Kevin F. Flemming ’97: Think about your individual place in the world in a bigger way

by Kevin F. Flemming '97 | Jan 23, 2017

First off, let me say with all sincerity, Congratulations! Your accomplishment is truly significant. The awarding of a University degree is one of the few honors in our society that is a mark of individual achievement, signified by the diploma you will receive shortly.

What underpins the value of your diploma is the fact that it can neither be bought nor sold. It can’t be borrowed or lent. A degree cannot be earned through group effort, nor can it be conferred by the favor of a few. One can only receive it after doing the work required to master a comprehensive body of knowledge, and by demonstrating competence in his or her field of study.

Kevin_Flemming_Winter_Graduation_2017I’m emphasizing this because I worry that some people believe a college degree is common and easily obtained. So let me share with you some statistical perspective.

According to the latest census, only 33% of American adults have earned a Bachelor’s degree. A mere 12% hold a Master’s. And for those of you receiving your Professional and Doctorate degrees today … you are among the top 3% of the educated class in our country. Even in this advanced society, in the year 2017, with practically all of the information in the world at everyone’s disposal, your degree is a mark of distinction and you can take personal pride in that.

Whenever I mention these figures to friends, everyone is surprised. I think it’s because the topic of Higher Ed has been so pervasive in our public discourse, there is a tendency to believe that a majority of people in our country attend college. It’s a case of projection. We project our view of the world onto others. And if you work and socialize with others who have attained a similar level of education, it’s natural to assume that there are more people like you than there really are.

In fact, most people don’t have the slightest understanding of the investment required to successfully navigate a formal education. It is at once a personal, financial, and intellectual investment that no one knows better than you and your families.

Now, on a personal note: this is the third year in a row that I have been asked to deliver the winter commencement address at DeSales. When Fr. O’Connor asked me again last fall, I really thought he was joking. I mean, seriously? In the entire history of this school, commencement was cancelled only three times. And I was the common denominator in two out of the three. Now, the first time I was asked, it was a great surprise. The second time it was an honor. This time … I’m starting to think that it’s penance for taking the maximum number of CLEP’s allowed in the ACCESS program.

And if you think it’s stressful to come up with a message worthy of such a distinguished group of graduates, imagine the ramp up after being given three years to write it. The worst part for me is that I have to stop telling people that I wrote the greatest commencement speech never given. Now I actually have to give it.

So, after deep and long reflection, I want to tell you something you may not be prepared to hear. Like myself and everyone assembled here on the dais, you made the investment in your education with the reasonable expectation of earning a return. The return may come in the form of employment opportunity, career advancement, or appropriately, the attainment of new capabilities. Whatever the form, your objective was personal and, I have no doubt, honorable as well.

Today, as we celebrate your achievement, I’m going to ask you … in fact, I implore you to think bigger. I’m asking you to stretch beyond the tangible goals you set for yourself at the beginning of your academic pursuit because you can do so much more.

Here’s what I know: each of us has capabilities that go far beyond what we currently think is possible. And it would be a terrible waste of effort to merely reach for only what we can see today with our limited vision. The minimal level of happiness; the satisfactory career; a comfortable lifestyle; the baseline.

Regardless of where you are in your life at this moment in time, you’ve already proven to yourself that you can do that which is hard. And you happen to possess a spectacular power. As a scholar, you know how to access and apply knowledge across space and time. You have a superpower that can be employed at any moment and for any purpose, if you have the will to use it.

Before this starts sounding too metaphysical, allow me to paint a picture of what I’m talking about.

In science there is no new idea, theory, or proof that exists in isolation from previous study. In every field, from microbiology to astrophysics, the work being done today is built on the knowledge attained in the past. So too it is with economics & political science, anthropology, business, art, and all of the other academic specialties.

And this is because human knowledge is cumulative. We benefit from a progressive chain of information that also has context. We can understand something we’ve just learned because of its connections to something else. That’s how our mind works.

But we also have the benefit of knowing that we don’t know everything. The astronomer, Carl Sagan popularized the phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We understand inherently that there is information yet to be learned, and by knowing this, we can continue to move forward in our pursuit of discovery.

Since the beginning of humankind’s intellectual journey, this has been a known fact. It’s there for us to read. The Roman Philosopher, Seneca, in the first Century AD wrote, “The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden…our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them.” The only difference between Seneca and us is that we have 2,000 years of additional information at our disposal. He had the same capabilities that we have today, which is why he could comprehend a future where a person would know more than him. Imagine what humanity will know 2,000 years from now.

I really enjoy reading history and biographies. The trend that authors in this genre have been following over the last few decades has been to take deep dives into the personalities and motivations of historical figures across all periods. By conducting new analyses of source material and cross-referencing it with contemporary histories, modern historians are unveiling detailed portraits of real people that existed on this Earth over the past Centuries and Millennia.

When reading these books, I’m struck with how familiar and human the people who shaped the world seem to be. When you read the actual words written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or Isaac Newton, you realize that they were not very different from us. They, like us, were aware of their mortality. They, like us, were endowed with the same capacity to reason; to feel; and to change our opinions.

It also makes me realize that we, in effect, are all historians. No matter which field of study you pursue, your scholarship depends upon synthesizing the information learned by your predecessors and comprehending the historical context of the knowledge you acquire.

So imagine this: What if every new generation born had to rediscover all of the information learned by the previous generation? What if every 60 years or so, we had to discover Algebra all over again and re-invent Calculus? Or comprehend for the first time the structure of a cell or the orbits of the planets? What if we had to figure out how to make fire? Clearly, we’d never get out of the cave – and we really wouldn’t be human.

So, as educated human beings, we need to think about our individual place in the world in a bigger way. We have a mandate to contribute to what the 18th Century writer, Samuel Johnson, described as “…the hereditary stock devolved to (us) from ancient times, the collective labour of a thousand intellects.”

O.K. I admit this is high-minded stuff. By invoking the words of great philosophers, I’m attempting to illustrate a fairly obtuse concept. And I know that you understand this internally. But I’ve found that it is all too easy to ignore it in the course of our daily lives. And we ignore it at our peril - because day-to-day living quickly progresses into years. If we don’t push ourselves to think bigger, we wind up forfeiting our right to share in the greatest wealth of our world.

So here’s where we make it real. Thinking bigger doesn’t require any more energy than we’re already expending. It only requires building on a few natural habits we already possess.

First, make fear irrelevant in your life. Notice that I’m not saying you should be fearless. I’m certainly not. I face small fears every day. I fear that the employee I pick to work on a customer’s project will do a bad job. I fear that the executive who I want to sell to won’t take my call. I fear that the jokes I write in my commencement speeches won’t get laughs.

Fear exists – but only in the mind. If you can remember that fear is a figment of your imagination, it will never limit your actions.

Next: ask for things (ask often & ask with confidence). The late, great Steve Jobs said that he was always surprised with how eager people were to do things for him when he just asked. Long before he was “The Steve Jobs”, he would ask for favors or for help from whomever he thought might know something he didn’t, or who could provide a resource he needed. I practice this habit purposefully. I don’t get everything I ask for, but I get quite a lot. And I can tell you that every worthwhile experience I’ve had in my profession so far, came from an ask. Nothing of value was ever offered to me unsolicited.

Mr. Jobs provides inspiration for the last habit as well. Be flexible. In a 2005 speech, he said that “…we can’t connect the dots in our life looking forward - they only connect when we look back. So we have to trust our instincts that the dots will eventually connect.”

How many people do you think must have experimented with electricity between the time that Ben Franklin flew his kite and the moment that Thomas Edison made his light bulb? How many advances in our knowledge of electromagnetic force must have been made during that period? Now, if people in Franklin’s time believed that light was the only purpose for electricity, how many would have bothered to do the work that Edison relied on to actually invent it?

We can’t know what effect our contributions will have in the future, so why should we limit our efforts to only those things we’re sure about? Be flexible in your thinking.

Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” In other words, think bigger. Thinking bigger honors the effort you’ve already invested. And practicing three good habits will help you take your seat on this magnificent, perpetually moving train of human progress.

If you need a reminder every once in a while, that’s normal. Whenever you find that fear is limiting your choices, or you’re hesitant to ask for something – or if you find your perspective is becoming too rigid - just look at your diploma.

Thank You

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