On May 5, I had the honor of giving the commencement address at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. Dean David Hall gave me very good advice on what makes for a good commencement speech: make it personal, tell us about yourself including your background, and keep it short. He also suggested that I share with the new graduates any key lessons I have learned during my long career.
The timing for reflecting on my life and career could not have been better, given that in a few weeks I will be going to Chicago for my 50th high school class reunion, the University of Chicago Lab School Class of 1962. For the last several months, I have been involved in an online group with many of my former classmates, learning a bit about their lives and careers over the past fifty years, and sharing with them some details about my own.
Unexpected, Serendipitous Events
As I look back on my own career, I am struck by the serendipitous nature of some of the most important events in our life. The key event that launched my career with computer systems took place during the summer of 1962 right before entering college at the University of Chicago. Planning to major in math and physics, I wanted a job in the university’s research labs. I could not get one, so I was resigned to spend the hot Chicago summer working in the library stacks.
Through a variety of circumstances, - including my having a small part in a play and meeting a physics student who was watching one of our rehearsals, - I learned that a new computation center was being started at the university. I went over, and met its director, physics and chemistry Professor Clemens Roothaan, one of the early leaders in computational sciences. Even though I knew nothing about computers, few 17 year olds did in 1962, I ended up getting a summer job in the new computation center, including an air conditioned office. Eventually I went on to get a Ph D in physics at the University of Chicago with Professor Roothaan as my thesis advisor.
At the time, Professor Roothaan was consulting with IBM on the design of supercomputers, and I also got involved in some of this work. A few of the IBM people I worked with encouraged me to apply for a position in computer sciences at IBM’s research labs. Switching from physics to computers sciences was not an easy decision. But I finally realized that I enjoyed the computing more than the physics. So, in June of 1970 I joined the computer sciences department at IBM’s Watson Research Center, the beginning of my 37 year career with the company.
Flexibility, Life-Long Learning
I told the new graduates that it is important to figure out what you enjoy doing, because chances are this is what you will be best at. It is hard to figure out what you like until you actually try it. So, it is good to try doing different kinds of things until something clicks because your are good at it and it feels right. For most of us, this takes time.
Our education and our degrees are very important and will always be there for us. But we must treat them as a kind of general education that prepares us to be flexible and be able to do different things at different stages of life. I cherish having received a Ph D in physics from the U of C, even though I never practiced physics after I got it. But, it has influenced the way I think and approach problems, in particular my life-long interest in complex systems and organizations.
In our fast changing world, the stocks of knowledge, what we know, is not as important as the flows of knowledge, the knowledge we will continue to acquire throughout our careers and lives. More than anything, our education prepares us to be part of the knowledge flow, to be able to quickly acquire, and thus refresh and expand our rapidly depleting stocks of knowledge.
Resiliency, Perseverance, Relationships
Flexibility, a commitment to life-long learning, and good luck are necessary ingredients for a long, satisfying career . . . but they are not sufficient.
A few years ago I read an excellent article in The Atlantic - What Makes Us Happy? The article was based on a longitudinal study of adult development started in 1937 by selecting a group of healthy, well adjusted Harvard undergraduates. The still ongoing study has followed almost 250 subjects up to the present or until their deaths. Its findings have been described in a book, Aging Well written by study director and Harvard Medical School professor George Vaillant.
The original purpose of the study was an attempt to analyze the forces that produce normal young men. But, over time, its objectives deepened. “Is there a formula - some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation - for a good life?,” asks What Makes Us Happy? in its introduction. The answer, according to Dr. Vaillant, is that the course of our lives will mostly depend on how we respond to the problems that we will inevitably encounter - from the truly tragic to the relatively minor.
“I had expected that the longevity of your parents, the quality of your childhood, and your cholesterol levels would be very influential,” said Dr. Vaillant in this article. “So I was very surprised that these particular variables weren't more important than they were.” Surprisingly, stressful events didn't predict future health, either. “Some people had a lot of stress, but aged very well. But how you deal with that stress does matter quite a bit.”
The Harvard study found that the following factors were the most predictive of whether you'd move successfully through middle age and into your 80s: avoiding cigarettes and not abusing alcohol; keeping a healthy weight; exercising regularly; good adjustment or coping skills; pursing education; and maintaining strong social relationships, including a stable partner.
Vaillant has particularly emphasized the power of relationships as a key factor leading to a more successful aging. Those relationships can come from a variety of sources - family, friends, colleagues. It is the warm connections that count. A number of other studies have come to similar conclusions: social connections are crucial to good physical and mental health while growing older.
In my experience, at some point almost everyone encounters serious bumps in the road, - in their personal life, in their work, or both. The key is whether we have the resiliency necessary to absorb the shock and the perseverance to keep going. Most people I know who have done well, whatever that means, have done so because of this inner resilience and perseverance.
A great deal of life is just not giving up. And, most likely, it is the social connections and the personal relationships we establish throughout our lives that give us whatever inner strength we need to keep going despite the curve balls that life inevitably throws at us.