New Student Convocation, Fall 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I have been asked to speak with you this afternoon about the subject of academic wisdom. I am wise enough to know, however, that wisdom is not something easily imparted, and that you would be deservedly skeptical if, like your parents no doubt have attempted to do, I presumed to tell you at the beginning of your college careers what you will be fortunate to emerge with by the conclusion of those careers. I could offer some superficial insights, of course, but when it comes to wisdom, the kind that is most profound and most persistent is without a doubt the kind that you acquire yourself. But what I will presume to give you is a suggestion about how to acquire wisdom, academic or otherwise.

Here is my advice. Contrary to what I expect you are probably intent upon doing, I strongly encourage you to strive not to succeed but to fail. Ultimately, of course, you will need to demonstrate success in order to achieve your degrees and the careers that I don’t doubt will follow. But I wish to impress upon you in no uncertain terms that you will be wasting the four or five precious years that lie immediately ahead if they are marked by nothing other than unblemished success. Because if that is the case then what it would signal to me is that you avoided jumping into water over your heads, reaching for mastery of a subject or skill or talent that proved to be beyond your reach, allowing yourselves to explore potentially awkward social opportunities, or generally challenging yourselves in sufficiently daunting ways.

Bob Dylan, who I realize speaks less to your generation than he does to mine—made the cryptic comment in his song “Love Minus Zero” that “there is no success like failure.” I have listened to that song for over forty-five years but it was when I was thinking about what I would say to you today that that song popped into my mind and I think I finally fully grasped his point.

It occurred to me, of course, that Dylan’s point and my own are one and the same. In his terms, we learn by making mistakes, and—short of full-blown catastrophe—the bigger the mistake the greater the lesson there might be to learn from it. Or as I would put it, we learn by going where we have not already been, so unless you occasionally get sufficiently lost as to not recognize your surroundings then you have not ventured far enough from your own well worn, predictable, clearly sign-posted, and—dare I say—boring path.

Now here is the good news. I can give you this advice with equanimity and a clear conscience because one of the many wonderful things about UNF is that there are support structures in place here to catch you when you fall, to redirect you when you lose your way, to provide you with a flotation device when the water gets too deep, and to help you translate what might at first appear to be the wasted effort of a disappointing failure into the sweet triumph of hard-won and enduring success.

Every scientist would tell you that significant scientific discovery only results from the insights gained from the frustrations of repeated empirical failure. I encourage you to think of UNF as your laboratory. And I encourage you to regard yourselves as the objects of your own experimentation. I am confident that if you embark upon your college careers with this attitude the products of your experiments will ultimately prove to be the equivalent of major scientific breakthroughs no matter how many—and perhaps precisely because of—the beakers you break along the way.

So, welcome to UNF and to the failures that I trust lie ahead. I can assure you that, with the capable and dedicated support of your professors, your advisors, your residence hall assistants, and the staff of Student Affairs, your risks—including those that don’t pan out—will pay big and rewarding dividends.