Randy Boushek's Commencement Address
May 07, 2012
HOW WELL HAVE YOU PACKED?
To the graduating class of 2012, and to family, friends, faculty, staff, and other honored guests, thank you for inviting me to your party today. I am truly privileged and humbled to be asked to deliver this address.
Thirty-three years ago, I sat in the same chair that one of you is sitting in today, never once imagining that I might someday be on this side of the microphone. I will confess to you candidly that I cannot for the life of me remember who our commencement speaker was that day, or a single word that he or she said … and I’m under no illusion that my comments today will be any longer-lasting. But my hope is that you will find at least one nugget in what I have to say that you can pack with everything else that you are taking with you from Concordia today.
Before I share my story, though, let me begin by offering a word or two of advice from another source about something that almost all of you, regardless of your chosen career, will eventually encounter … namely, the ubiquitous “performance appraisal”. In the category of “what not to do”, here are a few examples of comments you will want to make sure don’t show up on your performance appraisal, taken from actual British military officer fitness reports (as reported several years ago by the NY Times):
- His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of curiosity
- This young lady has delusions of adequacy
- He sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them
- She works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap
- This man is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.
There is today an increasingly intense debate about the “cost/benefit relationship” of a private liberal arts education. That relationship was somewhat different when I first came to Concordia in the mid -1970’s, and fortunately so for me, because I had a very different point-of-view then than I do today. I came to Concordia site-unseen, the first member of my family to attend a four-year college. I arrived the same year Paul Dovre became president (the first time) and the same year Ernie Mancini became a campus pastor. Though I had grown up in the Twin Cities I had never been northwest of Alexandria, much less to Moorhead, until I arrived on campus for freshman orientation.
While I was Lutheran, I came from a very different and more conservative tradition, with nary a single Scandinavian in my family tree. I had little or no understanding of Concordia’s history, its culture, its faculty, or its mission. Concordia for me was to be a necessary stop on the way to law school. It was a different time, and I arrived as a freshman with strong academic credentials and little or no financial aid. Quite frankly, and to my considerable embarrassment today, I felt that Concordia was fortunate to have me. Needless to say, I was in for several rude awakenings. And just for good measure I also started off in a disastrous relationship with my first roommate, who lasted all of six weeks at Concordia.
But God in his infinite wisdom had a plan for me, and somehow I survived. It all worked out in the end – but in a very, very different way than I had planned, and that in and of itself was an important life-learning. I was married before my senior year and I never went to law school, and those were two of the best decisions I ever made. But more than anything else, when I packed my bags for the last time after my four years at Concordia I took with me far more than I ever imagined, and much more than I even realized at the time. Only with hindsight did I come to recognize how many gifted teachers and leaders I was privileged to encounter in my time on campus. Only with hindsight did I realize how much of my learning had taken place “outside the lines” of textbooks and lectures. And only with hindsight did I come to appreciate the true value of a private liberal arts education.
What do I believe that that value is? Let me answer – not as an educator, but as a businessman – in the context of my question for you today: What are you packing from your years at Concordia to take with you?
- If it’s simply knowledge, there were far less costly ways to acquire it. If it’s the standard cliché about the liberal arts – namely “learning how to learn” – you still overpaid. But if you’re taking away what I did, and what I very literally saw ignited in my son in his years at Concordia, it is a lifelong passion for learning. There is no other single characteristic that is so universally shared by virtually every highly successful person I know.
- If it’s simply the skills needed to get a job, or the pre-requisites needed to get into graduate school, there were again less expensive ways to get them. But if you’re taking away that characteristic which I absorbed from the likes of Walther Prausnitz and Harding Noblitt, from Orv Haugsby and Dewey Ringham, from Stan Iverson and Gerry Heuer, it’s an insatiable curiosity to discover a hidden meaning, to connect the dots, to develop a hypothesis, to make a translation, to find the story in the numbers. One of my great frustrations has been to see so many young people stagnate in their careers because they simply don’t know how to add value to the information they work with. They see that information only as an end product, and not as the beginning of insight.
- If it’s simply a plan for your career, you may find yourself unprepared for unexpected opportunities, or worse, unfulfilled by unmet expectations. But if you’re taking away what Concordia almost more than any other liberal arts college can instill, it is that deeply-rooted Lutheran passion for “vocation” – a sense of calling to a higher purpose, with a belief that one person can indeed make a difference in the world. The most fulfilled people I know are those who have a passion and sense of calling for what they do, no matter how great … or how insignificant … it may seem to others.
- And finally, if it’s simply a set of core beliefs and values, you may have your compass, but you may also have difficulty sharing the trip with others. Perhaps the greatest value I took away from Concordia, and the one I least appreciated for the longest time, was not in any way a change in my core beliefs and values, but rather an enlightened understanding of why I hold them, an ability to constructively defend them (Lord knows there is nothing our country needs today more than the ability to constructively discuss our differences) and an appreciation for why others may see things differently.
To extend this thought just a bit further … none of us knows for sure what the future holds. However, I can promise you that there are certain things you will – not might, but will – need to be prepared for. How well have you packed for these?
- You will at some point be confronted with different cultures and belief systems, and with challenges to your own faith and values. How will you handle it?
- You will at some point have to cope with inequity and unfairness that you can’t change. How will you respond to it?
- You will at some point be faced with a moral or ethical dilemma that may have significant consequences for you. How will you resolve it?
- And, as idealistically as you may be thinking about it today, you will at some point wrestle with a choice about work/life balance that may also have significant consequences for you. How will you make it?
As you’ve probably figured out by now, my objective today is not so much to give you answers as it is to ask the kind of questions that can help you discover your own answers. But … no commencement speech is complete without offering at least a few words of advice. So let me close by condensing 30+ years of post-Concordia experience into a few key career learnings:
Learning #1: Take every opportunity you can to improve your communication skills. And by that I don’t mean texting and tweeting. I mean the ability to write clearly, to speak articulately, and to present confidently in front of a group. Don’t underestimate how important this will be to your success, regardless of your profession.
Learning #2: Own your own career path – don’t expect others to create it for you. And expect it to be much more of a lattice than a line. In a lattice you can not only move forward, but also sideways or backward. Think of it like a queen on a chessboard. Sometimes you may need to move backward, perhaps to acquire a new skill or gain a different experience, in order to better position yourself to win the game. Two of the most important moves I made in my career were, in some way, backward.
Learning #3: As much as possible choose your boss, not your job. A job can be molded around a person. Seek out those organizations and individuals who are well-respected and are known for their ability to develop others. What you do in the short run, as long as you enjoy it, is less important than the mentorship and experience you can gain for the long-run. And by the way, the research is pretty clear that the number one reason people leave an organization is not the organization itself, it’s not their pay, and it’s not their work … it’s their boss.
And finally, learning #4: Assume positive intent. It is my observation that most people, most of the time, want to do the right thing. It’s also my observation that most misunderstandings arise because what one person genuinely believes he or she said is very different from what another person genuinely believes he or she heard. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you should be naively ignorant of the intentions of others. But until you know otherwise, or have good reason to be wary, assume that mistakes are honest, that misunderstandings are genuine, and that more information or context is often needed. I guarantee that you will be more effective, more productive, more respected, and much less regretful.
So there you have it – every nugget that I have to offer. Hopefully you’ve found at least one that you can pack to take with you today.
So, to the graduating class of 2012: Congratulations and best of luck. I hope you’ve packed well!