Measure Twice; Cut Once
Skidmore College Commencement
May 20, 2006
Philip A. Glotzbach
Newest alumni of Skidmore College, I hope you have enjoyed today's
Commencement Exercises, even though they do provide one final excuse
for your elders to render sage advice and counsel. You have listened,
this morning, with equanimity, and I ask you to hold on a few moments
more while I add just one parting thought.
Let me begin with a story: Some years back, when I was a young
assistant professor of philosophy at Denison University, Marie and I
purchased our first homea modest ranch house that was
nonetheless large enough to accommodate our still-growing family. Like
all such domiciles, this one came complete with a full roster of
potential home-improvement projects. In the midst of one such effort,
I enlisted the aid of a colleague who chaired the Theatre department,
Jon Farris, someone who had more experience as a builder than I.
Now one thing that carpentry teaches you is to appreciate the stuff
with which you work. Wood is truly a wonderful substance, particularly
when it has been joined well, finished, and polished. The coloring,
grains, and textures of each different wood type bring their own
unique beauty, and knowing the potential of what a humble board can
become motivates one to treat each piece of wood as a precious
commodity. Besides, as a young faculty member on a limited budget, I
could hardly afford to squander materials.
So I was delighted when Jon taught me a fundamental time- and
money-saving principle of carpentry: Measure twice; cut once.
This simple maxim makes immediate sense. A mistaken cut usually forces
one to discard both the resulting pieces. And if the economics of
measuring once and having to cut twice are bad, the sense of
wastethe needless loss of perfectly good materialcan be
even more painful. This maxim is a good example of a heuristic:
a rule of thumb that increases the possibility of success but does not
guarantee it. Having measured twice, it is still possible to saw
badly. Still it is much easier to change a line on a board than
to fix a cut in the wrong place. How much better, then, to make the
small extra effort needed to measure that second time, to check your
work, to get it right before you commit! Measure twice; cut once.
And yet, how many times have each of us violated this rule in other
realms of action? Consider a relationship with someone we hold dear or
respect deeplya friend, a parent, a teacher, a lover, a
colleague. There are times when we are under pressure, tired, angry,
hurt, threatened, or just not paying attention, when we give in to the
temptation to make an intemperate commenta cutting remark, if
you willthat jeopardizes the relationship, perhaps even damaging
it forever. Like an ill-sawed board, the two parts of a severed
friendship can seldom be rejoined. How much better to pause a moment
and take the measure of what one might say, to consider possible
consequences, before sawing away?
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates talked in a similar vein when
he referred his daimon, a kind of internal voice that, he said,
"frequently opposed [him], even in small matters, when he was about to
do something wrong" or "held [him] back in the middle of ... speaking"
when his speech might have led to an unfortunate outcome.1
Likewise, your parents, your teachers, and other such older folks sometimes have
tried to get you to slow down and think about what you are going to
say or do because, like Socrates, they have learned the value of
listening to their own small internal voices that warn of impending
problems. Socrates spoke of his daimon as something divine, but
we don't have to embrace a theological account here. It may be that
those of us who are relatively more experienced simply have had many
more opportunities to make mistakessometimes painful
onesmistakes, that have convinced us of the value of measuring
twice, cutting once.
One salutary feature of this rule is its extensibilityeven to a
global scale. Most researchers who work in planetary atmospherics,
ecology, evolutionary biology, or any number of other scientific
fields fear that the accelerating addition of carbon dioxide and other
such "greenhouse gasses" into our atmosphere by human activity is
leading inexorably to changes in climate that we know as "global
warming." By any number of measuresthe extension of species into
new habitats, increased rates of glacial melting from the North Pole
to the Antarctic or the reduction in days per winter in which lakes in
northern New York are frozen over, to name just twowe are
witnessing potentially profound and possibly irreversible changes that
could raise sea level far enough to inundate costal cities world wide,
increase the annual number and severity of hurricanes, and alter
growing seasons for crops. Arguably, the biosphere of planet earth,
where each of us must eat, drink, and breathe, represents the most
precious material commodity of all. Even if additional scientific
evidence is needed to round out this picture, shouldn't we
collectively pauseshouldn't we all be measuring many more times
than twice before we risk cutting the lifeline between every species
now extant and its continued survival?
But even though it is important for all of now us to think on this
global scale, it isn't always easy to do so. So let me close by
reflecting on a more limited sphere: your own post-Skidmore life. We
all hope that each of you graduates is still at the front end of your
own personal historyyour individual narrative. But even though
your teachers have encouraged you to experiment with different courses
and interests, and even though most of you will explore many different
paths in your future life, there is a sense in which we human beings
don't get to experiment at all.
Author Milan Kundera made this observation in his lyrical meditation
on the vagaries of love, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Early on, the novel's protagonist, Tomas, contemplates whether to
reach out to Tereza, a woman who had recently entered his life, to
draw her closer. Or should he let her go? Faced with this choice,
Tomas is vexed because he does not know what to do. Here is that
moment as Kundera tells it:
[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not
knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural.
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can
neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives
Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there
is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without
warning, like an actor going on cold.2
Kundera's point is that in dealing with what ultimately is the most
elusive human reality of alllived timewe never get
a second chance to reprise even a single instant. We cannot try out
one history to see if we like it and then trade it in for another if
we don't. Every new moment forces us to choose just one option out of
many. And any course of action we select forecloses an infinity of
One possible response to this realization is to think that an
unrehearsed life might not be worth living at all.
What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?
Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but
once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all.
If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at
But a quite different response is equally possible: Because it is
destined never to recur, each moment of any human
lifeyour life, for examplebecomes immeasurably
precious. It is given to us just once and then is gone forever. So too
for each life in sum. If we prefer this interpretation, then our
choices of action from moment to moment assume not the least but
rather the greatest possible significance, and we would be well
advised indeed to gauge our choices carefully in advance.
And that is my parting thought for youfrom one who is somewhat
closer to the end of a personal history than you are, one who has had
the opportunity to make many more mistakes. Timethe basic stuff
of a life, the material with which each of us worksis truly
wondrous. The coloring, grain, and texture of each unique moment
present themselves to us to be formed and polished, promising their
own inestimable beauty. Their potential is endless. So please, don't
waste your most precious material: Measure twice. Cut once.
I now invite the Class of 2006 to rise and join in the singing of your
1Plato, Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates, G. M. A. Grube, trans., (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1975), p, 41.
2Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Lovers' Story, Michael Henry Heim, trans. (New York: Harper Colophon, 1985), p. 8.
Creative Thought Matters.