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Advice for college students: Who you are speaks louder than what you do

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I received the list and it looked impressive.

It contained the topics being offered to student leaders at the upcoming St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict Student Leadership Seminar.

The voice at the other end of the phone was confident and articulate, crisp and engaged. It was the President of St. John’s University student body.

“We’ve had a speaker who had to cancel last minute (the conference is in one week) and we wondered if you might be able to speak in his place? Here are some of the topics we have so far: Goal setting and project management. Leveraging your leadership. Business leadership. Innovation. Managing a team. Building and marketing a brand. What do you think?”

Wow.

Knowing that this opportunity was in the works for a few days, I had the chance to rough out a speech in my mind. But it was quite different from the topics this bright young man was proposing. Oh, I think I could give a decent twenty to thirty minute talk on most of them, but these were more pragmatic, tactical topics. My sense of what young college leaders needed to hear was a bit more visionary.

So here is what I would like to say:

St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN is barely an hour away from my home in Minneapolis. For years, my family has driven by it (largely unaware of the towering Abbey Church amidst distant forest) en route to a lake resort by Detroit Lakes or (years later) on my way home from college or my wife’s North Dakota family home. My most intimate connection to the university at that point was learning to water ski behind St. John’s iconic football coach John Gagliardi’s speedboat (Coach Gagliardi is my aunt’s brother-in-law…I can draw you a diagram if that would help). That was until I met Mike Cummings.

Mike is my senior by about fifteen years. He is the physician who recruited me to my current clinical position, is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and is one of the wisest people I have ever known. He is a St. John’s graduate. For seventeen years, I have known Mike, had lunch with him, gone out for beers, taught with him, exchanged towel-snapping humor and plumbed topics ranging from faith and politics, history and literature. And over the years, Mike has taught me a great deal about St. John’s. When Mike begins reflecting on the university, it’s as if he just left the campus yesterday. The landscape in his language brings St. John’s to life. From the cavernous Abbey Church and the buzzing Refectory to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and woodworking shop, from the Great Hall and the quadrangle to the Abbey guesthouse and the Stella Maris chapel on the lake. In Mike’s telling, these are sites of great fun and a little maturity, raw buffoonery and intense spiritual growth. I’ve heard gut-busting stories where close friends secretly removed the passenger seat from his car as he returned to it on a first date. And I’ve learned from how moved he was seeing a solitary twelve year-old boy enter the empty Abbey Church at mid-day, pray for ten minutes, sign himself, then go about his day.

But the thing that has always stuck with me about St. John’s University (and by extension, its sister College of St. Benedict) is that culture matters. Clearly, different colleges draw different people to themselves, so there is a skewed (if I may say, impressively skewed) population of students who are choosing to go to St. John’s. Notwithstanding the type of people who have chosen to attend St. John’s, a college, if it is doing its job, is not simply meant to educate. It is supposed to form. And formation is not a matter of bestowing knowledge, but engendering wisdom. Even more than fostering skills and employability, college should forge character. Beyond offering facts that populate the mind, college should offer lessons that cultivate the soul. St. John’s did that for Mike Cummings. Granted, his antennae (more than most of his contemporaries) were out for spiritual mentors, wise professors and enduring friendships. And he found them. My flaw was that I was a bit too stressed and utilitarian about getting into medical school to pay close attention to culture in college. While I had an excellent college experience, I will admit that at times superficialities eclipsed the transcendent. But for Mike, something in him incessantly looked for this substance and he found it. He found it at St. John’s.

Since I met Mike, I have been to St. John’s campus twice, my wife has participated in a spiritual retreat there and we have brought my young daughters to campus. I own a St. John’s baseball cap and T shirt and shamelessly plug the College of St. Benedict’s to my young daughters. And to this day, upon finding out that a person of particularly impressive and intriguing character (bright, witty, religious, deep, grounded) went to St. John’s (or St. Ben’s), I simply nod my head and say to myself, “Well, that makes sense.”

So what wisdom could I impart to a group of leaders coming out of a University that I already greatly esteem?

Simply this:

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

(But what does this mean?)

Be genuine.

Hilaire Belloc was a feisty Englishman. Born in the middle of a thunderstorm, his blood was hot from the beginning. Choosing a career in politics and journalism, the man with a pugilist’s soul took on anybody and everybody when the issue of Truth was at stake. He sailed an untamed ocean and walked on unforgiving pilgrimages. One time he returned home from a particularly onerous pilgrimage, unshaven, half-drunk and broke as he bellowed for beer and bacon while rummaging through his friend G.K. Chesterton’s icebox. Chesterton, uncharacteristically nervous, was at that moment entertaining a very buttoned-down Henry and William James. Belloc could be the proverbial bull in the China shop. But he was who he was. And yet, the moment Belloc sat down and penned The Four Men or On Dropping Anchor or On an Unknown Country, he tapped into something so moving, something so sublime, something so authentic that many have called him the greatest essayist of the twentieth century. Bulldogish and beautiful, Belloc was genuine.

Be intentional

William Osler is considered perhaps the greatest physician in the modern era. The Godfather of Internal Medicine, Osler moved from McGill to Penn to Johns Hopkins where he transformed not only the University and hospital, but the entire face of medical education forever. When I ask medical students and residents “Who is William Osler?”, I am generally met with blank stares and furrowed brows. That is because Osler has been taught as a curiosity. He is another smart man from a time gone by with little relevance to us today. But Osler has been misunderstood. It is true that he was a terrific diagnostician and insightful clinician. But that is not enough. Infinitely more important, Osler was intentional. He was deeply engaged in learning about medical maladies so that he could help patients. He never saw his career as a job, but as a vocation. He listened. He was thoughtful. He followed through. He cheered and consoled. Osler saw that knowledge of human nature (including himself) was as important (if not more important) than knowledge of medicine – because human nature is transcendent and medical knowledge is ephemeral. And in a way, people crave a recognition of their dignity almost more than a cure of their malady. What Osler understood is that the art of caring for other people involves striking a delicate balance between intentionality and efficiency (how can I be genuinely engaged with the person in front of me while staying on schedule?) and between equanimity and empathy (how can I think objectively under stress while remaining a caring, engaged person?). Sadly, today these are invaluable lessons that we have forgotten. Osler never did. Earnest and engaged, Osler was intentional.

Be courageous.

Winston Churchill knew the odds were against him. In 1940, the tenth month of World War II, his revered party leader (Neville Chamberlain) was removed from being Prime Minister, Churchill’s Tory party members didn’t trust him, the King didn’t particularly like him, the Nazis had ravaged Western Europe in a matter of weeks pushing 350,000 French and British soldiers against the French coast at Dunkirk and the American sleeping giant chose to remain asleep. And while his war cabinet of Tories, Liberal and Labour leaders debated a negotiated settlement with Adolf Hitler, Churchill navigated his way toward the only conceivable solution: ‘Nations that went down fighting rose again, but those who surrendered tamely were finished.’ Finding a way for disparate voices to defy Hitler together during the darkest of hours, Churchill gave four of the most magnificent speeches (Blood, Toil, Tears & Sweat, We Shall Fight on the Beaches, Their Finest Hour, The Few) of the 20th century. His words would rouse America, galvanize England, and stir hope in a defeated Europe. The world would be changed because of Winston Churchill. Determined and defiant, Churchill was courageous.

Be respectful.

G.K. Chesterton was a three hundred pound British wonder. An artist and a journalist, a social commentator and Catholic convert, Chesterton would wade into conversations (often with his close friend, Hilaire Belloc) ranging from Catholicism to cheese. He would spar across the newspapers and debate across the stage from the fashionable intellects of George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Clarence Darrow and Bertrand Russell. And while they would thrust and parry with rapier-like wit and reason, these opponents loved him. Chesterton, by nature, was winsome and he knew that anger is not an argument. And though the reasoning of Chesterton’s opposite could be shallow, shoddy and repugnant, his opponent was not. In fact, so very much of the time, his opponent was his friend. As Chesterton once said, “Never letter a quarrel get in the way of an argument.” And Chesterton never did. Warm and winsome, Chesterton was respectful.

Be visionary.

He knew how they operated. And that is why he had to go. The newly minted Pope (only eight months in office) would visit his Communist-enslaved Polish homeland. As a younger man, Karol Wojtyla had defied Nazi rule as he and others operated a clandestine Rhapsodic Theater to preserve and perpetuate the suppressed Polish literary and religious culture. Shortly thereafter, he became a priest (in an underground seminary), a Bishop and, ultimately, a Cardinal who served as a constant thorn in the side of his Communist overseers. He gave stirring homilies on human freedom, tirelessly championed religious rights, and relentlessly promoted the building of a Church in the proud Communist “City without a Church”. Now, in 1979, it was time for Pope John Paul II to come home. At an open air Mass attended by over one million Poles, the pope reminded, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe,”  to which the massive crowd almost endlessly chanted, “We want God! We want God!” Whereas the national powers looked at the global battle as political, economic and ideological, John Paul II called it what it really was: a battle over the human soul. What was at stake was the very nature and dignity of man. The pope recognized and reminded the world of who we are: Dignified children of God. And the world changed because of it. Fearless and faithful, St. John Paul II was visionary.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

When I first encountered Mike Cummings (and ever since we have been friends), I have been impressed with what he has done, but I am moved by who he is. When I consider the magnificent actions of Belloc, Osler, Churchill, Chesterton and St. John Paul II, I am more intrigued by the character that chose the action. The degrees, awards and accolades that will be granted to graduates from St. John’s and St. Benedict’s will be noteworthy and useful, but they will matter far less than the character into which each graduate has been formed. And the tactics by which you lead (while important) will matter far less than the integrity by which you live.

Be genuine. Be intentional. Be courageous. Be respectful. Be visionary. And don’t forget to pray.

God calls you to lead. Lead faithfully.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.


Photo credit: Me (St. John’s Abbey Church)

 

Tod Worner
Catholic Thinking
Tod Worner is a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.
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