Last Saturday, I gave the commencement address at Unity College in Maine. I was also given an honorary doctorate, which is likely to make many who know me well chuckle, with the exception of my oldest daughter, Emily, who is now deep in the throes of writing her dissertation for a real doctorate.
The speech could have been better and it certainly wasn’t terribly original, but it was an accurate reflection of a few things I feel strongly about, which I called Tedd’s Rules. I’m going to post the written version of the speech over next few days.
I’m deeply honored and very humbled about being asked to speak on this milestone day in your lives. I’ll admit I was surprised to get the invitation. You see, when you strip me back to my essence, wiping away some of my biographical spit and polish, I’m really still at heart a carpenter, which was my career choice at your age, and carpenters aren’t typically asked to give commencement speeches.
Well, it’s pretty easy for me to guess what you’re thinking right now: “Who IS this geezer? I hope he doesn’t talk too long.” I realize sitting there patiently could be hard. I’m now literally the only thing left standing between your years of hard work and your diploma, so I’ll try to be sensitive to that.
I do have some thoughts for this day, but this is not a pulpit and I’m in no position to preach. I offer these words with humility, or as my Dad used to say at the end of making a persuasive argument: “Of course, I could be wrong.”
As Unity College graduates, my preconceived notion here is that I am talking with you as new teammates, as Unity’s environmental focus and mission for sustainability likely lands many of us on the same team. Old as I look, I have a lot of working years left, and I very much believe that in that time—let’s call it twenty-five years—we can make this a much better, more sustainable world for our family and friends, for our communities, for our country, for this planet, and, of course, for ourselves.
To keep this simple and short(er), I have just three pieces of advice to give you—none original—but taken together they still amount to this veteran’s pointers to his new teammates. I’ll call them Tedd’s rules.
Rule #1. Be happy.
Love what you do. I know this sounds trite and obvious, but all too few follow this rule. I know many people who have spent their entire lives being absolutely miserable in their work. I’m sure you do too. When you see it go on year after year, decade after decade, it’s enough to make you cry. Even financial security doesn’t compensate for this bad choice.
Sustainability begins in you. It is critical that you find work that satisfies you in that very deepest part of your soul. You can’t be useful and effective if the thing you do every day is at cross-purposes with your heart.
Don’t even spurn this advice for a good cause, unless it’s only a short-term mission. If you try to work for a cause or an effort that doesn’t grab the spirit and substance of you, then it’s more likely that you’ll end up as another one of its victims instead of a part of the solution. So, do not submit your time on earth to anything other than a full discovery of your true calling.
Mastering anything takes a long time. It’s true of art, music, writing, law and medicine. It’s also true of forestry, farming, mechanics, and my profession, carpentry and building. Have patience (including you, parents). However long it takes, whatever it takes, find something to do that you never have to force yourself out of bed for. From then on, there will be few limitations to what you can achieve.
Remember also, that your graduation today doesn’t determine your path; it only increases your freedom to be very selective about it and your ability to master it.
When I was in school, I had ambitions of going into journalism or politics or law. I wasn’t really sure which avenue to pursue because I wasn’t really committed to any of them, but they were on the list of accepted professions to be pursued by college students, so that’s what I thought I should do.
As luck would have it, I ended up spending some concentrated time doing carpentry when I came to New England. I knew I loved building things, but always assumed that carpentry was beneath me somehow. But in this period, I met a very special master carpenter who was the most skilled building craftsman I had ever met and also the most passionate, even though he was already past retirement age. One day, upon hearing that I was an English major, he gave me a five minute recitation, by memory, of his favorite Yeats poem. It blew me away and taught me that you don’t have to give up one thing to become another, you can take it all with you.
I also learned from this man and others that the dignity of the work comes mainly from having the right attitude. They taught me that carpentry isn’t just a job of banging nails in wood, raising walls and laying floors; but it’s rather a much higher mission, having to do with improving the quality of peoples’ lives for generations and generations into the future.
When I understood its deeper dimensions, and when I came to finally understand just how challenging and incredibly difficult it is to truly master the craft of building, I was hooked for life. I have now been a builder for over thirty-five years and I have just as much energy and commitment for it today as I did when I was twenty five and I’m not at all eager to stop because there’s so much more to learn and do.
There are a few interesting outcomes to Rule #1 and you’ll learn more of these when you get there, but I’ll give you a peek.
-When you work for the love of it, you don’t work for money. It becomes an outcome, not the primary goal. My wife and I spent many of our early years with very little money and a few recent years with more than adequate money. I prefer the latter to the former, but though I remember the years of living in a one-room cabin, simpler meals and half-filling the gas tank, I don’t recall ever wanting to do anything else. The hard times and easy times honestly aren’t that different when you find your calling.
-When you work for the love of it, you come to realize that comfort is overrated. If you’ve ever kayaked down a river, been out on snowshoes (or a snowmobile) on a sub-zero moonlit night, or reached the summit after a long mountain climb, then you know that there are several levels of satisfaction that rise way above simply being comfortable. The finest things in life, in fact, usually have attached to them some amount of serious stress, pain and hard work. Every mother knows about this basic truth. You already have a sense for that also, or you wouldn’t be graduating today. I’ve experienced this feeling many times over the years as I’ve worked long days and weeks with my associates in the company breaking through barrier after barrier with our buildings, each time achieving things previously impossible. These accomplishments are sheer, unfettered joy, and it’s easy to get addicted to that.
-When you work for the love of it, you will find, in Abraham Lincoln’s words “the better angels of your nature.” I don’t know what would have become of me if I’d chosen a different path in life, but I do know that this one has demanded me to try harder to rise above my petty and selfish tendencies, if only because I have learned (unfortunately, too many times) that the small side of me always makes things worse.
Rule #1 is so important that I will also offer it as the #1 reason for this commencement speech. If you ever feel outside pressure to take the wrong path, tell them this old guy you heard talk kind of scared you about that. I’ll be glad to take the blame.