On June 7, 2016 I finally crossed the stage and graduated along with my fellow John Molson School of Business, JMSB, colleagues. I was also lucky to share the day with some of my students, making it an even more special event. To the class of 2016, I am incredibly proud of all your accomplishments.
Like most convocation ceremonies the graduating class was greeted by meaningful and insightful speeches from both the administration and faculty. However, the most powerful and profound of words came from our very own Valedictorian, Ms. Laura Mac Donald.
Laura spoke of her time spent at JMSB as a student and as a teaching assistant. She described her experience helping a diverse group of people from around the globe navigate the challenges of student life. She eloquently weaved the details of her story throughout her speech, lending credibility to her message and authenticity to her advice.
Laura concluded by offering the following words of wisdom. I am sharing it with you – my dear graduates of 2018, because it’s profound advice that applies to you too.
“Make interesting, glorious, amazing mistakes. They are worth the risk. Break rules, blaze trails, leave your comfort zone and trust your intuition.”
What a liberating concept!
I have been teaching for over a decade, and I make every attempt to create an environment in which people feel free to ask questions, make comments and share opinions. I also encourage my students to answer questions even if they are unsure of the correct response. I assure them that they will never be ridiculed for trying.
I do my best to convey that mistakes are a part of life and that we are all works in progress.
I even tout the sage advice, we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes. And when the going gets tough, which is when midterms are returned or final grades posted, I share stories of my mistakes (of which there are many), in an attempt to impart the notion that one’s failures are by no means an indication of ability or future potential.
And yet, as I was listening to Laura’s convocation speech, I realized that trying to motivate others to perceive their mistakes as growth opportunities or character building events, is very different than actually encouraging others to make mistakes. Or as Laura put it, encouraging others to make “interesting, glorious, amazing mistakes.”
I have been a long time student of positive psychology and when the subject matter permits I incorporate the latest findings from the field into classroom lectures and discussion. It is far easier, however, to have a discussion on post-traumatic growth or resiliency in a social psychology class, than it is a class on entrepreneurship, organizational behaviour or critical thinking.
I wonder, however, if that is not an oversight in management education. Wouldn’t our students, and by extension our employees, be more inclined to take risks if they had the tools to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again should things not turn out as anticipated? Wouldn’t they benefit from learning from their errors? Perhaps both management educators and managers themselves need to create forgiving environments that do not punish errors but celebrate effort.
There is great freedom in learning from failure and having the knowledge that one can overcome challenging events and setbacks. In fact, it is even possible to bounce back stronger and wiser from our mistakes. In other words, it is possible to nurture resilience.
I can’t help but think that some of my greatest mistakes have also been some of my most interesting life experiences.
And let us not forget that when we hold ourselves back from taking risks for fear of making mistakes, we expose ourselves to the perils of regret.
The research on regret is quite clear. People have a tendency of regretting the things that they never did, more than the things that they did do that did not turn out as planned. Such regrets loom large because they are only limited to the contents of our own creativity. This self-reproach mindset can be haunting as it continuously plays the “if only I….” soundtrack.
As you embark upon a new chapter in your life, whether as a recent grad or someone in transition, I hope that MacDonald’s words inspire you to “break rules, blaze trails, leave your comfort zone and trust your intuition. Be in a state of constant questioning, constant learning and growth. Make the world a more interesting place for you having lived in it. It will not be easy”, the Valedictorian explains, “but it will be a gift to both yourself and everyone around you.”
To your future success!