Thursday, May 21, 2009

css commencement address

Welcome to the Clear Spring School 2009 commencement. We are here to celebrate the successful completion of a 4 year course of Study at the Clear Spring High School, and we are all gathered here also to wish the future success to our graduates. I think it is reasonable at this time to ask the question, what is success?

I have been reading a few books lately that are related. One is Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers, The Story of Success which explores the success of a number of world renown individuals, another is Richard Sennett’s the Craftsman and two others are by author Illustrator Chris Monroe and are called Monkey with a Tool Belt and Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem. These may seem an odd collection of books.

Sennett’s Craftsman and Gladwell’s Outliers have a simple thing in common. Both mention what has become known as the 10,000 hour rule... that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something, to become world class in skill and professional understanding. As an example, offered in Outliers, Bill Gates had logged nearly 10,000 hours of programming time before he dropped out of Harvard to found his company Microsoft. In the case of the Beatles, over a thousand performances in clubs in Hamburg, Germany provided the necessary practice time before their introduction on the world stage. One observer noted, “They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back.” Now, here’s the math... you apply yourself to something for 40 hours per week and for 50 weeks per year and that takes 5 years to equal 10,000 hours. That’s a pretty big commitment of time. And or course it makes a difference whether or not the commitment is made to something worthwhile. You could, if you wanted, spend 10,000 hours watching the Simpsons, (here I’m not offering a suggestion) have Bart’s every word memorized by heart and have little new meaning to share with others.

Richard Sennett’s book is about Craftsmanship, rather than success but offers a bit more understanding of what success really is and what gaining it really requires. Whether working in wood, writing words on paper, logging lines of code or shaping musical notes to travel through the air into the ears and hearts of others, practice of craftsmanship involves a constant dialog between success and failure, testing what works against what won’t... finding a balance that leads you onward toward new development and growth. It is a matter of testing things. They either work and work well or they don’t. If we were never to risk failure, success would never come. Success and failure are inseparably entwined in the exercise of skill. And so, success is really a small thing that is best measured and observed moment by moment.

As parents and teachers, we might feel inclined to offer our children and students the perfectly paved path to success with a big capital S, but to do so would deprive them of something very important, that of imagining and creating a future of their own crafted of all those small successes involved in the development of craftsmanship. Worse, it would deprive them of the rewards of self-satisfaction and confidence that arise facing obstacles on their own and of their own making.

Finnish Neurophysiologist Matti Berström notes that what he calls the black game and white game are both required in raising children. The white game he describes as the game parents and teachers want children to play for reasons of their own... the rules of the white game are established by the preceding generations and based on assumptions from the past. The black game is the seat of the pants game in which the rules are made up as kids go along. In the black game, limits are pushed and tested, mistakes are made, and risks and failure are as just as important as safety and success. Berström notes that human culture must arise anew in each generation and that the black game is as essential to each generation as those values the preceding generations would wish to impart. The black game prepares our children for the future that those of previous generations cannot imagine.

Monkey with a Tool Belt and Monkey with a Tool belt and the Noisy Problem are intended for children from 3 to 10 years old and offer some important life lessons for us all. The Monkey wearing his tool belt at all times, even to bed, goes through life in his small community solving problems, fixing things and making life better for others with his imaginative and always handy tools. You may be able to guess that of these books, Monkey with a Tool Belt books are my favorites.

In Outliers, Gladwell’s examples of success are big names like Bill Gates, the Beatles and Yo Yo Ma, but I suggest that the real meaning of success is not often found on the world stage or national arena, but within small communities in which we, like Monkey with a tool belt spend thousands of hours making life better for each other. All these books, Outliers, the Craftsman, and Monkey with a Tool Belt express the important role of community in the individual’s attainment of success. In Outliers, we learn that Bill Gates commitment of thousands of hours in programming time was made possible by his attending an independent school with unprecedented access to one of the world’s most advanced computer networks. In Monkey with a Tool Belt, nothing brings greater joy than to have fixed things or made things, improving the quality of life for others.

And so, I have wishes for the graduating class of 2009. I wish you small failures in equal measure with small successes that drive you on to serve and be served, forming your very special place within community. If you happen to spend 10,000 hours at something, may it be a commitment that imparts great meaning to your life, and may your success be measured in things you have solved, fixed, improved and made better for others and yourself.


  1. Like the 10,000 hours concept. I've been a parent now for nine and a half years - I make that over 64,000 waking hours. Perhaps I'll start getting the hang of it soon....

    Haven't come across 'Monkey with a Tool-Belt' before - have just done an impulse before breakfast buy on Amazon! A great review of it here -

    as well.

  2. Anonymous5:08 AM

    Well said.