Commencement speech: “The Imperative of Providence”

Goshen College commencement speaker Joyce Bontrager Lehman told graduates to make bold choices and not to be afraid to make career- and life-altering changes.
Goshen College commencement speaker Joyce Bontrager Lehman told graduates to make bold choices and not to be afraid to make career- and life-altering changes.


Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Joyce Bontrager Lehman, at the 116th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 27, 2014

President Brenneman, Academic Dean, Faculty, Parents, Friends and Graduates:  It’s good to be back at Goshen – this place inadvertently played a pivotal role in my life some 17 years ago. Thank you, Mr. President, for the invitation and the introduction.

I’m going to tell you about that time because it leads into what I really want to say which is about making decisions – to do or not to do, to go or to stay, to take a chance, to chase after an opportunity or to stay put. You made the decision to come here and you have now finished this part of your life journey. But the decisions ahead are just beginning – there will be many, including those that result from NOT deciding.

In the space of a few months in the early 1990’s everything in my life changed. After working at one CPA firm for 10 years, I decided to leave and start a brand new practice with a colleague, my two children no longer lived at home and were off to university and beyond, and I was suddenly single. It would have been a perfect time to reinvent myself – move to a new place and do something different – start over. But I had just started this new accounting practice, signed on to a large bank loan and had new employees who depended on me; I could not disappear less than a year after making these very real commitments. So while one part of me knew I needed to stay, another part extracted a promise: that after 5 years of work to give this new venture a chance for success, I would have permission to leave.

Fast-forward five years – things were going well, the bank loan repaid, an associate both the potential and ambition to be my successor. And I was ready to go, except that I had no idea where to go or what to do. In my first career, I was a high school math teacher and now had 15 years’ experience in finance and accounting, I had taken three years of night classes in Boston to complete a graduate degree. I had real skills and believed I could do whatever I wanted – if only I could figure out what that was.

It wasn’t that I was in a bad situation – I wasn’t. Life was good in many ways – business was good, I had great friends, I was active in my community, I liked working with my clients. It was just that I had such a strong sense that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my work life, and that nagging feeling would not go away.

I lived with this unsettledness for more than a year, talked to friends, met with a counselor and tried to find a way forward. Then came the moment in July 1997 when my desk phone rang. “Hey Joyce, its Len Geiser here from Goshen College – are you ready for a career change?”  Len was never one to beat around the bush, but even he had no idea what this meant for me. A member of the business faculty left to join the administration here and they needed to replace him – in a month – and Len needed an answer.

I agreed to call him the next day, but before I hung up the phone I knew what I would say. I told my partner I needed a sabbatical. “Are you coming back?” he asked.  “I don’t know,” I said.  I called Len to say that I would come for one year and that would give them time to conduct a proper search – one that incidentally led to Professor Horning’s appointment.

In the space of a few weeks, I wrote a letter to my clients, resigned my seat on the City Council, rented my condominium, organized housing and headed west. By the time I crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont and beyond, I knew I would never go back to the accounting practice.  What I did not know is what lay ahead. I was living one year at a time, driven by an imperative to commit, and it was movement.


So what does this have to do with you, and decision-making?  You live in a new world.  You are the Millennials – the fourth of broadly defined generations in the US.  There was the Greatest Generation, then the Baby Boomers, Generation X and now you Millennials, also known as Generation Y and alternatively described as the “Flux” Generation or the “Peter Pan” generation.

You are the first to grow up with a computer in your home – you have distinctly different behaviors, values and attitudes as a result of social media, smartphones, mobile computing and other new technologies. Notice I did not say better or worse, just different. And that computer you grew up with? It’s now as obsolete as a land line phone and white pages.

You are entering a chaotic job market following the financial crises and will make many job changes and several career changes in your life. You have turned professional networking into an art form and yet have high expectations for advancement, salaries and professional mentoring relationships.

You will delay the traditional rites of passage into adulthood – foregoing early marriages and mortgages – and you will in fact redefine what it means to be an “adult.” It will be about personal abilities and characteristics rather than about having a “real job” or being “settled down” and yes, it may drive your parents crazy. This is not their world. And to some extent, you are delaying this transition in response to seeing earlier generations unhappy in marriages or stuck in careers.  You want it all, but you want to do it right and on your own time.

You have been described by sociologists as more confident and more tolerant, optimistic, engaged and team players. You are the most racially diverse generation – 43% of you are non-white. Others say you are narcissistic, have a sense of entitlement and seek instant gratification. Only one third of you self-describe as religious. You will not only seek new employment on line, you will also seek your life partner.

You may think: “Wait … It may be my generation, but this is not me.” Perhaps not, but it will be the people you work with or live with and compete with.  You may be super-planners and follow the sentiment of the now outdated song lyrics that said “In the first third of your life, you choose your faith, your work, your wife.” (To say “Spouse” or “Partner” would be more appropriate, but it doesn’t rhyme.) If you are that super-planner, I truly wish you well. I am not saying it is a bad thing.  I’m saying that the pieces are not all likely to sustain, and you would do well to be mentally prepared for the unexpected.  As Steve Jobs told the Stanford graduates in what I consider to be the best commencement speech ever given, “You cannot connect the dots of your life going forward; you can only connect them backwards.”  And here I have a distinct advantage over you – I have a lot of backward dots to connect.

Some of you – and maybe all of your parents – may see this picture as a depressing world view because of all the uncertainties, but I hope not, because I certainly do not. In fact, I envy you the possibilities, opportunities and even the challenges that I know this presents at this stage of your life.  45 years ago when man first walked on the moon, it was a remarkable achievement, but that will pale in comparison with what you will experience in the next 45, and that is exhilarating. When I graduated from college, a woman had three career choices – teacher, nurse, secretary – and most women didn’t aspire to a career at all – often just working long enough to get their husbands established in their careers. Now you have Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In” saying that the most important career decision a woman can make is in her choice of a life partner. Whether that resonates with you or not, it speaks to the complexity of juggling two careers with household and family care, if indeed you make those choices at all. Even with all that, if given a choice I would take your world in a heartbeat.


But this world still requires a framework to help navigate through all the decisions and there are three pieces of that which I have found useful: that of Passion, Courage and Patience.


Do what you love. Hang on to your dreams. Follow your bliss. Clichés, I know and like me, you may not be sure what that is, especially if it requires earning a livelihood while doing it.  But I’m guessing each of you has within you some one thing that you hope to be able to do in your life either sooner or later.  Whatever it is, don’t lose sight of it, and when the time is right…make the commitment … even if it is only a commitment to be open to unknown opportunities. Goethe said, “When one is committed, then Providence moves too.”

When the Peace Corps was established in the early 1960s, I thought the opportunity to travel to new and unfamiliar places and do good work very appealing. But that was not an option for me at the time, and the limited choices I had took me in a different direction.

I can’t honestly say with a straight face that I was passionate about public accounting or even business in general. I do not have the entrepreneurial spirit that I’m sure some of you have.  But without that time of preparation, I would not be able to do the work I am doing now and it is work that I do indeed feel passionate about – that of finding or enabling business solutions to global poverty.

Since you chose to study here at Goshen with its core values and global perspective, it follows that many of you want to find a way to be of service to the global community.  The disciplines of education or health or social services are easily connected to a life of “service”, but not enough attention is paid to the need for the skills and discipline of students of business, management, accounting, or information technology. So here’s a shout out to you.

First of all, every organization on the planet needs someone with your skills to help them do their work more efficiently and effectively.  But it is also true that the private sector must be part of the solution to many of the most vexing global problems, whether disease or food supply, the environment or financial services. There will never be enough government aid money or philanthropic capital to solve these problems. The private sector must also participate and that requires people with both the skills and passion to move it forward.

And I’m not talking about businesses giving their profits; I’m talking about finding market solutions that improve the lives and opportunities of the global poor. I have had a lot of people – both young and not so young – ask me how they can prepare to do what I do. When I tell them to study business or become an accountant, I can read the disappointment in their faces and the conversation is soon over. So they should NOT aspire to do what I do, but rather find something they both want to do and want to become at doing – passion and preparation.  And that can take courage.


When I was trying to figure out my next move I spoke with a friend who reinvented herself every 5-10 years.  She would quit what seemed to be a really great job and move on to something completely different. I knew enough about her finances to know that she was not wealthy, that she needed a regular paycheck.  I took her to lunch and asked how she was able to make those decisions. “Why do you ask?”  I told her and advice was to take a year off. “You need time to think and figure out what you really want to do.”  “But I can’t do that” “Why not?” Because I need a paycheck – I still had a mortgage and tuition bills.  She thought for a moment and said “I have found that financial barriers are false barriers – people use money as an excuse to NOT do what they really want.” When I continued to protest, she said “OK then, forget the fact that you don’t think you can do it, tell me this…how it sounds to you?”  “Are you kidding, I would love to be able to do that.”  “Well then, she said, FIGURE IT OUT!” and she got up and left me sitting alone in the restaurant, clearly tired of hearing all my excuses of why I could not do something I really wanted to do.

A lot of decisions are NOT made because of fear – financial fears, fear of uncertain consequences, fear of failure, or even the most irrational fear of what people with think.  Bold decisions take courage, and it’s not easy to walk through one open door without knowing exactly where it will lead. I understand that many people are not comfortable with ambiguity, but sometimes the movement in of itself is the most important first step and the most courageous. “When one is committed, then Providence moves too.”


So its fine to talk about passion and courage, but an equally important piece is preparation – and that takes time.  You may be the generation of “instant gratification”, but I’m still going to talk about patience. I’m not suggesting that you wait until your mid-50s to make a move like I did, but it is very important to take the time to prepare. Luck, or Providence (which I prefer) happens at the intersection of opportunity and preparation. You need to be good at what it is you want to do, and according to Malcolm Gladwell, it’s the 10,000-hour rule from his book “The Outliers.” That’s about 5 years’ worth of 40-hour work weeks and he says that’s the time it takes to become an expert. I’ve met many people who think they can get to be experts much more quickly.

Patience is also required at those times when well-laid plans do not work.  We all know life can change in an instant – sometimes in a good way, but most often not.  The test is not how to try to keep these events from happening – because we can’t. I don’t care how many precautions we take – from airport security to hand sanitizers and everything in between – we simply can never be fully protected from harm or misfortune. It is rather how we respond when unforeseen events do occur, and they will occur, and it is about how to see the new opportunities that can now come your way that would never have occurred to you before.


A counselor I spoke with described my situation as “chaotic.”  You are in chaos, she said – apparently that’s a technical term in the counseling profession – and it is impossible for any person to stay in chaos.  You will either break through to a new place or retreat to what is familiar and safe, even if it is not where you want to be. Most people, she said, do have other aspirations but retreat to the safe and the familiar.  She is the one who gave me the Goethe quote that has become my personal mantra and says in part:

“Unless one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw bank, always ineffectiveness.   But the moment one definitely commits, then Providence moves too, and all manner of events that no one could have dreamt will come his or her way.

There are people who talk of trying to discern the will of God in making decisions. I was never able to figure out how that was even possible, but I’m thinking it may in fact be the reverse – that Providence is waiting for our commitment and then will move to support us in our decisions. For me, it’s more about faith than about discernment.

At the end of my one year at Goshen, I still had no plan for what to do next and stayed on one more year to fill in for a faculty member on sabbatical.  In the fall of that year I crossed paths with a friend who worked at MEDA, the Mennonite Economic Development Associates.  She said “I thought you would be back in New Hampshire by now.”  “No, I sold the practice to my partner – I burned that bridge.” “So what’s next?” I didn’t know. “You should work for MEDA.” Really?
“We’re looking for people with a finance background.” It wasn’t the Peace Corps, but close enough, and I did join the MEDA staff.

All the rest of what I’ve done in the last 15 years have followed sequentially from that moment, all of which involved events and opportunities that I could not have dreamt would come my way.


So whatever it is – to start your own business, find a cure for malaria, become a master teacher, take your family on a trip around the world, climb a mountain, run a marathon, write a novel, travel in space, invent the next big thing – the possibilities are endless. Go for it with passion, with courage, and with the patience required for preparation.

Figure it out. Commit. And Providence will move.

Thank you very much and Congratulations.