Commitment to Excellence: A Freshmen Orientation Address

Every year at Terra Firma, I give students a brief greeting and remind them of a special event that’s coming up on Wednesday:  “CLASSES.”  So what can I say to help prepare you for the real world of college, once the trips to the beach are over?  I think the best thing I can do is try to boil college down to the basic question:  Why are you here at Cornerstone?

Here are some secondary reasons to go to college:

-          To prepare for a career

-          To develop friendships

-          To find a spouse

-          To grow spiritually

-          To apply a Christian worldview to all of life

-          To “change the world”

While these are good reasons to go to college, the primary reason is simpler:  To become excellent.  That sounds a little vague, though, so let me use a Youtube video of a biker, Danny McKaskill, to explain what I mean.

So what do we learn from this video?  First, God’s creation is full of beauty, despite its fallenness.  Even if Danny McKaskill were not doing crazy things on his bike in this video, it would be worth watching simply for the scenes of the Scottish landscape, bridges, houses, and the little red phone booth.  Christians refer to that as the intrinsic goodness of creation, and we’ll talk about it more later in the semester.

Furthermore, beyond its own beauty, God created the world as a platform for human excellence.  God created us, not bears or dolphins, in his image, and he intended for us to enjoy his creation and make something of it.  For someone like Danny McKaskill, that may mean filling in the canvas of God’s world with incredible feats on a bike.  You may not be able to bounce off of walls on a bike, but God has wired you to be passionate about something and has given you the ability to decorate his creation with something so extraordinary that others will be amazed at what you achieve.  So here are some implications: 

1. The purpose of college is to discover and develop the particular passion and ability that God has given you.

I don’t mean a career—this is something bigger and deeper than that.  It’s what we call your “vocation” in life.  For example, when I was a college student, I discovered that I loved learning, and I loved to make difficult concepts understandable to my fellow students.  My “vocation,” broadly speaking was learning.  But that has resulted in various careers such as being a graduate student, a history professor, a writer, and an academic administrator.

Or maybe you love stories—whether it’s seeing them in film, reading them, creating them, or telling them to others.  God may have gifted you in a vocation called “Story-Telling.”  That vocation could propel you into a variety of careers such as journalism, film-making, or even graphic design.  Or perhaps you’re wired to care deeply about people and to help fix their brokenness.  Your vocation may be Healing, but that could lead you to a wide variety of different careers.

At Cornerstone, we certainly hope you have a productive career.  But we’re more concerned about preparing you for vocation than for a career—to helping you find and discover that particular thing that you can do with excellence that will be your gift to God and the world. 

2. Excellence, not mediocrity, changes the world.

I do a lot of biking, but no one notices when I ride a bike.  They do when Danny McKaskill rides.  Consider these symbols and the impact they have on our lives (Facebook and Apple).  Why are they so influential?  Because they represent products and ideas that work, and they work so well that people are naturally drawn to them.

At Cornerstone, we talk a lot about “influencing the world for Christ,” and we’re serious about that.  But influencing culture often is best done indirectly rather than directly.  Consider Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most influential composers of all time.  Bach didn’t set out to influence the world of music; he set out to write excellent music that glorified God.  One writer has said this about Bach:

When human beings are functioning at the heights of human capacity, it is a good idea to begin by assuming that they are doing something right.  Johann Sebastian Bach does not need to explain himself; the beauty and excellence of his music itself make a case that his way of looking at the universe needs to be taken seriously.

So in other words:  If you want to change the world, don’t try to change the world.  Try to be excellent, and changing the world will follow.

 3. Excellence is hard work.

I’m sure that Danny McKaskill has some innate abilities such as a good sense of balance, hand-eye coordination, and naturally strong legs.  But if you were to ask him how he does such amazing things with his bike, he would tell you that in addition to being willing to inflict damage on his body, he spends a lot of time on a bike.

An author by the name of Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book recently called “Outliers.”  In it he studied people who had achieved great things—people from Bill Gates to the Beatles.  He concluded with what he called the “10,000 hours rule”:  that people who achieve excellence typically do so by practicing a particular task for around 10,000 hours.  Now whether you count the number of hours or not, the basic principle is pretty obvious to anyone who has tried to learn piano or play golf:  Time on task is the most important factor in achieving excellence in any field.

Which brings me to your first semester in college.  You will have plenty of things competing for your time and attention in the coming months, and I hope that you have as great a time in college as I did.  But let me also remind you that the primary purpose of college is learning, and learning takes time.  Let me be more specific:  You should plan to spend two hours outside of class preparing for every hour in class.  That’s what your professors will expect of you.

So here’s some Time Management 101 to start your college year:

One week:  168 hours

Class:  15 hours

Studies:  30 hours

Total for academics:  45 hours (a full-time job)

Sleep:  53 hours

70 Hours remaining (10 hours a day):  work, play, eating, resting, dating, church, Facebook, chapel, tooth-brushing, Angry Birds, etc.

In other words, God was thoughtful enough to create the seven-day week with enough time in it for you to both excel in your studies and enjoy college, if you use your time well.  Success in college is less a result of intelligence than it is effort and maturity.  If you’re here, you are smart enough to make it.  Achieving excellence at Cornerstone will depend on your ability to discipline yourself and set priorities.  Playing Guitar Hero until 2:00 a.m. won’t cut it.

 4. Excellence requires mentors

Here’s an area where bike stunts don’t apply very well.  I doubt that Danny McKaskill learned to jump off a bridge on his bike by watching someone else do it; most of us have more common sense than that.  But chances are, if you’re going to develop your particular area of excellence as a college student, it’s going to be through the influence and instruction of a Cornerstone professor—someone who not only cares about you as a person but who is willing to push you and challenge you to achieve your potential.

Bach mastered music not by hiding out in the forest and writing fugues, but by years of instruction and apprenticeship at his family’s church in Eisenach, Germany.  In other words, excellence is usually learned in community.  I still remember my Bible professor at Moody Bible Institute, who not only instructed me in how to write a research paper on Isaiah, but who wrote me a personal note encouraging me to pursue academics as a career.  I didn’t become a Bible professor, but I did end up in the vocation of Learning largely through his influence.

Cornerstone hires professors to be mentors as well as teachers.  I would encourage you not only to listen to your professors in class, but to visit them in their office.  Find a faculty mentor who can exemplify excellence in your field and equip you to excel.

So to conclude, let me offer this encouragement:  You may not be able to ride a bike off a cliff; but God has created you with the ability to do something extraordinary.  I hope that you have come to Cornerstone willing to do the difficult but rewarding work to discover that gift, to develop it, and to use it to transform the world around you.

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