Businesmann, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market
Commencement Speech at Bentley College, 2008
“As long as you are alive, it is never too late.”
“Fear is primarily a creation of the mind. I create it in my mind—it doesn’t really exist outside the mind. I can dissolve it there as well.”
Hopefully many of the parents here today are feeling pretty good about me right now because my next message is one that can be a little bit scary to some people. However, it is also the major pearl of wisdom that I have to share today. The fact of the matter is that life is really very short and death is absolutely certain for all of us. It really is true that none of us are getting out of here alive and we should never forget this fundamental existential truth. Since death is real and inevitable for all of us, how then should we live our lives? For me the answer to this question has been clear since I was young: We should commit ourselves to follow our hearts and doing what we most love and what we most want to do in life. This is how I’ve tried to lead my own life since I was about 19 years old. My decision to not finish college, but to start Whole Foods Market instead, was a decision that came from my heart. Although this decision proved to be upsetting for my parents and for many of my friends, for me it was absolutely the right decision.
Now that you’ve graduated from college and are about to launch yourselves in new directions, it is absolutely essential that you ask yourself what it is that you really care the most about? What are your passions? What are your deepest yearnings? If you could do absolutely anything in the world, what is it that you would do? Your heart knows the answers to these questions. It is whispering to you right now this very moment even as I speak these words to you. So listen to it and follow it. It will always be your best guide in life.
There are two important aspects to following your heart. First, we need to develop our self-awareness skills so that we can know when we are truly following our hearts and when we’ve lost our way. It is actually easier than it sounds because when we are truly following our hearts we are tapped into our deepest passions in life. We are doing what we most love and we find our lives full of increased energy, greater creativity, purpose, joy, and happiness. We simply feel more alive and we are moving within the flow of life. How do you know when you’ve stopped following your heart? When the opposite occurs—decreased energy, lack of creativity, no real sense of purpose and you aren’t particularly happy. You have stepped out of the flow of life and are just drifting along. When this happens the solution is simple: Choose again. Reconnect again with your heart. As long as you are alive, it is never too late. You are free in each moment to choose the path of your heart and it never stops whispering to you, urging you to follow it.
The second key to successfully following your heart is that you will need to learn how to deal with fear. It is fear which prevents most people from reaching their fullest potential in life—fear of failure, fear of rejection from people we care about, fear that we simply aren’t good enough, and sometimes even fear of our own potential greatness. Unfortunately, no one else can overcome fear for us. Fear is something that you must learn to master on your own. Of course, courage is the major strategy for learning to master fear for most people and we should certainly develop the courage to the greatest extent we are able to. However, for me, the insight that has personally helped me the most when dealing with fear has been to understand that fear is primarily a creation of the mind. I create it in my mind—it doesn’t really exist outside the mind. I can dissolve it there as well. So can you and you will need to learn how to do this if you really want to be free in life and stay connected to your heart.
The Cardinal Virtue of Love
My third message to the Bentley graduates today is to emphasize the absolute importance of love as the cardinal virtue to nurture and cultivate in your lives. I don’t believe there is anything more important in life than love. I’m not talking about romantic love here, or “eros”, which is a very wonderful state of intoxication, but which also tends to fade over time. Rather, I’m talking about love as care and compassion, which actively flows out of our hearts toward other people and sentient beings through empathy and appreciation. This type of love need not fade over time but is capable of continued growth all our lives if we will consciously nurture it. When we are truly following our hearts we are very likely tapped into the flow of love as well. But love is also a virtue that we can consciously develop in our lives to higher and higher levels. Such efforts are well worth making for nothing enriches us, teaches us, or makes life more rewarding than developing our capacity for love. In cultivating love in my own life I’ve found practicing three other related virtues to be essential.
The first is gratitude. Being alive is absolutely extraordinary and there are endless things to be thankful for and grateful for. I try to take a few minutes early in the morning to be very quiet and to appreciate the people I love and express gratitude in my heart for the many wonderful things that fill my life with joy.
The second is forgiveness. Nothing stops the flow of love in our lives quicker than the various judgments we make toward others and the grievances that we allow to fester in our minds against other people. What we don’t fully understand is how much we harm ourselves with our judgments and grievances, because if we did understand we would stop indulging ourselves with them. Instead, we would see them for the poisons that they truly are. Fortunately, there is one virtue that we can practice that will eliminate them from our minds—forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness isn’t always easy, however. Our desire to be “right” is very strong and this usually requires us to judge others as “wrong”, and therefore not really forgivable. We also frequently make the mistake of believing that if we forgive others we are also condoning their harmful behavior. However, forgiveness simply means to relinquish our resentment and anger toward others, it doesn’t mean relinquishing our values and ethics. When we forgive others we free ourselves from the past and allow our hearts to be fully in the present moment, which is where love exists.
The third is generosity. It would be difficult to exaggerate the value of practicing generosity. The virtue of generosity does not merely apply to giving money, but primarily to the gift of ourselves—our time and our service to others. True generosity should not be thought of as some kind of self-sacrifice where what we give to others comes at our own expense—their gain is our loss. Rather it is an extension of love from our own hearts, which takes genuine delight in the flourishing of other people. In my life experience, generosity is a virtue that is best cultivated at first with small steps—acts of giving and kindness that may stretch us a bit, but which do not feel like any kind of sacrifice. As we practice generosity over time we will gradually discover that we want to take larger steps and extend our generosity further, because our sense of who we are and what we care about has expanded as well.
Overcoming Life’s Challenges
My fourth message to the Bentley graduates today is that life has many, many difficulties and challenges—it isn’t easy. We all will face many disappointments, frustrations, losses, and injustices, as well as inevitable illness, aging, and eventually death. I believe the best way to deal with most of the difficulties and challenges that come our way is to see them as opportunities to help us grow—lessons that are presented to us to help us go further than we have gone before. I have not found it to be useful to ever see myself as a victim of either circumstance or of other people. Self-pity is a remarkably self-destructive emotion, which you should consciously work to eliminate from your emotional life because it dis-empowers you and moves you away from being able to follow your heart.
It was a pretty difficult time for me. Many times I was tempted to lash out in anger at the injustice of the situation and self-pity was frequently a temptation that I had to struggle with. I did a tremendous amount of personal growth work such as counseling, meditation, and integrated breath work to try to appreciate and to understand what the lessons life was trying to teach me were. There were many. One very difficult lesson for me was to learn that I had to simply let go and trust the process that was happening because I certainly couldn’t control it or stop it. That is not my natural inclination because I prefer to directly confront my challenges. A second lesson I learned was that a lot of people really do care about me and they provided amazing emotional support to me—that was pretty humbling for me and something that I am deeply grateful about. My most valuable lesson, however, has been about the importance of communicating with greater thoughtfulness and sensitivity. I believe that I’ve always lived my life with a passion for honesty—tell the truth as I saw it regardless of how that truth would be interpreted by others. I have always thought that there was far too little honesty and far too many lies in the world. While I still believe that, I’ve now come to realize how easy it is to be misunderstood and misinterpreted. A careless and thoughtless statement may be taken out of context and repeated over and over again—literally sent around the world through digital media. I saw this happen many times over the past year and it has burned itself into my consciousness.
May 17, 2008