‘Some Thoughts on Work’: Remarks at Convocation, Sept. 3, 2013

Thank you, Brent, and thank you, Matt, for those very thoughtful reflections.

I am going to direct my remarks today in particular to you, our first-year students, and I want to speak about a subject that you might expect to hear, not on the eve of your first day of classes, but rather on graduation weekend, as you are about to be turned out into the world.

Here on campus and within the larger Bates community we have been thinking and talking over the past year about the concept of work — how it relates to our liberal arts mission; what we should be doing to help students, over the arc of their four years here, to figure out what types of work they may be interested in pursuing; and how, in very practical ways, we can connect students to experiences and internships that will help them be successful in whatever job markets they choose after they graduate. A working group led by the director of the Harward Center, Darby Ray, and Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Sargent, and composed of faculty, staff, and students, is diving into all aspects of this project, and we will have many opportunities over the course of this next year to engage with the thinking of this working group and consider proposals for action.

I do not plan, therefore, to focus today on what we might do as an institution to advance this initiative. Rather, my purpose today is twofold: first, to explain why, in my view, helping you, our students, think deeply about the meaning of work lies at the heart of our mission in the liberal arts; and second, to offer some practical guidance at the beginning of your Bates journey for making choices about your own work that I hope will serve you well during your four years here and over the course of your lives.

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There are many ways to define the core purposes of the liberal arts. Among others, I like the notion that we, at colleges like Bates, are both motivating and equipping our students to lead an examined life. Philosopher Jonathan Lear has defined this notion elegantly as “living with the question of how to live.”[i] If you believe Freud, love and work lie at the heart of the question of how to live.[ii] If you get things right in these two spheres, you are well on your way to living a fulfilling life.

As I mentioned, my focus today is on the “work” side of the question of how to live, and you’ll find no shortage of advice on how to find fulfilling work. Many people suggest that the secret lies in “following your bliss.” [iii] Writer and theologian Friedrich Buechner, for instance, asserts that fulfillment lies at “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[iv] Bill Gates gives the thought a more contemporary twist. He wants the “brightest minds working on the world’s biggest problems.”[v] These two visions, one framed in terms of passion and need, the other in terms of talent and problem-solving, amount to different versions of the same idea — namely that defining a life of meaningful work is fundamentally a matter of alignment between self and world. As Mark Twain put it, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”[vi]

The trouble with formulations like these is that they are so sweeping as to be paralyzing. What if you don’t have a grand passion? What if you haven’t developed some amazing skill to train on one of the world’s biggest problems? What if you haven’t a clue who you are meant to be and what you are meant to do in this world?

These questions lie at the heart of what a college like Bates is meant to help you sort out, and because the answers are different for each one of you, I figure the most useful thing I can do today is to supply you with some navigational aids as you embark on your journey. I have one overarching suggestion to offer and three insights that have come to me over time and that you might find useful as you make your way.

My overarching suggestion is this: Ask the big questions — Who am I, really? What am I interested in? What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of work do I want to do? How can I connect with my fellow human beings and contribute to purposes larger than myself?

But here’s the trick. Don’t expect to find big answers. The answers to the biggest, deepest, and most fundamental questions in life don’t come packaged as big and deep and fundamental answers. Rather they sneak up on you. They emerge gradually over time, as you try things and learn things and begin to chart a course for yourself. A big part of the challenge is recognizing the answers as they begin to take shape in your life.

Here are my three suggestions to help you make choices and to help you spot the answers to the big questions as they emerge:

My first rule is to live your life from the inside out. As you make choices about what courses you will take, what activities you will pursue, what summer jobs you will explore, start from some sense of what actually interests you, what you might be good at, what excites you at this particular moment in your life.

I haven’t always followed my own rule, and I have paid the price every time. I’ll give you one example. Many years ago, I went to law school because I was interested in higher education, and I had decided that I could better pursue that interest through law and policy than through an academic discipline. This was a good decision for me. But having made the decision to become a lawyer, I got caught up in an outside-in approach to the legal profession and I lost my way for a good long while.

After I graduated from law school I worked for a few years for a big Boston law firm doing litigation, along with higher education cases. Then, I said to myself, “Well, sister, if you’re going to be a trial lawyer, you better figure out how to try a case to a jury. Not just any case, by the way, but criminal cases, where the stakes are high and you’re the one driving the bus. So I hauled off and got myself a job as an assistant United States attorney in Boston, prosecuting drug rings, arson, embezzlement, and an assortment of other cases falling under federal jurisdiction.

This should have been a fabulous job. Young lawyers kill to get these positions, because unlike in a big law firm, as a federal prosecutor you are in charge of your own cases, you put together the trial strategy, you call the witnesses, and ultimately, like Jack McCoy in Law and Order, you stand before the jury and make the case-clenching summation.

Well, it all sounded very glamorous, and the competitor in me loved the idea of beating the odds to get the job and then facing the very public discipline of having to win my cases. But from the very beginning, something didn’t sit quite right with me. Trying cases in a court of law is a very stylized enterprise. Everything is black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, you catch them or you don’t, you win your case or you lose it, and if you win, you go for as much prison time as you can get.

But guess what, I’m not a black and white sort of person — I see the world in a zillion shades of gray, and I revel in the nuance and ambiguity of life. But there was an even more fundamental problem. It is something that is blindingly obvious, but I had missed it. Litigation is largely retrospective. Criminal litigation is a dispute in the present about events that happened in the past. Who shot John? What were the circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin? These are the questions one goes to court to answer.

But the questions that have always grabbed me are future-oriented questions. I am an optimist and a problem-solver. I like to build things or make them better. I am quintessentially an institutional person who loves to work together with colleagues to move an idea forward. I am not Jack McCoy. I do not want to stand up solo and notch my belt.

So there you have it. Being a trial lawyer — and particularly a criminal prosecutor — was the wrong fit for me at a very fundamental level. I should have figured this out early on, but I had lost my bearings. Rather than working from the inside out, thinking first about the kinds of experiences that animate me, that spark my creativity, I had focused on the external reward system of the profession. Being an assistant U.S. attorney was one of the most prestigious and exciting things a young litigator could do, and I had not stopped to realize that for very deep reasons it would not be the right thing for me.

Fortunately, all was not lost. I not only learned important lessons about how to make choices, I also learned some skills that have served me well in other pursuits — a nose for evidence, the power of connecting emotionally with a jury, and how to be brave in the face of the constant risk of public failure.

Over time, if you challenge yourself to work from the inside out, you will find that you are more creative and successful at those things that connect to your gifts, and interests, and temperamental qualities. And, as you develop your talents and your awareness of them, your choices will become clearer.

Part of what we will be working on with you over the next four years is precisely this process of helping you to discern what your interests are, how they connect with your choices about how you will spend your time here, and where they lead in terms of internships and other work experiences that allow you to pressure-test your interests in a variety of settings.

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My second rule, really more of a suggestion, is to “get your hands dirty.” Try things, learn some skills, have some experiences that you love and build on, and others, like my misguided venture into criminal prosecution, that don’t work for you and you leave behind. By definition, if you’re trying new things, you’re learning things about yourself and the world around you that will make you useful, build your confidence, and ultimately shape both your identity and your marketability to the outside world.

To illustrate, let’s look a little closer to home. Last year, when I first arrived in Lewiston, I went to an exhibit at Museum L-A, down in the mill building on the river. The exhibit featured photographs and oral histories designed to capture the images and reflections of the people who worked in Lewiston’s shoe factories before the industry went into decline locally several decades ago.

Unlike you guys, the workers featured in this exhibit were not faced with the dilemma of many choices of what they would do for work. Indeed, they had very few options. Yet their reflections give powerful voice to the human impulse to work, to develop skills, to become part of a productive enterprise.

Here’s how Richard Courtemanche, a worker who sewed shoes by hand, described how he learned to do the work, and how he came to love it.

An average hand-sewer, back in those days, in the ’60s, would probably do about twenty pairs a day. A good hand-sewer would do around thirty pairs a day, as he was considered to be fast. A real fast guy, we’re talking, you know … thirty five to forty pairs. I would do around sixty pairs a day, for many years. Myself and Vern, Vernon Daigle, locally, were probably the fastest hand-sewers. That was unheard of, what we could do. We did it because it was, it came natural, what other people would do, unnatural. So he was a good man. I learned from him, because he used to hand-sew quite a few years before me. I used to watch, and I’d say, I can do the same thing. And then from there I picked up the tricks that my dad used to show me, then I picked up some others, then after that, I loved it.[vii]

It is worth noting here that Richard Courtemanche did not necessarily start with a passion for shoemaking that he then unleashed on the world. Rather he waded in, he paid attention, he learned the skills, and then along the way he discovered that he was really good at stitching shoes. Only “after that,” did he come to love his work. In other words, the passion did not precede the engagement with work, it emerged from the doing.

Learning a set of skills or a base of knowledge is a fundamental aspect of identity formation, of becoming fully human. I can sew shoes. This is what I do. This is who I am. I am proud of it. “Myself and Vern … That was unheard of, what we could do.”

You are lucky. You will have more choices about what you do than Richard Courtemanche or Vern Daigle could ever dream of. Sometimes this fact — having lots of options — feels like the biggest burden of all. But it is actually a profound privilege. You will have chances to try things, to figure what you’re good at, to stumble into experiences that light you up and unleash your creativity, and to reject experiences that don’t connect to your inner gifts or interests.

As you go through this process of discovery, you will realize that serendipity plays every bit as much a role as goal-setting or planning in the shaping of careers. And like history, our path through life is not inevitable or linear, it is what happens among many contingent possibilities. Careers only look like a straight line in retrospect for the simple reason that, one way or another, we have arrived where we are.

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My third and final suggestion is to “own your work.” “Work” is not something that is “out there” in the “real world” waiting for you, while you’re “in here” for the next four years “doing college.” Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become. And I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.

I like to think about work as an act of “making.” We make something, and in so doing, we make meaning, and as meaning accumulates we make our lives. Making takes many forms — we make arguments, we make art, we make a home and family, or, if we live in Lewiston fifty years ago, we make shoes. All of these forms of making involve translating something that we hold inside into something that can be seen and shared and appreciated by others — logic and a knowledge base in the case of an argument, an idea of what to paint, a set of values about the tone and texture of our domestic space, the ability to stitch fast and true.

One of the greatest gifts we can give you as students starting your college careers — note the word — is to inspire you to see your work here at Bates as of a piece with the work that you will carry forward in your lives. Here you have the incomparable advantage of working closely with faculty whose work is teaching and scholarship. They model in their own lives the excitement of working with ideas and the concept of pursuing a life built around one’s deepest interests and talents. They will work with you to develop frameworks that will help you discern patterns and meaning, and they will help you sharpen your skills of analysis, interpretation, and collaboration that will be powerful assets throughout your life.

You also have the advantage at Bates of pursuing your work within a context and community specifically designed to give you the means to try things and the room to fail without courting disaster. In this respect, college is a safe harbor where you learn the skills and values that you will need for the open ocean, but where you have the solidarity of community to give you the courage to try new things, the support to persevere when work is difficult, and the encouragement to stand back up when you fall down.

I’d like to pause for a brief moment on the issue of perseverance. These days, you often hear people say that it is not particularly important to learn content while you are in college, because there is clearly far more information floating out there in cyberspace than any one human could ever hope to master. So, they say, all you need to know is how to access information.

This notion is completely wrong-headed. To be sure, it doesn’t matter which particular major you choose at Bates, just as it doesn’t matter which particular career path you choose after Bates. But it does matter that you learn to work hard, to press forward when experiments or papers or data sets are difficult. It matters that you learn enough about a subject to have an idea in your head that you work to express in some form. It matters that you get a taste for mastery — for what it is like to have your own informed view of some corner of knowledge, however small. This is why we ask every student to write a senior thesis or do a capstone project. This is what it means to own your work, to make the work you do here of a piece with the work that you will carry forward in life.

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My last point is a very simple one. The more you are able to align your work with your authentic interests and talents, the less it feels like work, and the more it feels, simply, like living your life. When we talk in our mission statement about “the emancipating potential of the liberal arts,” I think of the freedom and joy you feel when you achieve that alignment between who you are and what you do.

Despite what Mark Twain may have said, you will not wake up one day and figure out why you were put on this earth. That is the project of a lifetime, and we are here to help you along the way.

Welcome to Bates. Welcome to the new year. Let’s get to work.

[i] Jonathan Lear, “The Examined Life,” The New York Times, October 25, 1998. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/25/reviews/981025.25lear2t.html.

[ii] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, standard ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 88.

[iii] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 120, 149.

[iv] Friedrich Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, expanded ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 119.

[v] http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N21/gates.html

[vi] Quote often attributed to Mark Twain. See Robyn Benson Dom, “Envisioning a Life of Health and Well-Being,” in No Mistakes! How You Can Change Adversity into Abundance (Texas: Hierophant Publishing, 2013).

[vii] Richard Courtemanche, “Portraits and Voices: Shoemaking Skills of Generations,” Museum L-A, Lewiston, Maine. http://www.museumla.org/Current-Exhibits.