I gave Hood’s Convocation address this year. Here are my thoughts on beginning the new academic year…
It’s very tempting, standing up here on this podium in my fancy robes, to follow the example of Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. His idea of how to kick off the academic year was to say: “a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
But lest you all think I’m just as mad as Harry thought Dumbledore was when he encountered him for the first time, I do feel like I ought to say just a bit more than that.
It’s hard to give advice, and maybe even harder to take it. So I’m going to ease us into it by starting with a little trivia.
My favorite form of wordplay is what we word nerds call “portmanteaux.” If you’ve ever been hangry, worn jeggings, taken a staycation, petted a labradoodle, done any cosplay, watched a sitcom, or read a blog about Brexit (or Brangelina), then you know what a portmanteau is: it’s when you take two words and smoosh them together to make a new one, and the results are usually pretty darn satisfying.
We humans are always making up new words; our language is always changing, and that’s exactly as it should be. Things would get pretty boring otherwise. As someone who studies the long history of the English Language, I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is in no way a new phenomenon. Languages are living entities – they have to change to meet the needs of the people who speak them, and the world that they inhabit. If languages don’t change, they die.
Language change works because it happens within an established pattern and within a set of known parameters. You can’t just make up a random set of syllables and expect people to know what you’re trying to say. If I were to say to you: “yulika, shedagit, mifesush, urorasu” … then what? (If nothing else, you’d probably be thinking that “nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak” was making a heck of a lot more sense than it did a couple of minutes ago!). Or even if I took two words that you know – for example, “minimize” and “conclude” – and just stuck them together with no context or reason, it still wouldn’t work (Conclize? Miniclude? NOPE).
But what does any of this — fascinating though it may be—have to do with y’all sitting out there, about to begin a new year at Hood College?
It’s simple: like our language, if we want to survive and succeed, we have to evolve. We can’t stay in our comfort zone. We can’t limit ourselves to what we’re already good at, whether that’s math or writing or soccer or drawing or binge-watching The Office or eating a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one sitting. We have to try new stuff. If you’re generally a quiet person, you still need to find ways to make your voice heard – maybe you should think about taking a theatre class (that’s what helped me!). If you’re usually the first one to raise your hand in class, you have to also learn how to make space for others in a discussion and listen to what they have to say. Otherwise, you’re just treading water.
For most of us, change is difficult. It feels risky, and it makes us uncomfortable. But even Latin, which arguably hasn’t had a native speaker in hundreds of years, is getting new vocabulary for the 21st century. And if someone can figure out how to say jelly doughnut in Latin (in case you’re curious, it’s libum transatlanticum baccarum conditura confertum), then yes, you can change, too.
The good news is that a liberal-arts college like Hood is an ideal place to take those risks and work through that discomfort—not just because you’re part of a community here at Hood, and we’re all growing and changing together—but also because that’s exactly what a liberal arts education is for. If you’ll allow me one more teensy bit of Latin, the artes liberales are the skills we need to be free people, able to think independently and contribute to our society. A liberal arts education isn’t so much about the content of what you’re learning; it’s more about the skills (the artes) that you develop as part of the learning process. To riff off of Peter Abelard (who was an amazing teacher and scholar from the 12th century), a liberal-arts education teaches us how to develop the skills of inquiry and critical thinking that allow us to push beyond the boundaries of what we already know in order to create new ways of understanding the world
Today’s employers sound a lot like Peter Abelard – they’re looking for folks who can think critically and creativity, who can work with a team, who can solve problems, and who can deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. That last one is super important because none of us knows what the future holds. We don’t know what the career landscape is going to look like 10 or 25 years from now. So we have to be ready for change.
But if we want these changes and evolutions in our lives to succeed, they need to have a strong foundation. Just as with languages, we need a set of parameters to work within. You can’t just decide to run a marathon tomorrow if you’ve never run a mile (don’t forget that the original dude who tried that back in Greece in 490 BCE collapsed and died at the end of the run). So I’m going to conclude my comments today with one last portmanteau that I think can help you establish those parameters and make a space in your life for productive, lasting, and slightly-less-scary change.
That portmanteau is habitude, which is (as it sounds) a combo of habit and attitude. Credit here goes to Angela Maiers; she points to a set of habitudes that make the difference between a person who’s content to be “good enough” and one who’s determined to push for excellence. So what are they?
adaptability, courage, perseverance, self-awareness,
curiosity, passion, and imagination
These aren’t just qualities that you’re born with. They require practice, discipline, and cultivation.
So my challenge to each of you here today is to look inside yourself and decide which of these habitudes might be your foundation for change. Here’s the list again in case you missed it the first time: adaptability, courage, perseverance, self-awareness, curiosity, passion, and imagination. You’re probably already good at practicing some of them, so that means it’s time to start cultivating the others. (For example, I’m not necessarily the bravest person out there, so I’m cultivating the habitude of courage by standing up here today and talking to all y’all!)
These habitudes are kind of like a superpower for achieving long-term success, rather than just winning at short-term goals.
Because success is all about the long game, y’all. You can’t just focus on what’s next. I know it’s tempting in college to move from one class to the next, from studying for this test to writing that essay, from meeting to work on this group project to driving across town to that internship. It makes the long march from your first day of college to your first “real” job after graduation feel a little less daunting. But it will all be way more meaningful if you don’t just move automatically from one thing to the another. If you want to make the most of every opportunity that you have, then you have to find the points of connection among all of your different experiences, and to allow those connections to take you down a detour if that’s what’s needed. College is about more than just that first job: it’s about building a life that is productive, and thoughtful, and engaged with the world we live in. You can’t be so focused on the next step that you lose sight of your real destination. And that means that you have to be open to change, whether that’s changing your course schedule, changing your major, changing what you usually do on Friday nights, or even changing your worldview if that’s what you need to do when the time comes.
But just remember that change doesn’t have to be scary (well, not JUST scary). Cultivate your habitudes by allowing yourself to make time for curiosity and imagination, by being brave, by resolving to keep going when things get tough, and by knowing what drives you. The habitudes will ground you and remind you of who you are, even in new situations. They will be your tether when everything around you seems to be shifting. In fact, they can actually help to make you into your own kind of portmanteau, bringing together the Pre-Change You and the Post-Change You. And as with other portmanteaux, the results will probably be pretty darn satisfying.