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Purpose and Grit

September 2, 2016

Note: The following is a transcript of remarks given at the 2016 President's Address to the Community. 

It has been a short but great summer. Really short. Really, really short.  It seems like RIT starts earlier with each passing academic year. Makes you wonder who is in charge of the academic calendar … oh, wait! …

The good news is that this is a summer of Olympics. We have been entertained with the vast array of different sports, records that were broken, and the stories behind the stories.  And then there are the athletes - like Simone Manuel, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, or Ibtihaj Mohammed - with their incredible dedication, persistence, and passion.

Athlete dedication plays an important role in the book GRIT by Angela Duckworth. Dr. Duckworth is a MacArthur Fellow and distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and her work on the attributes of highly successful individuals is garnering great attention and at times controversy. Duckworth argues that GRIT is a critical characteristic common for highly successful individuals and GRIT can be broken down into two components: perseverance and passion.

Now I can certainly see the role these two qualities play in a successful person. But I wonder where ‘purpose’ or a sense of calling comes into play. Duckworth argues that purpose is really just a part of passion but I’m not convinced. It seems to me that a calling is an altogether separate component of highly successful people.

The author uses a bricklayer parable to undergird the importance of purpose. Here’s the higher ed version. Three teachers are asked: “What are you doing?”

                The first one says “I am giving a lecture”

                The second one says “I am teaching a class to my students”

                And the third one says “I am developing students’ lives and careers for the future.”

I take great pride in this institution and its commitment, dedication and indeed calling to prepare students for their careers.

But should we do more by helping students find their purpose, their calling?

As a university, RIT doesn’t intentionally make ‘purpose’ an outcome in our graduates – and I’m not suggesting we do. But it interesting to ask our graduates if they have thought about their purpose, their calling and how their career pathway weaves with it. So I did.

Take Emily Moore, for example. A 2016 graduate from Industrial Design who was on the recent Metaproject team that won the Editor’s Award at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May. I asked her if she thought about her calling and here’s what she said:

“Your question of purpose is one I actually think of quite often, if not every day… I do feel like I have this calling that I'm almost destined to follow… I know my path has truly been a culmination of my study abroad and travel experiences and the hundreds of hours of volunteering that I did while at RIT. I've become a woman who truly cares about the future of the world and I feel design has a part to play in the future. I won't get there without hard work, struggling, and dedication. So I'm in this journey for the long run.”

I hope you agree with me that Emily, like many of our students, exhibits strong purpose, perseverance, and passion. She – they – has what Dr. Duckwork would say is real gritty-ness.

The point is that purpose plays an important role in all of our lives and we may not give it sufficient emphasis. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind as we start the new year.