First: New on The Huffington Post, June 24. Tom talks with Patricia Pearson, author of Opening Heaven's Door, about death and the possibility of life after it. Click here.
When you have literally thousands of competitors, how do you get to be Number One?
Shortly after I arrived at Notre Dame as a young assistant professor of philosophy, we went on to become the Number One place in the world for my first academic specialty, the philosophy of religion. And it happened within a year. Given that there are over 7,000 universities worldwide, and 10,000 research institutions of various sorts, being Number One at anything in those circles is pretty remarkable.
How did we do it? Engagement. Expectation. Energy. Encouragement. Enthusiasm.
We hired professors and admitted graduate students who were maximally engaged in our enterprise, intellectually and emotionally. Engagement was through the roof. We believed in what we were doing, and we were passionate about it.
And we set new expectations. I remember my first month on campus. The Director of the Center For Philosophy of Religion had been the host of a big meeting to present and discuss new work in the field once every two years. I asked him if we could have meetings every week. He looked shocked. He said, "What do you mean? Do you have in mind weekly groups where we'd read and discuss books written by the leading people in the field, worldwide?" I said, "No, I have in mind weekly groups where we'd develop the ideas that will be in the books that will be read and discussed by people in the field, worldwide."
We wouldn't just read the leading authorities in the field. We'd be the leading authorities in the field. And that expectation paid off. Within a very brief time, colleagues from around the world wanted to come to us, as visiting fellows, guest lecturers, and just informal colleagues, to see what was going on, and maybe try out their own ideas on us. We were the hub, the center, the locus of innovation in a discipline that had been around for centuries. Yes, it was a mature industry, to be sure. And there were thousands of competitors. But we did new things. Every single week.
The energy up and down the halls was electric. People were always dashing around, popping into my doorway with a new idea, an innovative angle on something, a story to share, or a question to ask. We were inventing the future of our discipline every day. We were the creators, the pioneers, the bold adventurers. Everyone else was watching us. How you could not be excited about that?
And we encouraged each other constantly. We fed the fire of each other's enthusiasms. Anyone's success was everyone's success. We were a team summiting the mountain together. I wanted to see the younger guys succeed. And they, in turn, cheered me on. Many scholars have subsequently told me that there was never a department, never a specialty, and never a time, quite like that. We made history. And so, I know how it's done.
Any group of intelligent, well trained people can rise to new and even surprising heights, sometimes even becoming world class, and - yes - Number One, if they instill a culture of engagement, expectation, energy, encouragement, and enthusiasm to light the fire of greatness in each other. We too often settle for so much less. And I have just one question. Why should we ever do that?