Harvey Segur, Winter 2011

I want to begin by congratulating all of the students who are graduating today:

Congratulations – you made it!

And to the families and friends of these rightfully proud graduates:

Congratulations – you also made it.

I’m confident that this has been a group effort for many of you.

As you’ve heard, I am from the Department of Applied Mathematics.  But all of you can relax: there will be no equations in what I say today, and this material will not be on the next exam.  

Many of you graduates are about to move from a more structured environment, called “college”, to a less structured one, called  “life”.  My job is to provide sage advice as you begin your next adventure.  You might already know that when someone gives you free advice, you get your money’s worth.  Here is some free advice.

An ancient Chinese curse says “May you live in interesting times”.  According to Wikipedia, there is no evidence that this curse is either ancient or Chinese, but the concept is quite clear:  interesting times are uncertain, and they can be dangerous.

We live in an interesting time.  Our national unemployment rate is stuck near 9%, so this is not a great time to be looking for a new job.  Our high unemployment rate is one of a set of related problems that this country and others are facing right now.  Those are all negatives.  But 2011 is also the year in which the people of Tunisia, and of Libya and of Egypt all rose up and forced the strongmen running their countries to resign.  No one knows what will happen next in any of those countries.  But in my opinion, it’s always positive when oppressed people stand up and assert their own human dignity.  These are interesting times.

I want to focus on a small part of this big picture.  Most of you will spend a large fraction of your adult lives working, at something, in order to pay your bills.  Here are three recommendations aimed primarily at that part of your lives.


Recommendation #1 is very practical.  When I was a college senior, I had learned how to pass exams.  But I was quite unconvinced that the knowledge that gets you an A on an exam necessarily helps you to function in the real world. Sometime during my senior year, I was talking to my faculty advisor and said: “I don’t actually know much of anything.  What do I do if I get a job and they ask me to do something?”

That was a smart-aleck comment, but it was based on a real concern:  I had no good way to estimate the practical value of my undergraduate education.  Some of you might feel the same way right now.  My advisor gave a very good answer to my smart-aleck question.  He said “Well,…. Don’t do nothing.”

“Don’t do nothing” turned out to be excellent advice. In my first job after college, I worked as an engineer in an aerospace company, and after a few months on the job, my boss gave me an assignment about which I knew nothing – I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But I remembered the advice – don’t do nothing.  So I read some stuff, I figured out what I could about the problem that was given to me, I worked out something, and I took that back to my boss.  It was not what he wanted, but it was not completely stupid, either.  It was good enough that he could tell me how to change what I had done, to make it into what he wanted.  So eventually it all worked out, and I was very glad to have gotten that advice: When in doubt, don’t do nothing.


Recommendation #2 starts with a question:  Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?  Some of you have been getting questions like that since you were 6 years old, but now your answers matter.

For those of you who don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, I feel your  pain: I was in your situation when I graduated from college.  The advantage that you have at this point in your lives is flexibility – and flexibility is important in uncertain times. If you don’t know what you want to do:  Try something.  Pick a job that you think might be interesting.  If it turns out to be something that you like, then you are lucky, because you are no longer wandering aimlessly.

If it turns out to be something that you don’t like, then you’re also lucky, but for a different reason.  You picked a job that you thought would be interesting, and you found it not so interesting.  OK – now you’re learned something about your real interests. That information can be very enlightening.

I mentioned earlier that my first job after college was in the aerospace industry.  I wanted to find out which parts of my education were useful, and which parts I could abandon.  My first job answered that question, so it was very helpful.  But once I had an answer to that question, then my job was not all that interesting – to me.  And by looking around, I could see that the jobs that would have interested me required more education than I had.  So after one year of real life, I went running back to school.  But when I want back to school, I had a much better idea of why I was in school, and of what I wanted to do with my life.

So in my experience, to try something was a productive strategy.

My third and final recommendation is really the flip side of recommendation #2:  What about those of you who do know what you want to do with your lives?  If you have a strong interest in something, and if it helps other people, then I recommend that you go for it.  Among the people that I know, the ones who are most satisfied with their lives spend a lot of their time in positions where the job requirements line up with their own interests.  Here is an example.

Mary Nelson is a Senior Instructor in our Applied Math Department.  She likes to teach. She once asked me: “What could be better than to spend your time helping kids achieve their own dreams?”  She enjoys teaching, so she has thought carefully about it, and about how to do it better.  Starting about ten years ago, she developed a package of methods to improve how we teach our Calculus courses, so that more students pass those courses, and even more important, so that more students actually understand what Calculus is.

Her story demonstrates a pattern that holds for many people who are lucky enough to have jobs that they truly enjoy: they go out of their way to do their jobs better.  If they get paid for the improvement, fine; but the main reason that they develop better ways to do things is because they enjoy their jobs and they want to do them well.

In my opinion, the ideal job for you is a job in which you do something that you find so interesting that you’re willing to spend some of your own free time working on it.  A job like that can keep you going when things go badly – and sometimes things will go badly.  Not every job will be all that interesting to you, but it’s much more fun to work in a job that you find interesting.

I began by warning you of the dangers of interesting times.  I’m ending by telling you of the joys of doing interesting work.  So “interesting” can be good, or bad, or both.  How you respond to interesting situations is up to you.  Good luck in your next adventure.