Class of 2013: The Graduation Speech I Didn’t Give

Congratulations to all the new graduates who have successfully accomplished this most impressive of endeavors.

Well it’s that time of year again. College graduation season is upon us and a temporary feeling of joy and optimism abounds as it should. As for Mom and Dad relief may be a more apt description – there were days they had serious questions about your commitment to the project but now thankfully they can turn their attentions to that little matter of rehabilitating whatever is left of their retirement savings. 

In the past I have been honored to give the commencement address at some lauded institutions that I’m not sure would have granted me admission as a student. Of course I did my best to celebrate the occasion and impart some inspirational encouragement to the uninitiated and unsuspecting. But something rather remarkable happen recently that got me wondering about the advice I give – my daughter graduated from university. Given my surname it’s safe to assume that I am able access my inner Dutch Uncle on demand whether it’s appropriate for the affair or not. Thus I thought I would take this opportunity to impart some real world suggestions to my own brood as well as those of you who are graduating:

  • Less Dreaming; More Doing: So you have big dreams. So does everyone else on this planet. Just watch your favorite reality television program and witness what enthusiasm without considerable practice or natural talent gets you. As your grandparents might say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” By the way, while you are daring to dream right now there is a student fueled by ambition in some developing country learning English and taking that entry level position that you don’t want. Better get to work now if you hope to really make your dreams to come true.

  • Opportunity is More Important than Money: Take a good look at your folks. Maybe your Mom always wished she could have been a painter or your Dad wanted to ride a motorcycle across Australia - or was it the other way around? Years on the unfulfilled aspirations of youth linger. Sure outrageous fortune intervenes. It always does. But when you are young the table stakes are minimal. With each passing season you will become more responsible to those entrusted in your care and the price of these memorable opportunities will be well beyond your limit. Build up your experience reserves and draw on them later when it’s time to make some money.

  • Lose Your Friends Who are Losers: Your drinking buddy will develop a drinking problem. Your sorority sister will ride the relationship roller coaster the rest of her life. If you are a reasonably resourceful and responsible person they will latch on to you like a drowning demon and will do their best to pull you to the bottom with them. What makes a good friend never changes but the circumstances do. Yes, be the very best friend you can but understand that you can’t help those who won’t help themselves. Sometimes you just have to let go.

  • Live Where the Cool People Don’t: Do the numbers. The popular press would have you believe that there is only a small scattering of cool cities with hot jobs. If you are only one of a hundred new graduates migrating to these places your buzz will simply become part of the white noise – just another pair of designer shoes and a fancy haircut on the bus looking for fame and fortune that probably will never arrive. Improve your odds. Move to some place that actually needs your creativity, energy and sense of destiny. Chances are you may even develop some choice skills that make an impact right away. You might even come to like the place. Oh yeah, and the rent is considerably cheaper.

  • Get a Dog so at Least Someone Always Loves You: Yes your folks love you – most of the time. And your boyfriend loves you too – for now. But there will be days when your life sucks – the itinerant job, the maddening boss or the belligerent client. But dogs love you the way you wish everyone loved you – all the way – all the time. They heal your booboo and warm your toes and make the sunshine on a cloudy day. Of course you should only get a dog if you can take good care of it for the duration of its life. Who wants a treater? Cats are nice too if you are up for a little more sophisticated relationship.

  • There Are No Self Made Men… or Women: Sure your Dad talks about how he worked in the factory all summer to make tuition when he went to school. The truth is that he was lucky to get a good union job that paid enough to go to college back when it was actually affordable. More so, somebody that he knew from the neighborhood or church or the baseball team gave him the inside track to that job. That’s how it was done back in the day. We are all indebted to someone who gave us our first real chance and all we can do is repay it forward to the next generation. Those who believe themselves to be self made are overshadowed by their own ingratitude. Be sure to appreciate those who help you along - and remember to tip your waitress.

  • Everyone Reads their Own Horoscope First: Nobody cares about you as much as you do. Your friends and colleagues will talk about the great us but from the limited perspective of their particular me. What this means is that you may be passed over for promotions or invitations or other happenings precisely because they aren’t thinking about you first. So try reading their stars instead. What do they want? How can you help? What’s in it for them? Understand how others are navigating by starlight and you have a better chance of successfully reaching your own destination.

  • Luck is Way Better than Talent: Ask someone you really admire how they got their first big break and they will ramble on about wondrous luck or a blessing bestowed or how they were in the right place at the right time. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t crack the books or work hard or live well but rather that they were prepared when fate did indeed intervene. The point is you have to be ever vigilant in looking for your opportunity or it will surely pass you by. Embrace it - its kismet - give it a comfortable seat so it will stick around.

  • Love Isn’t the Answer, Like Is: John Lennon was wrong. It happens. Watch the old couple holding hands in the park. Listen to them talk. They still enjoy being around each other. They share interests and history and friendship and perhaps even intimacy. They are compatible – “capable of existing or living together in harmony.” OK, maybe it’s just a different kind of love – the version that can’t be sent by your cell phone. But while the red hot embers of passion bring you together when you are young it is in liking your mate that keeps you together.

  • What You Put In Is What You Get Out: Shortcuts usually lead to bad neighborhoods, traffic jams and dead end streets. Go to medical school for only a year and you will probably do more harm than good to patients in need. Flip houses and the day will come when they flip you. Get married on the third date and you are undoubtedly in for some unpleasant surprises. Regrettably, we are becoming a nation of short-cutters – get rich quick, true love via speed dating and the four hour work week. If you like what you do you will seek out ways to do more of it - not less. Take your time. Life is short enough. Enjoy the journey.

    Congratulations to all the new graduates who have successfully accomplished this most impressive of endeavors.

    # # #

    JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author of Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the “Dean of Innovation” because of his influence on the field. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and Facebook @deanofinnovation.

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    Why compassion fades

    A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

    Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships

    One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

    Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

    Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

    Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

    The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

    That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

    The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

    Some back story

    Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

    The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


    Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

    There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

    A Dunbar Correlation

    Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

    "Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

    I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

    Professor Dunbar's response:

    "The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

    I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

    "These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

    In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

    Friendship, kinship and limitations

    "We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

    These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

    "These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

    As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

    We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

    Emotional regulation

    In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

    This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

    If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

    Gray matter matters

    One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

    It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

    It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

    Rabbit holes

    There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

    (1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

    (2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

    In the end

    Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

    Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

    Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.