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Metamorphosis: Chance or Choice

Editor’s Note: Academic convocation is one of Keuka College’s longstanding traditions. And  one of the traditions at convocation is for the current Professor of the Year to address the new students. This year that honor went to Amanda Harris. Her remarks follow.

I want to begin by thanking Dr. Weed, Dr. Burke, members of the Administration, members of our faculty— especially my colleagues in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts—and my special communication partner, friend, and former adviser, Dr. Anita Chirco. To our incoming and returning Keuka College scholars: Welcome! I wish you all book-loads of success and high grades in the coming school year!

It is a very special honor for me to speak to you today and it’s also very timely. My words are directed mostly to our students: Your professional lives are just beginning to unfold here at Keuka College, while mine is wrapping up. After an adventurous and varied career of some 50 years, I retired last May. During those 50 years I had a lot of exciting experiences and learned a few things about the work world and life in general.   By the way, this part of the speech is where I try to impress you with my credentials before launching into my real message. So here’s a boiled down version of my resume:

I started out in journalism as a daily newspaper reporter in Syracuse and Rochester, and for several years when we were about your age, my husband and I owned a weekly newspaper and were the youngest publishers in the United States. It’s ancient history, but I still love putting that on my resume.

Later, I entered big business, where I was a senior executive and department head in four international corporations. I held management positions in everything from corporate communications to human resources to international strategic planning and a bunch of stuff in between.

Lastly, came my absolutely favorite job: a professor here at Keuka College.

Now here’s the part that may come as a surprise. When I was young, college wasn’t an option for me; I learned from the School of Hard Knocks. I started working at age 17 fresh out of high school and worked my way up. Now, this is not a career strategy that I advise. It was tough. It’s a rough and tumble world out there, especially for a non-degreed woman.

Shortly after turning 50, I made the smartest move of my career: I left business and entered Keuka College, Class of 1997. Under the gentle guidance of my adviser, Dr. Chirco, who pushed, prodded, and all but beat me about the head and shoulders with an application form, I entered grad school, earned my master’s degree in communication at Ithaca College, and returned to Keuka to begin the most rewarding job of my life.

My career has been one fun, helluva ride; I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, and after 50 years, learned a lot. Being a teacher, I want to pass on an important message to our young scholars. Keep in mind, I also teach English, so here comes the inevitable literary reference. When I was 18, I read a story with a message that changed me forever: The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. Let me read you the opening paragraph:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his bare, armor-plated back and when he lifted his head, he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin, waved helplessly before his eyes.

“‘What has happened to me?” he thought. It was no dream.”

Pretty creepy, huh?  But it gets creepier.  You see, Gregor was not really surprised by his transformation; his metamorphosis. In fact, rather than being terrified about turning into a man-sized cockroach (which is how most readers imagine the giant insect), poor old Gregor was more worried about how he would get to his job that morning; he was the sole support of his ungrateful, do-nothing parents and sister.

Even worse, except for their initial horror that Gregor was nothing more than a big cockroach, no one— not even his family—was particularly surprised or even sorry for him.  Mostly, they were embarrassed to be seen with a filthy cockroach.

So, you ask—I can see it in your faces—what the heck does this have to do with being in college and preparing for a career?  Well, it has lot to do with it. The Metamorphosis has critical themes for people who are just beginning to discover and define themselves as independent adults.

First, each of us deep inside has an image or ideal of the kind of person we want to be— this goes beyond the kind of job we want; it’s the kind of ethics and characteristics we want to live by.

Second, the choices we make in life— big, life-changing ones and little, day-to-day choices—will shape the kind of person that we eventually become and how people perceive us.

You see, the story The Metamorphosis is also a metaphor, open to myriad interpretations. The bit about how the choices we make shape us, is the one that I think nails it.

I want to share this with you because during my 50-year career, I met and worked with many Gregor Samsas—basically good people who woke up one day to discover they had become something they never dreamed they would become. Metaphorically, they became cockroaches.

Bit by bit, slowly over time, through the choices, actions, and moral compromises they made, they eroded their own souls. Usually, they ended up bitter, frustrated, miserable, or just numb. To toss in another literary reference, Henry David Thoreau called this “living lives of quiet desperation.”

Metamorphous is often a slow process, and it is something that we do to ourselves. We cannot blame others for what we become. It’s a matter of how we choose to live. It’s about values; if we fail to establish a firm sense of values, we also fail to develop a firm sense of self.  Life is not just about the career goals we want to achieve; it’s about what we are willing to do, or not do, to achieve them. It’s about choices and actions that reflect our values and ethics, and the kind of person we want to be.

Metamorphous is also a sneaky business. When Gregor woke up, his essential identity (the way he thought of himself) had not changed. His body was different, but in his heart he thought he was still good, old, likable Gregor. His metamorphosis became complete when he realized other people viewed him as nothing more than an insect—which is what he allowed himself to become.

The story of Gregor Samsa is a sad one. But it doesn’t have to be. Life is all about choices, and there is no reason that you cannot become that personal ideal that you hold inside yourself— it’s not easy, but it is simple. You establish your values and moral boundaries, and you stand by them. That’s the hard part, because it often means going against the crowd or against the power structure.

All of us need to think seriously about our values and ethics. What are those moral lines that you do not want to cross? These are critical and highly personal decisions. Most of us, especially when we’re young, have some vague idea, but we really don’t think about it in depth. And that’s where we get tangled up and fall down. We end up in default mode; we go along to get along, even when we suspect that what we’ve been asked to do might be wrong. But once something is done, it’s done. We cannot take back the words, and we cannot undo the actions.

You see, it’s not just the Big Decisions that trip us up and cause us to change; it’s the slow accumulation of many small day-to-day actions and compromises.  If we’re not careful, after a while they can form a pattern of our behavior, and those moral compromises can become easier and easier to make… and to excuse.

As I said earlier, many of those pathetic cockroach people I’ve met were basically decent. Gregor was not a villain. But he let people walk all over him, did whatever others told him to do without question, and allowed people to use him— all under the illusion that he would be liked and accepted. But doormats like Gregor are rarely liked or accepted and they’re never respected, especially by the people they’re trying to please.

Although Gregor was one of those bland, passive bugs, there are also more dangerous and aggressive types out there. Like that nest of greedy insects on Wall Street who tanked the economy or self-serving power mongers who think they are above the law. These species of cockroaches knowingly do things that are wrong or unethical because they think it will advance their careers and status. Worse, they think they are entitled to harm and take advantage of others, and they find ways to justify themselves. You’ve heard the excuses:

•  I’m just doing my job.

•  If I don’t do it, someone else will.

•  Do unto others before they do unto you.

•  Blah, blah, blah.

The excuses don’t matter; these folks know what they are doing is wrong, but do it anyway. Or they get others, like Gregor, to do their dirty work for them. And guess what? In most cases, they still claim, “But deep down, I’m really a good person.”  The heck they are!

Deep down, they—and the Gregors who serve them—are sacrificing their own souls for some selfish reward. In the end, they cheat themselves and if it happens often enough (which it usually does), they become what they are: nasty, dirty cockroaches.

I am telling you all of this because it is soooo easy to slide down that slippery slope.

College prepares you for life, not just a job. This is where your lives as independent, responsible adults begin. This is where your values begin to be tested and, where your choices and actions will have larger and more personal consequences later on.  Here and now is where the real you starts to take shape. In a few years, when you enter the work world, the process of your own metamorphous really accelerates. The world is very competitive, and it won’t be long before that person you really want to be will be tested and challenged. And some of those challenges will be very tempting and insidious.

This is why we need to consciously establish our own moral compass and ask ourselves:   “What exactly are my values?  What are my moral boundaries? What might steer me away from that path?  What part of my beliefs am I willing to compromise?”

These are tough questions and tough choices.

Please don’t misunderstand me—ambition, competition, and power are not evil traits. It depends on how we choose to act upon them.  Standing up for what we believe in, speaking out for others and ourselves, staying true to our values, succeeding on our own merits and not tromping on others—these are choice that shape us.  Refusing to follow the crowd, and disagreeing to do something you consider unethical may not win you a popularity prize, but you will be respected.

You know that line: Good guys finish last?  It’s a lie. Good guys do get ahead. I’ve met them—smart, tough, honest people; the type most of us want to work with and for.

Before I conclude my message, I want you do something. Right now, think of  three adjectives that you would want people to use to describe you.

You, my fellow scholars, have the internal power to turn those words into your personal reality. These words can shape your choices and shape the kind of person you become.  Just don’t compromise them!

I am both envious and excited for you students. You are now embarking on your life journey. It is exciting, adventurous, rewarding, and yes, a bit scary.  No one really knows where life will take you and what challenges you will face.

You will have great times and lousy times. You will work with saints and with rats. You will have wonderful successes and crummy failures. And all the time, you will be learning about yourself and what you are made of. You may not be in control of what life throws at you, but you are in control of how you choose to respond.

Shakespeare wrote: “To thine own self be true.” Remember those three adjectives?  They describe “thine own self”— those words are what you want to become. Use them as your guide.

I have a weird little souvenir for each of you and I need about four volunteers to toss them out. When I was in business, I used to give my employees a shorter version of the message I just gave you and one of these things. It’s a plastic cockroach. Hold onto it as a reminder to stay true to your own soul and your own values.

As we toss these out, say to yourself:  “I WILL NOT BECOME A COCKROACH!”

Thanks for listening. As you launch into the world’s greatest journey – your own independent adult lives – please remember always to choose wisely.

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