The No-Coddling Zone:
I usually don’t give lectures, or at least I try not to give long ones. However, today is different, because today is my opportunity to tie everything together, to make the final connection (as I always say) between what we’ve done in the course and how it relates to your purpose here, in college, and your greater and more important purpose in life. This lecture is a story of inspiration, but it is also a compilation of some of the most useful and life-changing advice I’ve ever been given. Most of it is very simple, but very wise.
I have to tell you that personally, I’ve been inspired to write this lecture by Dr. Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, which he delivered while he was at Carnegie Mellon University, shortly after finding out that he was diagnosed with a terminal case of pancreatic cancer. I’ve read and listened to The Last Lectur at least 15 times – I listen to it in the morning, as I’m making my coffee and planning my day, in the afternoons and evenings, when I get home from teaching and before I begin my work again at night. So here’s my lecture, my own story of inspiration and life lessons, told from my humble perspective.
My dad is a veterinarian. Why does this matter to you? Well, when I think about inspiration and its influence in my life, how inspiration alone has literally carried me through – especially in school – I think of my dad, the veterinarian.
One of the first adjectives that comes to mind when the word “veterinarian” is spoken is almost always “gentle” or “caring,” etc. Not my dad. My dad is a scuba diver and spear fisherman, who will jump into the Gulf of Mexico, at any given time of the year, strapped with a scuba tank and armed with a spear gun. He shoots fish with a tremendous precision, accuracy, and grace that would surely shame any professional diver. To say that he’s good at this sport would be laughable. He’s freakin’ awesome – but he kills fish. Do I have a problem with this? Absolutely not, but it doesn’t necessarily fit into the clichéd “gentle doctor, caring for God’s animals” mold.
I’m not saying that he isn’t caring or gentle; he certainly is – in the veterinary operating room and exam room. But outside of a professional context, he’s so much more than merely “caring.” He’s one of the few people I know who is truly passionate about being a veterinarian. I believe that this is because being a veterinarian is the fulfillment of his childhood dream.
As children, our dreams for “what we want to be when we grow up,” are just that – dreams. We don’t know of or map out all of the potential roadblocks and challenges; the dreams we have as children are essentially completely impractical. As we become more mature – notice I did not say as we get older; age does not equal maturity – we are forced to either pursue or abandon these dreams. Dad pursued his dream – but it wasn’t seamless. Actually, it was far from it. Like many of you, he held a job throughout college. By day, he was an undergraduate student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. By night, he was a steel mill employee. Talk about physical labor. What was it that motivated him to make his dream of becoming a veterinarian a reality? I mean, it doesn’t really sound like fun – it sounds like a lot of work, hard work. Most importantly, what can any of us, including myself, learn from this process? How is this story useful to us?
Something that I learned in graduate school is that “impassioned work” or “inspired work” isn’t work. It’s not something we feel as though we have to do, or something that we dread; it’s really more like play, because it’s fun. Fulfilling passions is fun. The reason dad put forth such effort was because he really wanted to become a veterinarian. Let me rephrase that, he had to become a veterinarian, it was the purpose of his life. Fulfilling that purpose may have appeared to have been hard work, and there were probably quite a few days where he realized – or physically felt – the difficulty of intellectual and physical work, but he got through it. Sometimes we just have to switch ourselves to “autopilot,” to do what we need to do to get through the day, knowing that tomorrow will be better.
For me, my dad’s story relates to rules. I can’t think of many college students who genuinely like rules. In fact, from what I remember and from what I see today, most of the time students seem to be scrambling to find ways to break the rules. Why? Well, because it’s liberating. Something I really emphasized in this course was that simply playing by the rules doesn’t necessarily teach us anything of value – and, it’s boring and predictable. Any given drone can follow a list of do’s and don’ts. But this is a writing classroom – and as we discussed, what’s the point of writing what’s already been written? If I was to reference the rules of a curriculum, something like “what you should be learning in ENGL 1101,” I’d have to say that this course got very off-track. I mean, what was all of our talk about “self” and “keeping useless notebooks?” The point is, dreams. Can any of our dreams b e achieved by following a list of rules? What rules? Talk to any person you admire about how they achieved their childhood dreams. I’m pretty certain that they would have an interesting, completely non-cliched, non rules-based story to tell you. My dad certainly does – to be brief, after he had finally been accepted to veterinary school, he was a victim of a horrific motorcycle accident, a fraternity house fire, and – from eating a friend’s home-grown raw oysters – Hepatitis C, all of which hospitalized and debilitated him to the point that it appeared (to the Purdue U administration – the ones with the power) that he’d have to withdraw from the program. However, because of his diligence in the program from the beginning – in his freshman year – he had someone who believed in him, someone to vouch for him, someone important. As you pursue your college careers, think about who’s going to vouch for you. You’ll eventually need a spokesperson. Who will do this for you? Who do you trust? Who knows what you’re capable of achieving, whether or not you’ve proven yourself to them yet?
The end to my dad’s story is that with the help and influence of his trusted professor, who vouched for his diligent academic performance during his freshman year, he did finish the veterinary program – almost dead last, as far as the GPA competition went – and he had probably worked harder, and faced far more set-backs, than any other veterinary student in the program – and still, he finished last. Nearly 25 years later, he’s been honored as Veterinarian of the Year. How’s that for inspiration to achieve childhood dreams? Not bad.
You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking about my dad, instead of myself. That’s easy – because my story is so much shorter and so much less interesting, at least at this point. I’m still writing my story, and although there’s a lot to say, it doesn’t yet prove how powerful inspiration is. In my opinion, my dad’s story does. It is proof that you can achieve extraordinary things, if you can visualize, conceptualize, and obsess yourself with your dreams. Don’t think practically, think creatively – think about ways around life’s brick walls.
I want to suggest that when we are truly inspired to do anything, it must happen. Yes, I said, “must.” How is this possible? Because true inspiration is more powerful than any challenge thrown our way here on Earth. True inspiration outshines any physical setback; as I said, inspiration has carried me through even when the “experts” literally said, “it can’t be done.” As I wrote in one of your evaluative letters, brick walls are there to remind us how much we want things in life. If we come to a brick wall and stop, turn around, and go home, we must not have really wanted the thing on the other side of the wall. But if we come to a brick wall and think of ways to get around, over, or under it, we must have really wanted that thing, we must have been inspired to get it. Brick walls are there to remind us how much we want something. What do you want?