Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, graduates -- welcome to Commencement, 2019 -- the ninth in Pacific Ridge School's history.
One of the many things I love about working at Pacific Ridge is that we ask all of our academic leaders to teach a class. That means, each year, I have the privilege of working with a group of our students in the English classroom. And, yes, this year I taught a small handful of the young men and women sitting right over there.
One reason I love teaching is that, each year I learn something new from my class. That’s the things about teenagers, despite having taught middle and high school English for 24 years, there is always a new conversation, a new way of looking at things that provides me with fascinating food for thought.
Here’s a story from this year’s class. It is a pretty inconsequential one, but it did get me thinking…
Each time we start a new piece of literature in my class, I make a small assignment for my students out of bringing the right book to class on time.
For me it helps mark to the students that we are starting a new unit, and it gives them a little incentive for acquiring and bringing their book on the first day. The assignment has a whopping total value of 5 points. If they bring the book, they get an “A” for 5 points. If they don’t, they get a zero until they bring the book – at which time the tiny grade becomes a C-. I’ve been doing this for years… But this year, my class reacted in a way I had not seen before.
When the first shared text of the year came, a collection of stories called Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, the students all showed up with their books. I noted that they had them, and later entered an “A,” for the five points, into the gradebook. I thought nothing of it. A week or so later there was a bit of a rumbling going on in class. When I asked, “What’s going on?” The designated “spokesman,” cleared his throat and carefully asked, “How come we lose points if we bring in our book on time?” I cocked my head – a tad confused – and asked, “What do you mean?” The reply was simple – “How come we don’t get all 5 points if we bring in the book on time?”
I hadn’t thought about that before. Since I enter and “A” for the assignment, they get 4.75 points -- a full 5 points would be an “A+.”
So, I replied with this… “Well, in an English class, an ‘A+’ is reserved for exceptional work – and I am not really sure how you bring your book to class, ‘exceptionally well.’” A few grumbles ensued, a bit of playful banter, and then we moved on – I was sort of proud of myself -- I figured my argument was good enough, and we could move on with our lives.
Turns out I was wrong.
A few weeks later we started The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. On the day the class was to bring in the book something new happened. About half the class brought their copies of the classic American novel -- gift-wrapped, complete with ribbons and bows.
And, of course, the gift-wrapped books were accompanied by the question, “Is this bringing a book to class ‘exceptionally well?’” I just laughed, shook my head – perfectly defeated, and said, “yes!” For that assignment, those students received the full 5 points, an “A+.”
Like I said, this was a new one for me. And I wondered… “Would it continue?” Would members of the class continue to gift wrap their books so that they could get the 0.25 points that an A+ represents on such a miniscule assignment?
No. That was the only time.
Despite the fun of it all, and it was fun (I even took a few pictures), I think they realized that, in this case, getting the perfect grade was just not worth the effort.
And that brings me to the topic of this talk – the paradox of striving for perfection.
When is “perfect” the right answer and when is striving for perfection a fool’s errand?
As I see it, there are times in which “perfect” is the right goal, and there are times in which some version of imperfection is the far better objective. Deciding when something is “perfect enough” is a deeply personal choice. Let me give you an example of a perfection paradox -- Self-driving cars.
As most of us know, companies like Google and Uber are spending millions of dollars testing self-driving car technology. The sooner they perfect the technology, the sooner their companies, and the public, can reap the rewards and benefits.
But here’s the paradox – Before we start using them, just how “perfect” do self-driving cars need to be? Do they need to have a 0% accident rate? Or, do they just need to have a significantly lower accident rate than human drivers?
As with many perfection paradoxes, the answer comes down to your own personal beliefs. If you believe autonomous vehicles getting into fewer accidents than cars driven by humans is an improvement, then you might believe that a less than perfect result is appropriate. However, if you believe a single self-driving car fatality is one too many, then you might want to see the technology deployed only if it can achieve a perfect driving record.
So, think about it for a moment, for you, when should self-driving cars be deployed? When will they be “perfect” enough for you?
Now, of course, some situations or professions demand complete perfection – there is just no other way around it.
Jon Bowers, who works for the United Parcel Service training drivers to improve their safety records gave a TED Talk in 2017 – one that has been viewed more than 1.5 million times – in it he illustrates the concept of near perfection – 99.9%.
He points out that if the manufacturers of credit cards were only 99.9% accurate, the United States would have 1 million credit cards in circulation with the wrong magnetic strip or micro-chip. If pharmacists were 99.9% correct, each year 4.45 million prescriptions would be handed out inaccurately. And, yes, if doctors were only 99.9% accurate, 11 newborn children would be given to the wrong parents every single day. In these industries, people are achieving perfect, or near perfect records - far better than 99.9% - and, let’s face it, they should be.
So perfection does matter. And, the pursuit of perfection can be a driving force that improves work, technology, safety and communities.
However, when we think about perfection in our personal lives, the issue becomes murkier.
Here’s another perfection paradox, one that I think about all the time – adolescence and the high school experience.
Everyone knows and understands, that we learn so much more from failure than we do from success. And, we know that the teenage years are meant to be full of learning, growth, and mistakes.
So, what is the best high school experience? I would argue that a high school career in which a young person has achieved perfection by earning nothing but A’s and receiving every accolade imaginable is NOT the best experience. It might seem so, but, truly… has a young person with this kind of record grown and developed as much as possible? Probably not. If we really think about it, doesn’t the perfect high school experience include some kind of failure and imperfection?
Yet our society encourages high school students to strive for perfection and avoid failure. It is a paradox many students and families get caught in and, I will admit, institutions like Pacific Ridge are caught in that paradox too.
And, what about personal relationships? What versions of imperfection are we willing to accept from family members? Colleagues? Friends? What do we do when those people make mistakes? Do we shun them? Cast them out? Ignore them? Obviously not. If we demanded complete perfection from those that we love and with whom we work, we would find ourselves very alone in the world.
We have to make choices about what versions of perfection we must have and what versions of imperfection we are willing to accept.
Class of 2019, you are about to step into your lives as adults. Think with me for a moment about where you are and where you are headed. “Perfection” is often perceived as a goal, and one that is considered achievable. Are you headed off to the “perfect” college? Maybe then you’ll aim for the “perfect” grad school or the “perfect” first job in a “perfect” city? You see, as your life continues, the landscape becomes far more complex and nuanced than these somewhat simplistic ideals can support. And here is where I would like to share some advice.
The rest of your lives are going to be full of challenging choices. The kind of choices that you can only truly make through a deep understanding of your own selves.
Finding the critical balance between seeking perfection and not being paralyzed or side-tracked by it is deeply personal. In order to thrive in an environment that both demands perfection and requires generosity, you have to learn about yourself and understand what matters to you.
At Pacific Ridge, we have asked you frequently to think about this question and tried to give you ample opportunities to explore it. However, this kind of exploration and reflection is something that requires years to nurture as your lives change and expand. You’ve only just begun.
What versions of perfection will you be willing to pursue? What imperfections will you allow of your friends, your family, your partners? Of yourself? In what ways will you be generous with yourself and others, and in what ways will you be exacting?
Only you will come to know the answers for yourselves, and I encourage you to embrace that journey of self-discovery -- without delay.
The coming years are important ones for setting your path toward a purposeful life. And let me be clear: a purposeful life is not the same as a perfect life. But, if you understand what matters to you most and pursue those things with all your heart, the imperfect life you achieve may just be the perfect life for you. And, you only get one.
Now, I’d like to step back from this topic for a moment for you to receive our annual commencement messages from your teachers. My guess is that it will be a bit less
serious, but I know they will be just as sincere. Let’s hear what they have to say.
************ VIDEO of FACULTY FAREWELLS *************
Class of 2019, as you depart, I leave you with a few requests. They are my annual requests of our graduates – with a twist for this year, this class, this time.
First, seize the unique opportunities that come with each stage of your lives. Seek out opportunities to follow your interests – new and old. As you have done during your time here, look for ways to extend your current interests, while always keeping your eyes open for new passions as well.
Join the groups of people who are asking the most interesting and compelling questions.
Take up a new hobby.
Read books of varying of topics and genres. Maybe even pick up an old favorite from time to time.
Seek out communities that will help you recognize WHEN to strive for perfection and when to back off and be more generous with yourself, and with your peers.
Constantly ask yourself this important question… “Who and what is unique about this time and place in my life?”
Whatever the answers are, grab them and take advantage of them. They may be long lasting or they may be fleeting. But, if you remember to grow, to change, and to evolve, every decade will challenge and delight you.
But here is the trick... which leads me to my second request of you.
Every once in a while, ask yourself this question.
“Who, or what, has stayed with me, throughout all of my life?”
The answers to that question may be many or they may be few – but the answers mean something. If someone or something has stayed with you through all of the changes in your life – then it matters. It matters that someone who knew you when you were five still has importance to you when you are eighteen. It matters that some activities you loved in your youth still bring you peace or energy in adulthood.
Figure out the answers to that question, and then wrap your arms around those people, those things, as much as you possibly can.
Embracing the new and the old in your life will give you comfort and excitement. Embracing communities will keep things from moving too fast. Learning when to demand perfection and when to be generous will allow you to enjoy life and strive for more.
I hope for many of you, that Pacific Ridge School will be a place that remains part of your life – as you will always be part of ours.
But, now, it is time for you to leave this place. Something tells me you are ready to go, but, Class of 2019 – we will miss you. For however many years you have been with us, you have made Pacific Ridge School a better place.
Ladies and gentlemen - it is time. You are ready.
June 13, 2019