Paul Smith’s College Commencement, May 2014

On May 10, we were presented with honorary Doctorates (Humane Letters, Lhd) at Paul Smiths 2014 commencement for our work on this project and others work in the Park.  The following is our commencement speech, aimed at the PSC Class of 2014.

(Dave)Dr. Mills, Board of Trustees and members of the
Administration, Faculty, Staff and Alumni of Paul Smiths College,
To the Class of 2014, and your families and friends,

Thank you for this great honor.

(Jim)People have been asking us “How will we ever thank you?”. Well, we feel very thanked and humbled by this award.

(Dave) To the graduates, we have one simple message today: Vision matters. The first step to better times is to imagine them. Imagine your vision and make it happen.

We offer three examples of the vision thing from our lives to illustrate what we mean. First —

(Jim) I had the great fortune to be part of the software development teams that invented and developed today’s Internet during the late 1970’s.

I am often asked if the people who dreamed up the Internet ever envisioned that it would turn out to be so pervasive and transformational.

I always answer emphatically, yes — what has happened is what they hoped would happen: that every computer in the world could talk to any other computer in the world over a common high-speed network.

What they got wrong was estimating how many computers there would be in the world. Only a few thousand, they thought. It is astonishing that their vision could scale up to handle the billions of computers we have today but connecting them all is exactly what they set out to do.

Our second example of vision —

(Dave) Jim and I developed a consulting business in the 1990’s that helped large multi-nationals cope with the advent of the Internet, especially computer and telephone companies. “What was the internet going to do to our business?” was a good question at the time.

When we sold the company and moved to our home in Keene, NY, in 2004, it was natural that we would take an interest in the Internet service provider in town. We were shocked to find the ISP on its last legs, ready to fold and close the doors.

However, we knew that good Internet service would soon be essential to most households and that every school student would need broadband Internet access at home to be ready for college and life.  Our vision was getting everyone in town on the network.

One challenge for us was that we had never done a community project before. We thought the right way to begin would be inviting leading citizens in town to listen to our ideas about universal broadband Internet.

Everyone we invited came, but they spent the entire evening telling us why our idea could never work.

So, we never met with them again.

We went on to put together funding by combining private philanthropy, business contracts and some State money. We joined in with our hard-working, motivated, locally owned ISP to build the network into the far reaches of town and more than double the number of subscribers.

Today over 95% of houses in town can get fiber-to-the-home broadband and the ISP is a nice business that continues network upgrades without subsidies. Most importantly, every home with a child in the school is on the network, our original vision.
Now our third and most recent example —

(Jim) Most recently we have managed to forge a fairly detailed consensus vision for the Adirondack Park.

Again, at first, we were heard “expect a lot of heated disagreement”. ”Don’t expect to get very far” they told us. Conflict has been a dominant theme here over the past 40 years.

But conditions were right. There was no regional plan or strategy or even a forum for talking about such a thing and certainly no shared vision. So we stepped into that void.

We were as shocked as anyone when our scenario process first produced a very strong consensus on a desirable and attainable future we call The Sustainable Life. We ran the process over and over with different groups, expecting them to reach different conclusions. But the consensus only got better defined.

And now we have a vision for the next 25 years of the Adirondack Park where both the protected lands and the human communities stay healthy and whole. Driven by changing demographics, an ever-evolving global marketplace and the deepening reality of global climate change, this vision of living a more sustainable life here in the Adirondacks was written with your ideas and aspirations in mind, you, the next generation, the class of 2014.

At Paul Smiths you have learned vital skills and absorbed the foundation knowledge of many of the key disciplines that define this future vision of our region. From hospitality to forestry to environmental remediation, you and your colleagues will go on to implement the core of this vision: using the forests and lakes responsibly for the benefit of today’s communities and future generations. Make this vision real. Stay here if you can or come back soon and be part of it.

(Dave) The Adirondack Futures Project is a great example of how alignment around a common set of goals and aspirations, a vision, can speed progress. Widely shared intentions are what power social agendas and get you past inevitable bumps in the road. It was well worth the effort of 3 years to do it right.

As we finish, people tell us that the visioning process, which involved over 500 people, has indirectly affected the thinking of thousands and already had substantial positive impact on the region. Individuals have told us that it has inspired them to participate in the revitalization of the region, and given them a sense of how to contribute independently without an overall leader.

Our message is this: become more vision-driven in your life. We like the quote “Chance favors the prepared mind” by Louis Pasteur.

If you have a vision of where you want to go, then you can easily recognize a good opportunity when you see it.

Understand that developing a vision is not about predicting the future, or guessing what will happen. You can’t know what is going to happen.

We advocate a process of imagining at least 3 really different alternative visions for yourself, your organization, your town, etc. Be creative. Don’t be just binary (good/bad). Capture multiple points of view, learn from the extremes and the middle ground too.

(Jim) Let this process take some time, talk to lots of different people, try to find unique points of view. But come up with at least 3 plausible paths forward.

Another favorite quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald

So we’re asking you to hold 3 thoughts. It’s fun.

Debating with yourself, your spouse, or your colleagues, the merits and problems of at least 3 divergent future visions helps move people ahead and off the current disputes.

Then, when you commit to implement a specific vision, keep the discarded scenarios as backup. If things don’t turn out as planned (this happens all the time), it will be handy to have the old options to review when your 1st choice fails.

The alternatives not followed give you signposts to tell you early that your desired future plan, your scenario, just isn’t happening.

Then what? Well, it’s OK to be wrong, if you’re the first to figure it out and if you already have alternative courses of action in mind. If you are the last to figure out you made a mistake, then, you’re in deep trouble. So you need to be alert enough and thoughtful enough to be the first to get the clue that you need to change course.

This way of thinking about direction setting is scalable from the specific (what job do I take) to global (how to adapt to climate change). The instructions are really very simple:

Dream 3 dreams, choose, act, reflect, correct, repeat. Everyone can do it.

Good luck to you all. Thank You

Jim Herman speaking at Paul Smith's Commencement 2014

Jim Herman speaking at Paul Smith’s Commencement 2014



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