When Preparation Meets Opportunity
The Importance of a Transy Education in the Real World
Thank you, Dr. Williams. Dean Pollard, members of the faculty and administration, honored guests, families and friends, and most of all, the Class of 2011. It is my great privilege to return to Transylvania University for such a wonderful occasion.
When Dr. Williams called and asked me to give the commencement speech, I was truly honored. And then, of course, I panicked. Perhaps even more so when I found out that the administration had considered a few other people as your keynote speaker today. Among their choices: Bill Clinton…and me. It’s probably too late to get Bill Clinton back. And I’m here now, so let’s just go with it.
I graduated from Transy in 1973, 38 years ago. It’s amazing how fast that time has flown. There’s a saying — for the first half of your life, people tell you what you should do; for the second half, they tell you what you should have done. Every day, I have a lot of people telling me what I should have done, about a number of situations. But the nice thing about being invited here today — I get to tell you what you should do.
I wasn’t invited here to tell you about my life. I was invited here to give you a pithy little speech that, if you listen very closely, might make the journey easier for you. The problem is, you’ll most likely remember very little of what I’ll say here today. Actually, this takes a great deal of pressure off of me. But even if you are right now memorizing my every word, I’d be doing you a great disservice if I tried to tell you that I have all of the secrets to leading a successful life.
In fact, I could talk for hours, maybe even days, about character traits and attitudes, and quote adages and experts, philosophers and writers. I see some of you starting to look a little nervous. Don’t worry; I have no plans to talk for more than a few minutes. But even if I went on at great length, in the end, my advice to you would be incomplete. Because there are thousands of factors, combining thousands of different ways that will make up the miraculous journey that your life is going to become. I could never predict the vast possibilities and combinations of joys, sorrows, attitudes, good souls and not-so-good souls that you will experience and encounter.
So instead, I will tell you just a few things that I’ve learned over the years. I sincerely hope that at least a few of my words will stick. I’ll start by letting you know — and this is not a part of my speech that I’m hoping you’ll remember — I’m a geek. I’ll be the very first to admit it, and my wife will be the first one to agree with me. You know all those jokes about the physicist, mathematician and the engineer? That’s me. All of them. I triple-majored at Transy in physics, mathematics, and pre-engineering. And then I went on to study in a very technically focused graduate program.
So some of you may be asking yourselves, how did a liberal arts background work so well for such a geek?
Simply stated, my liberal arts education has helped me to develop intellectual skills, just as my technical graduate training helped me to develop more specialized skills. And these skills have allowed me to consider situations a little bit differently than if I’d studied in a strictly technical program. When I graduated from Transy, I felt as though I was well equipped for the future. Indeed, when I look back, I am extremely grateful for the education that I’ve received here. And this makes me excited for you, because you, today, are just as prepared.
One of the most important things that I learned at Transy is one of the key ingredients to success. And each and every one of you has it, and you’ve honed it here. It’s called hard work.
I may have let some of you down with that, but when you get out in the real world, you’ll understand a little bit better. You will find that a lot of people, long past their college days, don’t want to work hard. They expect that life will hand them chances, riches, relationships and success. And many times, when they’ve expected these things and they haven’t gotten them, they feel cheated and they turn bitter.
You, though…you’ve been working hard for years. You had to work hard to get to Transy in the first place, and — I can tell you from experience — I know that you had to work hard to earn your mortarboard. I also know that when you leave this campus, you’re going to continue to work hard at whatever you do. By now, it’s become habit for you. Trust me when I tell you that it will pay off.
When your hard work starts to pay off, there’s a tendency to think that you’ve been lucky. I’ve never been a big believer in the concept of “luck.” Instead, I think that the Roman philosopher Seneca had it right: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” You will come across many, many opportunities. Don’t let them pass you by! Ask any of your parents and mentors, and they’ll tell you — there is nothing so depressing as looking back and having regrets. This is the second idea I’d like you to remember — seize all of the opportunities you can.
One of the nice thing about opportunities — they show up all the time. Every day, in fact. And they are often disguised. Be vigilant. And remember that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Be an optimist.
When I first came to Transy, I had planned to concentrate on theoretical nuclear physics — on teaching and research. But then, one of my classes visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and that was my first exposure to the more practical side of nuclear physics. Later, I went to a conference in Dayton attended by recruiters from graduate schools in nuclear engineering. That opened my eyes further to options besides research and teaching and led me to a very challenging and interesting career in the nuclear energy industry.
Some may say that attending that conference in Dayton was luck. I say it was an opportunity, and thanks to Transy, I was prepared. You are, too.
Oftentimes, opportunities are disguised as risks. My advice to you is to be bold, and take those risks! I know that gambling with your future is hard; the fear of failure can be paralyzing. But one thing I’ve learned is that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking that first step; making that first decision.
So, if you wait until all conditions are perfect before you do something, then you probably won’t do much of anything at all.
By the way, not all risk-taking will pay off. If it did, it wouldn’t be a risk, and the opportunities for reward wouldn’t be as great. And sometimes you will fail — maybe even spectacularly so. Don’t hide from those experiences — learn from them. The sad fact is that we learn more from our failures than our successes!
And whatever you do — listen here, because this is important — have fun, and make it count! I don’t mean the staying out all night, drinking champagne sort of fun. Although that can be important too. But that’s the subject of a different speech. I’m talking about enjoying your career; I’m talking about choosing to do what you love. And making sure that it means something to you.
If you put it into perspective — you are going to spend the majority of your time, starting tomorrow or very shortly thereafter, employed in some vocation. The average worker in the United States spends roughly 2,000 hours per year at their place of employment. You’re approximately 22 years old now. If you work until you’re 62, you’re going to spend just about 80,000 hours at work. Sort of depressing, isn’t it? (By the way, that’s the geeky part of me coming out.)
In my case, I chose my life’s work, because at heart, I’m an environmentalist. I developed this passion as a child in Greece. I’ve always believed that I should leave the earth better than I found it.
We have an energy crisis on our hands, and global warming is a very real issue. And if we don’t do something about it now, we will place future generations at risk. As a society and as a planet, we must get past short-term thinking, and start long-term planning. We must do it for your children.
The bottom line is that we will need to cut CO2 emissions by 70% to 80% simply to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperatures. And nuclear energy is a clean and cost-effective way to provide a large amount of baseload power on a global scale. Along with hydroelectric power, it is the only source of baseload electricity generation that produces no greenhouse gases and manages 100% of its waste stream.
Every day that I go to work, I sincerely believe that I’m playing a part in leaving this earth better than I found it.
Of course, you all know of the events of March 11 — the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of that nation, who, in addition to the great loss of life and property that they’re dealing with, are also grappling with the tsunami’s effect on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As most of you may also know, my industry — the nuclear industry — is in somewhat of a state of flux because of the events at that plant.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions in the media about those events and nuclear energy in general. For example, while a relatively small amount of radiation was released as a result of the accident in Japan, it was not enough to adversely impact the general public’s health or safety, now or in the future.
You may have a different impression after listening to some of the media coverage. That’s because historically, the nuclear energy industry has done a less-than-adequate job of educating the public as to the realities of nuclear energy. We have not been good communicators. And that’s too bad, because we have an excellent story to tell.
Which brings us back to the value of a liberal arts education. When I evaluate employees for hiring or promotion, I look for people who are able to communicate ideas clearly and coherently, who can be articulate and persuasive in proposing new ideas and interpreting old ideas. Although many people can master the technical skills of a job, few also have the communication skills needed to present ideas clearly and concisely. This ability will be invaluable to you in the coming years.
So, continue to hone the communication skills that you’ve developed here at Transy.
The people of Japan will require resilience to recover from the tragedy that they endured in March. It will require worldwide effort and cooperation. But in the end, Japan, with its legacy of quiet and uncomplaining resolve, will not give up. That nation and its people will persevere. And they will learn from these events.
The nuclear energy industry, too, has an obligation to study the events of Fukushima and learn from them. And as an industry, and at my company, we have begun that learning process. We welcome the scrutiny, because that is the nature of our business, and safety is our number one priority. And we will continue to learn.
Likewise, I urge you to continue learning and continue persevering. You will all experience adversity, loss and failure. You will experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. Learn from it all. Your education has been more than just a compilation of facts. It has given you the ability to organize existing ideas, understand new ideas and connect those ideas. Transy has instilled in you the ability to learn, and it will be a valuable tool. But keep looking for ways to continue your education, not just inside the classroom, but outside the classroom, as well. Learn from life.
One thing that I’ve learned as my career has matured is that there is a shortage of good leaders in the world. But I’ve also learned that there is a shortage of good followers in the world. This may seem a bit of a contradiction to you, but there’s a time to lead, a time to follow, and a time to get out of the way.
Because leadership is an action, not a position. Even if you are not in a supervisory role, there will be times when you will be called upon to step up and provide direction. There will also be times that you will be expected to support a function and listen well to others. When it is time to lead, take the reigns. When it is time to follow, follow well. And when it is time to get out of the way, take the hint!
But whether you’re leading or following, remember the Golden Rule, and this is not, “He who has the gold, rules.” This is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Be tolerant. And be kind. Listen with understanding, build relationships, and treat people well.
Not everyone will exhibit the same strengths, but they will all have strengths. In your life, in any situation, if you are able to discover those strengths, and inspire people to be more, do more, learn more and become more, and do so with kindness, you will have achieved much.
One of the greatest benefits of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you to appreciate diversity. Transy is home to many different people from many different backgrounds, studying many different things, and hopefully, by now, you’ve realized that yours isn’t the only opinion in the universe. If you always surround yourself with people who think the same way you do, then you only have one brain at work!
I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes or so talking to you, and I hope that you’ve spent the last fifteen minutes listening to me. But perhaps you’ve spent that time wondering when the heck I’m going to stop talking. So for those of you whose minds have been wandering, I’m going to do you a favor and wrap it up.
If you take anything away from the speech that I’ve given here today, I’d like you to take away these ideas:
- Work hard;
- Seize opportunities;
- Take risks;
- Have fun;
- Learn from your failures and persevere;
- Know when to lead, follow, or get out of the way;
- Treat people with kindness; and
- Appreciate diversity.
(If I run into any of you later, I’m going to quiz you on these ideas.)
But seriously, it is my sincere hope that some number of years from now, one of you will be invited to this podium to speak. You won’t remember this speech, and I am okay with that. What you will remember is your time here at Transy. You may wax a little nostalgic for the past, and you will be forever thankful for the exceptional education that you received here, as I am. You will also marvel at how well it has prepared you for the challenges and opportunities that life offers us all.
Class of 2011, congratulations, and thank you for allowing me a few minutes of one of the most defining days of your life. And now, go forth and live life; and more importantly, do something that matters!