Decision-Making 101

Young graduates are so inspiring. They remind me of a lesson I learned from one of my own professors...

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Posted in , May 31, 2013

Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan and his dog, Millie

This is the time when you see young men and women flowing proudly through the streets in their graduation garb. It’s one of the most inspiring sights I know.

I say congratulations whenever I get a chance. We all should because we’re looking at the future and the future looks bright this time of year.

My own graduations are pretty well fixed in my memory, but one stands out, not because of the ceremony itself but because of what happened a few days earlier when one of my professors, Professor Howard Wolowitz, called me into his office.

Dr. Wolowitz was a brilliant psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Michigan who taught an advanced course in psychopathology that was only open to psych majors, pre-med students and the like. English majors like me needed special permission to join the class. Apart from my interest in learning what makes people tick, my roommate, a psych major who had taken the course, told me that Professor Wolowitz mixed in some literature with all the clinical reading. He applied psychoanalytic theory to Greek tragedy, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Eugene O’Neill’s classic play A Long Day’s Journey into Night, which Wolowitz used to demonstrate the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. 

I wrote to Professor Wolowitz and told him I was a writer and believed his course would help me understand human nature. I got in.

“The class is really hard, even for psych majors,” my roommate warned me. “It’ll kill your grade point.”

At the time I wasn’t willing to damage my GPA—or my pride—simply to understand human psychology better, so I took the class pass/fail. It was a first. I’d always gone for the grade. I was proud of my average.

I loved the class. I aced the midterm and final and wrote a pretty good critical analysis of Long Day’s Journey. On the last page Wolowitz scrawled, “Come see me when the semester is over.”

Which was how I found myself on a hot May day sitting in his cluttered office, my eye roaming over all the books he managed to fit in there, and all the ones with his name on them.

He asked me a few questions about my paper, complimented me on my work and said that I was one of the best non-psych majors he’d ever had.

“I think you’ll be a good writer,” he said, “unless you want to become a therapist.”

I told him I’d stick to writing, then asked him a question: Since I’d done so well, would he mind switching my grade from P to A?

The expression on his face told me I’d asked one of the dumbest questions of my life. Then he smiled and shook his head, “Maybe you didn’t learn as much in my class as I thought,” he said. I was about to scurry away in shame when he added, “We all make choices in life. The question is, can you live with your choices? You should be happy with the work you did. You should be proud of yourself, not of your grade.”

That was it. I was dismissed. But a few days later, decked out in my cap and gown, his words still echoed, more than the words of our exalted commencement speaker, Yale president Kingman Brewster (little did I know I would be attending his university in a couple of years!).

So this time of year I remember my old professor and want to tell all the graduates: Be happy with the work you did and be proud of yourself. You made the right choice.

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