Twelve lessons I wish I had learned in college

Commencement address December 2015

“We only want you to be happy……”
– Your parents

Rarely have I accurately predicted what would make me happy. Ironically, happiness often seems to be an unintended consequence of my inability to get what I want.

“The purpose of life is not happiness but worthiness.”
– Felix Adler

But, worthy for what? Who determines what is worthy?

Lesson 1. We need each other. It is a fact that we all live in the shelter of each other, and this is simply not negotiable. The breakthrough last week in Paris on climate change makes it clear that we must work together on a global scale in order to preserve civilization.

As a scientist, I can get my nerd on and say that we are obligate social primates. Natural selection acting over countless variations of the human organism has created our obligate need for one another. We have no claws, no fur, no fangs, and we don’t run very fast. Intelligence alone will not save you from becoming a predator’s lunch, or for that matter, assure your success in modern life. It is our collective power and wisdom that determine our success as a species and as individuals. Working and living alone for any extended period is without exception deeply painful. I try to respect this reality at all times.

Lesson 2. All other lessons depend on Lesson 1.

Lesson 3. Our genes do not determine who we are, but neither does our environment. Nature vs. Nurture is not a useful way to understand the human condition. Instead, our lives are a consequence of Nature via Nurture. If you are not in a coma, you know that we are not a blank slate a birth. Trust me, your mom knows this. Only a few academic behavioral scientists continue to study the proposition that we are largely programmed by our experiences.

Instead, our experiences shape the expression of our instincts. Because we no longer live in the evolutionary past that created our nature, it is appropriate to have compassion for the inappropriate expression of our instincts. I have found that shaming and blaming others are not useful tools for getting what I need to be whole.

Lesson 4. Never underestimate your brain chemistry and wiring. If you think that you can be the complete master of your thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, think again, because you are wrong. In order to have a fighting chance at having an effective life and perhaps stumbling upon happiness, I need to have a healthy respect for the extent to which I can be hijacked by fear and for my biased perceptions of reality.

Lesson 5. Self awareness is my most powerful tool in managing my thoughts and emotions, and thus my actions. Without self awareness, I react rather than act. As far as I know, a human is the only organism on earth that can observe its own thinking, although there is evidence that some birds and other mammals have some degree of self aware consciousness. I try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to cultivate mindfulness in all that I do.

Lesson 6. Humility is a core value for my existence. Every time I have been convinced that I had the truth in a corner, I was wrong – at least to some degree. My tendency to see the world in terms of absolutes has not been helpful.

This is why I characterize myself as an environmental scientist, and not an environmentalist. I usually agree with my environmentalist friends on issues related to the wellbeing of our planet, but I find that they are sometimes mindlessly strident. Before you rail against The Man, make sure that your facts are sound and you understand his motives. Because we are in this together, I try to walk in another’s shoes before I judge.

Lesson 7. It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. It really doesn’t matter what I have to say. I am not judged by my intentions, but instead by my actions. The only thing that matters to the world outside of the skin that I live in, is what I do. I have found that my life has been defined by my actions, and the response of the world to my actions has in turn, for good or ill, strongly affected what I think, what I feel, and what have to say.

Lesson 8. If I am uncomfortable with my situation in life, I have three options: I can change the situation, I can accept it, or I can boogie. Wisdom is knowing which path to take. In this sense, pain has been the touchstone of my personal growth when I have chosen poorly. Whenever I am upset with a person, I can find no peace until I accept that person exactly as they are. This does not mean that I accept their actions, but only that I accept my powerlessness to change that person.

Lesson 9. I do not try to do extraordinary things. Although my generation was raised on the belief that it is noble to strive for greatness, I have found that this is usually foolish. Instead, I try to be skillful at the ordinary things in life, such as being a scholar, writing with clarity, speaking well, working with discipline and perseverance, collaboration, feeling deeply, being physically healthy, being a true friend, loving my family, and cultivating a spiritual walk. My job is to make sure that I am prepared and able, then to walk through the open doors to be of service. In turn, truly extraordinary events, opportunities, and people have found me.

Lesson 10. I am not whole unless I am being of service. I get to define what service is, and in order to do this I must have a vision of what can be. What needs to be done to make things better? If you are a leader, be responsible and act like one, and articulate your vision. If your vision is unselfish, you will be followed. If you are not one who can lead, find those who serve and speak for the greater good, and follow them.

Lesson 11. In public discourse, I have found that too often the most important aspects of what is said, are who is saying it, and who is hearing it. The argument itself seems to be less important than the cultural or social context. Is the speaker part of my tribe? Am I speaking to my tribe?

Thus, I am skeptical of simple answers to complex problems. Addressing climate change and living sustainably on this planet will require humanity to understand the complexity of the various choices that we must make. I have contempt for any leader who appeals to me as part of a tribe, rather than to my understanding of a problem and what needs to be done.

Lesson 12. My sense of wonder and awe is the foundation of my wellbeing. The way I maintain my sense of wonder is through spiritual practice, which for me involves nature as often as possible. Of all the things that we can teach at Unity College, this is the one important area that we do not develop in any systematic fashion. For that, I offer my sincere apology.

All my life, I have asked the existential questions: What are we? Why are we here? What is the universe? Through this questioning, I have developed my personal spirituality. When I was a kid, I rode my bicycle across town to visit our pastor. I said to him, “Dr. Grant, tell me: What is the universe in?” He gave me some ice cream.

For me, at times the universe feels like a magnificent and infinite mind, rather than an exceedingly complex physical machine. Neurobiology would suggest that this is merely an artifact of the human tendency to have ideas of reference, but I am not so sure. This is personal and you may see things differently. Each person develops this in their own way, or not. But without it, there is a vacancy in my sense of self – a sense of longing.

Whenever possible I try to step outside and look at the stars. This never fails to take my attention away from my self centered fears.

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Every generation has what Thomas Berry has called their Great Work. My father went ashore at Normandy during WWII, and I know that he viewed this, and the rebuilding of Europe, as The Great Work of his time.

The Great Work of our time is the development of a sustainable relationship with the earth, a challenge even more perilous than those faced by my father’s generation. I am grateful that, as you leave here, you take with you the willingness and some of the tools to participate in The Great Work of our time. Real progress in The Great Work was made last week in Paris.

Never stop learning. I am astonished at the lament of the old timer who says, “The older I am, the less I know.” Dude, are you paying attention?!  How can you have a rich and meaningful life without constantly learning? In order for you to be of maximum service in this time of dire need, you must continue to grow in learning and understanding. The climate accord in Paris was merely a beginning, and we need all hands on deck. Keep growing and learning so you can give your best to the most important enterprise in human history.

Finally, I offer you a quote from Martin Keogh, editor of a remarkable volume entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet.

“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Graduates, you are those people. Thank you for the privilege of spending these last few years working with and for you. Godspeed and good luck.

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This is my final public official act as president of Unity College. Delivered the evening of 18 December 2015

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