Takeaways From An Evening With Gus Speth

This past Thursday evening, I was fortunate to be in the audience of Dean Crane’s leadership seminar, live-tweeting the week’s eminent guest, former F&ES Dean Gus Speth. I had gone to see him give a lecture before, back in 2012 while I was a senior in college, while he was on tour promoting his book Bridge At the End Of the World. Since then, he has continued on the path that many consider “radical,” advocating for a metamorphosis of our current consumerist economy into something that will work toward, not against, a sustainable future. Those in attendance were extremely enthusiastic to have our former dean back at Yale; for those who saw our F&ES’ers at the Climate March, our t-shirts actually had his face on them!

The lecture he gave was in two parts. First, he reflected on his journey to the point he is at now, discussing the roles he believes that luck and “blessings in disguise” (a.k.a. not getting the job you thought you wanted at the time) have ended up playing in his ultimate success. For the second half, he discussed his economic and environmental ideas that began with Bridge At the End of the World and continued to gain form in Red Sky At Morning. The session concluded with a fairly lengthy Q&A session between Gus and the students in attendance, which was refreshing because so often the portion of a lecture or panel where audience interaction happens tends to get cut short due to time constraints.

For purposes of this post, I will just dwell briefly on what left the biggest impressions on me as a future F&ES grad/environmental leader. First, the path to finding one’s niche isn’t always easy, and I appreciated the credit he gave to the role of luck in his journey. We all know the hard work that goes into being successful, but sometimes it’s just the unexpected opportunity that pops up, or the different path we uncertainly begin to take when a door closes in our face, that actually turn out to be what comes to define our careers and contributions to society. I can relate so much to this on a personal level, since beyond all the hard work I have put in to do well in school and my internships, there have also been so many serendipitous events in my life. For example, a professor in law school reaching out to me to be his research assistant ended up starting one of the greatest mentoring relationships I’ve ever had, and uncovered my passion for land use and sustainable development law. And actually, if that hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t have even decided to apply to the F&ES joint degree program!

The other poignant moment came after a few hardballs thrown by audience members about whether F&ES prepares students enough to question the current socioeconomic regime we live in, and how better to gain the skills needed to work toward a new system. Gus frankly admitted that he wished he had done more during his time as Dean to do so, but that he would have to defer to Dean Crane as to the present day state of the school. Dean Crane made a brief comment, with which Gus agreed, that actually really resonated with me. He said that he hopes the school gives students what they need no matter what path they choose; that some will work to pursue change by working within the system, while others will do so by working outside the system.

For a long time, I’d thought that I wanted to work for a more extreme environmental advocacy group of some kind. But after my experiences, I’ve learned that my personality is much better for working “inside” the system. I have the utmost respect for those who are active advocates, protestors, and boundary-pushers, whatever the scale they are operating at. These are brilliant and passionate leaders that we need in the world (ever more urgently as the threat of climate change looms), and I can see that many of my fellow classmates are destined to be great ones. Yet, I think leaders just as devoted to moving the world forward can be found within organizations, working to make the changes needed to adapt to an uncertain future.  It was refreshing to hear two Deans of F&ES agreeing – one who has gone on to be so “radical,” and one who is admittedly still firmly within “the system” – that there are (at least) two approaches to being a leader and creating change, and neither is the only one that is right.

I’ll close with an inspiring quote from Gus Speth on following your dreams: “You need to be confident, maybe a little arrogant, maybe a little bit crazy. But most of all, you need to be optimistic and just go for it!”