NSights Blog

Class of 2022: 'Start making those relationships now. We need each other.'

During his keynote address to the University's new students, Myrton Running Wolf stressed the value of "forming support systems that will lift you up when you fail."

(Editor's note: On Friday, Aug. 24, at Lawlor Events Center, Dr. Myrton Running Wolf, a professor in the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, delivered what has become an annual and highly anticipated occurrence during the New Student Ceremony: A keynote address delivered by a distinguished member of the University faculty. Below is the full text of Dr. Running Wolf's remarks.)

Class of 2018! How are you doing!?! Welcome, welcome! We are so glad you are here. We are honored you are here. We've been waiting for you. But I would be remiss if I didn't also welcome those of you from the Class of 2017! It's good you're here - taking that year off to think things over, to save up your money, maybe to go backpacking across Europe or the Himalayas. Welcome, friends! To the Class of 2016, welcome - taking an extra year to go to the beach after backpacking. It is good you're all here!

Congratulations, you are all now "The Class of 2022"!

You might be feeling a strange mix of excitement - orientation week, the first day of class, the first week of college - and anxiety. Because we all know it is out there ... waiting. It's on its way and there's nothing we can do about it. It's why we're here. It goes by many names - "The Final Exam", "The Midterm Exam", "The Research Project", "The Term Paper", the test, the quiz. Yes, it is on it's way. This is called the "Proficiency Model" and it is a very important part of your college experience. We need to measure, from time to time, your proficiency with all the knowledge and skills you are being imparted with. You need to know your progress and your growth.

When I got my first master's degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, I remember a classmate of mine standing up at orientation and saying how excited she was just to be there. And we all shared that excitement. But, in all honesty, we all felt that anxiety in the back of our minds. At New York University, NYU Tisch School of the Arts where I got my second master's degree, during orientation a lovely woman stepped on stage and told us she was from the university's behavioral and mental health department. And she said, "Welcome to college ... you all need therapy."

And she was right! What you're embarking on comes with anxiety and excitement, tears and laughter. It can be crazy making. And that is absolutely normal. There is nothing wrong if you're feeling this way. It's going to be alright; you're fine. You have so many people and resources around you to help you through this journey. You're going to be fine.

Maybe, in the last year or since your high school graduation, you've heard what now may seem like cliché advice - "Go out there and make big and courageous mistakes. Don't be afraid to fail miserably!" ... yeah, right. Because now that you're here, you may be saying to yourself, "Nuh-uh, Myrt. No way! Let someone else make the mistakes; I'll learn from them. What are you going to do - give me a big hug or a pat on the back when I get that 'C' or 'D' or fail that test?"

Um, no. I'm not going to give you a hug or a pat on the back. I want you to do well on that test, that term paper, that research project. Do not tell your instructor, "Well, Myrt said I should fail miserably." No, no. That is not at all what I'm saying.

You all are the tail end of the "Millennials." You kinda have somewhat of a bad wrap, right? Story goes, you get awards for just showing up. You get participation awards. I got a participation award once in the 5th grade. Remember "The Presidential Physical Fitness Awards"? You got that blue arm patch with the insignia for doing pushups, sit-ups, and the shuttle run? Well, I didn't get one. Here's the thing though - I turned out to be a college scholarship athlete, I got a full ride as a football player to a Division I-A university! I didn't want their lousy arm patch anyway. What I got, instead, was a block of wood that looked like someone just ripped it off of some old fence somewhere. It wasn't engraved or carved. It was just a block of wood that someone had hand-draw a picture of Charlie Brown on. You all know Charlie Brown? The Peanuts, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, and Franklin ... 'cause you gotta keep real, represent. But they drew Charlie Brown all tall and skinny, looking a little like a drug addict. Anybody know what Charlie Brown's nickname was? What his moniker or, for the academics and scholars, what his subtitle was?

"Born Loser". They gave me a block of wood with a hand-draw picture of the Born Loser on it. And underneath the picture was - "... I tried." My participation award was a block of wood with a born loser drawn on it with the subtitle "... I tried" written beneath it. Man, I threw that block of wood away! ... and I immediately felt bad because someone had taken the time to get that block of wood, draw that picture, and write those words ...
... I don't know why I'm confessing all this to you right now.

Yes, I do. We were talking about having the courage to fail miserably. When I got my Ph.D. from Stanford University, I was lucky enough to work with their Design School. And at Stanford's Design School, we embraced a philosophy called "Design Thinking". "Design Thinking" has now become something of a catch phrase - its own type of cliché that paints a picture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and progress. It started out in STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics - but it has worked its way into the humanities and business and the arts. It is everywhere. If you haven't heard of it yet, you will soon. At its heart, the way we approached "Design Thinking at Stanford" was a very simple idea - "Fail early and often to find the best answer quickly." I'll say that again, "Fail early and often to find the best answer quickly."

Here's the idea - when you bring a newborn baby home, the baby can't talk, can't walk, can't take care of itself, can't feed itself, change itself. It is helpless. But after a little while, the baby learns how to roll over on its stomach. You have to go turn the baby back over on its back because it's not good for the baby to be in the crib on its stomach, bad things can happen. But as soon as you do, the baby rolls back onto its stomach. You turn the baby over again, "Stop doing that, baby! You're going to hurt yourself." But the baby doesn't stop. Pretty soon the baby is up on its hands and knees. Sometimes it just stays that way shaking and crying not knowing what to do next. It's not funny, but you laugh anyway as the baby tries to take a crawl-step and falls smack down face-first into the crib mattress. Pretty soon though, the baby figures out crawling and makes its way over the the prison-crib bars and climbs up them. The baby is now standing doing the same shaking and crying routine it did when it first learned to crawl. Here's where you have to "baby proof" the whole house - plastic things in the electric sockets, clasps on the drawers and cupboard doors so the baby doesn't get to the poison chemicals, and everything is sprayed down with rubber so the baby doesn't trip and fall and hit its head on anything sharp. The baby takes that first step and BAM! Falls smack on its butt. You know you shouldn't laugh, but you do. The baby, sometimes still crying, dusts itself off, stands back up, and tries it again - one step, a second step, and BAM! It stands up again - a third and fourth step and we're off to the races!

That, my friends, is how we all learn. By failing down, making mistakes, crying a little, freaking out a little, getting back up and dusting ourselves off and trying again and again and again.

I applied to Stanford's Ph.D. program twice. The first time, I got letters of recommendation from Academy Award nominated writers, directors, and producers. I was working in Los Angeles at Disney ABC Television and worked with some amazing and wonderful people. I also got another letter of recommendation from the founder of my discipline - Performance Studies - whom I studied with at NYU. I wrote an amazing cover letter, a statement of purpose, and worked with a bunch of people who spell-checked it, checked it for punctuation and grammar, for flow ... made sure it was on point! My application had sparkles and fairy dust on it!!! I sent it off and just knew I was going to have turn down top colleges - "Sorry, Harvard ... Yale, can't make it ... Berkeley, my condolences but you're not my top choice." I waited a couple of weeks and nothing. I waited a month ... nothing. After two months, the small letters started arriving. "Thank you for your application. We had a gazillion submissions this year and the competition was stiff. Unfortunately, your application was not selected to move forward ..."

So, I called up Stanford and a few other schools I applied to. I remember the Stanford phone call, I wasn't mad. I asked them, "Hi, I'd like to send in my application again for next year." And they said, "Oh, that's okay, just send us an email and tell us you'd like your materials to be reconsidered for next year." I said, "No, I'd like to resubmit my application with a new cover letter, letters of recommendation, and all new application materials. So, if you can, I need you to reset your website because it won't let me upload new material."

And there was a long silence ... and then they said, "Okay?" - like they were asking me a question!

I had no idea that I was doing something that no one did. I was asking them to go through and delete, item by item, all the answers I had sent them the previous year. There was no protocol for this. Most people simply accept the rejection letter and go away forever. I didn't know I was supposed to do that! I thought I could just dust myself off, stand up, and try again. So I did. I had Stanford University change its entire application process and policy because I didn't know the rules. And then I said, "Also, I'd like to drive up and chat with someone about my application if that's alright?" ... there was another long silence ... "Okay?" So I drove up and met with their Student Services Officer, her name was Stephanie. After about chatting with Stephanie for about 5-10 minutes, she got up and closed her office door. She got all like secretive and stuff and started whispering. She said, "Okay, I'm going to give you the inside hookup. I'm going to give you insider information." So I started taking notes like we were top secret spies and stuff. And then she said, "I'm also going to hook you up with a current Ph.D. student who will drop even more insider information as someone who's been through the process!" I met with her over coffee and the same thing - after 5-10 minutes, she said, "I'm going to hook you up with insider information!" And I took more top secret notes! It was great! They gave me some great advice, but the thing they both mentioned was to read the books and scholarly articles written by the faculty of the department I was applying to. So I did.

But as I did, I was less and less interested in the amazing scholarship and ideas they were investigating. Instead, I was more and more interested in the people who wrote these works. Who were they? Why was it so important for them to write these incredible words? What was it they were hoping for? What possessed them to do this ground-breaking research? And I did get an interview, and that's what I asked them when I talked with them.

From that, I got the idea to work with people closer, to work with people who I cared about and who cared about me. See, I'm not great at "networking". It is hard for me - getting dressed up and eating finger food and drinking drinky-poos. It is an important part of adulthood and any professional occupation, and my hat is off to those amazing instructors you'll meet who are true masters of this important life skill. It's just not mine, you know? Standing up here in this gown - I'm 6'5" 240 lbs. - this is hard work for me, but I keep trying hard to master it. I will get there. It's just I've always wondered why am I spending more time chasing after and trying to impress strangers who don't know me or care about me than I do with the people who are standing next to me everyday? People who know my struggle, who know me, and care about me? So that's who I turned to.

I went to Truckee Meadows Community Colleges and asked two of my old instructors to write me new letters of recommendation. They know me and care about me as much as I know them and care about them. I wrote a new cover letter, statement of purpose. I told them about going out to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and talking with reservation gang members about changing the directions of their lives and trying education again ... maybe going to college. To make a long story short, that is how I became "Dr. Myrton Running Wolf" from Stanford University.

That's how you do it, my friends, when the anxiety comes. You reach out to those people who are standing right next to you, going through what you're going through, doing it with you. The people I reach out to for help today, whenever I'm working on academic stuff or professional media production stuff, are the people who stood beside me when we were going through the tough stuff ... not the people who I thought I had to impress, but the people who know me and care about me. Start making those relationships now. We need each other. Start forming support systems that will lift you up when you fall ... you'll know you're there where one of them falls and you catch them, set them back on their feet, dust them off, and help them start again. Connect with human beings, real human beings.

So, to the Class of 2018, welcome. We're glad you're here. To the Class of 2022, it's time to get to work. I'll see you soon. Thank you.

Myrton Running Wolf photo