(This was the Freshman Convocation speech at Clarion University in August 2018.)
– Leah Chambers
When I was asked to provide some words of wisdom at today’s convocation ceremony, I had no idea what I was going to say—nor what I could say that you had not heard before. You have likely already received advice from your friends, family, and co-workers to make the most of these next four or five years, to go to class, to talk to your professors, and to do your work. That’s all great advice, and you should take it seriously. But right now, you also have a lot on your minds. In three days you will be moving from class to class heavy with books, dreams, and worries about this first year—you are likely worried about getting this all right. So that’s why I’m going to take a less conventional route today and give you advice you likely haven’t yet heard.
I hope you get it all wrong.
I hope that you spend a lot of time being wrong.
I take the crux of this idea from writer Kathryn Schulz, who published an entire book on the subject. In her TED Talk, which I often share with first-year students, Schulz, says this: “we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.” What she means by this is that, at this moment, if I asked each of you to give me an example of something you are wrong about, you’d likely have trouble. You may be able to recount a time in the past when you got something wrong—like a question on a test or the date/time of a friend’s party—but in the present, it is difficult to discern anything we are wrong about. We are each in our own little “bubble” of rightness and correctness.
And it feels good.
It feels safe.
But I want you to pop the bubble. Let yourself be wrong. I’m not telling you to intentionally fail exams or to purposefully give incorrect responses during class discussions. But I am encouraging you to be honest and to write and say, “I don’t know” instead of just making up a response to appear right. Is this difficult? You bet. Because the entire enterprise of schooling is built on correct answers. You have spent the last 13 years earning praise and awards and good grades for getting it all right. The student with all the wrong answers doesn’t get the “A.” And Schulz points out that very early on, we are taught what to think about the kid with the “D” or “F’ on her paper, and we learn very quickly the shame associated with our own failures.
But what research has shown over the years is that the student who always gets the “A” is really stuck in that bubble of rightness and can’t think of or conceive a world outside of that bubble. And I say this with the firsthand knowledge of a Type A, slightly OCD, overachieving, high school valedictorian who spent a solid two decades striving for correctness. So I urge you then to think of that bubble as bubble wrap. That rightness—your sense of what is true and correct about the world—protects you. It keeps your ego or pride from getting injured because, hey, being wrong sucks. But it can also suffocate you; living in the bubble can prevent you from taking the risks and chances that are, I think, essential to living a full, happy, successful life.
Right now, many of you may be sitting here pretty certain about what you want to be when you grow up. You’re going to be a nurse, or a teacher, or a computer programmer, or a business owner, or an accountant, or a journalist. Maybe. Or maybe you’re wrong.
And right now maybe you’re dating your high school boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’re certain this is the person you’re going to marry one day. Maybe. Or, as Schulz notes, maybe “something else” will happen instead.
What’s great—and scary—about embracing uncertainty is that it opens you up to more opportunities and possibilities than you might have ever imagined. And that’s what I want for you—I want MORE than you can consider and conceive in this very moment. I want you, in the next four or five years, to find your true passion—to hone in on what really makes you tick—and to be open to the fact that it may have nothing to do with the major you’ve already selected.
I know that may sound a little fluffy or idealistic. And I also know that your generation, Generation Z, is, as a whole, more pragmatic. Most of you were in elementary school during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and it’s likely that you have experienced firsthand, both in your families and in your communities, the financial struggles associated with that. You want economic and job security, and truthfully, who can blame you? I will be paying off student loan debt until 2033, when my youngest child will graduate from high school. I understand your desire to be able to provide for and take care of yourselves and your future families. As a first-generation college student from a working class family, this was also my wish. But please—don’t let this desire for financial security be your only compass, or this journey that you are about to begin may become less meaningful, and in the long run, less satisfying.
When I was working on my master’s degree, I had a job as a professional writer for a company that matched people for different positions in new home sales based on how they responded to a personality survey. So I spent my days looking over their survey responses, making guesses about what they’d be good at, and then writing a report in which I would either recommend that the person be hired or not hired for a particular position. The money was good—especially for a single graduate student living on her own in metro Detroit. Three months on the job, I was offered the opportunity to stay on full-time, for more money, after I earned my master’s degree. The offer was appealing. It was more than enough money to take care of myself, and it also meant that I could stay close to my family. But it was a job—not the career I had envisioned—and the work felt rather meaningless. I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. If anything, I felt guilty because the reports I wrote often prevented people from getting jobs. So I left and got more serious about applying to doctoral programs.
Five months later, I moved six hours from home to take a position as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center at IUP-Punxsutawney. At the time, I felt completely uncertain about that decision. I hadn’t planned to move away to earn my PhD. In my head, I was going to school in Michigan. But all of my acceptance letters were from other states. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I was also very close to my grandparents—having lived with them for most of my life. I had never been to Pennsylvania, and all that I knew about Punxsutawney was from watching the film Groundhog Day, which, as it turns out, wasn’t even filmed there. I knew very little about where I was going—except that I was putting 360 miles between me and everything I DID know. It was a risky journey that started with hundreds of questions and zero answers. Coming from a busy, diverse suburb of Metro Detroit, the adjustment to life in rural PA was also a struggle for me. It took a long time for me to feel at home here, but when I started teaching first-year students at this university in 2010, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Don’t be afraid to change your major—research tells us that about half of you will anyway. Don’t be afraid to walk the less-beaten path—to make a tougher decision to pursue something about which you are truly passionate and about which you truly, truly care. I care about teaching. I care about my students. I care about this university. And most mornings—maybe not every single morning—but most mornings, I want to go to work. I hope that you all find and pursue your passion.
Opening yourself up to the possibility that you are wrong also allows you to see the world as it isn’t—to see the potential for change. Schulz calls this the “miracle” of your mind—that you don’t just see what’s here, but that you also see what’s not here—that you can envision your communities and this world as places that could be different and that could be better. And when you dwell in a place of uncertainty and possibility, you are also more likely to take the risks that are necessary to effect change, to create, and re-make your world—not just on personal level, but in a way that also positively affects others.
Seven years ago, Rich Lane and I applied for a grant to open a family literacy center here in Clarion. Our dream was for the community to have a place where learners of all ages, pre-K through adult, could receive free homework help, tutoring, GED preparation and other educational assistance that would be provided by Clarion University students. We saw that the community needed a place like this, and we wanted to make it happen. The Clarion Community Learning Workshop has now been open for five years and has provided educational services and programs for over 1200 individuals from Clarion and the surrounding communities. Over 600 Clarion University students from a variety of academic programs have served at the Workshop since 2013.
Creating the Workshop was a risky endeavor. A month after we opened, people actually weren’t banging down the door for free homework help. Go figure. And there were a few times when we thought, “Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe we got this all wrong.” It didn’t feel good to consider that we might fail and how that failure would reflect on us. But our potential regret was heightened by the time, energy, effort, and resources provided by several of our colleagues at the University who really believed in our project. We didn’t want to fail them, either. And although it all worked out in the end—it turns out there IS a market for free homework help—we had to become comfortable in a very uncomfortable and uncertain space for nearly a year. We had to keep moving forward all the while knowing we could be getting it all very wrong.
Creating the Workshop also meant taking an honest look at the world around us and seeing it as it wasn’t—and as it had the potential to be. This means asking questions: Why doesn’t a place like the Workshop exist? How could it happen? How can WE make it happen? When you live in a bubble of rightness, you don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. The world just IS—it is not as it COULD be. And right now, perhaps more than ever, we need to not only be able to see the possibility for change in our communities and our country, but we need to be able to risk our sense of rightness and correctness to put ourselves out there to make the change happen.
All of that being said, I DO like to be right; and if you need confirmation of that you can ask my husband or probably any of my colleagues in the front row. I don’t think the positive feeling we get from being right is something we can completely abandon or change or deny. But I have learned over the years that being able to say “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” has allowed me to become a better teacher, a better colleague, a better friend, and a better parent. I don’t have all the answers. And it drives my daughters, who are 9 and 3, absolutely nuts when I can’t answer their questions. And you know children ask a TON of questions. It would be much easier to lie to them and to just make it up as I go along. And I’m not saying I’ve never done that just to have some peace and quiet. I’m sure your parents occasionally made up some explanation to one of the 9,000,000,000 “but why?” questions that you asked as a child. But making it up just to be right serves little purpose as it teaches children that all questions have pretty simple answers. It also teaches them that their parents are near-perfect human beings who are never wrong. But…no pressure.
Knowing all the answers also serves me little purpose in the classroom, where my goals are to get students to see themselves as knowledgeable and to get them to ask questions as much as they seek answers. This means I often answer their questions with more questions. Admittedly, they find this irritating, and it takes a few weeks for them to figure out that I’m not being sarcastic or flippant when I respond to a question with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” I’m just being honest.
In my personal and professional relationships, at home and at work, I do my best to stay out of that bubble of rightness—as cozy, safe, and inviting at it sometimes appears—because I want to make this community a better place; because I want to continue to grow as a teacher and a scholar, and because I want to push my students to see a world of possibility and not plans. And that means I have to ask questions, take risks, get it wrong, ask more questions, and try again.
Starting this semester, I hope you will start to pop the bubble of your rightness and open yourselves up to being wrong. It may take years for you to find comfort in uncertainty and in strangers and for you to ask questions as often as you provide answers. But now is an excellent time to start practicing. At this moment you’ve already admitted, merely by being here, that there is more for you to learn—you’ve owned up to the fact that you don’t actually KNOW everything. And at this moment you are also surrounded by hundreds of complete strangers whom you also know little or nothing about. As scary as this may sound, there is no better time to push aside certainty, and to free yourself from what you think “will” happen in order to embrace all that “could.”
Leah Chambers has been an English professor at Clarion University since 2010. She specializes in teaching composition to first-year students and is also the coordinator of CU’s Freshman Inquiry Seminar Program. Her research interests include student retention and developing classroom strategies to support students through their first year. She lives in a small town 15 miles west of Clarion, PA with her husband, Tyler, an 8th grade Science teacher, and her two daughters, Ava and Mia. When’s she’s not teaching or writing about teaching, she enjoys running, baking and spending time with her children.