During the all-school assembly on April 24 of Spring Family Weekend, Cushing welcomed guest speaker Susan Peters ’69 to campus. While she pointed out that her journey and those of students today will likely be different, she chose to focus on the risks we all must take along the way and how to face them head-on. Below is an excerpt from her address.
One of the most interesting books that I read this year is entitled Black Swan. The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. A good and tragic example of this is the bombing of the World Trade Center. If we had been able to predict that each tower would have been taken out by a fuel-laden jet plane, we would have created patrols to prevent it from happening. Perhaps another example was the market meltdown in 2008 that touched my life quite profoundly when I saw that a company that we built and sold for a handsome price rapidly became quite worthless.
Not all Black Swan events are tragic. Other examples that have been cited include the Internet, personal computer, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But what doe this have to do with you, me, and Cushing Academy?
When I attended Cushing, the Friday and Saturday night ritual was to see if you could make it to the Kissing Tree and give your date a goodnight kiss before Mr. Morley came up the hill. If you lingered too long or, lets’ just say, were too enthusiastic, your name would be placed on a board on Monday morning and you lost the privilege of interacting with members of the opposite sex for a week. This risk was well known, highly predictable, could be managed, and hardly qualified as a Black Swan risk.
The author of the Black Swan goes on to argue that the real winners of the future will be those who understand such risks, have the greatest resilience to negative events and the ability to exploit the positive events as challenging and potentially beneficial.
As I sat in your seat many years ago, I would not have been able to predict that I would be told that I could not have children, then adopt a child, then have a biological child, then have two additional children from the Sudan. Nor would I have predicted that I would end up as an executive recruiter and consultant after biology, law, securities finance, and running a horse farm. And don’t get me wrong -- I have deep admiration for those of you who right now want to be doctors, photographers, stay-at-home parents, or athletes and end up doing just that for the rest of your lives.
But that will not be the norm.
So allow me to bring this back to Cushing. It is in fact a school that has taken amazing positive risks, and has been resilient to the negative. Cushing took an enormous risk when my daughter Yar, who was illiterate when she arrived in the U.S., gradated from Cushing after the faculty members grouped together and formed a tutoring tag-team to get her through, graduated magna cum laude from college last year, attended the White House Correspondents Dinner as a spokeswoman for the stolen and abused women of Africa. It is her story and her story that we hope to be able to tell together one day.
I do not have all the answers of what it means to understand and embrace risk, and I do not expect that any of you do either. But I do believe that what you have come to understand from your Cushing experience is that as students, your roots will serve you well and that you have been given a unique set of tools that emanate from Cushing’s unique culture, the tone set by its innovative and creative faculty, and its ability to understand and withstand risk and rapid change. I applaud you all for taking advantage of all that Cushing has to offer.