John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Did I Accomplish Today?

John N. Gardner
President
The day before I wrote this blog I did something very satisfying: I mowed grass along the right of ways for about ¾ of a mile on either side of the mountain road which leads to our home. It really needed it after all the spring rains we have had combined with our North Carolina warmth. It looked so much better after I mowed. I could see what I had accomplished. The outcome was clear and measurable. It was also satisfying. That is why I like mowing my grass.
But I wouldn’t want to do this every day. And I wouldn’t want to earn my livelihood mowing grass. There was a time in my life when I thought I would however. That was before I went to college and discovered “the life of the mind”. When I was in high school I had a little landscaping service business. Had six other teenage boys who worked for me. We cut grass, did some small landscaping jobs. I was very proud of our work. My job was to get the jobs, schmooze the customers, supervise my fellow teenagers, and do a lot of the grunt work myself. I always felt a sense of accomplishment. My father was scared to death I wouldn’t want to go to college. And he was right, I didn’t. But he offered me a deal: one year of college and if I didn’t like it, I could return to my landscaping work.
So I went to college and loved it and never returned to landscaping. But I have been in a vocation where I do ask myself most days: what have you accomplished today, John? Can you see what you did? Is is measurable? Was it satisfying to you and to others?
I think we all need to be doing something where we can ask those same questions and be satisfied with our answers. And that is why I like mowing the grass every now and then.
When I was younger, but an adult, I had a father-in-law. He was a humble, old-fashioned carpenter who built homes and other things made out of wood to make people happy, primarily women. He was probably the most content man I have ever met—that is content with his vocation and therefore with everything else. Every day he could see what he had done. Every day he pleased someone with his work, who would live with that work for years and be satisfied with it every day. My step son chose to follow in this man’s footsteps, and after finishing his BA (which I made him pursue just as my father did me) he became a carpenter, which he continues now 21 years later.
I like to think I am a carpenter who occasionally mows grass. I build things (in the world of higher education) that last and that please people. And they and I live well for years afterward with what I helped build for them.
We can all aspire to that. You have to keep asking: “What did I accomplish today?”

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