Paul Cook, General Manager of Irvine Ranch Water District, delivered the keynote address to Schmid College’s class of 2017 at its Commencement ceremony on May 21, 2017. Below is the transcript of his address, edited for publication on this blog. You can also watch the ceremony here.
Good morning to all of the family and friends, faculty and staff, and guests who are here to celebrate this wonderful occasion. And good morning Schmid College of Science and Technology graduating class of 2017!
What a great morning, and what a great moment for you all. I am sure this will be one of those days you will remember for the rest of your lives. Maybe not all of these speeches, but that’s what YouTube is for, right? Seriously, each of you graduates should be so proud of your accomplishment, as are we.
Thank you for the kind introduction, Dean Lyon, and the invitation speak. It is a profound honor for me to address you all today.
Like all of you, I started my career with a technical degree. My career path has taken some interesting turns, and today I’d like to share some stories with you about my experiences. My hope is that these stories will illustrate the benefits of having a Plan and pursuing Opportunities in a way that you can relate to as you progress through your professional career.
So let’s start with The Plan.
I felt very fortunate as I went off to college as a freshman because I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: “Build Stuff”. A bit vague for a career objective, but knowing this really gave me the sense of purpose and drive that got me through the toughest classes. (For me that class was Differential Equations. It’s like the math professor was speaking Italian! Though I’ve heard Italian math teachers are the BEST – right?) I purposefully developed my professional “Plan” to be very open‑ended because, at that time, I had no idea where in the world I would live, where I would work, or specifically what I would do. So where would this Two-Word Plan – “Build Stuff” – lead me?
My first position after graduation was helping to build some of those tall buildings in Downtown L.A. That seemed to fit The Plan pretty well, in spite of the fact that on Day One of my professional career I had no money and didn’t know anyone south of Stockton, California. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the first day of your professional career without much in your pocket but a strong desire to make a difference in the world…
I also recall making quite an impression on my first day when I rinsed out the office coffee pot, which was glass and very hot, in very cold water. Obviously, Thermodynamics was another one of those tough classes for me.
Five years and a few coffee pots later, I moved from the construction industry into the public sector, where I had the opportunity to do something all engineers and scientists should do: operate a machine or process that he or she has designed or built.
While still working in construction, I had installed a large sludge press for the sewer agency that I subsequently went to work for. Since I installed the press, it fell upon me to solve interesting operational problems at the sewage treatment plant like: Hey Paul, what’s that smell? There was one mystery odor was particularly puzzling because I couldn’t even smell it. I thought my co-workers were just messing with me, but the mystery was solved when I realized that the concentration of hydrogen sulfide in the room where I was standing was actually too high to smell. Once the issue was identified, I was ultimately able to correct the design flaw. An educational (as well as humbling and a little bit nauseating) experience, but all part of the process.
After many more years of Building Stuff, fast forward to today where I am the General Manager of a progressive water district that serves about 20% of Orange County. Now you might be thinking: Paul, what about The Plan? What about your hopes and dreams to Build Stuff?
As the General Manager, I deal with just about every issue, directly or indirectly, at the Water District. Financial matters, legislation, droughts, personnel – you name it. Even though my primary job is no longer to physically Build Stuff, I still feel true to my Plan. While my Plan remains focused on building, my emphasis now is to “Build Organizations”.
For me, The Plan hasn’t really changed – the output has simply evolved from tangible to intangible. As rewarding as it was to build things, I have found just as much satisfaction in building organizations. In their simplest form, organizations are simply groups of people. But so much more can be accomplished when people are organized to coalesce around a mission and succeed.
As I have changed roles throughout my career, what really helped me tremendously was being ready to Adapt to each new role by Applying my experience and education to new opportunities as they came up. As the world evolves at an increasingly faster pace, you will need to stay Adaptable – one step ahead of the next opportunity – so you are ready when it arrives.
Now a “Plan”, like any structure, will fail if it does not have a strong Foundation. The true challenge in developing a Plan is identifying your Passion. For example, my Passion is Improving the Environment. Yours may be to Cure Cancer, or to Improve Nutrition. Whatever is your passion, it should run deep enough to reinforce your dedication and resolve to your Plan, even in the face of difficult challenges and set-backs. If your Passion doesn’t do this, it may be time to find a new Passion. It is important to step back and check on this every once in a while. Does your Passion still reflect what you love to do? Your Passion should serve as the foundation of your Plan.
It has been said, I believe by computer scientist Alan Kay in 1971, that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” This is possible if you continuously Apply the lessons you learn from your acquired knowledge to the next phase of pursuing your Plan. If you can do this, then when you are much older (like some of the people on the stage behind me…), you will realize that all of your hard work was worth it and you will have enjoyed the journey. You will have completed your Plan.
Our Second Topic is Opportunities.
Opportunities are everywhere in this world. One of the reasons you spent all of this time earning your degree was so you will be better prepared to act upon opportunities as they arise. But how does one find, or even recognize, opportunities worth pursuing?
You start by Being Aware. Now, this sounds simple, but inevitably, you must answer the follow-up question: Aware of exactly what? Sometimes the answer to this question is clear, though in my experience this is more the exception than the rule. When the answer is not clear…that’s when you need to put your other resources to work. As scientists we are trained to use our heads. But many times, especially for life’s biggest decisions, you will need to use your gut and your heart. My second story will hopefully illustrate this:
I was about 8 or 9 years into my career and I had a pretty good gig going. I was the District Engineer for that small water and sewer agency I mentioned earlier. Nice office, decent pay, easy commute, good people. One day it occurred to me that I was watching the clock, which is inevitably a sign that the day dragging a bit. Upon further reflection, I realized that I had gotten into the habit of watching the clock at work.
Now don’t get me wrong – it’s great to be done with work for the day and look forward to having some personal time. (At that point in my life, apparently, I just couldn’t wait to get home and change some more diapers.) But my apparent dissatisfaction with my work situation at that time was confusing to me – I had all I needed to be comfortable…was I just being ungrateful for what I had?
I finally listened to my gut, which told me that I was bored – really bored. I also listened to my heart, which told me that I needed to do more with my career. It took a burst of optimism (along with the unwavering encouragement and support from my best friend to whom I happened to be married) for me to realize that there was more out there for me.
I had to let go of the known and seek out the next step to continue the Plan.
The opportunity I pursued and then secured was an engineering job in Los Angeles. This opportunity came complete with an hour‑long commute each way, longer work hours, and much more difficult projects for the same pay. And I could not have been happier. I was building a network of recycled water pipelines that would help improve the environment (my Passion) by reducing reliance on imported water in Southern California. Further, in the course of listening to my heart, following my Passion, and executing my Plan, I was rewarded with new opportunities and then promotions beyond my expectations.
So, back to the original question: Aware of exactly what? In my case, first I needed to step back enough to be Aware that I was bored in my situation and had to move on. Then I needed to push away the comfortable safety of the status quo and actively seek to be Aware of other possibilities and investigate those opportunities.
The results of your search for opportunities is a direct function of your ability to maintain your sense of optimism. The optimism I speak of is essentially your belief that if you are true to your Plan and your Passion, you will succeed! Let me show you what I mean by that.
You are surrounded right now by one of the most striking examples of optimism that I have ever encountered.
- This University was established in 1861, its opening designed to coincide with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. But remember that at that exact moment, our country was falling apart – it was the beginning of the Civil War.
- Fast forward to 1979 when this country was facing oil embargos, spiraling interest rates, a diplomatic hostage crisis, and disco. Meanwhile, Chapman College was struggling to meet payroll for its employees, and possibly facing bankruptcy.
So, what kind of people start a university when the country has just plunged into a civil war?
What kind of people commit to rescuing a struggling university in such uncertain times?
The answer to both of these questions is the same: An Optimist. Only an Optimist can see past all of the reasons not to do something and find that one reason to do something.
Today, you leave as a graduate of this outstanding university. Before you leave, please look around you. Look at the statues of the inspirational historical figures. Think of the individuals who believed in Chapman University, even in the worst of times. Then for the rest of your lives, remember this day, remember this university, and remember these people – the optimists who made this part of our world, Chapman University, a better place.
Along with your great education, I hope your time at Chapman has enhanced your sense of optimism. At a minimum, it has provided you a great example of optimism at work.
Going forward, I challenge you to apply this same intense optimism to your own world – your career, your family, your community. If the goal is worthy, if your Plan is clear, if your Passion is true, you will succeed.
In closing, you are now scientists. You clearly have the mental abilities to accomplish anything you set your minds to. So consider this: in a few words or at most a sentence, what is your Plan and what is your Passion? Once you have that firmly in mind, go and seek out the opportunities.
Be Aware, be Adaptable, and be ready to Apply the knowledge you have gained here.
And by all means stay Optimistic as you endeavor to make your world, our world, and the world of those yet to come, a better place.
Congratulations and Best Wishes to you All!