‘Listen Carefully (in case life happens)’

Winford Gordon, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, presented “Listen Carefully (in Case Life Happens)” at the Last Lecture Series event Friday, Oct. 16. The series annually presents a speaker from the WCU faculty selected by students to answer the question, “If this were your last time to address a group of students, what would you say to them?” His address appears below.

Listen Carefully (in case life happens)

Address by Winford Gordon delivered on Oct. 16, 2009

I must begin with a simple statement of thanks. Because the students selected me and offered me this honor I owe them my heartfelt thanks. The best way I know to express my gratitude is to speak to them. So, this is for them. My “Last Lecture” is for and to the students. 

I am a psychologist and that always affects the way I see the world. However, this won’t be a traditional academic statement describing the most important phenomena or critical theories in psychology. I will speak a bit more broadly. Fair warning, in the end I will offer advice so this could feel a bit like your mom telling you to eat your broccoli and wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a bus.

On the other hand, I am not going to ignore psychology. My field will definitely inform what I have to say, so let’s begin with a psychological phenomenon. Simons and Chabris used a simple but engaging method to demonstrate that we can’t pay attention to everything. They showed a short video in which six people passed two basketballs to one another. After watching these two teams for 45 seconds and counting how many times the three players dressed in white passed the ball people can reliably report how many passes occurred. However, a significant majority of these observers fail to see that a person dressed as a gorilla walked through the middle of the basketball game. Simons concluded that when our attention is directed toward one task, especially a demanding task, we fail to see even very significant events in our world. We are “inattentionally blind” to significant events. This observation is central to my point.

Winford Gordon

Winford Gordon

At this point, I have to admit that I have addressed this idea once before. Earlier in my career, I unexpectedly found myself teaching a Sunday school class about the annunciation. In case you don’t know, the annunciation is when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would conceive and bear a child who would be the son of God and that this would happen while she was a virgin. It took some daring for me to talk about such a pivotal moment in Christian history. As my unchurched background would predict, my Sunday lesson proved to be pretty unconventional.

On the appointed Sunday I began by restating the obvious. Mary responded to the angel’s news by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Most people use her statement as an example of obedience and faithfulness. I argued that this is a crazy way to think about the annunciation. I said that Mary’s agreement was a given.

Consider the day to day existence of a woman in ancient Palestine. Life would have been filled with repetitive, physical labor and oppressive tedium. Day after day, week after week, she faced the same tasks, the same work. Then into this tedium walked an angel. Further, this wasn’t Clarence looking for a set of wings. In religious writing Gabriel is sometimes called the “highest angel.” Thus, Mary, used to a tedious life of labor, suddenly finds herself listening to a spectacular heavenly being. Is she really going to say, “Thanks for dropping by, but I think I will pass?”

For me the lesson of the annunciation wasn’t one of awe at Mary’s faithfulness. How could she not listen to Gabriel’s message? She received a message that could not be ignored from a messenger who could not be missed. What could she possibly say except for yes? The lesson for me was that, unlike Mary, the messages in our lives are often subtle and easy to miss. Wouldn’t it be great if all of the messages and lessons of our lives were as obvious as a gorilla in a basketball game and came to us from angels? Unfortunately, they are not obvious and we don’t have angels for messengers. Thus, we have to listen carefully.

However, listening carefully is hard and that is what I want you to consider. To prompt your thinking I will start with two stories from my own life. These were times when I managed to listen and hear important things. I don’t know how often I have missed important messages but I fear it has happened too frequently. I don’t want you to miss life’s lessons so I will close with some advice about what makes it hard for you to hear life’s lessons.

LESSON 1 – Many voices can speak one message

In 1997 I was the faculty leader of a 1,882 mile, three-and-a-half month environmental outreach expedition that traveled by kayak from Transylvania County, North Carolina, to the ocean at the end of the Mississippi River. There are many things that I could tell you about this trip, but I want to focus on the story of the last day.

On our last day, as we paddled the last eight miles to the ocean, we were headed into a big winter storm. We paddled our kayaks due east into 4-foot waves and into a 20- to 30-mph wind. The air might have reached the low 40s, and the rain that fell was mixed with sleet. That day each one of us at one moment or another had the same thought.

“This is really stupid!”

“I have paddled 1,878 miles. I don’t need to go 4 more to prove anything to anyone.”

But on this last day, when we felt doubt, something interesting happened. We looked at the people with whom we had spent the last three and a half months and realized that we couldn’t quit. One glance reminded us that we had to keep going into the cold, into the waves and into the wind until we reached the ocean.

On that last day, we succeeded as a group. This should not be news to anyone who knows a little psychology. Social psychology has established that social facilitation leads each person in a group to work harder than that person would work alone. However, the real lesson in this last day was not about social facilitation.

The lesson of the last day began when we started the trip as a very diverse group. We had two vegans and a beef cattle rancher. We had college students and an old professor. We had men and women. We began the trip as nine very different people.

At the end of the trip, we were still nine very different people. And this was the quiet lesson. We didn’t become like one another, but we learned to speak the same environmental message.

In our world, conformity and homogeneity should not be our goals. We may not look alike, but that doesn’t matter. True diversity doesn’t mean that we are all the same version of different. Diversity means that we are not like one another. Such diversity is not a weakness. Diverse voices offer a stronger message. This was a lesson I learned, even as the wind, rain and water tried to hide it from me.

LESSON 2 – Moving up isn’t always the right move

One more story about my life before we talk about your lives. And this lesson from my life is the one I am happiest that I heard.

When I was 33 years old I became a college vice president. By 2004, when I was 49, I had both a Ph.D. from a topflight university and a decade of experience as a senior administrator responsible for fundraising. I had secured several $1 million gifts and even one gift of $6.5 million. I had qualifications and accomplishments, and many friends and peers were predicting that I would soon become a college president.

While I acknowledged what they were saying about my future, I was telling a different story. When I would talk with others about my life and career in higher education, I told stories about teaching. I reminisced about my students. When I spoke from my heart I said that teaching had been an amazing opportunity that I would never forget. While the world was saying “Wow, look where you are headed!” I was saying, “Wow, look where I used to be.”

Finally one day, I listened to myself: My descriptions of teaching weren’t just nostalgia. I was telling myself that I belonged in a classroom. That day I decided to do whatever it took to return to teaching. As it turned, out what it took was giving up a college vice presidency for a one-semester appointment at Western Carolina.

That semester has turned into six years, and I no longer have to speak of students from my long ago. Now I can talk about WCU students, and I can tell my friends about the wonderful, crazy, maddening things you do every day. I listened carefully, and the message brought me home.

What is the point of these anecdotes? I hope you see that it is far too easy to miss the important lessons in life. Listening to life is hard, and too often we just don’t do it. Life’s lessons aren’t always hidden by tragedy or failure. My lessons could have been hidden behind wonderful experiences during the expedition and personal success as an administrator. However, they would have still been hidden.

Now I am going to be bold and give you advice. I am going to tell you what makes it hard to hear the real lessons in your lives.


Think for a moment about a typical day in your life. I can imagine you walking to a class thoughtfully considering what you will learn that day. In the midst of the walk your cell phone rings and, as you answer, your thoughtful consideration of class evaporates. In other moments there is the chime of a new text message, or the lure of checking Facebook, or the temptation of a thread on Twitter, or the chance that you might find a funny clip on YouTube. I am pretty sure that some or all of these bits of technology are parts of your lives.

Is technology making it easier or harder for you to hear life’s lessons? Let me quickly assure you that I am not a “technophobe.” I enjoy having a cell phone and I even send text messages … when needed. I post things on Facebook … once in a while. I have an iTouch and an iTunes account. Yes, I am techno enough.

Yet, you and I probably think differently about all of these technologies. I suspect that you think about technology the way my niece thinks about it. Several years ago, as our family opened gifts Christmas morning, my niece was aghast that my phone was not on. She asked in a horrified tone, “What if someone sends you a text?” After a moment of thought, I replied that my phone works for me not the other way around. Can you say the same?

Do you choose the time, place and manner in which technology comes into your life? These devices should be your helpers, and they should wait patiently for you to allow them to work. When people joke about “Crackberries,” I think they are actually describing a troubling relationship with technology. If your technology demands your attention, then I think that you are in danger of missing things.

I will even offer you evidence that my concern is reasonable. A couple of years ago two of my students completed a research project using the Simons and Chabris gorilla video that I described above. First they showed the video to people and simply asked them to count the passes. In this baseline condition about two-thirds of all people missed seeing the gorilla. They then ran a second group that tried to count the passes while conversing on a cell phone. In this group, 98 percent of all people failed to see the gorilla.

We were thinking of this project as it relates to talking and driving. Yes, cell phones do make it more likely that you will run over a gorilla. However, perhaps the bigger message is that technology, represented in this case by the cell phone, can make it harder to recognize unexpected messages in life: the gorilla.

You do not have to hate technology in order to take a digital holiday. You don’t have to be backward or unsophisticated to decide that you choose when to listen to the phone, the Blackberry or the computer.

Let me extend this thought one more step. When I suggest a technology holiday, I think many people think, “Of course he says that, he is an outdoor guy.” Yes, I do love the outdoors, and wild rivers have been important in my life for more years than not. However, wild places do not automatically give us an opportunity to see the messages life has to teach. Wildness can be lost under the noise we bring with us.

When I watch stories about wilderness trips, I am struck that I seldom hear nature. Kayakers rush downriver to the pounding beat of someone’s favorite hip-hop anthem. Rock climbers stretch and leap as guitars wail in a metallic chorus. Surf videos cover the roar of the waves with rock music. When we fill our world with such things, we overwhelm the wildness. Shouldn’t the rush of water or the whispered passage of the wind be enough of a soundtrack? Why do we force the wilderness to fit into an iPod playlist?

The din of technology, the incessant soundtrack that we never stop, these are both noise. Noise can distract us and obscure life’s messages.

WORDS OF ADVICE 1 – Learn to love the quiet because lessons live in the silence

Even if we find quiet we may be afraid to listen to life. Too many of us lack the confidence to listen for ourselves. We feel that life’s most important messages can only be found in the wisdom of groups around us. We listen to lots of groups that have lots of names. We listen to political parties, professional associations, churches, social networks, teams … the list goes on and on.

The problem with groups is that they are quite capable of obscuring important messages, even truth itself. Imagine for a moment that many individuals who have concerns about international affairs come together. Will the assembled group find greater wisdom or hold more thoughtful discussions? Or is it possible that the group will become less thoughtful, even aggressive? Is it possible that this group might riot? This is what happens too often when concerned people assemble during meetings of the G-8 or G-20 leaders around the world.

Suppose that the students of a university assemble to celebrate their team’s victory in a national championship game. Will these assembled students savor the joy, cultivate a greater sense of pride in their university and learn how special it is to be associated with success? Or will they behave badly, burning cars and furniture, drinking themselves senseless and risking serious injury in stupid acts that are hardly celebratory? Too often mayhem and destruction follows an NCAA championship. Do the students in these groups really learn anything meaningful or useful?

Finally, in recent weeks our political leaders have been trying to listen to us and speak to us about major national issues. Groups that gathered in “town hall” meetings had an opportunity to learn and to express their valid concerns with these policies. Town hall meetings offered the possibility for effective dialogue. Did the groups that assembled behave as we needed them to behave? Or did they resort to childish tantrums and ineffective displays of anger? What wisdom did anyone take away from this summer’s Congressional town hall meetings?

It might seem reasonable to join a group in hopes of hearing things that we need to hear and learn things that we need to know. Unfortunately, groups can really skew what you hear and believe, even when you already know the answer.

In a classic demonstration of the negative power of groups Solomon Asch asked people to make very simple visual judgments. He showed individuals a sample line alongside three comparison lines and asked which two lines were a match. These were judgments that all of us could make with 100 percent accuracy all of the time … if we were alone.

Yet, when one person was placed with a group and everyone else in the group gave an answer that was clearly wrong the single person often went along with that incorrect response. This is called conformity. Psychologists have mapped out the parameters that contribute to conformity, and I won’t go into all of the qualifiers. Let’s just focus on the fact that it happens more often and with more force than we would like to believe.

So what might happen when we walk into the middle of a group such as the rioters at a G-20 (The Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors) meeting, or the student throng setting fires in a college town, or the angry mass at a summer town hall gathering? Can conformity lead us to think and behave like those around us? Can we believe, at least for a little while, that what the group says is what we believe? If we start to believe it, for even a brief time, can we end up internalizing it and believing it for much longer?

Let’s take this one step further. Two other psychologists, Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer, demonstrated that when people get excited, they look around themselves for the meaning of their excitement. If I am excited in the midst of a bunch of people who are cheering for a Western Carolina team, then I interpret my excitement as happy enthusiasm and start cheering as well. If I am excited in the midst of people who are expressing outrage, anger and frustration, then I will probably begin to feel outrage, anger and frustration. Context is a powerful element in defining our emotional world.

Thus, if we put these two things together, groups may influence not only what we believe but also how we feel about our beliefs.

You probably already see where this if headed. You need to spend some time on your own, thinking about the things that matter. There are things in your world that go well beyond mundane daily choices. These are questions such as “Should anyone in the United States die because she has treatable cancer but doesn’t have insurance?” “Should the United States ever give up its position of military strength in international negotiations?” “Profit must be considered before environmental protection.” If you rely on “the group” to help you find your beliefs then you may never find out what you really think or feel. Of course, it is harder to work this out for yourself. Thinking isn’t easy so many people choose not to do it. It is easier to just listen to your party, your church, your company or your government. Easier isn’t better or more truthful. Do the work, spend the time, listen for what is true.

WORDS OF ADVICE 2 – Think for yourself, you might find out what you really believe

Finally, and in some ways the most difficult noise to quiet, is the noise in your own head. Imagine that you had been in my place just before I began speaking. What would have been running through your head, or what was running through my head?

I should have been thinking, “This is going to be fun, I have something to say, and I am ready to say it.”

But what if I had been thinking, “I hope I don’t forget what I mean to say” or “No one wants to hear this stuff. I should just tell jokes,” or “This seemed like a good idea … last spring.”

In sport psychology, this internal chatter is called self-talk. One of the most reliable findings about performance is that the most successful performers have better self-talk. If there are two runners, equally fit and equally fast, the winner will be the runner with better self-talk. Now don’t assume that “better” just means more of a private rah-rah script. “I am the best” “No one can catch me I can go like the wind.” Effective self-talk is actually more complex and meaningful that just saying “I rock” over and over to yourself.

Effective self-talk directs your attention to the important cues in the competition. For example, the runner reminds herself that her opponent goes out fast but lags in the middle of the race. She keeps telling herself to stay in her own pace and wait for the other runner to slow. Self-talk can point us toward what matters.

Of course, self-talk can also direct your attention to things that make success less likely. If you talk to yourself about what might go wrong and you focus your attention on that possible crisis, then do you see the things that matter?

Let’s do a little experiment. For a moment I want you to think about how well you know the words to our national anthem? Recite it privately get a sense of how well you know it. Really become aware of how well you know the words.

Now, imagine that you are in a large group and I ask you to stand up and recite the entire national anthem. As you rise everyone in the room begins to judge whether you actually do know the words. Think about that, all these people watching you, listening carefully and judging you. All these people will form an opinion about you based on how well you do. Imagine that moment and immerse yourself in the feelings of standing there. Are you still aware of how well you know the words?

Did you feel that you knew the words pretty well when you were reciting the song privately? Let’s call that sense of your own ability a “message.” When you imagined standing in front of a group to recite the song did you start saying, “Oh, man, I don’t want to mess up in front of all these people.” If you were speaking to yourself, voicing concern about how well you would perform then you were engaged in self-talk. Did your self-talk, the message about your “anxiety,” hide the other message, the important message, about how well you know the words?

Self-talk can hide important things. We can convince ourselves that the future is dire, harmful and full of potential catastrophe. Do you think we will hear positive things if we are focused on possible disasters? We can treat ourselves harshly and denigrate our own abilities. Do you think you will learn about your own capacity for success if you are telling yourself how little you know or how poorly you will perform?

Of course we can go the other way as well. Sometimes we offer ourselves false assurance of our talent or ability and use such assurance to hide the message that we need to work harder to succeed. The world is saying “Get to work” and we are relaxing as we listen to our own words of unjustified praise. How’s that going to work for us?

You need to be aware that you generate these messages to yourself, and that these messages can hide life’s lessons.

WORDS OF ADVICE 3 – Don’t talk yourself out of what you know

I am about to stop talking but that won’t be the end of my presentation. I can’t let you leave with my words rattling round in your head. My words should be replaced by your own message. My presentation will end at some point in your future when you sit in a quiet place, in a peaceful moment and consider your life. The lesson you need to learn is waiting hidden in your experiences, hidden in the events of your life. Go find it.

My presentation will be complete when you take a few moments and listen carefully … because right now … life is happening.

Categories | The Reporter

Photos | WCU News Services

Commencement 2017
Commencement 2017


Africa! More Than A Continent