President Mike Maxey: Take advice from wise people

Roanoke College President Mike Maxey

Roanoke College President Mike Maxey

This fall, Roanoke College launched a speaking series inspired by "The Last Lecture," a book by Randy Pausch, a former computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Pausch's book chronicles his final months with pancreatic cancer, and it shares the last lecture that he gave to 400 people at Carnegie Mellon. He encouraged the crowd to overcome obstacles, seize life's moments and chase childhood dreams. Pausch died in 2008.

Still, his book inspires readers to ponder a question -- What wisdom would you offer to others if you knew that it was your last chance to speak?

President Mike Maxey kicked off the College's Last Lecture series in October.

Next, Dr. Chris Lassiter, associate professor of biology at Roanoke, will give his last lecture on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. in Room 111 of Roanoke's new residence hall.

Read excerpts from Maxey's last lecture below.

Listening is very important to me. I have a lot of confidence in the power of listening.  And that is what I want to leave you with on the occasion of my last lecture -- the power of listening. It may seem ironic that I am talking when my point is about listening. My hope is to point you in the direction of what to listen to and to whom you might want to listen.

I want to talk about listening for great lessons in the short sentences of wise people. By the time I finish I hope my meaning is clear. So listen for my explanation of great lessons in the short sentences and wise people. I have a few stories to share with you.

I will go back to my boyhood to start the stories.

My grandmother was an especially wise person. We lived close by one another, about a half mile apart, and she took interest in all of her grandchildren. Maybe your grandparents are especially important to you. I am sure they take interest in you. Grandparents have a wonderful relationship with us. They have lots of life experience, and they love their grandchildren. That was how it was with my grandmother.

I grew up in the rural South during the period of change between relationships between white and black Americans. My town had Faulknerian qualities of the old South. In the train station in my town, for example, there were separate water fountains for black and white passengers, separate waiting rooms, separate ticket windows. In our local movie theater, there were separate seating sections for blacks and whites. I know it is hard to imagine now, but it was as ingrained in the way we lived as cell phones are now. It was just the way things were. In my eighth grade year, schools in my town were first integrated. Prior to that our county was running separate schools for blacks and whites. The integration was controversial as odd as that may sound today.

Perhaps you have studied Brown vs. Board of Education in one of your classes here. There were passionate arguments and political struggles about integration of schools and society back then.  It was hard to separate opinions from facts, truth from fiction. I was 14 and very interested in what was going on around me. One day, I was talking with my grandmother about school integrations and asking her what she thought. She said, "We are all God's children. And we should all be treated that way." I was stunned by the directness of her analysis and social commentary. It was so simple when she said it that way. A wise person shared a great lesson in a short sentence with me. My life was changed. She could have explained her position on integration in 1,000 words, but she took 13 words to do it. Brevity was important, because I don't think I could have remembered 1,000 words. I can remember her 13 words until this day.  In her case, her religious faith and her basic goodness cut through controversy with clarity. Thirteen words. Wise person. Great lesson. 

My second story is about my mom. She was an attentive mother, advising, pushing, pulling and doing mom things to the best of her ability. There were many times when my brothers, sisters or I were leaving the house to go run track, take music lessons, go take a test, head off to college or generally to meet life's challenges before us. Her words still ring in my ear, "Just do your best." While I certainly have missed on that challenge more than I have made it, the words still ring in my ears. Four words. Wise person. Great lesson. 

I believe she wanted to bring out the best in her children. I keep a sign in my office. Just do your best. I wish the same for you, that Roanoke College and life afterwards brings out your best.

As you might imagine one of my stories is about a professor. This is a graduate school professor in a class called "Psychological Stress and Adaptation." He was known to be the hardest, most demanding professor in our program. For some, he might seem intimidating. I certainly felt that way.

"Psychological Stress and Adaptation" was filled with psychological stress and adaptation because it was so tough. But the difficulty was what made it worthwhile. I listened to him carefully in class because I wanted to do my best to illustrate how my mother's comments stayed with me. One of Dr. Hebert's comments in the class stayed with me. He said, "We all have within us the infinite capacity to make ourselves miserable." Twelve words. Wise person. Great lesson. 

He wanted us to understand that we do have choices in life. Not all of them will take us in positive directions especially when stresses weigh on us. We do have enormous capacity to get in our own way. I always remember Tiger Woods when I think about someone getting in his or her own way. He seemed to have it all when you looked at it from the outside. He was the preeminent golf professional of his generation. Many talked about him becoming the greatest golfer of all time. He seemed to have a devoted wife. But you know the rest of his story. He had an infinite capacity to make himself miserable, and, by all accounts, he did for a while. We all have weaknesses and strengths. I think Dr. Hebert wanted us to face up to both in our lives. I hope you have a chance to do so for yourself. 

I want to give you two more Roanoke College stories before I finish this final public lecture that I will do. 

Some of you may remember that we were all blessed a couple of years ago with a three-day visit from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Now it is easy to identify her as a wise person. Obviously, the first female Supreme Court Justice in United States history had to be a wise person.  And she really was. Over her three-day visit, I watched her and listened to her dispense incredible wisdom about life, her principles, her ideas about jurisprudence, her understanding of human nature. She was a wonderful guest and speaker, talking about her upbringing on the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona, working in the state legislature there and speaking about the Supreme Court.  She reminded us of the importance of the judiciary in our government. I was thirsty for her wisdom, and she certainly did not let me down. 

Part of her visit included a reception where I escorted her around the room to meet people. After an hour, she pulled me over and asked if we could go sit down, talk, and allow her to rest before a major lecture. "Of course" was my answer. 

We had about 30 minutes to talk about things, just the two of us. In addition to being wise, she was also a practical person. She told me to rent my home. She asked about Roanoke College. She asked me about my work. I told her it was the most rewarding and most demanding thing I had ever done professionally. She smiled and said "That is how it works, isn't it?  "You cannot have rewards without demands.  They go together." 

Her words were profound. Of course, none of us can have rewards without demands. Nine words.  Wise person.  Great lesson.

My second Roanoke story happened a couple of years ago at a public lecture on campus given by Liz Murray. You might know her story about going from homelessness to Harvard. She was raised in the Bronx by drug-addicted parents, was homeless for a period and won a scholarship to attend Harvard. She eventually wrote a book, "Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard." Ms. Murray was a gentle and articulate person who described the difficulties she faced in a home where her parents received a monthly check from the government, spent it almost completely on drugs, leaving her and her sister to forage through garbage for food and to seek shelter in the subway and other similar places.  Her parents died leaving Liz on her own. From that state, she pulled herself up to a meaningful life.  

She described in her lecture how she was treated by psychiatrists who asked her about how she was dealing with the anger she had to feel about her parents, the drug addicts who had not provided for her in conventional ways. Liz told them that she was not angry with her parents, that they had loved her and done the best they could. Liz said, "People can't give you what they don't have." Eight words. Wise person. Great lesson.

People cannot give us what they don't have, so we don't need to waste time expecting it. She forgave her parents with her understanding that they were flawed but loving people. I believe her wisdom about her family was part of what allowed her to be so successful.

These are all stories about wise people saying memorable things in a few words. I just listened.

Find wise people

I want to talk with you for just a moment more about the people I chose and how you might find and listen to your wise people. There are a few clues for you in your detective work to find - wise people. You note that I used a few clues in my choices of wise people for me - family members, one professor, two mentors that I encountered here.  I am not sure where you will find your wise persons, but they can come from anywhere. They can happen anytime, but family, professors and other mentors are a really good place to start looking if you have not already.

My second clue about wise people is that they are usually wise about many things. In my own examples you can see the range of wisdom in many areas. 

All of us are God's children.

Just do your best.

We all have an infinite capacity to make ourselves miserable.

You cannot have rewards without demands. They go together.

People cannot give you what they don't have.

Two of those are about how we treat people. One is about how we treat ourselves. Two are about effort and persistence. Wisdom is like that. It can dress for many occasions, just about any occasion that any of us faces.

A third clue is to use your instincts to find wise people. What do I mean by that? Over this past weekend, I was talking with two of my sons about this lecture. We spotted a flock of geese flying south for the winter and talked about how they knew where to go and when to go. Sometimes you just know what to do, and I think that spotting wise people is an instinct that we all have.  You have good instincts.

Another clue for spotting them is that part of what makes someone wise comes from their ability to distill complicated things down to profound concepts. Wise people see things clearly. On your papers for your class, you might call that your thesis. Think of this as a wisdom thesis. You can recognize wisdom sometimes by listening to someone who can cut through the weeds of complexity to find the flowers of profundity.

I have advocated brevity as a form of wisdom and a clue of how to listen for it. I took, however, a lot of words to say it.  Please notice that I don't for a moment believe that we don't all need to work hard sometimes to understand complexity and to find wisdom. I do believe that wisdom comes sometimes from hard, hard work. Remember Justice O'Connor here, rewards and demands go together. Sometimes we need to explore the fullness of an idea before we can appreciate or even find the simplicity in it. We must sometimes read and listen to complexity to be able to grasp simplicity. Sometimes we need to listen to both sides of an argument to get it. 

Here is maybe the most important clue for finding wisdom.

Wise people make you want to be a better person. That is the greatest signal. If you listen to them and come away wanting to do better yourself, you were in the presence of a wise person.

A few additional clues. Sometimes you might find your wise person in literature.  There is vast wisdom in the deep pools of literature. And most authors can say things succinctly. You can find your short sentence and wise person in literature.

Sometimes it might be family or coaches or friends or professors here.

Sometimes it might be through your spiritual life or pastoral mentors.

Sometimes we need to listen to one of the guest lecturers we have here all the time. Just last week, go to the lectures and listen expecting to find wisdom.

I am confident that Roanoke College is filled with people who can be the wise person who gives you a great lesson in short sentences that will stay with you. This is a rich, rich community where mentors and ideas are all around. Good communities have many wise people. This is a good community.

I mentioned that my stories are done but I want to tell you one more before I go. I have been here 28 years, but I did not come here expecting to be here this long or in this role. In my fourth year, I was visited by Clarence Caldwell, a truly wise person. I had done a program for retired faculty and staff.  Mr. Caldwell had attended Roanoke, worked here for about 30 years, and shaped the College in positive ways. He came by my office and said he liked the presentation.  Then he said, "I hope you will consider devoting your career to Roanoke College." 

Eleven words. Wise person. Great lesson. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.  Devote yourself to Roanoke College. I am amazed at how it turned out.

Put wisdom into action

I have left out two things.  It is never enough to listen and know wisdom. We all need to do something with it.  My grandmother wanted me to treat people fairly and equally. My mother wanted me to try my best. My professor-mentor wanted me to make good choices. Justice O'Connor advised me to respond to demands and appreciate rewards.  Liz Murray wanted us to understand forgiveness in our daily lives. All were action oriented.

As David Starr Jordan wrote, "Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it." One of my greatest hopes for you as students here is more about doing. Do well in life. Do good in life.  Listening to wise people will help you accomplish both.

Released: November 15, 2012
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