Phi Beta Kappa Lecture: Interlude

Gerald R. Rising, May 14, 1999

    I dedicate my comments this afternoon to my parents.

    My father was the scholar of my family but unfortunately a scholar who was never able to make full use of his talents. Brought up in quite different times, my dad was only able to attend school through the sixth grade when his circumstances forced him to find a job. He changed employment only once and continued to work for the same firm that hired him at age 16 for 67 years, walking six miles to and from his office on the day before he died at 83. He was uneducated in the standard sense of that word but he was superbly literate. He was an agnostic yet he knew the Bible well. Although attending the theater was beyond his means, he read Shakespeare and Shaw and could quote lengthy passages. I cherish his articulate and informed correspondence. When he was 80 he began to learn Spanish through a course given over the radio.

    My mother was also a woman of her times -- the times of your great grandparents. (Unfortunately that designation speaks to the difference between your age and mine as well.) She was born in Chicago but her mother died when she was two years old and her dad, my grandfather, had to send my mother back to Sweden to be raised by relatives. My mother was finally able to rejoin her American family ten years later. Knowing not a word of English, this twelve year old was assigned to -- a kindergarten. Can you picture anything like that being done today? When my mother told me that story, she added, "You can imagine how motivated I was to learn the language." By the middle of the school year she had mastered English, moved up through the grades and rejoined her own age group.

    During World War II, with her sons both serving in the Navy, my mother went to work in an armament plant inspecting rifles to see that they met specifications. Pleased with her work, her boss enrolled my mom in a trigonometry class and this subject -- just use of the ratios in right triangles -- my mother could not fathom. Home on leave, I tried to help her, but she could not manage the material. I remember at the time -- still a damned fool 19 year old -- I thought less of my mother. Only later did I perceive that that was the first of my many failures as a teacher.

    At least others recognized my mother's quality and dignity. This woman who never attended high school was invited to join an academic society, was soon elected its president and even served as its national representative.

*

    Please take the title of my talk seriously. I mean our brief encounter this afternoon to fit that title: to be, that is, an interlude. Many of you, I understand, will later today attend an honors convocation in further recognition of your work and then there are for all of you your graduation ceremonies tomorrow. Having been associated with a few of those events in the past, I know what is expected of their speakers. They are foretold to regale you just as does a football coach preparing his team to take the field against a major rival. By the end of their pep talk you are expected to be so stirred up, so emotionally charged -- in contemporary vernacular, so hyper -- that your recessional is out of control. You leave the building whooping and screaming as you race off, robes flying, to conquer the known and unknown world -- prepared, of course, to send back a major fraction of the fortunes you amass in the process to the ever needful alumni fund.

    Well, indeed. With one or two of those experiences ahead of you, I feel constrained to offer you instead a brief rest stop in preparation for those wonderful times to follow: a far more muted conversation -- quite simply an interlude before the violence. I will only offer you a few comments and suggestions that may apply to your lives after graduation.

    Although I have poked fun at those upcoming talks -- and this one too, in fact -- I do hope that you will take their -- our -- messages seriously. A great many of you will leave these halls to confront the real world, in the process finally and irrevocably forced to grow up. You will, of course, leave behind some classmates who will postpone that confrontation by continuing in graduate school and a still smaller number who will avoid growing up forever by entering the professoriate. They, like the rest of us academic Peter Pans, will postpone rational puberty to the grave.

*

    Here -- at last, you are certainly saying to yourselves -- are my homilies.

    I focus my comments on a subject with which you are not yet well acquainted -- and thank goodness. That subject is failure. You who are so highly gifted, who have worked so hard and who have done so very well have had few -- in many cases even no -- brushes with failure. To you a grade of B represents sub-par work. But I speak here of real failure, Fs if you will. I will approach this subject from several directions.

    I start at the very bottom. I recently returned from a month in our nation's capital where I visited for the first time the impressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. To avoid the crowds at the Cherry Blossom Festival I went there just after dawn. As I walked alone among the massive monoliths I came upon a remarkable juxtaposition. It happened while I was admiring one of Roosevelt's extraordinary Depression-motivated statements carved in one of the stones: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." Within twenty feet of this inscription, a derelict waded through a decorative pool picking up coins people had tossed there for luck.

    Please do not accept the view that the poor are only malingerers. Of course, there are malingerers among the poor; there are malingerers among the rich as well and at least one -- me -- among the middle class. Even here in America there are too many elderly people subsisting on cat food and children living in squalor for any country so well endowed as ours to allow. And worldwide the situation is far worse: we share this planet with over a billion people, a sixth of our world population, who live in abject poverty. Although, given past history and the inexorable laws of statistics, a few of you here will almost certainly join this terrifying underclass, most of you will never even rub shoulders with these people. But recognize that they are there and for goodness sakes don't begrudge the pittance of your taxes that go to their support.

*

    Although I hope that you will retain empathy for those far less fortunate than you, I turn now to a kind of failure that you will much more likely experience -- personal failure. Given one of the most depressing directions of modern society, for example, there is a very strong chance that you will at one time or another be fired from a job. Something you have done wrong or something you have failed to do may lead to this unfortunate event but, on the other hand, you may not be at fault at all.

    You need only examine the financial pages of today's newspapers to know that the way to become a successful manager and to enhance your company's stock value is to fire half your workforce. Never mind productivity, competence, excellence, loyalty to your employer, value to sales or product development -- just goodbye. And whether you deserve it or not, that kind of job loss represents personal failure to every single one of those receiving a pink slip. Undeserving you may be but you cannot help but feel defeated, incompetent and rejected when you lose a job.

    Sadly, a few of you have seen that kind of event in your own family and you know at least second hand the devastating effect it can have on those who must face failure. You know how catastrophic can be such an experience and how hard it is to reorganize a formerly well-directed life.

    But that is not the only kind of failure that you may have to face. It is very difficult for wonderful people like you to measure up to your own standards. If your aspirations are high, and I hope that they will be continue to be very high, you invite failure. You have, for example, considerably less chance of winning a Nobel Prize or a National Book Award than you have of winning a lottery. Those may be extreme examples but there will be things you have your mind and heart set on -- a promotion, an appointment, a contract, a recognition, a relationship -- that will elude you.

    You cannot, you must not, seek to avoid such failures by lowering your sights. To realize your great potential you must take risks and risks inevitably increase the probability of failure. The alternative is to drift downward toward a mediocrity that your attendance here this afternoon suggests you have escaped.

    And please recognize that, even if you do mount defenses against them, failures will be part of your experience. And those will be the real tests of your courage, your stamina, your faith. My concern here is that you not self-destruct in the face of such episodes. You owe it to yourselves, to your families and to your associates not to let such perceived failures disable you. You must adapt to those losses as temporary misfortunes and focus on future accomplishments rather than on the problems of the present and past. I wish that I could say "learn to accept" here but there is nothing, to my knowledge, to prepare you for such catastrophes. You must face these unique situations when they arise.

    Some would say here that you should learn from your failures, profit from your losses. I do not join them. You do not learn much of value when you are in the doldrums. The lessons at this time are, I believe, not especially life defining. I am reminded in this regard of the man fired from the ad agency. Asked if he had learned anything from his experience, he said, "I did indeed. When your boss comes up with a new idea, instead of replying, ‘Bullshit!', you should respond, ‘Fantastic!'"

    I look back on my own life and see a great many failures -- near misses that at the time set me back emotionally: administrative appointments, editorships and authorships, yes even coaching assignments. Now I am happy to say, Thank God I missed. In several cases I know those who beat me out and I feel very sorry for them; they're suffering a fate that I somehow dodged. What I thought at the time was a terrible misfortune was the best luck that ever came my way.

    I will describe just one of those situations not because of its importance but because it seems to me now to be a comic episode. Back in the 1950s when I was a high school teacher near Rochester the position of state director of mathematics came open. I thought that this would be a great opportunity so I applied for the post. I aced the written exam and an interview date was set for Albany in mid-January. Mid-January in upstate New York -- you know the drill. A blizzard intervened. My plane flight was cancelled, trains couldn't make it through the drifts and roads were closed. So I called Albany and asked if I could reschedule the interview. The answer was straightforward if not accommodating; it was simply no. But they threw me a bone: my name would be kept on their Civil Service list for future positions. For years after that I received notices for jobs for which my written test had somehow qualified me: state librarian, assistant director of the state's public works. I was left wondering how the state survives. Meanwhile, the man who won the math directorship became a close friend. I had the opportunity to witness his life spent mired in state bureaucracy.

    It would have been wonderful to have had then the foresight to realize that I was being served by what I lost; unfortunately it doesn't work that way. I am sure that you too will look back on the twists and turns of your personal fate with some of the same attitude. But when they happen, those failures are still tough to take.

    There is another aspect to looking back, of course. Then you can pick and choose just as you do when you collect pictures for a photograph album. Consider a personal example: I cajoled Dr. Bono into mentioning in her introduction that long string of 23 wins as a high school football coach. What I did not tell her was that my record before that was 3 wins against 14 losses and that I lost 3 of the following 4 games. It is great now to think about that winning streak and to downplay those times when, in the doldrums myself, I had to try to pep up a too often defeated team. You are, by the way, among the first to whom I have admitted that longer record -- please don't tell a soul.

    So continue to set your sights on high achievements, but force yourself to accept what comes and to focus on the wins instead of the defeats. Instead of falling into the slough of despond, get your act together, readdress your problem or attack new ones. You will lead a much happier life if you can manage those admittedly very difficult things.

    One last aspect of failure relates to change. I can recall leaving my university thinking that I had a rather good grasp of the world's knowledge. How foolish that was of me even then in the days when the hand-held calculator had not yet been invented, but today that kind of thinking is simply idiotic. Today's world is like the one to which the Red Queen introduced Alice in "Through the Looking Glass." You have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. Many of you will -- I hope and expect -- be change agents yourselves; meanwhile, all of you will have to adapt to change. Continuing to learn is what will serve you here.

    Given that accelerating change, you had better take that admonition to learn in its very broadest sense. Just as today whole fields of knowledge quickly come into fashion, others make room for them by becoming passé. Your field of work, of endeavor, of study may eventually play out, fail you and leave you stranded. Change then will of necessity be to an entirely different line of work. And broad knowledge can serve you here; it is almost impossible to exclude knowledge that might help.

    Consider an odd personal example of how incidental learning can be of value. In the wardroom aboard our World War II ship, we officers played a game called Nim. Several piles of counters are placed on a table and two players take turns drawing one or more from one of the piles; the winner the player who takes the last counter. I was intrigued by this seemingly simple but in reality surprisingly complex game and, when a few years later I came across a strategy for winning in a math text, I spent some time mastering it. Over my long life that strategy has been worth many drinks in the world's taverns. But that learning meant more than that to me. It involved a new kind of numeration, binary, that at the time had few other applications. How fast that changed. Today, as you know, binary operations lie at the heart of computing and I found myself among the few prepared to be comfortable with that revolution, that new paradigm.

    Of course you will need to study to keep up with the special field in which you will work. But you will punish yourself eventually if you do not go beyond those studies.

    I repeat, failure will almost certainly be a part of your future. And I admonish you just as local fans did to those who groaned when the Bills returned -- still winless but still the second best team in football -- to the Super Bowl year after year: "Deal with it."

*

    Because I have spent so much time this afternoon with what I believe is an important down side of life, I have left you up to now with a very negative impression of the world and your future. I suggest here that that would be a very serious misidentification. So I take a moment now to remind you that there is an up side to your future as well. This is in fact a grand world, a world full of extraordinary beauty, but also a world full of extraordinary challenges. It is those challenges that you with your wonderful gifts can address and make this world still better. Most of your future will surely be bright and the best part of that future is the fact that you, even as an individual, can make a difference. Keep your high standards, keep your industry, keep your creativity and keep your laudable goals and you will as a group best the most difficult challenges, surmount the most difficult barriers. You have proved yourselves here, now prove yourselves to that world out there.

*

    So much for my discussion of failure and success. I now circle back to the subject of my opening remarks and I ask you to do something for me. You've been a very good audience: as I look around I see only a few nodding off and for that I thank you. But now I want you to follow my instructions carefully. Please do not applaud and do not stand. I want you simply to twist around in your seat and silently look for a few moments at those parents. Your own of course if they are here. And you whose parents could not attend this ceremony, please simply choose surrogates for them. There are plenty to go around.

    Please think now not of the noes they told you, the demands those parents placed upon you and your too many confrontations, but rather their yeses, the support they provided you, the sacrifices they made for you and the love they have always felt for you. Those wonderful parents of my own with whom I began this talk are no longer with me and seldom does a day go by when I do not think of them and wish that I could signal my affection and my appreciation. Don't wait, love yours back now -- and let them know it every day of your life.

    Please continue to think of those parents as I conclude my interlude with a few lines written by my honored classmate and friend, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Galway Kinnell. Although these lines were written about his father, please consider them as relating to either parent. I apologize to Galway for twisting them out of context:

His steps rang in the end room
    of the...house...someone had lent my father as a place
    to put the family for the summer
    while he stayed behind doing his odd jobs.
This would be his one visit, and I ran
    through the dark of the empty rooms
    until he bent down out of the gloom like a god
    and picked me up and carried me back into the lamplight....

Suddenly I was like somebody
    propped up in a hospital bed,
    who can see, hear, almost understand,
    and is unable to speak.

*

    Thank you for allowing me to share this glorious event with you. God speed. And good afternoon. -- Gerry Rising