Rational Cause for Optimism

Rational Cause for Optimism: A Message for 2022 Graduates

Shared Destiny Has Become Humanity’s Greatest Opportunity

This commencement speech was given by Phil Coupe to the graduating class of Baxter Academy in Portland, Maine, on June 4th, 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Love is the single most important word you need to know in life, so I wanted to say it first. Students and teachers, congratulations on all you’ve accomplished. We can’t thank you educators enough for nurturing society’s most precious resource, which is you students.

Besides the fact that we love you, do you students know why you are so important? It’s because you will soon be carrying our hopes and dreams for the better future we know is possible, along with your own ideas for the kind of world in which you want to live.

Wow, that’s a lot for you to carry, but we know how strong you are because you’ve already survived the worst pandemic in 100 years while doing whatever it took to graduate high school. It’s hard, right? You’ve experienced Covid-19, you’ve seen the horrors of war in Ukraine and unrelenting gun violence in America. You’ve witnessed hunger, homelessness, and hopelessness, just like generations of students that came before you.

Modern society can be overwhelming, but it’s also true that every one of us has superpowers to help us cope and ensure we can carry whatever weight might fall upon our shoulders as we learn and grow, as we fall down and get back up, as we battle injustice, as we love one another and ourselves. Life is often really hard, and it hurts sometimes, but this is what makes us stronger, and helps us discover our ability to help ourselves and ultimately, others. And that’s really the greatest opportunity in life: to nurture oneself such that we have capacity to help others, all in pursuit of a better self and society.

Helping Others

BaxterPhil2-768x576-1.jpgIn my life, the words of the famous speaker Zig Zigler have been unfailingly true: You Can Get Everything You Want in Life if You Help Other People Get What They Want.

Here’s an example of what Zig meant. I wanted to get into the solar industry but had no relevant experience. So instead of blindly starting a company, or applying for a job with no qualifications, I decided to help schools get solar power as a way to teach students about clean energy and to save money for the schools. Once I started trying to help schools get solar, I suddenly found myself building positive connections with solar companies and school superintendents. Within a year I was in discussions with a couple engineers who eventually became my fellow co-founders of ReVision Energy.

This begs two important questions: what do you want in life? And what kind of world do you want to live in? With love, tenacity and a willingness to help others, we have to fight for a life worth living, and a world in which to do it. At today’s scale of 8 billion people globally, civilization has necessarily become a team sport whereby everyone needs to contribute to the continuous improvement of our ourselves and those around us.

Never Give Up, Never Quit

Travis-and-Coupes-768x1024.jpgThe Japanese have a term for this idea of always trying to make things better. The word is Kaizen, which literally means “continuous improvement.” Let me tell you about Staff Sargent Travis Mills. He was on patrol during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan when he set his backpack down on a land mine that blew off most of his arms and legs. When the excruciating pain from nerve damage and unimaginable surgeries became unbearable, Travis decided he was Never Going to Give Up and Never Quit because he didn’t want his beloved infant daughter to lose her dad.

(Pictured right: Philip Coupe, Travis Mills, and Dmitri Coupe last weekend at the Miles for Mills Race.)

Today Travis walks and drives a car with two carbon fiber legs, one prosthetic arm and one shoulder stump. I know this because I was very nervous when he initially told me to hop into the passenger seat of his truck – but he was a great driver. Instead of self-pitying the worst wounds ever survived by a soldier, Travis has chosen to Kaizen what is left of his physical body, and to deliver Kaizen opportunities for others with extreme challenges. Instead of deciding he was crippled for life, he got busy creating a retreat for wounded warriors in Augusta called the Travis Mills Foundation that is helping hundreds of veterans find peace and healing.

shackletons-expedition-to-the-antarctic-ice-hole-on-elephant-island-where-the.jpgHere’s one more example, which occurred in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1917 when the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed his ship Endurance to Antarctica in an attempt to be the first to traverse the south pole. Soon after arriving at the coast of Antarctica, the Endurance and its 27 sailors became hopelessly stuck in pack ice. Considered one of the greatest human survival stories of all time, Shackleton and a few of his men sailed a small lifeboat 800 grueling miles across the roughest seas on the planet to get back to their original launch point, but their skiff was tossed onto the rocks on the wrong side of an island and they had to scale a 10,000-foot mountain range in winter to get help. Then they sailed 800 miles back to rescue the rest of their team. Never Give Up, Never Quit.

Heroes Like You

I’m telling you about people like Travis Mills and Ernest Shackleton because they are just like you and me except for the fact that when presented with colossal challenges, they rose to the occasion with uncommon grace and fortitude. These are the kinds of heroes that give me strength when I’m struggling to deal with the challenges of running a business that’s trying solve one of humanity’s biggest problems.

Confronting the negative impact of 8 billion people burning fossil fuels in earth’s closed atmosphere feels like a David vs. Goliath battle every day.

But when I’m feeling overwhelmed or depressed by the sheer magnitude of it all, I draw immense strength and rejuvenation from people like Travis Mills and Ernest Shackleton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jacinda Ardern, the extraordinary woman who became prime minister of New Zealand at age 37.

The common thread shared by these people is their humanity, and how well they understood the assignment about doing whatever it takes to help others while making the world a better place. No, we can’t all be superheroes like these folks, but we can decide for ourselves what it is we want in this world, and if we’re smart we’ll help a bunch of other people get what they want.

And if we have to pick one single thing to focus on with the same relentlessness with which Martin Luther King Jr. pursued a better future for his people and generations to come, that one thing is LOVE.