Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner Helen Galvin Ross ’18 delivered the address, “A Dazzling Success: Our Work and the Stories We Tell Ourselves,” at Bowdoin’s 213th Commencement May 26, 2018.
President Rose, Members of the College, and Guests:
First, as these things so often go, a story from my own life:
I spent the month of March, like, I am sure, nearly every graduate sitting before me, contemplating job applications: endlessly scrolling through eBear and plane tickets to second-round interviews for jobs I wasn’t sure I even wanted, but, as some of you know—money talks. Money talked so loudly that I almost couldn’t hear myself think, egged on by the pressure to pay rent, to buy groceries, and, at the same time, to add another prestigious line to the old resume. I was rejected by three separate PhD programs in political theory in February, which also influenced this impending panic. I spent the time I wasn’t applying to soulless paralegal jobs or writing ten words an hour for my thesis thinking about these rejections. I had a lot more riding on them, and the implicit approval of myself that an acceptance might convey, than I had thought when I sent them off into the cybernetic void of the Internet.
Many of us have spent our entire lives, up until this very moment—or, at least, up until the moment when we finally get that diploma—, motivated by the remarkably powerful temptation to dazzle. It has never been enough to do fine, to skate by, to generally be thought unremarkable. I, like all of you, have always wanted people to remark. I intend to spend the next two, ten, twenty years, or as long as it takes, unlearning this inclination.
You are going to be told, and you will have already been told, many things by many people who are much more intelligent, and much, much more experienced in the ways of the world than I am. Blame that one on the sheer passage of time. I’ll get there. But, let me add this one thing to the pile, or the trash-heap, you decide, of bits of advice you receive. I won’t go so far as to say words of wisdom.
There are going to be many things that you try in the next two, ten, and twenty years at which you will not immediately succeed. This is no longer high school English class, or a sport you’ve been playing since age four, or whatever comes to mind when you consider a situation in which you have, innately, the ability to dazzle. Success has come easily to most of us, and many of us wear it naturally, either a second skin, a suit of armor, or a security blanket. I encourage us all to shed a few layers.
It is often the undazzling that is the heart and root of anything great. I don’t here mean only forgotten work, the kind of jobs that Career Planning would never encourage applications for but which entail the necessities of human life. I mean, too, first drafts, forgotten attempts, long hours of practice. I mean paying the rent. I mean uncomfortable first apartments, I mean only getting the samples from Whole Foods and being unable to afford any of the actual groceries. Any work worth doing, and worth doing with a full heart, will not come easily. A life well-lived is, I suspect, composed from these hidden failures and public mediocrities. There is no paycheck or stock option attached to this commitment. There is, however, I believe, a lot less heartbreak, and lot more fulfillment. Consider a world in which you no longer tie your self-worth in with immediate success, with people knowing your name and one impressive fact about you, as we have become accustomed to at Bowdoin—you know what I mean, the “oh, that’s Emma, she’s such a good photographer” kind of introduction that we use to link together our social circles in a dining hall. When you disconnect identity and visible success, you will no longer walk on eggshells as you learn—success will represent an end goal but not the sole purpose in doing anything. You will free yourself up to learn.
Before he turned in the first draft of his honors thesis, one of my best friends was having a difficult time letting go of it. I reminded him, and, in doing so, forced myself to realize, that the first draft of an undergraduate thesis cannot be a seminal work of political philosophy. I think there is something to be extrapolated from this small example. Even the greats were not that great on their first attempt. We will all eventually impress, I can promise you that. But there is something untrue inherent in the verb “to dazzle,” something artificial and blinding, and we cannot allow the myth of our own greatness to allow us to confuse the complex process of the reality of attaining it. To insist on dazzling everyone around us, with the only other option being simply not attempting at all, is to close ourselves off from the reality of human relationships. We can only know the people around us, and to allow ourselves to be known in turn, if fear of failure does not get in between. If we are not constantly blinding others to illuminate ourselves.
Learn to fail publicly and learn to fail awfully. Learn, too, to fail in the most mundane ways. Learn that there are often things worth doing at which you will not immediately succeed. Surround yourselves with people who can read the terrible first chapter or listen to the harrowing first months of you learning to play the violin. To truly enact the liberal arts—to, dare I say, live up to the Offer of the College!—requires generosity to your own efforts. Accept that practice, hard work, and a broad love for a vocation is worth more than what you might imagine to be your own innate skill.
I have an enormous amount of faith in us all. I have faith both generally in the people Bowdoin would shape us to be, and specifically, in you, the people with whom I have lived for so long. I don’t expect any of you to have boring lives. Heaven knows you have made my own life entertaining for these past four years. I am encouraging, however, all of you, my brilliant classmates, to allow ourselves some room to breathe. To remember that the world is vast and open before us, and that we have so much time. Money still talks, and many of us will have to listen. Everything will count, though. Every thoroughly tedious job, every fixer-upper apartment, which there isn’t money to fix up, every rotten first attempt, will all come to mean something. We must allow it to.
Thank you all for the past four years. I will admit, I have been dazzled by many of you, and I look forward to the next two, ten, and twenty years, in which we will accomplish more than we could have imagined in our first days here. I can only imagine that it will be an honor, thirty years from now, to say that I knew you when you in the Moulton Light Room. I hope, too, however, to hear in thirty years that those successes did not come easily, that you have joined and created communities of hard work and vulnerability, in which success emerges out of human connections and many, many attempts, in which you defined yourself not by the ease with which you succeeded, but by the strength of character you developed by failing.
Thank you, Class of 2018, for the work you have done, and the work you will do. Thank you for letting me know you. Good luck, and congratulations.