For What It’s Worth

I appreciate I’m not writing an advice column, there are people far better equipped. But, at this writing, I have been asked to present scholarships at Fernie’s two high schools and say a few words. And, while I also appreciate that I’m not being asked to provide the commencement address (for reference look up the transcript of David Foster-Wallace’s This is Water for a singularly outstanding example), it is hard not to offer some advice for graduates. I’ve lived on this earth longer than our graduates and hopefully have learned something worth sharing—though I’m not discounting the idea that they can teach me in turn. 

If I were to offer anyone anything it would be: 

1. Live every day with optimism, empathy, and compassion. 

2. Treat everyone you meet with the same level of dignity and respect. 

It’s not lost on me that that by applying Rule No. 1, Rule No. 2 wouldn’t be necessary. I wish it were that simple but often we apply our own rules arbitrarily and it is important to be clear. How many times in the last few years have you seen people post or talk about the importance of kindness only to completely contradict themselves moments later?

Leading with optimism is often easier said than done. Most people struggle with questions about our own worth, competence, and value. It is often an act of significant mental will to remind oneself: If I enter this situation expecting a positive outcome that outcome is significantly more likely. This approach helps quell ego and to temper emotional responses and that affects outcomes. 

As for empathy and compassion, there is of course the familiar quote, attributed to Socrates: Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. If everyone you meet has something in their lives that is weighing heavily on them, that is taking up significant mental and emotional bandwidth, it’s an admonishment to be patient. 

This was for me, very well-articulated by Brad Parsell, then Executive Director of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, when he was tasked with leading the community update sessions during the early days of the pandemic. It was a difficult time for everyone. Brad opened each meeting reminding attendees to employ empathy and compassion daily. It was a potent reminder, almost a mantra, that challenged us to look beyond our selfish instincts in the face of this vast uncertainty and to be supportive of each other, to pull together as a community. I think it worked. 

Finally, treat everyone you meet with the same level of dignity and respect. This isn’t a caution to look out for the undercover CEO, it is a reminder that everyone you meet has value and can, if allowed, add value to your life if even only for the moment you interact. Some of the most capable and wisest people I have ever met had no formal education, credential, or position and, if I’d written them off for superficial reasons, I never would have learned from them. 

See Rule No. 1. 

Photo by Vanessa Croome