John Grotzinger ’79, Sc.D. ’13

John Grotzinger '79, Sc.D. '13
Commencement Address
May 13, 2018

Thank you President McGuire, the Board of Trustees, and the faculty, and all of you for this wonderful opportunity.

To a certain extent, this is something I've been waiting for my whole life. Back in 2001 I was living in the Sultanate of Oman with my family and was asked to prepare some remarks to a local high school graduation. I thought about what it was that I had been doing with my life, and I wrote down some notes and talked about it. It turns out it was about the day that I graduated from Hobart. And so, I've decided to do something a little bit different than what most graduation speakers do. I'm going to tell you a story about a field trip. And this was something that happened a lot in my life, and so because it is Mother's Day, I want to give a shout out to my wife Donna and my daughters Hannah and Heather who had to live through their father disappearing into the woods of the middle of nowhere for decades. So thank you guys for sticking with me.

The year was 1979 and times were uncertain. The inflation rate was 11 percent, interest rates were close to 15 percent, Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear reactor partially melted down, and the U.S. and Soviet Union were involved in intense nuclear disarmament negotiations. Uganda deposed dictator Idi Amin, Iran became an Islamic republic, and 63 Americans were taken hostage in the US Embassy, and China instituted the one child per family rule. On the lighter side, a gallon of gas cost 83 cents, the first snowboard was invented, the Voyager one spacecraft observed the rings of Jupiter, and Margaret Thatcher became the United Kingdom's first woman prime minister.

One of the lesser known events of that year was that I actually graduated from Hobart College. I entered 43 years ago as a biology major, changed to chemistry, but worried that if you weren't a pre-med you were on a track to be a lab rat at Eastman Kodak in Rochester. So I changed again and finished with a geoscience degree involving a couple of courses in geology and little sense about what I would do professionally. What I didn't know was that on the day that I graduated from these fine Colleges I also set out for the greatest adventure of my life. Earlier that year, I was lucky enough to be hired by the geological survey of Canada. Dedicated to exploration and mapping in the last great wilderness of North America, this organization promised adventure in a land dominated by peat bogs, lakes, forest and vast expanses of rock. Although my background was very limited because I changed majors a few times before settling on geology, and I had no prior work experience, I was hopeful that I would nevertheless be able to do everything required. Maybe it would be a little isolated from the rest of the world but how big could that be? After all I had spent an entire week canoeing the lakes of northern Maine with my friends after I graduated from high school. Shouldn't this have prepared me well for three months in the Canadian wilderness? Boy was I naive.

On the day I graduated, I shuffled up to the podium, accepted my diploma, shook hands with the president, and embraced my newfound freedom. The only problem was that this new position in life didn't allow for post-graduation parties because I needed to be at the airport that same evening to begin the long trip north. I was expected to report for work in Northern Canada the next day. So I explained to my questioning friends that they really did mean a lot to me, and to my girlfriend that I really was going to miss her, and I tried to convince all of them that this abrupt departure was not somehow a reckless cast off of our accumulated good times over the past four years. Partying with them just wasn't an option. I had to go and with this decision came the bittersweet realization of lost summer parties weighed against the excitement of new challenges. I had no way to know at the time, but I was setting a pattern to be repeated annually for the rest of my professional life.

Folks, every one of you is going to have to make significant sacrifices in order to succeed in your work, in your life, and to ensure fun in your work, but sometimes a little blind faith is required. During the drive to the airport I pondered this paradoxical transition in life in which established patterns, friendships, and ideals are exchanged for a new world full of discovery, adventure, new faces and uncertainty. The excitement of discovery is given to us as children, as a basic human instinct. Yet, at some point in life, many people lose their sense of adventure and the joy of discovery. How does this happen? It seemed to me at the time that no matter how strong these well-established bonds were, that I could not resist the urge for new experiences. What I have learned subsequently is that while new positions in life can bring great things, and are even essential for preventing stagnation, it is the transitional periods that often result in enough discomfort to discourage future change, and that's where people come off the rails. The resolution of this paradox is understanding and accepting these transitions and that is where my story is headed today.

From New York I flew north to Toronto, then west to Calgary then north again to Yellowknife. The next morning I finally met my boss, who was full of worry and concern. Because an unusual streak of rainy and warm weather, in which the temperature rose to a balmy five degrees above freezing, everyone in a position of responsibility was weighed down with trying to evaluate the ice conditions further north, because airplanes normally land on ice covered lakes at this time of the season. The weather was threatening, and we needed to fly out immediately. Now with no time to call home or even take a shower, I was pushed further and faster beyond anything I had previously known. I really did want to let my parents know that I had made it OK. This did not feel good. I had promised to call. I had raised the issue with my boss and he muttered something about self-reliance and being on my own now and that was the end of the discussion. We left Yellowknife in a small heavily-loaded bush plane and flew north, this time crossing the Arctic Circle. As we flew farther north the forests and trees suddenly disappeared and the land got flatter, rockier and grayer, and took on an increasingly menacing look. The headwind began to increase and the clouds got lower and lower. Our airplane was equipped with large tires designed for landing on the ice, however there was the constant and nagging concern that the recent high temperatures may have melted the ice enough so that it might crack under the weight of the fully loaded airplane. The decision to land was entirely up to the pilot, who would inspect the ice while flying in circles above the lake. When the plane took off at Yellowknife I had no idea of these risks and suddenly found myself in the process of learning that I had just put my life in the hands of this pilot. He was simply going to look at the ice and tell! Great. What could go wrong?

The pilot was Len Robinson, a short stocky man in his mid-fifty's. He seemed calm and cool. I subsequently learned two things about bush flying. The first was that Robinson was a legend in his own time who was called in whenever things got tough, for the most difficult technical challenges that bush flying could generate. The second thing I learned is if you need a bush pilot, look for an older one, because the young and foolish are weeded out quickly.

The flight to camp got rougher. We had to drop in altitude in order to maintain visibility. Len Robinson now had our airplane flying a few hundred feet above the ground, and we still had about an hour to go. The sky got darker as the clouds above our aircraft began to thicken, and soon we began to fly through snow squalls. The air got rougher and eventually I became nauseous and started to get sick. The snow thickened to the point where Robinson was going to turn back when he suddenly spied our lake. Robinson threw the plane into what seemed like an impossibly steep curve and began to circle. He circled the lake again and again, flying in and out of the snow squalls and then, just as quickly as he threw it into the turn, he banked back out and thirty seconds later we were down on the ice with both engines roaring in full reverse. Robinson still looked calm and collected. For whatever reason he landed on the ice I will never know, and there wasn't time to find out, because he wanted us to get the gear out of the airplane as quickly as possible so he could get the plane back up off the ice. The cargo doors opened and Robinson threw gear at myself and my boss as fast as we could catch it. Outside, the wind was howling, the temperature was freezing, and the snow was getting worse--kind of like February in Geneva.

Despite the heavy lifting I was really cold. The whole exercise was so intense that I didn't have time to think more about my personal condition. I just did what I was told as fast as I could. Soon the plane was empty. The last thing that Robinson had to do before flying away was shut the cargo doors from the inside. As he prepared to shut the doors on us and the icy world that I had just become part of, he glanced back at us with a puzzled and pitiful look on his face and made a remark that I will never forget. He looked at my boss, then me, and he said, "Whenever I drop you suckers off up here and think of the warm bath and dinner I'm going to have when I get home, I am always reminded of how lucky I am that I never went to college."

With that, he closed the doors and flew off into the snowstorm. I looked around at the bleak landscape, our pile of gear a half a mile out onto the ice, nauseated, freezing cold, and with no friends or family. Never in my life before or since have I ever felt so alone and helpless. And then I got the bad news. No matter what happened, there was no way I was getting out of there until at least one month had passed and the ice completely melted so that the supply plane could land on the water with floats. Cell phones and satellite phones didn't exist back then, and even snail mail wasn't really an option. Ice breakup as it is called, takes a long time. Mail would be delayed by at least six weeks, including the time for letters to be written, reach the U.S. for someone to write something back and send it to Canada, and then the mail had to wait in Yellowknife until the next supply plane for our camp was scheduled to depart. What if I wasn't accepted into the group? What if someone got hurt? What if we got attacked by grizzly bears? What if the food was lousy? What if we were ran out of food? Worst of all, what if I discovered that I didn't want to be a geologist? I was overwhelmed with doubts, confusion and fears, and there was no way out. Robinson's parting words haunted me for days. Everything at that moment in time seemed just about as bad as it could get.

Well, the days, weeks and months went by. In the beginning the only way to deal with the situation was throw myself into the job and try to make the most out of it. Amazingly, it worked. After two weeks I'd have gone home if I could. The days were long and typically involved 15-25 miles walking through swamps. My boss had just run the Boston Marathon in 2:25, and he expected everyone to keep up with him. But after a month when the first supply plane arrived, I was ready to stay. The combination of such mental and physical challenge was wonderful, and I was beginning to derive a distinct sense of satisfaction at knowing I hadn't just been able to survive this workload, but I was actually growing because of it. By the end of the season I learned something with complete understanding. That this three month period of intense immersion into geological mapping had made it possible for me to know, with no doubt, that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I was grateful for this rare opportunity which taught me perseverance, tolerance, focus, and that hard work can really be a lot of fun. Most importantly perhaps, was that it instilled in me the confidence to pursue new ideas and that the most difficult tasks, and these challenges, are where new opportunities lie.

So the moral of the story is to seek these challenges out and embrace them as gifts. In advising students who are trying to identify their calling in life, this is my most common advice. Seek out the difficult challenges and invest all that you have in them. At this point in your life, for each one of you, there is absolutely nothing to lose.

I have experienced many emotions in life, but I have rarely been bored in my chosen profession. I've often wondered what else I might have been able to do, but I've never regretted the path that I chose.

And the same was true for Len Robinson. Without a doubt, that man participated in some of the greatest adventures and challenges of modern day travel, all without a university degree. And he now lives in one of the biggest houses in Yellowknife, Canada. In the mid 1990s, about 10 years after I got my Ph.D., diamonds were discovered in the same region where I had worked for so long. Robinson was often hired to fly the prospectors around, so he could tell from his experience that something different was going on, and that this wasn't the usual deal with a prospector trying to flee some venture capitalists. So he bought shares of a small company called Diavic on the Alberta Stock Exchange for ten cents and sold them a few months later for a thousand dollars.

You see, what I now realize from my own experiences, those of people like Len Robinson, and from over thirty years of helping and advising students, it is that in the final evaluation the degree itself is worth little. It is what you make of it, and what you invest at the beginning of your career, whatever path you take in life. So whether you go off to graduate school, medical school, business, enlist in the Peace Corps or military, take a job as an apprentice or open your own business, it all comes down to what you are willing to invest now. It will pay off later in whatever form you choose to be rewarded in. As graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, you are well prepared to accept these next challenges in life.

And I'll leave you with one last bit of advice. If your friends and family tell you that the best years of your life are your college years, don't believe them. Sure, college was enjoyable, but for me the real fun came later as I found myself doing things that I had never imagined possible. Each year, I wonder what's next. The trick, if there is one, is to never close out your options until you must, and to accept new opportunities enthusiastically.

Getting there provides its rewards, but it's the adventures along the way that provide the fun. Transitions can provide tremendous opportunities.

Back in August of 2012 on the night that the Curiosity Rover was about to land on Mars, I reminded our mission team of a favorite quote by Teddy Roosevelt that captured the importance of our coming days as a team. He said, "One of the greatest pleasures in life is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."

I know that each one of you has unique gifts and you were given them for some reason. Use them and share them and mark your life with meaning. Good luck to you all, wherever you might be headed next, in whatever your chosen profession may be.

And when the going gets tough, try not to lose your sense of adventure and the joy of discovery. Chances are something great is right around the corner.

Thanks for listening, and have a great day.


Commencement 2018

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.