If Only You Had the Time
John N. Gardner
I would like you to apply this train of thought to whatever is most important to you now professionally. So assuming you had all other ingredients in order—you got the concept, the big idea right; you have the backers you need; you have willing and needy recipients of whatever it is that you are trying to do; and the resources and assets are there—but if only you had time. You can get it launched. Maybe you already have. But what about its full development and then what about institutionalizing whatever this is and making it an inherent part of the way your place does its basic business? If only you had the time….?
My thoughts on this are inspired by a visit my wife and I just made to Barcelona, Spain, where, like millions of tourists before us, we visited multiple sites of the work of one of the world’s greatest architects: Antoni Gaudi. Best known for his revolutionary and innovative design of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, he spent 43 years of his life devoted to this one masterpiece. Actually, he had multiple masterpieces but this one would be generally regarded as his ultimate creation. He died in a tragic accident in 1926 at 74 years of age, with the cathedral not yet finished but with his plans and drawings produced comprising the basis of construction that continues to this day. It is the goal to have his work completed on the one hundredth anniversary of his death – 2026. I plan to be still alive and to go see it!
So what are you working on now but do not have time to bring to full fruition and realization of all its potential synergies, replications, adaptations, permutations, and perfections? What are you working on that you would want your college or university, as in the case of Gaudi, to be still working on 100 years later? Fanciful thinking you say! I say not. I engage in this kind of thinking all the time and it has been one of the keys of my success.
I would frequently walk my own campus, the University of South Carolina, founded in 1801, and particularly within the confines of the original part of the campus, our hallowed ground, I would find myself thinking that students, faculty and staff had been walking that same ground for two centuries. And most of them had been faced with similar categories of major life decisions that I have faced and made, often for all of us with the help of the University. It helped me to know the historical context of what had preceded me. And I was very conscious and deliberate about creating something that would make my university stronger and better for my having been there for only three decades—the further development of which would be carried on for much longer, maybe even another 100 years. I refer, literally, to the launching of the first-year experience concept in 1972, which I shepherded for 25 years. But it certainly wasn’t finished at that point and my successors have been subsequently furthering the development of that concept for the following sixteen years in many exciting ways that I could not have fully imagined but now fully appreciate. And I believe I can make a rational and objective case that this work will continue, like Gaudi’s cathedral, for another 100 years.
We have just gone through the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize winners. I look forward to reading each year in The New York Times the biographies of these incredible men and women of the sciences, economics, diplomacy, and literature. What strikes me as a pervasive theme in their distinct lives is that all of them found some intellectually powerful, demanding, all consuming line of work, exploration, creation in young adulthood and they stayed focused on that line of work where one discovery led to another one frequently for three to four decades before their work was recognized.
I invite you to practice delusions of grandeur. Think of yourself as having another 40 or so years to work on what is now so compelling and then being externally rewarded for your work that has been so intrinsically rewarding now for so long—but not long enough—if only you had the time….?
Well you do have the time. Look at it as your building a foundation, laying out a grand design for a great something that you will launch and others will take up. That’s why it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the time.
I just can’t stop thinking in this manner. I like to think that the current signature work of my non-profit organization, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, still in its nascent stage, will become a work of another century. I refer to our pioneering work on Gateways to Completion, G2C, our effort to reduce failure rates in gateway courses and therefore increase retention and completion rates. This is a hugely complex problem, towards the solution to which there is so much built-in resistance pervading the academy. Oh, but only if I had the time? I do have the time. I am laying a foundation and others will continue the building of the cathedral where far more college students will be successful and fulfill their hopes and dreams, and ours too.