I had a tough week. It involved two funerals. One was for a family member who lived a long life. The other service was for a friend’s brother who died too young. Both of these services reminded me of my favorite Ted Talk. It’s by an EMT, Matthew O’Reilly and is entitled: “Am I dying?” The honest answer. Matthew has had many experiences where he arrives at the scene of an emergency and knows the person he is trying to save is going to die. He has learned to be honest with them and the talk focuses on what he has gleamed from these conversations. What’s most of interest to me in this talk is that two of the most common themes of those conversations focus on the dying wanting assurance from a stranger that that they will be remembered by him and that they spent their time wisely — on something of significance. You can watch his talk by clicking here.
Many of my students express a similar concern. They are unsure how to spend their lives. They want to do something meaningful, but are afraid they are going to make the wrong choice. They keep hoping that eventually they are going to walk into the right business school course or internship and that this will show them the light. They are hoping to discover their passion and life’s purpose.
I am a big believer in an observation from Angela Duckworth’s book on grit where she notes that people don’t find their passion… they develop it. In other words, it takes work. It’s not an instant gratification sort of thing, and it frequently requires you to look in places that you wouldn’t normally think to look.
My sense is that many business school students are looking in the wrong place. What they need is a version of “the Stockdale course.” The Stockdale course is the informal name given to the Navy War College’s course on the Moral Foundations of Obligation. It is a course in Western philosophy that was created by Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. He credited his survival in captivity to the philosopher Epictetus and his course is meant to help military leaders (many of whom are STEM students) prepare for the challenges of leadership and military service. There is a great podcast on this story (I told you I have a podcast obsession) that you can listen to by clicking here.
I provided business students a short introduction to philosophy at Welcome to the Majors last year when I invited University of San Diego philosophy professor Nick Riggle to talk about his Ethics of Awesomeness. It was a glimpse into a framework that could help guide students in an important aspect of their lives…one with lots of business applications. More generally, philosophy is the study of how to have a good and meaningful life. It, along with my Great Books courses, were some of my favorites in college. These are not esoteric subjects — they provide guidance on the practice of life.
If you are one of my students who is searching for ways “to make a difference,” “be remembered” and “not waste your life,” take a couple of these courses. The great thing about American higher education is that we believe in general education — it’s not just your major that counts. You have general education requirements to fill as part of your degree program. Take advantage of them to take a couple of philosophy courses and read the great books. Then put these ideas to use. They will help you discover the course you should take with your life. Oh, and take more math and statistics courses, too (trust me).