Austin J. Burke Graduate Commencement Address The University of Scranton May 25, 2013
My son, yet another Austin Burke, earned his master’s degree in software engineering here. Like many of you, he worked full time while completing his course work – a difficult task. I admire him for making that effort and I admire and congratulate each and every one of you for your dedication, for your perseverance and for your hard work in achieving your degrees.
The period of time, 70 years, between my father’s graduation in 1928 and my son’s graduation in 1998 has witnessed extraordinary changes – changes in technology, changes in society and changes in mores. The pace of that change has only accelerated. It is enabling great opportunities – opportunities to create and, unfortunately, opportunities to destroy. Radically different social expectations, the technology revolution and the shrinking of our planet have produced surprising benefits and surprising tragedies. For example, we can now fight cancer with altered genes. We can grow life-saving organs. We can teach the world – offering university courses and degrees to students in Kenya or Kentucky.
Conversely, we can also teach bomb making to Chechens in Boston or the manufacture of ricin for poisoning Tokyo subway commuters. For good or evil, change can come from anywhere.
How can we prepare for this change? James P. Carse, in his book, “Finite and Infinite Games,” calls these abrupt changes “surprises.” Carse prescribes: “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” For example, if you want to prevent a soccer riot, you train your security people in threat assessment and crowd control. If you want to be ready for the next game-changing technology, an education in the science, its history, and current developments will be helpful.
Contrasting training and education, Carse makes a distinction between finite games and infinite games. Table tennis and Scrabble are finite games – they have rules, winners and finite games have an ending. Infinite games are our institutional or individual lives – no winner is ever secure, there is no break in the action – the goal of the finite game is to continue the effort.
A personal example of the difference occurred for me here at the University. I was a Trustee, serving on the Mission Committee. The committee, half laypeople and half Jesuits, held a dinner meeting – a very genteel affair. We spoke casually during the dinner, then began the real discussion of the University Mission at the end of our meal – “between the pear and the cheese,” as they say. This continued for more than an hour until one of the older Jesuits stood and said (and I am quoting him verbatim, the phrase had such an impact on me), he said, “We’ve wrung just about as much as we can from this discussion, let’s let the issue ripen a bit and revisit it in two or three years.”
I, being a callow youth at the time, being a Type A behavior, and being a finite game player blurted out, “Father, two or three years, I could be dead by then.” The priest was very kind, he said, “Son, we’ve been working on this for five hundred years, a few more years will not make a difference.” Five hundred years! Now that’s an example of an infinite game. I’ll add that the Jesuits play the infinite game very well. Their approach must be working, for now we have Pope Francis, the first member of the order to be chosen. That is long-range planning.
There are other examples of finite games and the role they play in infinite games – examples in our communities, our institutions and our lives.
In the city of Scranton, one finite game is the construction of the $100 million Commonwealth Medical College building. Another is the formation of a Career Academy, a business-education partnership that provides a path to satisfying long-term employment in health care. We’ve built infrastructure projects such as our Chamber of Commerce Mount Pleasant Corporate Center. The infinite game is continuing the operation of the city, preserving the civitas, ensuring health, safety, mutual respect and assistance in a functioning community.
Here at The University of Scranton, one finite game is today’s degree conferral – you’ve won this game. Congratulations. Another is the construction of the $85 million Loyola Science Center, the largest capital project in the University’s history. Other finite games include making University programs and facilities available to the general public. The infinite game for The University of Scranton is its continuation as an educational force – its continuation as a teacher of values. For the next 500 years, the University must continue as an exemplar of the Jesuit mission of being “men and women for and with others.” The University must expose us and our students to our obligations to service for our community and service for our world.
Graduates, the master’s degree you earned today will help you to prepare for a lifetime of surprises. There will be great tests and disappointments, as well as great opportunities and achievements. You will encounter challenges and frustrations, as well as moments of pure euphoria. My hope is that your euphoria will be intense and richly satisfying; that your euphoria will be the result of endeavors which benefit our children and grandchildren. My hope is that you will find your investment in community service paying rewarding dividends of psychic income.
Your reaching that conclusion illustrates the difference between being smart and being wise. Having skills prepares you for achievements; having wisdom prepares you for life. As you navigate the challenges of seeking the wise course, utilize mentors, networks and role models to guide your choices
You will need their counsel and support. Life is a long-term effort; there’s no break in the action. You must ration your resources, accepting some challenges and forgoing others so that you can recuperate and recharge without being overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their new book, “Top Dog,” describe successful infinite players as those who knowingly choose which matters to fight and which challenges to let pass. Sustain your energy for the battles that matter most. In that way you’ll be prepared for surprises and for opportunities, you will retain the ability to carry on.
The message is echoed by the author Dennis Lehane in a New York Times op-ed piece following the Boston bombing. Lehane wrote, “Boston and America and the world have an infinite task – continue our lives, cling to what Boston was built on – resilience, respect and an adoration for civility and intellect.”
Expanding the thought, Winston Churchill, perhaps reflecting on his own life, promised: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Your success in your finite game of earning your degree is preparing you for your infinite game of life. Enjoy each success you and your friends achieve and learn much from your failures. Most important, call upon all of your resources to continue the good fight for you are now well prepared for your lifelong pursuits.
Again, thank you for having me. Congratulations. Go forth and be courageous.