A testament to learning how to think

By Posted in - Uncategorized on April 26th, 2017 1 Comments

I am humbled that I was inducted into the Business Hall of Fame at my undergrad alma mater, Southwestern College in Kansas. The education I received there gave me a foundation from which I’ve crafted a rather unique career. Here’s a transcript of the comments I gave at the award luncheon.

Thank you, President Andrews, Dr. Kaiser and members of the selection committee for this honor. I have to admit I was taken aback at first when I received the call and then it struck me as a very poetic award.

You see, I was not a business major at Southwestern. In fact, I made it out of here having taken just one business class – marketing. More on how fortuitous that move was in a minute.

When I first stood at the bottom of the 77 steps as a freshman in 1977, I had no idea what direction I was heading (well, aside from up as we all have done hundreds of times!). You see, between high school and college, I traveled a year with Up With People and the last six weeks of the tour (and just a couple of weeks before classes started here) were spent in what was then Communist Poland. Talk about not being in Kansas anymore!

That first semester, I spent a lot of time processing the previous year’s experiences and their impact on my views of the world and outlook on life. The first time you travel abroad, your perspective on the world is materially changed forever – and in a good way.

I started out here as a music major. I don’t know what I thought being a music major entailed. When I realized that I either needed to go pro or teach I knew I needed to find something else. I then tried a couple of more disciplines and quickly realized that they didn’t light my fire either.

Enter Troy Boucher, who saw me struggling to find my corner of the sky. Troy became an advisor, a mentor, coach and friend. I’m honored that he and Michelle are here today, as he deserves a huge amount of credit for setting me on the path that led to this honor.

Troy taught me that one size does not always fit all. He encouraged me to think independently, chart a course and make it happen. You see, my degree is a Bachelor of Philosophy in Aesthetics and Humanities. The PhB is a self-guided degree program that starts with one developing their philosophy of education. This thesis is then defended in front of the Academic Committee and, when approved, becomes the course of study for the rest of one’s time a Southwestern. If you’ve never heard of this degree, it’s OK. To date, only 26 students at Southwestern have graduated with a PhB. It is the road less traveled.

There were others here who provided me with valuable life lessons, inside and outside of the classroom. Alfredo Rodriquez, who served as a Supreme Court Justice under Fidel Castro until they had a falling out (true story), taught Spanish at Southwestern. Alfredo never gave tests; rather he observed where each student began the semester and where they finished and graded them accordingly: A for solid effort, B for less than solid and F for simply refusing to grow.

I still remember the first day of class with him: 45 of our 50 minutes were spent speaking only Spanish; in the last 5 minutes he explained that this is how one learns languages. Alfredo believed that you learned by doing and your grade was based on the effort you put forth based from where you started. Three years of high school Spanish was not a guaranteed ticket to an A in his class. Each of us were handed chalk to teach sections – to lead if you will – when we least expected it. Success isn’t measured by scores or pieces of paper but by progress, growth and initiative.

There was Howard Stephens – I’m guessing 95% of the students here didn’t know who this curmudgeonly fellow was who oversaw the college’s graphic and publications work. Howard and I hit it off in part due to our passion for photography. He still stands as prime example of how amazing wisdom can come from the most unexpected sources if we’re willing to engage and listen.

What these fine people (and there were others) gave me was a foundation; the material I needed to find my way in the world. Tools to help me succeed, to help me grow, to help me transform and adapt to the world around me.

A Bachelor of Philosophy in Aesthetics and Humanities… you can’t get more Liberal Arts than that! You know the one question a Humanities major has to learn upon graduation: “Do you want fries with that burger?”

I must also mention my father, who had enough faith and trust in me to let me wander through my PhB program. Upon graduation he asked me, “What are you trained to do?” To which I answered, “Quite honestly, nothing.” He came back with, “What did you learn?” and I answered, “I learned how to think. How to see how different things fit together and influence each other.” And he said, “Good. Now go do something with that knowledge.” And I did.

I mentioned that I took one and only one business course at Southwestern – marketing. Upon graduation, I chose to live in Denver and on one particular job interview, I was given a stress test with various market scenarios tossed at me that I had to solve in front of my future colleagues. My connected studies, knowing how to ask questions and process the data as well as that one marketing course converged in that interview. And I got the job.

I truly believe that everything you’ve done up to this point in your life has prepared you for what’s coming next.

I am a digital immigrant; I remember time before mobile devices, the Internet and computers. Anyone younger than 25 years of age is a digital native, having grown up in a world where ubiquitous connectivity is a natural part of life. We live in an amazing time. The access we have to information is unprecedented (and I did say unprecedented) and the tools we have available are astounding.

Anymore, all of us are connected 24/7. PCs, smartphones and tablets enable us to be constantly plugged in and the alerts we set on these devices ensure that we don’t miss out on anything. The challenges this electronic connectivity presents are many (and this list isn’t exhaustive):

  • Superficial electronic relationships versus flesh and blood connections
  • Disembodied communication skills and techniques
  • An increase in online disinhibition
  • FOMO – the fear of missing out
  • No time for oneself to reflect, think, assimilate; stress levels are at frighteningly high levels
  • The expectation that everything happens instantly; no patience.
  • Having ready access to all of the answers versus needing to really dig for them much less think about what the answers mean and their relationship one to another
  • Accepting readily available information as the truth without questioning its validity

In the words of our great President, Abraham Lincoln, “Not everything you read on the Internet is true.”

This access comes with responsibility. It’s not enough to know where to find the answers; you need to understand why they matter. You need context. That’s where Southwestern comes in.

I recall one class here where we read Rolf Hockhuth’s “The Deputy”. Hockhuth postulated in this play that Pope Pious XII turned a blind eye to the Holocaust; that he was complicit. In the class we each had to choose a side – supporting or arguing against this – research it and write our theses. We all spent hours in the library digging through the stacks to find support for our positions. These papers led to a fascinating discussion in class as we presented our evidence and discussed our positions.

We’ve just emerged from nearly a generation (15 years) of “No Child Left Behind” where children were taught little more than how to answer tests (this is not the teachers’ fault but a program structure issue).

At the same time, companies have moved to agile work environments (physical as well as intellectual) where they’re expecting their teams to take initiative, think creatively, be flexible, iterate and collaborate with their colleagues.

Now, more than ever, we need strong liberal arts training. Learning a specific skill necessary to get a job that pays well is far less valuable than just learning period; learning how to think, adapt, how to question and connect the dots.

Graduates today need to know how to ask questions and seek answers, analyze, contextualize, collaborate, iterate, how to solve problems and, most importantly, communicate in both the spoken and written word (beyond 144 characters and emojis). Knowing only how to tick boxes on a form is poor preparation for the constantly-changing world we live in.

The generations before us spoke of the impact of the Great Depression and two World Wars on their personal and economic lives. Today, we are shaped by regular economic shifts – in my career to date I’ve weathered three major market corrections (1986, 2000, 2008) impacted my life and career, forcing me to make course corrections, pivot and significantly impacting me financially. Learning only how to take tests would have been disastrous preparation for the changes I’ve encountered.

Learning how to think, see connections and identify opportunities when they present themselves has been critical training, helping me to adapt, adjust and move on. Toss in a life-long passion for and involvement in the arts – time for myself away from connected devices to dream, perform, create – and you have a pretty complete sketch of how my short tenure at Southwestern shaped me.

My life today is a mashup of things I love: Marketing strategy consulting, Fine art photography, keynotes and workshops about creative thinking, storytelling through a blog and podcast. Each of these facets of my life have their roots in what I learned and was involved in during my time here at Southwestern. Time spent learning something from every discipline, time spent drinking coffee and debating with my professors, time spent in rehearsals for A Capella Choir and theatre, time spent in the darkroom, time spent researching and writing, time spent figuring out how things are connected, related.

Receiving this award is poetic and is a testament to that education.

I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.

(1) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Sydney K. McQuoid - Reply

    April 26, 2017 at 14:06

    Dennis,
    Congratulations on the award. Wonderful speech that outlines and advocates the lifelong benefits of a liberal arts education. Many in our generation have benefitted in our professional lives and personally from being taught how to enjoy learning and growing at any age. It is sad this wasn’t necessarily passed along to subsequent generations.

    Continue preaching creativity to the flocks,

    Warm wishes,
    Sydney

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