“There is no actual harm in making Niagara a background whereon to display one’s marvelous insignificance in a good strong light, but it requires a sort of superhuman self-complacency to enable one to do it.”

  • Mark Twain

When he visited Niagara Falls in 1871, Twain gave a ringing endorsement of the spectacle of the falls and a hilarious description of the tourist experience there. The excerpt, quoted above, is the memorable essence and a worthy reminder to everyone who travels for pleasure. These words came back to me on a trip to the Pacific Northwest that ended with two volcanoes and a dam.

Mount Saint Helens was the first volcano. It blew up in May 1980, devastated about 100 square miles of forest and killed 60 people. Seen 27 years later, the area six miles from the crater looks like a moonscape—denuded of vegetation except for scrub weeds and the occasional sickly pine trying to make a go of it. Beyond the six mile radius you see the trunks of trees fallen in dense heaps and all pointing in the same direction, away from the volcano. Rivers in the vicinity show islands and high banks of mud formed by the rapid melting of glaciers that once existed on top of the volcano. Seismic activity in the area suggests that Mount Saint Helens is not finished expressing itself.

Mount Hood is a dormant volcano that dominates the skyline of western Oregon. No one seems especially concerned that this “mount” is a volcano. We saw skiers in t-shirts and shorts on the high snow-pack of this peak. The US Geodetic Survey estimates the chance of an eruption of Mount Hood at three to seven percent sometime over the next 30 years. The view of the Cascade Range from Timberline Lodge halfway up was breathtaking.

Finally, we visited Bonneville Dam in the thousand-foot gorge of the Columbia River. The basin that feeds the river is massive, covering five U.S. states and a Canadian province. By the time that water reaches the gorge, it is a torrent. One needs little imagination to conclude that this spot would be ideal for one of the biggest hydroelectric projects in the U.S. Ever enjoying operational tours, we followed a guide into the power plant. The huge scale of the turbines and generators is impressive. A nearby fish ladder and hatchery display salmon on their way upstream to spawn, and massive sturgeons that live in the river. When the dam was opened in 1937, it was hooted as an unnecessary project. Today, it and some 209 other dams in the Columbia River basin generate some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

One could go on and on about these visits. But I hope you get the point, they create the sensation of Twain’s “marvelous insignificance.” We are all part of something larger. Note that Twain did not say “marvelous irrelevance”—we can make a difference in the grand scheme of things. But the world and its ongoing development are not primarily about us individually. It really isn’t about “me”, it is about us collectively.

Tomorrow, Darden will launch the first year of its MBA-Full Time program. We attract extraordinarily talented students who bring high hopes and ambitions to their studies. Our program succeeds when students really start to live the fact that they are part of something larger: great learning teams, great sections, great clubs, and great living groups. Leaders of all kinds embrace a vision of something larger, enlist others around that vision, and exercise good social awareness—Darden’s learning experience strengthens all of these attributes.

To the entering class of 2009, I bid you to consider the perspective from two volcanoes and a very large dam: you can achieve great things individually, but it begins with an awareness of your potential contribution to the wider world. To realize your ambitions for “me” you need to embrace the possibilities for the wider field of us. In Twain’s terms, one’s individual insignificance can be “marvelous” when it ultimately yields a greater capacity to lead all of us.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/18/2007 03:19:34 PM