In 2007 the American Professor and computer scientist Randy Pausch achieved global fame for delivering his “Last Lecture”, offering inspirational life lessons and chronicling his battle against terminal illness. The lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”, included advice that has been at the forefront of my mind during this past year. He said: ‘we cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.’
In my 41 years of life I have often envied those born with a better set of cards. To my lasting discredit I have often resented those with an abundance of family funds, networks, aspiration in their DNA, and without a chronic illness. My cards were slightly different. I was born into a community of high unemployment, where finishing high school was considered academic achievement. I was the first person in my family to attend university and when classes ended a shift at McDonalds (Bachelors) or at a Food Factory (Masters) awaited. I was also born with epilepsy, a neurological disorder that doesn’t just lead to seizures, but can also cause those afflicted to limit their own horizons. Over the years I wore my poor cards like a badge of honor and used them as motivation to play as hard as I could. I bluffed a lot and won occasionally. Where I come from securing a job is a win and if you forge a career this is considered a great success. Ending up as I did with a vocation — a career with purpose that reflects your values and offers a sense of mission — is a true blessing. And yet I never felt a sense of accomplishment and the deep serenity that comes with it until this year.
In March, I successfully defended my PhD thesis and thanks to the good graces of my opponent, my examiners, my supervisors and the Faculty Board at Abo Akademi University in Finland I was conferred with a Doctorate in Business, Economics and Social Sciences. My research focused on climate justice, exploring the nexus between human rights and climate change. With the award of the PhD I felt serene for the first time in my life. I could finally look at myself in the mirror and say with complete conviction “I have done the best I could with the cards I was dealt.’ I have taken the opportunities that have come my way and milked them to the full. While I have retained a great sense of purpose, my ambition no longer feels like an insatiable hunger for success that follows me wherever I go. I have the freedom to focus on the issues I care about without being distracted by the need to prove myself deserving of opportunity. Feeling proud of my accomplishments is both calming and empowering and I have given myself permission to be more open to new experiences, less risk averse, and ready to take on new goals without fear of failure.
As I think back over this journey I realize there were many elements that combined at different periods to build a winning hand:
- Aspiration: If the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step then every accomplishment begins with aspiration. I come from a community where aspiration was in short supply. Many people fall short of their potential due to lack of opportunity but many more suffer from lack of exposure to aspiration and ambition. Over the years I have been fortunate to study under the tutelage of professors who saw potential and to work alongside colleagues who recognized that strong advocacy begins with sound analysis. They cultivated aspiration within me and gave me the confidence to pursue an academic career.
- Persistence: Pursuing a PhD requires a deep reservoir of persistence. Even the most passionate and capable academic will face times when motivation fades and intractable problems in the research seem to overwhelm. During nine years of combining my research with full-time work I faced many crisis points. There were holidays spent writing in windowless basements and late nights spent incorporating review comments. I often thought about quitting and developed very compelling arguments for why I didn’t really need a PhD. Neither intelligence nor years of learning got me over the line. In the end it was sheer determination.
- Support: Nothing is achieved alone. I was fortunate to have peers, family and friends with me for the whole journey. My supervisor knew how to manage my personality, understanding when encouragement and advice was needed and knowing when the imposition of a deadline was the only way to move the work forward. I worked with many of the world’s leading experts on climate justice and they were generous and gracious with their insights. Most of all I could count on the unequivocal support of my family. Doctoral research is often lonely, frustrating and fragmented with research conducted in the narrow gaps between professional obligations and personal time. My family tolerated my absences because they shared my aspiration.
TS Eliot wrote: “for last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” My accomplishment in 2016 is to have ended a long journey by using the cards I had as well as I could. In 2017 I have a new beginning. It will be my job to deal a new generation into the game, to cultivate their voices, and to ensure that the fight for climate justice goes on.