Inside the Brown Bag: The Peacock

By Peg Brown

“On this day in 1914 transcontinental telephone service in the US became operational with the first test conversation between New York and San Francisco.” (Providence Journal, July 29, 2017)

Startling to think that just over 100 years ago, letters and telegrams connected us to the world. A mere three generations…

This fact prompted me to think about what I might say to returning students of almost any age if it were I still standing in the classroom, trying to frame opening day remarks. Rummaging through some yellowed and tattered files, I came across a presentation I made to high school students over 20 years ago. Somehow I think many of those remarks might still be appropriate today.

Some excerpts:

“Thank you for the very nice introduction. I am reminded of what the late Howard Swearer, former president of Brown University, often said to his audiences after similar kind words—‘today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster!’ Part of my charge this evening is to share with you some thoughts about how all the peacocks in this room can avoid that fate.

In thousands of convocations across the country, speakers are attempting to convey the same message. Those speeches will list the challenges you all face as we leapfrog into the 21st century. I’d like to begin by suggesting that Challenges (with a capital C) are what have always been at the center of what propelled the human race forward.

Historians tell us that the earth has been inhabited by human beings for about 50,000 years (give or take). If we were to divide that number into lifetimes of say 65 years, we could conclude that we’ve continued to meet and resolve challenges for approximately 800 lifetimes. For about 675 of those lifetimes, we have had language. However, only in the last seven of those lifetimes have we had the ability to record that language and make it available to more than a few scholarly priests or scribes. It is in roughly the last five of those lifetimes have we had the ability to tell time with any accuracy and only in the last three or four have we had more than the simplest of machines to do work for us. And only in my lifetime, have we had the consumer goods and services we now simply take for granted.

If as students you think about the day you were born as the midpoint in all of human history with regard to change, you won’t be far wrong. More things have changed since your birthday then in all of previous human history. What is different for all of us today is the tremendous acceleration of change that will shape our lives in ways we cannot imagine or predict.

Among those changes is the value of an education. There was a day within my memory when a college diploma was regarded as almost a guarantee of a good job and access to a middle-class lifestyle—the good life as it was dubbed. What employers are now asking those standing in employment lines is not ‘Where did you go to school?’ or ‘What was your major?’ It is now simply and relentlessly, ‘What do you know? What can you do?’

Degrees and transcripts, traditional indicators of student achievement, have lost much of their meaning. Using very sophisticated computer-based assessment tools, employers are making investments in young professionals who understand how to perform as part of a team, approach obstacles with creative spirit, handle stress, and be flexible and open to ongoing learning.

So back to the original question—what can you do not to become the feather duster?

Let me stop and ask a few questions.

How many of you know what you think you’d like to do as an occupation? If you’d asked me that question over 50 years ago, I would have said ‘medical doctor’—until I hit freshman college biology, the drill sergeant Miss Allen—and that confusing and difficulty life cycle of the fruit fly.

How many of you know what you DON’T want to be? I would have replied ‘teacher’—my dad was a teacher (I even had him for homeroom), my mother worked in the guidance office and all of their friends were teachers. Not for me!

I was a better than average high school student—but my first semester of college on a scholarship I received four Cs and one B—and was in danger of losing that scholarship—a pretty big shock to someone who had been one of those budding peacocks in high school. Believe me, the woman’s college I attended was no party school so I couldn’t blame my mediocre achievement on beer blasts. I changed majors at least four times—and ended up with a BA in Modern European history—not all that useful! I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did the only logical thing. I went to graduate school and earned what was another degree, still making me essentially unemployable.

Summary of the next 50 years or so: high school English and history teacher; nursery school teacher (don’t ask!); needlepoint and craft instructor; director of an institute working with low income and minority students in Providence schools; fund raiser at a university, fund raiser, vice president of advancement and executive director of a multi-million dollar foundation at a college; associate vice president for philanthropy at a major hospital; year-long volunteer in a charter school; fund-raiser at a small non-profit…and—well you get the point.

A lumpy road, not a straight line, and certainly a path filled with positions I never knew existed as a high school student.

So what’s the point? The point is it takes more than brains and talent to succeed. Next to being computer savvy, the most important thing flexibility. Many, like me, will end up doing things that are not known today. You must be ready. You must treat every experience as an opportunity to learn something that will be useful later.

You must never stop learning—that means lifelong education– school, workshops, and seminars— for the rest of your life. Lifelong learning is no longer a goal, it’s a necessity. Needs change and positions are filled today with individuals who continue to learn and develop marketable skills.

You must display determination, perseverance and plain old grit. The brightest and talented are not always those who succeed. We can cite all kinds of literature—from the Tortoise and the Hare fable—to Michael Jordan’s biography—remember, he was cut from his junior high basketball team

And, most importantly, you must develop people skills—the ability to speak, write, think and listen effectively. These are the skills that are transferrable to any position.

Let me conclude—in my late 40s I earned a Ph.D.—they call that a terminal degree, not because you almost die getting it, but because it is the highest degree to obtain in most fields. Some even refer to it irreverently as proof you can ‘pile it high and deep.’ It, like all degrees, is not a ticket to never have another learning experience. If fact, it was a mandate for me to continue to learn and just another punched ticket that allows you to stand in yet another line with equally qualified candidates. To be honest, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I know that my education is far from over.

I hope I’ve been able to convince you that being a good student; earning multiple diplomas; winning accolades, contests, trophies and awards in no way insures “success.” A long way from it. \While it MAY give you some slight advantages, and may allow you to stand in more lines, your continued commitment to learning in the face of accelerated change will be your real ticket to the life you may imagine and, perhaps more importantly, a true and meaningful gift to all of us—to the people in this room, in your community, across this country and around the world.”

Excerpts from remarks made in June, 1995 to an assembly of high school honor students.