Baccalaureate Address: Ely J. Delman '06
Story posted May 26, 2006
On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Goals
by Ely J. Delman '06
May 26, 2006
Why is college graduation seen as one of the final symbols in a person's education? Is it because we have been students for seventeen years or more in order to reach this moment? But by being students for so long, don't we get busier and busier every year, and end up not having "enough time"? Do we write every goal of our lives on an imaginary poster - if not a notepad - and achieving those goals is the checkmark we put next to them? Having goals means more than putting a checkmark next to them and saying, "I have accomplished such-and-such a goal." Postulating goals and achieving those goals are the tools that we will use for the rest of our lives, hence those goals are not final objectives.
Class of 2006, four years ago, President Mills challenged us to take classes we knew nothing about, to meet new people, and to take advantage of the resources available to us; let's remember that challenge. It is true we all majored and minored in something or other, and we spent the majority of our years at Bowdoin working on those subjects, but don't be fooled - the end of college is not the end of learning. A lot of us will go onto graduate school, medical school, or law school next year; a new, more specialized, kind of education is just around the corner for you, and hopefully, for all of us in a few years' time. Regardless, our education here was about more than majoring or double majoring. Here we grew up, we learned more about ourselves and each other than we would anywhere else, and we experienced some of the most wonderful and also difficult times of our lives - whether you like it or not, here we became adults.
Far more important than our knowledge concerning cosecants, derivatives, neurons, endorphins, hormones, types of government, flat 5ths, functionalism, or anything else, is our ability to question, analyze, and form a well-articulated response. I believe this is the most important lesson we have gained while at Bowdoin, not only because it applies to any field, but because it is an essential part of being a responsible and active citizen in whatever country or system you belong to. It will be a rare occasion when we watch TV, pick up a magazine, or have a conversation with somebody without thinking critically. In this sense, we have attained an essential part of what it means to be an educated person, but by no means is it one of our last goals. Becoming an educated person, a critical thinker, is in itself a destination because it is an achievement - but that achievement must be put to practice. In that sense, this goal is an unending one. Or, put simply, it is not a goal, but a process and a journey.
Let's examine this word "goal" and its connotations and see what we have. "Goal," noun, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, "The object to which effort or ambition is directed; the destination of a (more or less laborious) journey." Let's accept the first half of the definition - that it is the object to which ambition is directed - and let's ignore the second part. "Effort" and "ambition," interesting diction. Effort doesn't necessarily presuppose ambition. Like Professor McCalla once told me, "I can put a lot of effort into playing the piano, but that doesn't mean I'm ambitious to do a recital. It can just mean that I enjoy the process, the experience, of playing the piano." But ambition, on the other hand, does presuppose some type of desire: the longing, craving, and the need for satisfaction. I believe desire should be a part of how we address goals. In our case, dear friends, the object that our effort, ambition, and desire is directed at is not merely a tangible object; it is the power of knowledge and the ability to make a positive difference with that knowledge. That goal cannot be stated, accomplished, and then forgotten; that goal is our task forever and it will live on after we are gone, because the people we will reach will also use the power of knowledge to make a positive difference.
Bowdoin College is one of the best colleges in the country, but I think it is guilty in shaping the way we view goals. We are all overworked and professors generally expect their students to be one hundred percent engaged and dedicated in their classes. But can we be one hundred percent engaged and dedicated to all four or five of the classes we take per semester? If we sacrifice some of our performance on athletic teams, our social life, our jobs, and our extracurricular activities, then I would say yes. In fact, I would say a lot of us sacrifice some parts of our non-academic lives just to finish work. None of us want our college life to be a zero-sum game, so we abstain as much as we can from sacrificing activities we care about. In truth, we'd want to avoid the zero-sum, to be able to do our work and to do the other things we want to do as well. However, when this is not possible, we are forced to be efficient with our time, but it must not be at the expense of a goal's essence. If we can satisfactorily answer the questions why something matters and why you want to accomplish it, then we can be both efficient and conscious about goals and their essence without being an automaton. When we stop, take a deep breath, and take a look around, we also appreciate our surroundings; we are a part of this world, it is more than where we eat and sleep.
Let me give you a personal example of what I've been talking about in relation to goals. In the fall semester of our senior year at Bowdoin, I was too caught up in the goals I laid down for myself, including doing well on the GREs, applying to graduate school, and of course, doing well in the independent study and classes I was committed to. The idea of going to grad school immediately following undergrad was a notion that I grew up with and felt that I should live up to. I felt as though I stood alone in a nondescript gray room, with no doors and just a small window near the ceiling, which I, of course, could not reach. Meaningful relationships fell apart, my health deteriorated, I lost perspective on college life, and worst of all, some of my favorite artists, Shuggie Otis and Parliament-Funkadelic, were unable to lift my spirits. It didn't help that the days were becoming shorter and shorter, that the leaves were falling, and that it was progressively getting colder.
After discussing what had been going on throughout the semester with my family, my Dad decided that it would be a good idea to come up from the Dominican Republic in November for a few days so we could chat. We spoke about college life in general, how the classes were going; about post-Bowdoin life, like what would I do if I didn't apply to grad school immediately, if I would get a job somewhere and apply to grad school in a few years; and about how I was feeling. It's amazing what a short visit from someone outside of Bowdoin can do. Talking with my Dad didn't answer all the questions I had or make the GREs any easier, but it did relieve the unnecessary pressure I put on myself regarding the goals I felt I had to accomplish. The most important lessons I learned were that the goals you set for yourself should be goals that feel right and that make sense; that you shouldn't feel pressure to rush and reach the goals you have set; that the goals you accomplish indeed could be ends in themselves, but are also the tools that will be used for the rest of your days. In one of our conversations, I was told that after my Dad's undergrad years, he went straight to law school, but hated it, and ended up dropping out after one year. He said that he didn't want me to make a similar mistake, which is why he flew from the Dominican Republic to Brunswick, Maine, just to chat. One day, I will make the trip as well.
Class of 2006, let us not have goals as road-markers from here on forth. Let us make goals and achieve them, but never have a final goal. Let us not breed complacency. Let us strive for our dreams and aspirations. When we are old and look back on what we have accomplished, let us not just see goals and the checkmarks next to them; let us see the progression of our respective lives. And when that day comes, that day will be identical to today: the sun will be shining, a warm breeze will envelop your every step, you will see friends walking with you, memories will emanate from every pore, and you will be happy. As Mexican Poet Laureate Octavio Paz alluded to in his Nobel lecture, "The present is eternal." So take advantage of the present; you have all the time in the world.
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