Advice to Graduates: The Two Promises I Made to Myself

It may seem an odd time to do a pseudo-graduation piece. Obviously the University of Tennessee thinks so: this weekend I am supposed to officially receive my PhD degree, but the university, having spent a great deal of money on a new, traditional looking quad, doesn’t do an August graduation ceremony, with a graduation speech of any kind. So this will have to suffice.

In accreditation standards, this degree is referred to as the “terminal degree.” I agree: by the time you’re done with it, you’re just about dead. But I have other things to commemorate this year. One of those is the twentieth anniversary of our family divesting itself of our business. Accompanied by the loss of my father and brother, it was one of those times when everything was different at the end than it was at the beginning. In the wake of those events I took stock of things, sought God and made myself two interrelated promises that I have pretty much kept in the score that followed. I think they’re worth passing on because, in the midst of swelling words, it’s easy to lose sight of practicalities.

The first was that I would never again allow myself to be dependent upon one source of income. Up until that point the family business—a company with one product to boot—had been my main livelihood for eighteen years. In those years it was impressed upon me that, from a professional standpoint, the business should be like segregation to George Wallace: first, last and always. Although I had the usual consulting contracts, they wouldn’t last that long, and there were the equally usual non-compete agreements in them. With the unhappy memory of every day being a “hero or zero” event, I decided to diversify my income. It’s been very helpful. We’re supposed to sleep a third of the time; that decision made that third (and the other two-thirds) a lot happier.

One of those diversifications has been my online activity, which started the year after the business went away. It hasn’t been the most lucrative thing, but in the process of putting stuff up I’ve delved back into our family history. We’ve been successful since we’ve been here, and for my father’s family that’s about a century and a half. Much of that success has been due to the diverse nature of the income: my great-grandfather’s yachts, my grandfather’s cars and airplanes, etc. Even the “one product” family business, at the turn of the last century, had a diverse offering which included bridges, dredges, and other products. There was a historical lesson that had been forgotten, and this is a country which habitually forgets historical lessons.

To make that really work involves another family habit: living below your means and staying out of debt to the greatest extent possible. That flies in the face of a credit-driven society driven by instant gratification, and it isn’t always easy in a country where wages are compressed the way they are. That being so, without it, the advantage in your life will always shift towards those who make the payments.

The second was that I would never let my professional (or other) identity be taken over by another institution or individual. This will take a little more explaining.

When your family has been in our business as long as ours was, the public image of the two tend to run together. But which came first? My great-great-grandfather started the company in 1852, sold it eleven years later, his sons bought it back in 1881, we got out of it in 1996. It should be obvious that the company was ours as long as we had it. But that wasn’t the message I heard, especially from the family and those in the company. The message I heard all too often was that the business made us what we were and that we owed the business in perpetuity because of that. That justified the aforementioned idea that it should be the sole source of income.

Getting out of the business didn’t solve that problem. I worked for people who wanted my professional identity completely contained in the work and institution which they ran. That wasn’t any better at what was strictly a job than it was at my own business. But there are others who saw it to their advantage to let “me be me” and they reap the benefits from that. In those cases it’s been a “win-win” situation for everyone. (Remember that, in job hunting, they’re not only choosing you; you’re choosing them.)

There are two parts to this issue: the practical and the “theoretical.” From a practical standpoint, in a world where companies, institutions and even lines of work are in a perpetual state of upheaval, it doesn’t make sense to have one’s reputation in the marketplace dependent upon one institution. Sometimes one can end up the “last man (or woman) standing” in a profession, where the skill set has gone out of currency and you’re the “go-to” person. But even then the reputation needs to be yours, not your employer’s.

The “theoretical” part is a little trickier but just as important, because it goes to how you look at life in general, which in turn will determine where that life goes.

Christianity teaches that we derive our worth and value from God who created us and made our salvation possible. That being the case, it’s always amazing that, in what has been up until now a predominantly Christian country, that so many in church every Sunday pursue personal validation in this society with such gusto. We insist on driving the proper car, living in the proper house, and raising the proper children to communicate the message of success, when the Gospel tells us that none of these things is necessary for happiness.

Secularizing the country will only make this problem worse, because it takes away the alternative to worldly success without obviating the need for perpetual validation in the society. The enforced online groupthink, where we are forced to go along with the herd’s course or else, is only the most distasteful manifestation of this problem. Consider the matter of same-sex civil marriage; in a society as polarized as our is and where cohabitation is as common as it is, it’s really strange that neither or both sides could bring themselves to pitch the institution of civil marriage altogether. Everyone argued under the assumption that the state had to validate a marriage in order for it to be one. The same thing goes for our elite institutions. Whether they provide a better education is open to question; whether they confer on those who endure their degree programs a glow of respectability is not.

I used to think that my family I was born into didn’t like my Christianity because it put God in charge of things, not them. That’s true as far as it goes, but the more I think about it the more I realize that they didn’t like the fact that God defined who I was and not them. The person who defines who you are controls you, which is why identity is such a big deal in this society. My God loves and forgives, and that’s more than I can say about many people and institutions in this world.

These, then, are the two promises I made to myself past the mid-point. I am glad I did. I think you will be glad if you do too. May God richly bless you.

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