A Life of Consequence: A Worthy and Achievable Aspiration
John Warren '74, Ed.D.
September 6, 2019
I am often asked what the phrase "Lives of Consequence" means. The question is a logical one because you see the phrase prominently displayed since we have chosen to make it the tagline for our capital campaign. You can't miss seeing it when you drive up to the Main Building since it appears on banners attached to lampposts, and you will also see it in many of our social media messages and in our publications.
A good starting point for explaining the meaning of the phrase "Lives of Consequence," as it relates to St. Mark's, can be found on the section of our website devoted to the campaign. There you will read that the Lives of Consequence campaign "will empower St. Mark's School to deliver an education focused on the intellectual, character, and leadership development of our students—enabling them to grow into citizens who not only do well, but who also assume a lifelong commitment to do good."
Do well, and make a lifelong commitment to doing good: admirable aspirations.
To me, "doing well" connotes ensuring that your basic needs are met, that you possess the resources for taking care of those for whom you are responsible, and that the activities of your life provide you with fulfillment and joy.
By my way of thinking, "a lifelong commitment to doing good" connotes devoting your time and energy to something beyond yourself, seeking to make a positive difference to others—perhaps a small number of others and perhaps a large number of others—in a manner that fits with your talents and your interests.
While there are many ways you could define leading a life of consequence, I believe that the way the St. Mark's website frames it, associating the phrase with doing well and making a lifelong commitment to doing good, is right on the mark. I also believe that making the explicit commitment, as a School, to prepare our students—you—to lead Lives of Consequence is a noble goal, worthy of the efforts of everyone at St. Mark's.
One of the virtues of the phrase "Lives of Consequence," in my view, is that it relates well to other phrases that we use often at St. Mark's to convey our purpose. I am thinking particularly of our motto, Age Quod Agis, and the first sentence of our mission statement, "St. Mark's School educates young people for lives of leadership and service." Age Quod Agis, as you have heard from the Classics Department, on your first night, at the New Student Evening Chapel Service, translated literally means "do what you do," somewhat banal. However, as Dr. Harwood and Ms. Cook have pointed out to you, the deeper implication of the phrase, and the reason the motto has been so meaningful to our School for over 150 years, is that it communicates our hope that—now and in the future—you will focus your 100 percent effort in ways that are worth that commitment, that will make a difference to others not just to yourself.
As for "leadership and service," certainly leadership connotes acting responsibly when you have been entrusted with a position of formal authority. Even more importantly, however, you demonstrate leadership when you step up and exhibit admirable values, in particular, moral courage, in a moment when someone needs to act that way. That leadership responsibility is as likely to arise when you do not have a position of formal authority as when you do. We hope we are educating you to be able to meet that character standard throughout your lives.
We place the word "service" in the first sentence of our mission statement as another way of communicating that we want you, at St. Mark's and after, to focus your life on a purpose beyond yourself. Our Episcopal identity provides a helpful framework for this educational emphasis which I hope each of you finds relevant, whatever your religious or spiritual orientation.
Doing well and possessing a lifelong commitment to doing good. I hope you agree that those phrases, and the concepts that lie behind them, provide a reasonable answer to the question "what does "Lives of Consequence mean?"
While I am very proud of the way St. Mark's provides the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that will equip graduates to lead Lives of Consequence, I am also excited about the possibilities for providing that foundation even better once we gain the resources that the campaign will provide. A new residence hall that brings the School closer together physically will make our sense of community even stronger, facilitating even more impactful relationships between adults and students and students and students. Enhanced compensation will ensure that the most highly talented caring adults are here to support our students now and in the future, and additional financial aid resources will remove the barrier of ability to pay from even more students than currently, further enriching our School as it seeks to develop the intellect, character, and leadership skills for leading Lives of Consequence.
Beyond simply providing a definition to answer the question "what does Lives of Consequence mean?" I would like to provide some examples from my own personal experience to elaborate on the definition. I will also invite you to think of an example of someone you know who is leading a life of consequence, all in the hopes that the phrase can become more relevant to you.
A person who comes quickly to my mind when I think about orienting your life to a purpose beyond yourself is my grandfather, John Coolidge, for whom I am named. Professionally, he certainly met the standard of leading a life of consequence, first as an officer in the Office of Strategic Services, OSS, during World War II, then unselfishly serving a university for over 40 years and, to me most importantly, unselfishly serving his students at that university. As director of the university's art museum, he impressively enhanced the museum's collection so that art history students had plentiful examples to learn from, right in front of their eyes. He was also one of those teachers who students flocked to because they knew he really cared about them. Even though he died almost 25 years ago, it is remarkable how frequently I am told by his former colleagues and his former students what a difference he made to their lives.
However, the primary reason my grandfather comes so quickly to my mind when I think about Lives of Consequence is because of the commitment he made to me as I was growing up. Part of that commitment was time.
In retrospect, I realize that my grandfather did not particularly like to fish. However, when he saw how much I loved fishing, he made time on many summer afternoons when I was a kid to take me out in his five-horsepower wooden boat helping me drop a fishing line in search of flounder or mackerel in the ocean off the shore of his house on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
I also now realize that watching a baseball game at Fenway Park was not his first choice of an activity either. However, then as now, being at Fenway Park was my bliss, so off we would go, again and again, back in the day when you could walk up to the box office on game day and get a fabulous box seat for $4.00.
Time is a precious resource to all of us, and what we do with our time says a lot about our priorities. Beyond the commitment of hours, my grandfather also took me very seriously, something I appreciate all the more now that I am a parent and a grandparent. No matter how old—or young—I was, my grandfather listened, he asked me questions, he answered my questions, patiently and respectfully. The result of this commitment to me was my added self-confidence, knowing I was loved, and my continuing maturing. And there were some hard moments during my growing up, when I really needed someone to be there for me, and he was. Personally, and professionally, then, I hope you will agree that my grandfather provides an example of leading a life of consequence.
Many St. Mark's graduates, of all generations, provide examples of Lives of Consequence. Here are two that allow for further observations about focusing your life beyond yourself.
My VI Form St. Mark's roommate, and fellow prefect in what is now Gaccon House and was then Dorm C, David Gibson, has spent most of his professional career advocating for the preservation of land in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York State. Indeed, Mr. Gibson has held leadership positions in a number of conservation organizations, helping to keep over 250,000 acres of land (that is 390 square miles) undeveloped, and he has published extensively on environmental topics, for example, the approach to conservation that will most effectively combat climate change.
In addition to the fact that he is one of my oldest friends, Mr. Gibson comes quickly to my mind when I think about Lives of Consequence because he is one of those people who figured out his true passion very early in his life, the natural world, and then figured out a way to both live well, comfortably if not lavishly, and make a difference in a way that aligns with his passions. Certainly, leading a life of consequence happens in the most fulfilling manner if you orient your life toward something you care passionately about. Some people discover that true passion early in life, like Mr. Gibson, and some people discover that true passion gradually and over time, employing the mature self-reflection needed to assess whether you have truly found your bliss.
Another example of a graduate leading a life of consequence that comes quickly to my mind is Oscar Wand, Class of 1956, our first Asian graduate, as he proudly reminds me every time I see him. Dr. Wand is in his 49th year as an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) in the Bay Area of California. Dr. Wand diagnoses and treats, with great expertise, glaucoma, corneal tumors, cataracts, retinal disorders, conjunctivitis, astigmatism, and ocular tumors. Medical professionals, by the nature of their work, are focused on something beyond themselves—their patients—and so engaging in the medical field seems to fit the definition of leading a life of consequence.
Dr. Wand is one of those special medical professionals who stand out in my mind because you just know, when you spend time with him, that he is extraordinarily kind. Any problem that arises with our eyes, we know, is very scary. I can imagine that if Oscar Wand was my doctor, he would immediately bring down my anxiety level because of the way he communicates caring for me along with a sense of high professional competence.
This photograph shows Dr. Wand at the beginning of 25 years as a doctor in the United States Naval Reserve, service that included time in active duty on a warship in the Middle East.
When I think about leading a life of consequence, it seems to me that if you have chosen a career that is highly interactive with people, especially people who are in a vulnerable frame of mind, a depth of genuine caring would be highly desired. Dr. Wand is among those I know who stand out for leading a life of consequence because of the way they meet that standard.
Having been in schools for many decades, I have had the good fortune to work with a number of students who demonstrate impressive qualities and then develop those qualities further in the years after graduation to lead a life of consequence. Here are two examples among students Dr. Warren and I came to know well in the dormitory we ran at Milton Academy. Each of these women demonstrated deep caring for others, demonstrated the sort of self-reflection that seems essential for figuring out your true passion, and took full advantage of the opportunities for growth that Milton—like St. Mark's—offers, and that one can find in the world after college if you are alert to those opportunities.
Heather McGee, Milton Academy Class of 1997, joined Demos, an organization that seeks to influence public policy in the direction of a more just, inclusive and multiracial democracy, very soon after graduating from college. She became president of Demos in 2014, serving in that role until 2018. Demos projects in which Ms. McGhee played a major role include addressing questionable fees charged by credit card companies which has resulted in a savings to consumers of over $50 billion and same-day voter registration in a dozen states and Washington D.C.
These accomplishments, in advancing economic and social justice, certainly indicate that Ms. McGhee is focused beyond herself in her work. Ms. McGhee's career also demonstrates that following a passion, in this case advocating for equity, can take different forms as one moves along in life. While still associated with Demos, Ms. McGhee's primary professional focus right now is as a writer, soon to publish a book about the personal, economic and societal costs of racism. Once the book is out, I can imagine any number of next steps that will allow Ms. McGhee to continue a focus beyond herself, perhaps in the nonprofit world, perhaps in politics, or perhaps doing something totally different. I just know her next steps will be impressive, right for her, and impactful.
The career of Kathryn Tanner Stahlberg, Milton Academy Class of 1996, provides an example of someone who took a number of years to discover their true passion. She thought, for a while, that her passion was academia, and so she pursued, successfully, a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. Dr. Stahlberg also thought, for a while, that politics might be her true passion, so she spent almost five years as special advisor and legislative assistant to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, up until recently a Democratic presidential candidate. Now Dr. Stahlberg is a senior policy advisor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Among her roles at USAID has been work at the Office of Food for Peace. This office addresses hunger and malnutrition particularly in communities facing chronic poverty and recurrent crises such as drought. While Dr. Stahlberg's career focus has changed, and may change again, a consistent pattern has been work on behalf of others, a life of consequence.
Closer to home, all you have to do is look around you here to see people who are leading Lives of Consequence, orienting their lives beyond themselves, making a difference to others, the others being those of us here in this room: St. Mark's faculty and staff. To make this point more concrete, here is praise offered to St. Mark's adults by faculty, staff, and student leaders. The examples come from nominations I sought last spring for awards given at Prize Day to a faculty member and a staff member who demonstrate exemplary caring. Sixteen faculty members and 14 staff members were nominated for the respective awards, with many adults receiving multiple nominations. As you can imagine, choosing from the many worthy candidates was very hard for me.
Here are appreciations offered for a couple of the faculty nominees (by the way, not the nominee who I chose for the 2019 award):
It is extraordinary how much work this teacher puts into creating optimal learning environments for our students, in Monday-Friday, Saturday, and Lion Term courses. So many of this teacher's students say this is the teacher who most empowered them, taught them to THINK, and has had the greatest impact.
This faculty member has opened up so many doors for the students here at St. Mark's. This faculty member has created lots of leadership opportunities for the students, believing in the students even when the students do not believe in themselves. This faculty member is passionate about educating everyone about race, sexuality, gender, equality, equity, community, open-mindedness, and so much more.
And here are appreciations offered for a couple of the staff nominees (again, not the one I chose for the 2019 award):
This staff member is such an asset to our campus, always positive, cheerful, and willing to help out wherever possible. This staff member takes great personal pride in the work, and most importantly has a keen eye on the well-being of our kids. We only learned about a student in distress because of this staff member alerting us and allowing us to get the student the help needed. This staff member's fortitude, and emotional strength are evidenced daily as components of extraordinary character.
This staff member is one of the kindest people on campus—intelligent, always ready to answer a question, fix a problem big or small, and do the extra work to help out. A pleasure to talk with, this staff member always gives me the layperson's explanation of the work being undertaken so that I can understand and not feel ridiculous. Our School and facilities would not be the same without what this staff member does.
I could go on and on with examples of Lives of Consequence offered by those among us here. However, now, shifting gears, to help promote deeper thinking about leading a life of consequence, I would like us all to take a couple of minutes to reflect and share. For starters, please identify for yourself someone you know who is leading a life of consequence, who is making a positive difference to others, perhaps a small number of others or perhaps many others.
After you have identified that individual, please turn to the person to your left or your right, share your example and explain the qualities which makes that person fit the definition of leading a life of consequence.
Thank you. I hope that reflection and conversation makes the concept of a life of consequence feel a bit more real to you. As I have mentioned, we want a St. Mark's education to provide each of you students with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that prepare you to lead a life of consequence, a life characterized by doing well and a lifelong commitment to doing good.
As we start 2019-2020, I ask that each of you do your part to prepare for that sort of life. That preparation, in particular, involves developing habits, an approach toward your life here that you can carry with you after you leave. The starting point for that approach is caring and kindness, trying to make life better, richer, fuller, for others here. I hope you will make an active commitment to that approach every day, in your house, in your classes, on your team, as opposed to just showing up. Sometimes acting in this way is easy, and sometimes acting in this way is hard. Whether easy or hard, this commitment will make you and St. Mark's ever better.
 The importance of figuring out your true passion and then taking the necessary steps to align your life's work with your true passions is discussed eloquently by Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas in Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018.