This past week was Commencement week at Northwestern. It’s hard to believe how quickly two years went by (especially since at times it didn’t always feel that way… ;)
MSLOC (my program) organized an informal lunch for the graduates and our guests. Even though we were fully decked out in our graduation gowns, it was clear that there were far more important people in our midst. In MSLOC tradition (which was really meaningful and fitting!), each one of us was invited to introduce and talk about our “support system.”
Fern was there to support me in the final leg of what must have felt like two long years. Two long years of caring for me, of lonely evenings and late night dinners, and of fighting with books and notes for my attention ;)
My parents flew halfway around the world to visit. They rarely travel, and have never been to this part of the world. To be able to come on this journey must have been a life moment for them (and in their doing so, so it was for me too). It struck me that graduation is not only the milestone of two years of hard work for the student, it is also the milestone of a lifetime of hard work for the parents!
The MSLOC community is also a huge part of my support system. It always makes me proud to share with others how diverse our learning community is. My teachers and classmates come from various walks of life – HR professionals, OD practitioners, coaches, consultants, leaders and managers, CEOs, partners, and executives, ranging from people in their late 20s/30s to their 50s/60s; we even have a few grandparents amongst us! Each one is as much a learner as he or she is a teacher to others. Where it comes to learning about human systems, I think there’s no better diversity than what we have at MSLOC :)
In MSLOC tradition, the community was invited to contribute words to describe each graduating student, and a word cloud was created for us. I’m not going to post my word cloud here, except to say it meant a lot to me. I think what the community says about someone is far richer than what is reflected in a diploma or a transcript. Even though society will unlikely recognize the piece of paper that contains my word cloud, it means a lot to me, perhaps even more than the diploma (that society recognizes!).
Unseen and unheard on graduation day were also the larger support systems out there. These include my friends, colleagues, and working experiences of jobs past and present. They include people who came into my life, enriched it, and created life experiences that helped me grow as a person and with which I continue to learn from.
It’s sobering when you picture all that. As much as it takes a village to raise a kid, it also takes the village to build a person. And it continues to take the village to create success. Barrack Obama was spot on when he said, “you didn’t build that.”
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” – Barrack Obama, July 2012, Virginia.
There is a Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water think of the source.” When we look at any success, hopefully we also recognize all the multiple sources that contribute to it.
Which leads to the question – if one’s success is owed to so many others what then is one’s responsibility? If the skills and gifts that one gains in the course of education are possible only as a result of everyone’s contributions, surely they cannot be private goods used for private benefit. Particularly in a world where only a small percentage of people have the privilege to be educated, there is an even larger responsibility to give back to the world.
However, we are also a world that tends to notice and focus on the most tangible things. While it takes the whole village to build a person, where different people contribute different investments – investments of time, energy, emotional attention, moral support, and many other tangible and intangible resources, unfortunately it tends to be those that invest the financial resources who get repaid first. Many students start out in the working world saddled with huge study loans, and their most tangible (and perhaps too, foremost) obligations are to the financial institutions that provide those loans. This principle of reciprocating what others have invested in you is correct, but it should apply to all types of investments that others have made however big or small, tangible or intangible.
And certainly, the last person to be “repaid”, if it ever comes round to it, would be ourselves. For those who have enjoyed the privilege, we have the responsibility – to learn, to grow, to lead, and to pay it forward.