The value of not having accomplished anything

This was a speech I gave on June 2, 2012 as the invited guest speaker at the graduation for my old high school.  I decided to take a different tone than is normal in such speeches, and hopefully suggest a more accurate picture of life after graduation.

Being asked to speak at a graduation, especially your high school’s graduation a half decade after your own, carries with it certain attendant implications and assumptions.  Speeches like this are basically just talking about yourself, and hoping you can find something in your own experience that will speak to other people in very different situations.  So one assumption is that I have something to say, some way to speak to you all in your positions out there, from my position here.  Not only that, but when people ask you to speak, they assume that you should say something valuable, which means that someone has assumed I have some idea of what is going on.  A second assumption, since it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting out there is that since I’ve been asked to come back to speak to you, in the five years since I was sitting there, I have done something with myself.

So of course, my first thought when I was asked to come back and speak to you today was: “Wow, they’ve really jumped the gun.”

I decided that this is what I’m going to talk to you about today.  It’s a day when, as family, teachers, and friends have told you, you’ve accomplished so much.  But how do you judge what you’ve accomplished, and where do you go from here?  Is there some value in feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing, like me?  Now, to put my thought about jumping the gun in context: I’ll fully admit that I’ve done quite a lot of things up to this point.  Obviously I’ve graduated from high school, and thanks to the Randolph County Community Foundation and the Lily Endowment, I’m also the first person in my immediate family to get a four-year college degree.  No small feat on top of that: I’m also the first person in my family to pursue graduate studies.  I’ve presented at research conferences, I’ve given other speeches in other situations, I’ve even studied abroad in London, which is just something I’d never thought I’d do.  I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities, and I’ve taken them.  But does that really qualify as having done something?  Does doing things count as accomplishing something?  Sometimes, when I look to the future, it doesn’t really feel like it.

Let’s start with graduate school.  If any of you know me, or knew me when I was here at Southern, then you probably know I was pretty good at school overall.  Not only am I good at school, but I like it.  I like it so much that after twelve collective years spent here, I spent another four years down in Richmond at Earlham, and I liked that so much that I’m spending at least another six years at IU Bloomington to get my next two degrees.  I say six because that’s as much funding as my current fellowship offers – in reality, depending on how you plan things out, a PhD may take as many as ten years.  That’s obviously not my plan.  My plan is to do this thing in six.  I’ll also be honest in admitting that my circumstances are exceptional.  I’ve been extremely privileged in that the amount of debt I’ve accrued for undergraduate and graduate studies is manageable, and if I live very frugally, should remain so.  My second point of exception is that I know that right now I am on my way to doing – I am in fact already doing – the one job that I want to do, the one job I can see myself doing for years to come.

From an early age I was a good reader, and I knew I liked stories.  English was always my best subject.  I remember the fateful day here, atRandolphSouthern, in what I believe was ninth grade homeroom.  We were filling out these these short surveys for opting into college or university mailing lists, which you may or may not still do.  There was a little section on this thing where you had to put in your career plans.  Now I didn’t have a particular design in mind at this time, though obviously with my academic bent it made sense that I would function best in a scholastic environment.  But of course, the scholastic environment I was most familiar with at the time was high school.  So I looked up at my homeroom teacher, who was Mrs. Reed, and I asked something like, “Hey, do you think I should be a teacher?”

She paused for a moment, deliberated, and said, “You would make a good college professor.”

And I, in my 15 years of innocence, thought:  Yes.  Yes I would.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Or it will be history eventually.  I’m not a professor yet, but barring catastrophe, it’ll probably happen.  The point of this story is to get across how incredibly single-minded I am.  The nicer way to put that is to say I’m driven.  I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my life, more or less, for almost ten years.  I’m not deluded; I know that this isn’t how most people operate.  In fact most of my friends my age – some who aren’t in grad school, and even some of the ones who are – have no idea what they want to do.  The position you guys are in, just getting ready to leave high school, isn’t necessarily any better. The question in the same.  What’s going to come next?

You might be so impressed with me right now that you are thinking, yeah, this guy’s pretty on top if it, I could go to college and then go to grad school.  So let me give you some perspective on what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.  I am 23 years old – in a few weeks I’ll be 24.  I’ve so far spent 17 of those years in some sort of school, and if I get my PhD at 29, that’ll be 22 years.  Rounding up, I will have spent 76% of my life in the classroom or doing homework.  And what will I have to show for it?  Well obviously, Michael – you say – you’ll have your MA and your PhD and you’ll get a tenure-track position at a teaching college and pull a livable salary.  To that I say: hmmmm, maybe.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tellingly titled “The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps” shows something rather frightening: in 2007, the year I graduated from Southern, there were 9,800 people with doctorates receiving federal living assistance.  In 2010 that number rose to 33,700.  Of course, I’m lucky – PhD candidates like me often receive more financial aid from their institutions.  For folks who just got their master’s, in 2007 there were 102,000 degree holders receiving aid, and a whopping 293,000 in 2010.

I should think it’s obvious that economically the country is not right now in the best possible position.  This is true even in – perhaps especially in – academia.  States are cutting funding, and private donors are finding fewer opportunities or less of an inclination to be generous.  Austerity measures at many educational institutions mean eliminating perceived extraneous teaching positions, minimizing the number of tenured faculty and increasing the number of adjuncts.  In other words, there are fewer solid job opportunities for people like me.  At the same time undergraduate tuition costs are going up and students are taking out more and more loans to pay for it.  The total student loan debt in theUSis over 1 trillion dollars, and it’s rising.  But many students are finding that, upon taking on all this loan debt in hopes that it will pay off once they have their degrees, there aren’t any jobs for them once they graduate.  So they go to work in the service industry, where the degree nets them approximately zero benefits.  And eventually, thinking that a higher degree will net them a better salary, they start looking at grad school.

It’s only natural to think this way.  All of us, at one point or another, have probably been assured that the more education you have, the better your life will be – the better your job, the better your income.  We were not lied to.  That used to be true.  But from where I’m standing right now, it’s not true anymore – and it may not be true again for a while.  Things are changing.  17 years of school under my belt, I don’t even have my final degree, and my generation is already looking at one of the worst job markets in recent history, regardless of level of education.

So the question again arises: what, Michael, have you done?  Or to put the emphasis on that question more correctly: Michael, what have you done?

Now here’s the part where you probably start thinking I’m a little insane.  Because this is the part where I tell you, with utmost sincerity and gravitas, that I’m not unhappy with anything that I’ve done – or what I haven’t done, or what I haven’t yet done.  As I said earlier, I know that I am doing the one thing that makes me happy.  I mean, it is literally my job to read books and write papers, and teach other people to read books and write papers.  I’m playing to my strengths.  And if making bank was my ultimate goal, I would never have wanted to become a college instructor in the first place, economic climate regardless.  So where do I get off being so pleased with myself?  My reasoning is this:

We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.  That’s a proverb I was very recently reminded of when attending a speech by the poetry scholar and Quaker thinker Paul Lacey.  “We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.”  It may seem lately that the wells dug for us offer less than palatable waters, or in some cases, are running dry altogether.  And those bitter waters may make us bitter.  But the danger here is to forget, in our anger and bitterness, our own responsibility to dig new wells for the future. This was Paul Lacey’s point in invoking this proverb: to emphasize not only our dependence on the communities that precede us, rear us, and nurture us, but the importance of remembering that we ourselves are responsible for rearing the generation to come.  And so I find myself here today, back in the community that nurtured me, with that thought in particular pressing on my mind.  Things will not get better unless, together, we make it happen.  If the wells dug for us go bad, then we dig new ones.  And it’s our responsibility to remember that these wells will not belong only to us.

All of my statistics about the postgraduate lifestyle was probably not incredibly relevant to you.  I can perhaps alleviate some of the fear I may have instilled by saying that if your field of interest is the hard sciences, things look a bit brighter for you: funding is tight, but not as tight as is in the humanities, and the availability of private sector work for scientists means more job opportunities.  At the end of the day, I’m an academic, so apart from that, I can’t speak to each of you out there, not as personally as I’d like to be able to, about your situations and futures.  You have your own plans, proclivities, interests and uncertainties.  Maybe you’re going to go after an undergraduate degree, and maybe you won’t.  Maybe you’ll take a few years off, maybe you’ll join the military, maybe you’ll just get a job and live your life.   What matters is passion and confidence.  I’ve been able to make my choices because I was lucky enough to know early on what I was good at and what I could do with myself.  Feeling confident in what I can do and what I will do has helped me get this far.

Finding a similar confidence is a task you now face.  What can do you with your life to fully occupy the world that is to come, the one outside these doors, the world that we will make together?  Each of you will encounter personal and social circumstances which are, in varying degrees, both similar to and distinct from those I’ve encountered.  It is true, in a broad, cultural sense, that many of the problems you will face will be the problems I face.  We are close enough in age, you and me, to be in this together.  But generations are tricky things.

Five years ago, in 2007, when I was up here giving my salutatorian speech, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut in saying that true terror is waking up one morning and realizing your high school class is running the country.  Now, us ‘07 kids, we’re almost there.  I can feel that encroaching terror.  For all my self-deprecation, I am on my way to becoming a gatekeeper of higher education.  Whether or not the field recovers from its current unfavorable state, whether or not I get a job after I get my degree, for the next few years I’ve at least put myself into a position of digging new wells.  In the fall, I’ll officially be an Associate Instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.  My job will be teaching IU’s intro to composition course to first-year students.  I will have a greater effect on their early undergraduate education than any other teacher, because it will be my responsibility to impart to them the skills necessary to navigate the years to follow.  If any of you are going toBloomingtonin the fall and end up in a class called W131, I may be your instructor.  I’ve already been installed as an authority figure for you, as weird as it is for me to think about that.

At some point, yes, you will realize that your high school class is in charge of running the country.  You may not think you’re ready now, and you may not think you’re ready in five years or even ten.  But that doesn’t matter.  The fact that I’m standing here, right now, speaking to you, only further proves that point.  Whether I feel ready for it or not, whether I’ve done something or not, the world is asking me to step up.  I’m being asked to dig some more wells, and so that’s what I’ll try to do.

Today, class of 2012, I can offer you, I think, one solid piece of advice.  You have just accomplished something remarkable – you’ve made it to your high school graduation.  But I speak from experience when I say that the troublesome thing about accomplishments is that no matter how amazing and world-ending they may seem in the moment, you keep doing stuff afterward, or you at least keep being asked to do stuff.  You will start to feel like you have to live up to the things you’ve already done, and you will start to feel like maybe you can’t.  As this goes on, it may eventually start to feel like you haven’t done anything at all.  But that’s only natural; remember that while today you celebrate, you still have the entirety of your lives ahead.  You still have wells to dig, though you may not know where you and how you’ll do it, in all the large and small ways now available to you.  As it turns out, the value of not having accomplished anything is, in fact, immense: it is a driving force, a point of both profound anxiety and sublime motivation.

Not having accomplished anything means knowing you still have something yet to do.

So let’s get on with it, Class of 2012.  Let’s do this.

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