Keep a Plan B!

Convocation Keynote Address
Penny Gill
Mary Lyon Professor of Humanities and Professor of Politics
September 5, 2007

Good morning! And welcome to all of you, to new staff and old; to new faculty and old; and of course, to new students and old. Many, many people have worked very hard to bring us to this very auspicious moment: people have cleaned your dorms and your offices, ordered books and readied the library, raked and weeded the gardens, prepared your Internet connections, repaired huge steam pipes, planned a fulsome orientation program, and written countless essay questions and laboratory exercises. To all of you who have brought us to this moment in this beautiful place, for this most privileged of undertakings, teaching and learning, we give you warm thanks.

You all know what Plan A is. You've been bombarded with it since you were children, most of you. By the time you applied to college, you were ridiculously articulate about your goals in life. Here at Mount Holyoke you are or soon will be immersed in a sea of reminders to work hard, aim high, choose excellence, and become a leader. You have been told, "Competition is great, because it brings out your best." Ambition, goals, leadership--these are the key words pressed into your minds. This is Plan A. The world and the College entice you with visions of financial success and even fame. The College goes even further and extends a helping hand, to encourage you on each step of the way. For four years you will find your inbox peppered with cheery suggestions from the CDC, the Career Development Center. It's time to prepare your résumé. There will be a workshop on how to build a CV and write a cover letter; sign up now. Plan an internship every year. Learn how to dress for success and schedule a practice interview. Review and revise your goals each semester, and map your progress. Gather a network of potential mentors.... Sigh. It makes me weary just to think of it--probably some kind of child abuse here!

One should immediately become suspicious when you are told how to write your cover letter for the "right" internship. I know, because I have read a lot of them, and they make every one of you sound exactly the same--never mind that one of you is from New Jersey and majoring in English and another of you is from Ghana majoring in economics. The letters are to pry open the door so you can begin your assault on Plan A. Make sure you use the right phrases--highly experienced, skillful team worker, impressive leadership skills as demonstrated on the rugby team, double major with additional concentrations in two other disciplines, active in many organizations on campus and always accepting the responsibility of a leadership role, super motivated, etc., etc. … Oh, and I forgot the latest hot item: internships. There should be lots of them, in January and during the summer, in a corporation and a nonprofit. You should show you can work in two or more languages and simply flourish in demanding situations on barely any pay. You LOVE to volunteer. Above all, you are purposeful, serious, and: ambitious. And ever since you were a little girl, you have wanted "exactly" this job, this graduate program, or this career.

Well, yes, I exaggerate. And yes, success is good and being well paid is very nice. I've taught at Mount Holyoke for more than 35 years, and I think I have had success and I have certainly been paid very well. Best of all, I have work I love, spending my days with such bright and committed young women from around the world. I consider myself profoundly privileged and blessed. After good health, good work may be the most precious gift of a long life. But I am not so sure that Plan A is the way to find it.

I am a believer in Plan B. It is a lot messier, I admit. And nowhere near as linear as Plan A claims to be. As a follower of Plan B, I watch for hints from the universe that an unexpected opportunity or invitation might be just what I would enjoy. I try to practice my peripheral vision at least as much as I practice a forward focus on my immediate and long-term goals. And I believe our work should nourish our hearts just as much as it challenges our minds and furnishes our checkbooks. Since you are likely to spend more time at work than with all the people you love the most, your work should reflect your deepest values and it should keep you growing and developing, year after year.

So, as you think about your education and about this year, which courses you will take, which neat idea for a research project you will pursue, how you will use your nonclass time and energy, and yes, which internship or study abroad opportunity you will apply for, please don't let your Plan A swamp or silence your openness to Plan B. Claim your own education to nurture your own curiosity about the world and your dreams for your place in it.

Be cautious about markets. Protect yourself and those you care for from too much vulnerability in markets. They are seeping deep into our society into arenas where they have never been allowed to operate before. Pay attention to this. I also try to take all the admonitions about making myself competitive in the marketplace with more than a grain of salt; I ration my exposure to such messages and try to keep my balance when they seem unusually loud or pervasive. In Plan B, one shapes a LIFE, not a career. A good life requires good work, because, as someone said, "work is your love for your community made visible." And only you, not the marketplace, know what is YOUR good work.

Try not to make important decisions out of your own fearfulness. This means, you must become acquainted with your own particular set of fears. We all have them; it is the human condition. But allowing old fears to shape your adult life is a great tragedy, and it is not necessary. Watch for those moments when you pull back from a particular challenge or avoid something intriguing but risky. Name your fears and try to figure out where they come from and what they are trying to protect you from. Fear can be a habit, no longer useful in these new circumstances. Be kind to that fearful part of you and offer it comfort. But don't allow it to organize your life or silence your voice. More than anything, this will secure your freedom to be who you really are. And that is a very good thing.

So, as you prepare to go out into a world quite desperate for creative and responsible leadership, it is OK to keep a Plan A. But don't surrender to it. Nurture Plan B. Welcome the unexpected and celebrate your freedom to say yes. It's the Plan B folks who will be poised to heal this tragic world of its many terrors.

I'll close now by reading to you something which has hung on my refrigerator and on both my desks for many years. It helps me to keep my balance, especially when some version of my Plan A has crashed. I wish I could tell you who wrote it or even who gave it to me. But it belongs to all of us:

Show up and choose to be present.
Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
Be open to outcome.

I wish all of us a year rich in challenge and new learning. Thank you!

Related Links:

Audio - Penny Gill
(QuickTime: 5.6 MB, Time: 12:08)

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