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A Letter to My Students in the Midst of a Year of Unknowns

[This is a letter I wrote for my students who will start classes this week. However, I decided there were important lessons we could all take from it, so I'm sharing it with you here.]

“A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death. Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life. An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.” Lao-Tzu

This is a semester full of new things—new ways to learn, new ways to interact, new ways to grow. But change is scary for a lot of people. Our brains are designed to crave security and structure, and this semester doesn’t have as much of that as we are used to having. But here’s the thing, “hard” and “easy” are just made up words. They don’t even mean the same thing to everyone. What’s hard for me might be easy for you, and vice versa. So I have decided that this semester isn’t going to be hard or easy. Instead, it’s going to be exciting and full of opportunities to grow!

Maybe you think I sound like some Pollyanna who’s just going to ignore all of the difficulties? (you wouldn’t be the first person to think so) But I’m really not a Pollyanna. I come home tired and angry and demoralized sometimes. I have to make decisions I don’t want to make and do things I don’t want to do; I’m human after all. But a long time ago I made a choice about my life, and that choice is open to you too. Tired and angry and demoralized people do not make a positive impact on the world. They bring people down, and I want to be a BUILDER. I want people to leave my presence saying, “Wow! I can do anything I want to with my life!” I want people to look back on their interactions with me and say, “She believed in me!” Not because I am a professor, but because I am a human. I believe the best of humanity resides within us all, and at some point we decide to either cultivate it or choke it out with negativity. Don’t choose negativity. Growth is open to us all!

You know what else is open to us all? Failure! Stay with me here; I haven’t lost my mind. Failure is necessary on our growth journey, and I know you don’t like to hear that! I have students in my office every semester upset they earned a B instead of an A. A “B” is the same as “hard” or “easy.” It’s a made-up grade. You have decided it means failure. I have decided it means you are growing! Students want As. They have been taught in high school that they can memorize some information or recite some facts back to the teacher, and that ability earns an A. But I want to offer another model for your education, especially higher education.

What if instead of striving for a certain GPA, you decided you would put all of your energy into learning all you could about life and your classes and didn’t care what the grade was? Now, I know that scholarships are paid around GPAs, so my plan does have a tiny kink in it, but what if you felt free to fail? Not fail because you didn’t go to class or because you didn’t start your paper until the night before it was due (I see you out there, procrastinators!), but what if you felt free to get a B or even a C because you gave it your all but you didn’t quite master the material … yet. What if you looked at your education as a chance to try something new—to experiment and put it all out there, knowing you were going to learn something meaningful even if it kept you from a perfect “A”? What kinds of things are you capable of accomplishing with that attitude?

It’s a hard sell, I know. But perfectionism is a lie that makes us stagnant. Perfection is a myth, not a reality. Perfectionism makes us choose the safe option instead of trying something that might not work out but would be so valuable to our overall education. Getting out of our comfort zones is where learning happens! Perfectionism makes us procrastinate because we are so afraid of failing that we end up falling short and not doing our best work anyway; we’ve just managed to give ourselves an acceptable excuse for our failure instead of really committing to the process. I want you to master the process because it is the process that teaches you the valuable lessons of life, not a product.

Covid has brought change to our world. It has forced us into uncomfortable places. This is your chance to seize this semester and commit to making it a season of excitement and growth and maybe even a bit of failure! We have all laughed at memes of the negative things that have occurred in 2020, but what if this year is a gift to us? What if we can use this year to find the best in us? What’s the worst that can happen at this point?!? Much love!

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