Pat Dennis '98 returned to Peddie last week as one of thirty-five founding members of the Peddie Leadership Council (PLC). The group met on campus for the first time to engage more deeply with the community and to begin their mission of serving as ambassadors for the school. During his visit to campus, Dennis took time to share some "advice to his 14 year old self" with students in this Chapel talk.
Twenty years ago, I entered those Chapel doors for the first time. I was a gawky fourteen year old arriving to Peddie from the small city of Toledo, Ohio. I was certain my acceptance letter to Peddie was the mistake of Mr. Quinn, the charismatic figure who headed the admissions office at the time. I’m not sure what happened, but I never got the chance to thank him for NOT reviewing my application too closely…
I had two big goals that day. First, I promised myself I would not cry, no matter how much I already missed my family. Second, I vowed that I would not get run over in the pool by my much larger upperclassmen teammates. Needless to say, I failed miserably at both.
I’ve gained a few pounds since then — and more than a few gray hairs. I’ve experienced highs – and lows – some of which I couldn’t have imagined when I was younger. I’ve gotten married to an amazing woman, become a proud father, found fulfillment in my career, and unexpectedly lost my Peddie roommate and best friend to heart disease. And at the ripe old age of 35, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about life.
Let me be honest about something up front. I certainly didn’t learn the most important lessons about life from a chapel speaker. In fact, twenty years ago, in this very chapel, I probably listened to a speech just like this, given by some 35-year-old alum, and forgot absolutely everything I heard.
That’s why my biggest piece of advice today is not to take any piece of advice too seriously. You will learn about what matters most to you in life, as I did, through trial and error. You will accumulate wisdom not by following instructions, but by making mistakes. You will grow, ultimately, by stumbling into, and rising out of, what our President calls “teachable moments.” Ignore everyone who tries to peddle you a map about how to live your life. You’ve got to create your own map, and the only way to do this is to stray off the main road for a bit and explore the terrain around you.
Still, do I ever fantasize about going back in time and giving a few tips to my 14-year-old self? Are there any things I wish I’d done differently? Are there times when I think to myself, “If only I’d been a bit less of a bonehead that one time…”? Of course. And when you’re my age, you’ll have these thoughts, too. I’m very happy with where my life’s journey has taken me so far, but had I known some of what I know now, the ride might have been a bit smoother. So, here are a few things I wish I knew when I was your fourteen.
#1 You only get to go to Peddie once – take a depth breath and enjoy it.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled across the United States and around the world. I’ve walked through Turkish mosques in Istanbul and Buddhist monasteries in Myanmar, explored remote beaches in Europe, and seen African wildlife up close. I’ve made a pretty good dent in my bucket list.
But none of these experiences can hold a candle to my time at Peddie. Nothing has ever given me the kind of butterflies I felt in my stomach, walking through those doors twenty years ago. And as I stand here, reflecting on the extraordinary years I spent on this campus, those butterflies are back.
Some of the moments that left the deepest impression took place in this very chapel. I’ll never forget my roommate Nick delivering a surprising chapel talk during his junior year describing our friendship and how much I helped him get through his early struggles at Peddie. Or the time retired 4-star general and Secretary of State Colin Powell engaged in a candid conversation with the student body discussing the challenges facing OUR generation. And I definitely will never forget former teacher Bill Hill belting out Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to conclude his chapel talk on the power of music in his life. And these are just a very small sampling of the indelible “Peddie moments” I experienced while I was here.
The Oxford social scientist Robin Dunbar famously declared that the average person has the capacity to maintain a social network of about 150 people. He also found that a “rule of 3” applies to social networks. Your entire network could be divided by 3 to arrive at the 50 people you would call a close friend, again divided by about 3 to find the 15 friends you would turn to for sympathy, and again by 3 to find the 5 friends you would call your close support group. In the age of Facebook, Dunbar’s theory has come under fire. Yet, he continues to argue that, even if our social networks have grown much larger than 150 people, the core groups of 50, 15, and 5 remain fixed. The reason for this, he says, is because we need face-to-face time to build truly close friendships. Shared experiences — laughing, singing, dancing, and eating together — are what forge the most profound friendships.
And I can guarantee you this: the thing you will come to value most about Peddie are these moments of shared experiences with your classmates — and the unbreakable bonds that emerge from them. You are in the midst of some of the most formative years of your life, and I promise you that a good percentage of your core lifetime friendships — whether it be the 5, 15, or 50 — will be fellow Peddie alums.
Believe me, the real world is rarely as exhilarating and life-altering as an average day at Peddie. The competitions, collaborations, and conversations you’re having now will become some of your most powerful lifelong memories. I’m not saying every moment at Peddie is pure delight. There’s a lot of pressure on all of you to excel and move on to top colleges, and that can bring anxiety and stress. But try not to get so caught up in those pressures that you lose sight of the amazing experiences you’re having here.
In the words of the great philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't slow down and look around, you might miss it."
#2 College is a balance of planning and parties (and my advice would be to keep it in that order).
I mean it when I say that Peddie was one of the best experiences of my life. The bad news — especially for seniors — is that you can’t stay here forever. Although I think there are a few faculty members who have tested this statement.
The good news is that the next step in your life is perhaps even more exciting.
College is, frankly, amazing. You have four years of almost unlimited freedom to pursue knowledge, to meet amazing new people from all over the world, to engage in extracurriculars and internships that may lead to future career opportunities, to potentially travel abroad, to build friendships and romances that may last a lifetime.
College offers infinite choices — and this is precisely what can make it so overwhelming. Just like Peddie, there’s no possible way you’ll be able to take advantage of every opportunity that’s offered to you. But a little planning can go a long way. If I could go back in time, I’d have spent a little more time preparing for college — thinking about what my interests and goals in and out of the classroom might be — before my Freshman year.
To those of you who are seniors, it can be tempting to coast through this summer, and to enter college with a “blank slate.” But I’d encourage you to, at the very least, do some research on what programs and departments you’re excited by and think seriously about which kinds of classes you want to try out during your freshman year.
As I mentioned earlier, finding out what you’re truly passionate about may be more of a iterative process. However, making sure those iterations aren’t a waste of time does take some planning. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
#3 Resilience and defining your own success will be key
If you feel overwhelmed now, wait until you finish college. That’s where the real confusion can set in; the choices you’ll have to make are a lot bigger and more numerous than which classes to take or which extracurriculars to participate in.
Again, a little bit of advance planning can make a big — and usually positive — difference in your professional life. But one of the things you realize when you get older is that life throws you lots of curveballs. Everyone in this room will experience setbacks and even tragedies that are entirely out of our control. No amount of personal planning can fully prepare you for tough circumstances.
My wife and I graduated from college in 2002. In the wake of 9/11, the economic situation in this country was bleak. We both entered the job market with solid resumés and academic qualifications, but the job market was contracting and neither of us got close to our dream jobs. And even though those early days were frustrating, we felt lucky to have the jobs we had. Our resilience paid off and gradually, both of us worked our ways into the stable and satisfying careers we enjoy today.
Whether you pursue a traditional career route or something more off the beaten track, resilience will be key.
One of my teammates and great friends from college went on to receive his joint graduate degree in business and education. Just like in college, he was top in his class at Stanford and could have taken his pick of any number of professional careers around the world.
But Chris took an unexpected path instead. He and classmate from Stanford had a vision of changing the educational landscape in Africa. They sought to address what they saw as the most critical factor in Africa’s future development – the shortage of accountable entrepreneurial leaders. You can probably imagine how challenging it was for Chris to start, from scratch, a prep school on another continent but Chris was determined to see his idea through and his resilience has paid off. The African Leadership Academy just welcomed its seventh incoming class.
Now I’m not saying everyone should move to South Africa to start a prep school, but I do want to encourage you define success for yourselves. Don’t let your teachers or employers, your peers or parents, define success for you. Emerson said it best: “insist on yourself.”
#4 Call your parents
In my mid-20s, I began setting aside time at the beginning of each year to make a list of what I hoped to accomplish that year. I wish I’d started making these lists earlier, because they've been an invaluable tool for self-reflection, to see how my priorities have shifted over time. When I started making these lists, the goals at the top all revolved around professional and financial success. Personal goals were lower on that list, and even lower were goals relating to my family. Today, it’s the opposite — my professional and personal goals have taken a back seat to family. To me, my family is everything.
As J.K. Simmons said during his Oscar award acceptance speech this past February, “Call your mom, call your dad. If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t e-mail. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and are available for as long as they want to talk to you.”
Perhaps because I am newly minted father, this advice really hit home. So let me echo J.K. Simmons and encourage you to call your parents, guardians or whoever it is that has worked so hard so that you could have the chance to be here at Peddie. Let them know they’re appreciated. They will appreciate it.
I’ve said enough for today, but while I’m up here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a little plug to the newly formed Peddie Leadership Counsel.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m not the only one with gray hair in the Chapel here today. Thirty-five alumni, and parents of former and current students, have come back to campus to kick off the start of a working group we hope will become very important to Peddie’s future.
There is a significant amount of geographic and age diversity in our group — but there’s one thing we all have in common. We’re all passionate about Peddie and the opportunities it afforded us and our families. And we want to ensure those opportunities are afforded to future generations.
I’d like to encourage all of you, particularly those in the front row, to start thinking about your relationship with Peddie going forward. I promise you this. Whatever you end up giving back to Peddie — whether it’s your time, energy, or donations — the return on your investment will be tremendous. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that fourteen year olds will continue to walk through these Chapel doors with stomachs full of butterflies, for years, if not centuries, to come.
Now go do something great and then call your parents and tell them all about it.