Be your own wolf

Gray wolf running in the snow.

If your high school asked you to come back and be the guest speaker at commencement, what would you say?  Well, here’s what I came up with for Marion Center Area High School’s class of 2014:

Good evening, Marion Center! Congratulations, Class of 2014! It is such an honor to be here, thank you for inviting me to speak to you at this momentous occasion.

Ever since Mr. Betts {environmental science teacher} asked me to be your commencement speaker back in January, I’ve been thinking about you all and this night and what it means to you. And wondering, what can I share with you that can help you find your way, what profound piece of {Julia Child voice:} wisdom can I pontificate that will enlighten and inspire you? {regular voice:} But then I thought about when I sat where you are sitting twelve years ago. And I realized, two things: first, you and I were in fact enrolled at Marion Center Area School District at the same time. It’s true—you might have been kindergarteners, and me a senior, but that still counts for something. And the second thing I realized was, I have no clue who the commencement speaker was when I graduated high school OR college, let alone what either of them said. So I decided I didn’t need to worry about {Julia Child voice} pontificating and enlightening and instead I’m going to briefly (we all know why we’re really here, {whisper} they’re graduating) explain the one thing that I’ve kinda figured out that might help you.

I could paraphrase what I’m about to explain by simply saying “follow your hearts” or “shoot for the stars”. Those are nice, but they’re so over-used they have essentially lost all meaning, right? So instead I offer this 2 step plan (oh and no need to take notes, folks, because there won’t be a test, SWEET!) :

1) find your passion, and

2) follow it, but really, scratch that, don’t just follow it—chase it down like a wolf on the hunt.

Neither step is easy, my young grasshoppers. For the first step, some of you may have already found your passion, and that’s great. For others, it may take several more years to find your passion, and you, like me, might have to try a few different things along the way.

For me to find my passion, it was like being on a scavenger hunt. I would push myself outside of my comfort zone to go to new places, participate in new experiences, interact with people I didn’t know. The first such experience that helped me really see the direction my passion was headed, was in one of Mr. Betts’ classes. I would come home from school and talk about this class so much that my parents still remember to this day that class’s name—Web of Life. And with each new experience like that, there would be some element, sometimes big, sometimes small, that would really speak to the essence of ME, that would light up something inside me, and I’d say to myself “Oh that’s fascinating—I can do that for a living—whoa?!” These would be things like: the joy of working with brilliant people who are also passionate about what they do, or realizing that I want a job that allows me to work outside.

Along my journey I’d continually ask myself this question, “in 10, 20, 30, years down the road, when I wake up in the morning and it’s dark and cold outside, will I be excited to get up and do what I do?” Similarly, at the end of the day will I be pleased with the tiny contribution to the world I’ve made that day, that year, at the end of those 10, 20, 30 years? If the answer is yes, then you are on the right track.

I’ve continued to amass these clues along my grand scavenger hunt to find my specific passion. And now I’m in step 2: chase your passion like a wolf on the hunt. At first I was just a wee wolf leaving the den for the first time and I didn’t really know what I was hunting or the best way to catch it. And at first I wasn’t very hungry for it. But with each new experience my ability to see my prey became sharper. Now, I am truly hungry to know

  • how the availability of water for farmers around the world is being affected by climate change,
  • how to manage groundwater—a shared resource that is vital to farmers’ livelihoods as well as the health of streams and rivers, and
  • how carbon and nitrogen cycles are affected by these changes in water use.

This is what fascinates me and gets me excited to get up in the morning and get to work.

Twelve years ago if a palm reader had told me that this was my passion I would have said, “GIRL, YOU CRAZY!” I had no idea that this is what I wanted to do with my life.  These passions—agriculture, water, climate change—might sound really specific or, perhaps, odd but through my myriad experiences trying different things I have found that this hunt, this prey, this area of research brings together a constellation of all the different elements of what I want in my career: it has to do with water in the environment, the production of food, using science to help society, and I get to spend a lot of time working outside. This is my recipe, what are the ingredients to your recipe?

I’m not hunting this prey, this elk, if you will, by myself, I am building my own pack of wolves who help me chase my passion, I have my graduate school advisor and other scientists and mentors I’ve met along my journey, and I’ve always had my mom and dad helping me too. I even have my own little wolf, my dog, Bowie. Who will be a member of your pack? Who will help you chase your passion and who is holding you back?

Wolf packs hunt by running their prey down to exhaustion. Maybe that’s where the phrase “dogged determination” comes from. It ain’t easy and it ain’t pretty. You’re hungry, thirsty, you get confused, there’s a snowstorm, you’re exhausted, you trip and fall, but you get… back… up. I don’t catch my prey every time, I’ve fallen down and gone hungry many a night (figuratively speaking, don’t worry, mom & dad!). You have to realize that failure happens to everyone. PERIOD. If you’re afraid of failing at something, think through what’s really, really the worst that could happen?

A) I fail and get up and try again or try something else OR

B) I don’t try and never know what I could have done but, hey, at least I didn’t fail?

I’ll take A any day of the week. Failure is part of the whole process. You have to fail to find out what you can’t do, what you don’t like to do, to build up resilience & strength, to feel empathy for others, and most importantly to learn from your mistakes.

If I had taken all the times I failed in high school as an indication of what I was capable of, I would not be where I am today. Folks, I wasn’t on the homecoming court, I didn’t go to the prom, and I didn’t get in to my dream college.   I took stock of my failures and my assets, and pursued my passion for science relentlessly. Luckily, being a great scientist doesn’t mean you have to win a beauty pageant or get asked on a date. Instead, I’ve travelled the world and I work with top-notch scientists. I say this not to brag, but to show you how to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and push on.

Another obstacle, besides fear of failure, that might get in the way of chasing your passion is money, right? You’re probably already thinking to yourself, “Let’s get real, Bonnie. We can’t all run off chasing our dreams.” Well, my ability to follow my passions was in no way a product of family wealth. This is something I feel really strongly about and maybe is the most important thing I have to say to you. I refused, refused to let the income bracket I was born into limit my future opportunities. When I decided I wanted to study abroad during college in order to hunt my passions, I took out loans and, later found internships and scholarships that paid me:

  • to go on safari in Kenya and see with my own eyes elephants, wildebeests, lions and all the other wild creatures of the African savannah;
  • to look for the disappearing tree frogs in a remote, mountainous cloud forest in Panama;
  • to sail from Mexico to Tahiti on a sailing ship doing oceanographic research;

I took a risk by going into debt, but those risks have paid off because now I’m doing what I love AND getting paid to get a PhD. I also don’t let the need to earn buckets of money limit what I do. I do not believe that making more and more money brings more and more happiness. Sure, it certainly helps to a point but then it just levels off. Often your passion and earning buckets of money are not the same career. In fact following my passion involved going into debt, like I said. But I also have chosen not to start a family until I’m ready so that I have the time and financial freedom to chase my passion now. This has worked for me, but it may not be what you choose, you have to discover and follow your own path.

In these twelve years since graduating from MC, I’ve found my passion and I’m chasing it wherever it will take me. Now I challenge you to be your own wolf, find your passion and hunt it down. What kind of prey are you hunting, can you see it? Where will your passion take you?

Like I said, you probably won’t remember me or anything I said, but I hope you stay true to yourself and your passion and if you do, you and the world will be all the better for it. Thank you and congratulations.


2 thoughts on “Be your own wolf

  1. Very Inspirational! If you want to see what an old(er) … has accomplished? Read all that I have read! Because, I never sold out! Should you have the courage to continue along your unfolding lifeline–You will inherit the responsibility of leadership (in this century). Perhaps you will experience (some) regrets; But, may I state the obvious? Our Nation remains strong–Because, the sacrifices of a few nourish the many. Visit my Blog @
    Links to my Books are there if you seek additional…
    Best wishes (in all you attempt) — (future scholar? author? activist? Leader!) Best wishes, Ken

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