Commencement 2016 | A Life of Service

Student Speaker–Jason Rhoades, PhD, Environmental Studies

I am well aware of the passion, the experience, and the expertise found among all of you within this room. It is a humbling honor to have the chance to speak with you today.  I appreciate you sharing your time with me for these moments.  To begin, congratulations graduates for what you have accomplished.  I am excited about what lies ahead for each of you as you continue down your paths.

Dr. Melinda Treadwell, vice president of academic affairs, asked me to talk about a life of service today. Within that context, I will discuss the importance of both success and failure as we endeavor to win victories for humanity and for the larger natural world.

If we set out with the goal of creating meaningful positive change for society and the environment, it is not going to be easy. It is not going to happen quickly, or as planned, and it will not be without disappointments and setbacks.  In so many other aspects of our lives we exercise remarkable control and are accustomed to having things go according to our expectations. But often, our efforts to effect change will rarely follow our planning.  These failures might make us feel unsuccessful. How shall we find the resilience to keep the fight?  How will we be willing to take the big risks needed to create change?  I think we need to do something different than just being okay with failure. We need to completely change the way we think about success and failure.

Currently we might consider the outcome of a single initiative relative to its intended outcome as an indication of success or failure.  This has value, but is also insufficient and misleading in the context of the sort of change we are working for.  I propose that we would be better off thinking along the lines of the movement of tectonic plates.  Slow incremental movements over great periods of time.  Building of pressure, grinding away.  And then in an instant you have an earthquake.  Now it would be foolish to label the intervening building of pressure a failure.  And it would be equally foolish to highlight the moment of the earthquake and call that singular event a success.

It is this intervening time in which ostensibly so little happens that we could easily consider our efforts as failing.  Certain initiatives may be defeated.  Projects may fall short of their goals.  Funding may dry up.  Collaborations may collapse.  But during this time, awareness builds, small victories are achieved, networks grow, strategies get tested and refined, alliances are created, momentum and pressure builds. And as a result you get an earthquake.  The earthquake may be dramatic, but it would simply not exist without prolonged effort and adaptability and resilience through that long time when outwardly little progress was being made and so called failures were evident.

Following this thinking, I am convinced that, in terms of fostering positive social and environmental change, success lies less in the outcome of any one project than it does in our reactions to those outcomes.  And that the most important attributes we can bring to our effort are resilience, passion, and unending creativity.

With this in mind, I hope you go forward with clear eyes of the challenges we face, but courageous in your willingness to take them on. I know what you are capable of and I am counting on you.  To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that we all must work at the highest level to create change at a grand scale. Work in your niche, but know that you are contributing to the building pressure and that your contribution makes all the difference.  For if we are not going to work to create the world we wish to see, I don’t know where else we could direct our hope.

In this, I wish you all the best, and, to close on a additional metaphor, if we picture ripples emanating from multiple points on a pond, how they expand and then intersect, I am excited for the day when our collective efforts will meet each other once again to create tangible and positive change for the environment and humanity.  Thank you and all the best.

 

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