Below is the text of the Commencement Address presented by graduating senior Ben Wainmann at the 2013 Art Department Commencement Ceremony:
The last time I stood before an audience, things did not go very well:
It was a few weeks ago at the annual Honors Symposium and I was scheduled to give a brief presentation about my thesis project. Brief, is an overstatement to what my presentation was that day: as soon as I got up to the podium my mind went blank. It was over before I even started.
Today, however, I plan to spare myself the embarrassment and you the awkwardness—this time I came prepared.
It is an honor to stand before you today.
Traditionally the commencement address has been reserved for some notable figure, so having been invited to speak as an undergraduate is not only a great honor but also a very humbling privilege. Certainly, GPA is not a criterion when the department chooses its speaker.
I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. I attended an international school from which I graduated in 2008 and after a gap year I came to the University of North Carolina. I came to UNC thinking I wanted to major in business, obviously that is not the case.
I have always been drawn to art and when I came here I rediscovered it. I quickly realized that creating art makes me happy, so I am lucky enough to say that I found my passion. I must say though, that I am not an artist. I am an art-maker. Artist is a distinction to be earned and I am still working towards that.
I don’t know how much knowledge I can pass on—I am young, I have barely lived, and whatever achievements I have attained are rather miniscule. So instead I plan on sharing my experiences and the lessons I have learned over the last 4 years in hopes that you can take something from them.
I am not a “straight-A” student. I never have been: not before college and most definitely not while in college. Grades have never been important to me—numbers and rankings have always bothered me—in fact, over time I have developed some serious contempt towards them.
Grades, numbers and rankings bother me so much because of how easy it is to become overly invested in them, and this obsession, more often then not, causes us to lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing.
Looking back at these last 4 years I have come to realize that school is one thing and education is another. Grades can measure your schooling, but they cannot measure your education. Education simply cannot be quantified by an “A” a “B” or an “F”.
College gave me the opportunity to educate myself not through the broad range of courses it offered me, but rather by allowing me to find myself in many different circumstances.
Six months ago I found myself in one of the most serious situations of my life and I was forced to leave school. I left not knowing when or if I would come back. At that time, if someone had told me I would be graduating today with highest honors, let alone speaking in front of you, I would have not believed it—and you wouldn’t have either.
Over the next 28 days I got clean and I learned the three most important lessons of life and these lessons are: the importance of making mistakes, the importance of resilience and the importance of making your own opportunities.
A wise man, who also happens to be my father, told me early on that life is 80% strategy, 15% talent and 5% luck…that 80%, which is strategy, is where we have the most control. Learning from our wrongdoings, becoming resilient and making our own opportunities are what I believe make up this 80%.
Throughout life we receive some very mixed messages about making mistakes: we’re told that we learn by making them, but work tremendously hard to avoid them. They tell us no one is perfect, but being in the wrong is bad. This leaves us in the precarious state of knowing that we are going to make mistakes, but deep down, feeling that we shouldn’t. This was most certainly the case with me.
The question we need to ask ourselves is not “how to avoid making mistakes, or how to avoid being wrong?” but rather question how to work towards accepting our mistakes and our wrongs, and how we can learn from them.
Making a mistake leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed, and unlike being right, being wrong is deflating, and it’s embarrassing. One of our collective mistakes is thinking this way about making mistakes. We are mistaken of how we feel about mistakes.
There are many reasons why we make mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes because we try something new and we stray from accepted paths. Other times, we limit ourselves to our comfort zone in fear of being wrong or looking foolish and that is a mistake in and of itself.
If we fear messing up and we emphasize results over process and effort we miss opportunities to learn. For when we make mistakes we don’t just learn, we learn deeper, and that is because mistakes allow us to better understand the underlying truths of what we are trying to figure out.
Mistakes keep up us humble. And humility is important. Mistakes also teach us to forgive ourselves. But most importantly mistakes teach us to bounce back. Learning how to fail, come back, work harder, fall down, and get up again is crucial to succeeding. That, I learned, is called resilience.
Resilience is having the ability to recover from adversity. It is the capacity to both overcome and grow from difficult times. If we are resilient we can go from seeing difficulty as a possibly paralyzing event to merely a challenge. And a challenge can always be overcome.
When we are resilient we also begin to recognize opportunities. Opportunities are everywhere: they may not be obvious, they may not be handed to us on silver platters, but the resilient eye can surly discover them. Other times, however, we have to make our own opportunities.
Making our own opportunities requires us to set our fears of failure aside. To flirt with the possibility of not succeeding on our first, second or third attempts but having the confidence that hard work and effort will prove to be fruitful.
Making our own opportunities asks us be imaginative—to be creative. We need to be initiative and we need to be driven. But above all, we need to be resilient.
It has been said before that the greatest lessons are not learned in a classroom, and that, I have discovered, is the truth. The most important lessons I was taught happened not when I succeeded, but rather when I did not succeed. When I was down, not when I was up. Not when I was right, but rather when I was wrong.
Sometimes you need to make mistakes and I’m not talking about small and trivial mistakes, I mean really f***ing up. So I encourage you to f*** up. In fact, I encourage you to f*** up more. And from this, with some effort and some resilience the opportunity to make good just might show up.
And when it does, you take what you learned, you swallow your pride, and you work towards success.