already believe. Both sides of an argument then dig in their heels, blame the other side, and kick the problem down the road for another day. Our state government is exhibit A. Be better than that. Work to understand people with whom you disagree and resolve to find solutions to the problems we face.

Commit to being your authentic self. I spoke to a group of teenagers last year and asked if any of them knew what career they’d like to pursue. A young man rose his hand and replied that he wanted to be pediatrician. When I asked him why he wanted to be a pediatrician he said, “Well, my mom said I could be anything I want, as long as I was a doctor or a lawyer.” Yikes. What if that boy’s passion is classical music? What if he wanted to be a teacher? Or a chef? No one is going to live your life for you. At the end of the day, you have to look in the mirror and like what you see. The best way to insure that happens is to work to understand yourself—not what someone else thinks you should be.

Strive for happiness, not material wealth or “success.” I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to accumulate material wealth but it’s the means to the end, and too often people sacrifice happiness for money. Worse yet, most people still believe that there is a correlation between material wealth and happiness (there isn’t). In fact, much of the well-being research suggests that happy individuals are successful across multiple areas of life: marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. To paraphrase Tal Ben-Shahar in his book, Happier, don’t live to accumulate; value the unmeasurable (emotions and meaning) over the measurable (material wealth and prestige).

And yes, please wear sunscreen.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016!

Class of ’85 Looks Back…and Forward


When I walked into the Landmark Tavern last month, I knew I’d see more than a few familiar faces. It was the weekend of my 30-year reunion from Glenbrook North and many classmates were meeting in town on the night before the official event. Some flew in from out of state for the event; most who attended live in the Chicago area. I moved back to Northbrook over 18 years ago, I’m the proud parent of two GBN students, and I work with young adults as part of my life coaching practice.

If the metaphor for high school is a weird science project—take 14-18 year olds who share the same zip code, throw them into a petri dish, and watch what happens—then the metaphor for high school reunions is no-expectations speed dating. You spend a little bit of time with a person from your past, swap basic information about the current state of your lives, then move on to the next person knowing you won’t see most of them for another five or ten years. Sure, thanks to Facebook you’ll know what their kids are doing and what they ate for dinner at that restaurant last weekend, but you don’t expect a second date.

For several days following the weekend I thought about my classmates’ journeys since high school graduation. Who was happy? Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, defines happiness as frequent positive feelings accompanied by an overall sense that one’s life has meaning. And that got me wondering: Who among the GBN Class of ’85 has this kind of happiness?

So, I asked. I sent out a quick survey to my peers to get their reaction to a few questions. What were they most proud of? How is life different than what they expected? Who had found and stayed with their careers? Who, like me, had discovered their calling later in life and made a significant career change?

Of the classmates who responded to the survey, most mentioned their families as their greatest source of pride. “Having a wonderful wife and kids,” said one classmate. “My family and my 25 year marriage,” said another. Others mentioned professional accomplishments like leaving the relative safety of a corporate job to start a small business.

It can be difficult to look back and compare reality to expectations. My classmates’ responses included genuine surprise at their circumstances, “I thought I’d be a career woman,” said the mother who stayed at home for the past twenty years, and, “I thought I’d live in the big city,” said the person living in Utah.

Many expected that their lives would have turned out differently. “I feel less secure, emotionally and financially, than I thought I would be by this age,” said one classmate, while another answered with an obvious reaction to his current state, “I didn’t expect to be divorced and a single father.” Who does?

I was delighted to learn that those classmates who haven’t changed careers did so because they discovered what they love to do early in life and they continue to be challenged. “I have always wanted to be a psychologist and I am one. Love it!” said one woman. Similarly, many who have changed courses professionally have done so to pursue a passion or calling.

The last question I asked my classmates was, “If you could go back in time and speak to yourself when you were 18, what would you say?” Here’s a sample of what the GBN Class of ’85 would tell itself:

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff
  • Quit worrying about what you need to be happy
  • Have confidence in yourself and your choices
  • Don’t let others bring you down. Be confident in your own skin
  • Surround yourself with friends who make you feel good about yourself
  • Try to be the best part of someone’s day

My classmates’ responses reflect what I hope we’re telling our own children. Make an effort to understand who you are, what makes you tick. Then, make an effort to be true to who you are and live an authentic life. Doing that will help you discover your calling and live a happy life.

David Whitlock lives in Northbrook with his wife, two GBN students and a dog named Hudson. His column will shine a light on the science of happiness and positivity in our community. He is the founder of The Happiness Catalyst and can be reached at

“Whadya Mean By ‘Happiness’?”

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”–Aristotle

I use this quote a lot–in presentations, on this web site, at the bottom of my emails, etc. Why? Well, two reasons:

  1. Aristotle is widely recognized as a great philosopher and thinker. His writings and teachings influenced Western and Christian philosophy; Islamic and Jewish philosophy; and post-Enlightenment thinkers. So you could say he was an important contributor to our world.
  2. He wrote this over 2,000 years ago

The second point is as important as the first. It means that for thousands of years humans have considered happiness the ultimate goal. And I believe that it is just that: the ultimate goal.

But What Do You Mean By Happiness?

Well, it might be easier to answer that by first telling you what I don’t mean:

  • I don’t mean a state of eternal bliss–sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns
  • I don’t mean the physical feeling of happiness (although I hope that by working to be happier you enjoy those feelings)
  • I don’t mean the unrealistic expectation that your life will be free from problems and pain

What I do mean:

  • Well-being–an emotional and physical state that is healthy and productive
  • Optimism–approaching the challenges of the day with a positive outlook
  • Effectiveness–being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, understanding before trying to be understood
  • Active–being engaged in activities that will provide pleasure in the present and a benefit in the future

Happiness as proposed on this site and through the work I do with young adults, is what we as humans were born to pursue. And it’s a lifelong quest. There are no quick fixes. As Tal Ben-Shahar writes in his book, Happier, “We pursue happiness because it is our nature to do so. When the answer to a question is ‘Because it makes me happy,’ nothing can challenge the validity and finality of the answer. Happiness is the highest on the hierarchy of goals, the end toward which all other ends lead.”


How to Find Your Calling

Path of life sculpture garden, Windsor, VT, October 9th, 2010
This post appeared on the Erika’s Lighthouse blog.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”
–George Bernard Shaw
What do you think of when a person says she has found her calling? For many people, the word “calling” has religious implications—we often hear about someone being called into ministry or to the Torah. But discovering your calling is one of the keys to emotional well-being and can provide you with the confidence to address the hard decisions we all face.

What is a Calling?

Your calling is where “Who You Are” (who you really are) intersects with “What the World Needs.” “Who You Are” means that you understand and are using your unique talents and inherent strengths. The second component, “What the World Needs”, means that the activities in which you are engaged are valued by society. When those two dynamics intersect, you’ll find your calling. You’ll be your authentic self and the activities in which you’re engaged will give you pleasure and have meaning.

Why Find a Calling?

William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, writes in his book The Path to Purpose that many young adults without a calling, “Report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their own control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them thus far.”
Through finding a calling, you will know yourself better and will be equipped to answer the tough questions that lie ahead. You will have a purpose to work towards and you’ll gain your own sense of value and self-worth from accomplishing the goals you set. And, as Damon suggests, “Passionately pursuing a purpose directly engages young people in life experiences likely to enhance their optimism and self-confidence.”

How to Find Your Calling

 To paraphrase noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, you discover your calling by daring to listen to yourself throughout your life. By doing so, Maslow suggests that you will be equipped to “choose wisely for a life.” In my work, I coach young adults to understand who they are by helping them examine their:
  • Dreams
  • Interests & Passions
  • Skills & Abilities
  • Talents & Strengths
  • Motivations
  • Values
  • Goals
When you understand “Who You Are”, you can start to explore where you can apply yourself. And, no – you don’t have to have all the answers right now! But, if you consciously work to discover your calling, you’ll feel more confident that you’re on the right track towards choosing wisely for your life.