Uncertainty, Fear, Failure (A Warm, Fuzzy Commencement Address)

Uncertainty. Fear. Failure. Three ingredients a first-year principal has on his or her spice shelf! This was the tenth graduation I’ve been a part of as an administrator (I’m ready to go into event production if need be), and the second time I’ve given a commencement address. This one borrows and builds upon some ideas from that first address.

I will remember this group of students and the experience of getting them ready for this event – my first to “deliver” to the next phase of life and learning as their principal. Every group of students has a particular energy and spirit; we begin to tell stories about them (a natural tendency) and they, over time, may begin to see themselves as the adults see them. This particular cohort had some challenges with conduct – more specifically, a small group of kids that struggled to demonstrate kindness and respect (to self, peers and staff) and a more caustic, sharpened edge to social dynamics in some larger groups. Part of this is the nature of growing up; part of it comes from an unknowable set of circumstances; another part is the mystery of group chemistry (which voices/personalities assert dominance and which exist unseen and unheard).

We need to be mindful of how we talk about children

In this first year of being principal (after two years here as assistant principal), my primary interest was in helping this Class (and rest of student body, staff, community…) feel proud of themselves, feel happy and joyful about their experience here, feel connected to each other and to our school. I wanted them to know that I am not interested in fragmented, subjective narratives that all too often focus on the pain points; our tendency as humans to perseverate on problems, rather than taking stock of the countless things going right, gets in the way of deeper happiness. We are not Perfect, and by no means are we going to hold 13 and 14 year olds to a higher standard than we hold ourselves as big people.


A middle school friend wrote in my yearbook: “Don’t ever change.” I know he was being complimentary, but it struck me as strange even way back when. I thought: “Of course I’ll change!” Part of the journey past middle school is learning to care less about what others think of us. Oftentimes the bravest thing we can do is not be limited by what we think others want or expect of us.

Plus, it would be awkward to have a 7th grader (unchanged me) as your Principal, delivering this address.

I spent 16 years working in high schools. But despite getting to the place where you are voting (and, yikes, driving) adults, heading out into the world to pursue higher ed, gap year, service projects, the workforce…the growth that occurs at middle school dwarfs what you will experience as high schoolers. Watching this transformation take place – and contributing to it to the best of our abilities – is why we choose to be educators.

You arrive to us as children…little fuzzy teddy bears. Your main concern is getting to the hot lunch line without being trampled. Then, somewhere along the way, the inner young adult begins to emerge…fuzzy teddy bears turning into Grizzlies. The transformation that begins taking place is at once exciting, uncertain, unpredictable, and, quite possibly, a little bit scary.

But despite all the talk about how challenging middle school is, let’s remember that life never stops unfolding in front of us in surprising ways. In many ways, becoming an adult is a lesson in how much we don’t control in life – we just try to stay planted on the surfboard when the waves get bigger (or when the sharks emerge). I’ve found that we need be comfortable with the following three ingredients to develop the ability to stay on that surfboard:

Ingredient one: Uncertainty

Someone I’m inspired by is the painter Richard Diebenkorn. He wrote for himself some rules on how to begin a new painting. One of my favorite rules is “Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.” While life is full of the routine and inevitable, I think we are attracted to our hidden talents because they feel uncertain and don’t have a fixed outcome. Through these pursuits, we create fresh knowledge rather than merely consume it; the sensation is akin to lava pouring out of a volcano, or walking along pathways that get us lost in the woods. They introduce us to the magic of being a beginner – seeing the world with fresh, nimble eyes, stepping lightly and freely.

We associate being “educated” with wisdom – something we work to acquire and earn over time.  So…when do we get there? When can we consider ourselves – and be considered – wise?  Wisdom seems to bring about a guarantee of certainty, an antidote to chaos – in the face of difficulty, the wise person has an answer.  But what if the most profound wisdom is the simple confidence that we have more questions than answers in life?  While answers seek to assert control over a situation, well-thought questions reinforce a deeper truth: life is both a beautiful journey and an uncertain search.

Two: Fear

Zachary said it very well in his speech: “Although living in fear is terrible, sometimes a little bit of fear is not a bad thing. Fear can stop us, but it can also push us, and many people do good things out of fear.”

What fear teaches us it how to be fearless. One of my favorite authors and thinkers, Margaret Wheatley, says: “Fearlessness, like courage, has love at its core, but unlike courage it requires a great deal more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Then we can move with love into right action. Fearlessness demands that we take time to look at whatever feels threatening to us in all its complexity. We step into the fear, into the moment, and watch how by acknowledging and moving closer, fear dissipates and fearlessness arises.”

Being scared is the energy that propels us to break the comfort of the familiar. It is what every child feels when they take their first steps (and what we parents feel when we see you take your first steps). The other side of fear is the joy of discovery – of newfound powers and possibilities.

Three: Failure

On our first day together this year as a faculty, we gathered in a circle out at Town Park; Ms. Tate chose a selection from a book by Jacob Lief. While directed to non-profit leaders, the message is pertinent to all of us in education, civic life, and beyond. It is not only a student’s job to learn from setbacks – as professionals and as an organization, we can either pretend we’ve always got it figured out or we can embrace our missteps and blind spots as opportunities to get better.

Mr. Lief says: “Fail. Some of the most important progress we make comes directly out of our failures. Create an environment in which the most important thing is to learn and then improve, rather than hit targets, and innovation will flourish.”

I will offer you exactly one additional sliver of advice: seek out the people, ideas and pursuits that challenge your assumptions, expand the boundaries of your perception, and free you from the limits you unknowingly place on what is and isn’t possible. They will be your best teachers and your most honest friends; they will remind you that uncertainty is the rule and certainty is, in the end, just a valuable delusion we tell ourselves from time to time.

Maya Angelou said it wisely: “Education helps one cease being intimidated by strange situations.” Your education begins to matter when you encounter unique and unforeseen places, ideas, and people.  As you step away from our campus, remember to embrace uncertainty as your friend, mentor and creative companion – the means by which you will make your greatest contributions. Class of 2017: welcome uncertainty, harvest the energy produced by your fears, and forever step into failure as the ultimate teacher and guide.

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