Advice to Graduates: The Two Promises I Made to Myself

In this time of no graduation ceremonies, I think it appropriate to repost this from August 2016, when I faced getting my PhD without a graduation ceremony because my institution didn’t do an August graduation.  This year the institution is forgoing May graduation for–wait for it–an August graduation.  (I eventually did get to walk, in December.)  Life and careers don’t move in straight lines; I think the advice I gave then deserves to be said again, especially now.

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 ours 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.

When Social Distancing from the Plague Pays Off — Positive Infinity

It sure did for Sir Isaac Newton, this from The World of Mathematics: Newton took his degree from Cambridge early in 1665. In the autumn of that year the great plague, which was raging in London, caused the University to close, and Newton went back to live at the isolated little house at Woolsthorpe where…

via When Social Distancing from the Plague Pays Off — Positive Infinity

Sometimes It Pays to Give Your Professor a Little Attention

I was forced to broaden my horizons in my PhD pursuit.  That’s because, although I’ve done coding since I was eighteen, I had to acquire a deeper understanding for two things: linear algebra and numerical methods.  It’s no understatement to say that both of these are at the core of the advances wrought by computerisation, whether we’re talking about statistical analysis or (in my case) simulation.

After my initial boffo performance, I turned to my Iranian friends for more help.  So they let me use some of the books they found useful for study back in the “old country”.  One of those was a sizeable book entitled Applied Numerical Methods by Brice Carnahan, H.A. Luther and James O. Wilkes.  As was the case with their wedding video, the heart skipped a beat, because the middle author, Hubert A. Luther, was my Differential Equations teacher at Texas A&M, forty years ago this spring.

Applied Numerical Methods was, AFAIK, the first really comprehensive textbook which combined linear algebra, numerical methods, and coding (in their case, FORTRAN IV) in one text.  Although some of the methodologies have been improved since it was published in 1969, and languages have certainly changed, it’s still a very useful book, although a little dense in spots.  Many of the books on the subject that have come afterwards have learned from its mistakes, but still refer back to the original.

Dr. Luther taught me the last required math class in my pursuit of an engineering degree at Texas A&M.  It wasn’t an easy class, even after three semesters of calculus (which I did reasonably well at).  Although he was originally from Pennsylvania, he acclimated himself to the Lone Star State with western shirt, belt and string tie, the only professor I can remember who did so. The start to his course was especially rough; the textbook was terrible, he was a picky grader, the scores I got back were low.  I thought I was facing the abyss…until another one of those “aha” moments came along.

We (the engineering students) were standing outside our Modern Physics class, which came before Differential Equations.  I found out I wasn’t the only one having this problem.  But one of my colleagues, a Nuclear Engineering student who went on to become my class’ wealthiest member, had a simple suggestion.  Go visit his office, he said.  He’s lonely (he was nearing retirement) and likes the company.  Your grade will go up.

I wasn’t much for visiting my professors, but I was desperate enough to try anything.  I made a couple of office visits.  I’m not sure how helpful his advice was, but his grading became more lenient and I got through the course OK.

Today I’m on the other end of the visitation.  I spend a lot of time in the office with no student visits.  Part of the problem comes from scheduling, both theirs and mine.  But I’ve found out something else about student visits: the students that come to see you really care about what they’re supposed to be doing in your class.  Although there are still students who think it their duty to “tough it out” without asking questions, many others just want to get through in the quickest and least time-consuming way they can find.

I’m glad I took my classmate’s advice and made the office visits.  But there are two other lessons I have learned since that time.

The first is that I wish I had taken a numerical methods course taught by Dr. Luther, it would have prepared me for what I’ve been doing both before and during the time of my PhD pursuit.

The second is that, when I started my MS degree twenty years later, I took a course over basically the same material taught by a Russian.  I found out that there was a great deal I hadn’t learned from Dr. Luther, and that American math education leaves a lot to be desired of.  So sometimes making the way easier up front comes back to get you in the end.