2010 Academy Commencement Address by Jeffrey S. Kimpton

Leaving the Bubble—to Fail Fast: Remarks from Academy Commencement

Honored graduates, trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, Academy alumni, family and friends, it is a privilege to speak to you today at these 48th commencement ceremonies of Interlochen Arts Academy. 

I hope you can feel the spirit of today as everyone in Kresge and all the staff, alumni and friends of Interlochen—focus their best wishes and greatest hopes for the future on you, the 2010 graduates of Interlochen Arts Academy. It is a day of boundless expectations.

My thoughts are reflections that frame a message for us to reflect upon during these last few minutes together.  The themes are the usual graduation fare: security and vulnerability, risk and failure, success or motivation.  They came from three sources: conversations with some of you, from an article shared by our new director of IT, and from a security guard named Juan at Miami International Airport.  All of these ideas fall under the title, Out of the Bubble… to Fail Fast.  It may seem an improbable pairing of ideas but bear with me; there is a story and a lesson here that I want you to remember long after the day is over.

Several times this year, students have accompanied me on my trips around the country.  And in those travels almost every student mentioned how great it was to get “out of the bubble.”  You even wrote me thank you notes; Dear President Kimpton, thank you for taking me out of the bubble.  It was awesome.”

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t heard this phrase before, ”the bubble” refers to this special land between the lakes as a rarified and almost utopian environment. We announce this place on big signs along the highway—art lives here. To some that may sound “cheesy”, but is a singularly true message; art truly does live here. You can’t walk around any place on this campus—and certainly not the last couple of days—and not be reminded of what happens here every day in extraordinary ways.  It’s a place where students have lived, worked, performed, created, grown and achieved in the arts and academics, created intense friendships, learned to manage failure and understand that the thrill of success can be exhilarating—and fleeting.  It is a rarified atmosphere in the bubble, but it has given much to you.

When Interlochen students speak of the bubble, they do so with humor, sarcasm, disdain or desires to get out, but rarely with the respect the bubble deserves! The bubble is often a metaphor—for rules, sign in, lights out, Thursday is Saturday, panini Mondays and omelet Thursdays, the uniform, the intensity of our daily schedule, of balancing a challenging workload between the arts and academics, the stress of preparing recitals or editing film or learning the lines to a play, of being a senior and traveling 10-12 different weekends to schools to audition.

But, in reality, the bubble is, well, its life.  And life always has some kind of routine, parameters and boundaries, constraints—and huge opportunities.  We all live and work in bubbles, whether here at Interlochen or Harvard or Michigan or NYU or USC; in business and education, in theater companies and symphony orchestras. So, graduates, remember this: Interlochen is NOT the only bubble in life.

In fact, I would contend that the Interlochen bubble performed just as it was designed to perform.  If we wish to think about this scientifically, your work in biology will affirm that many creatures big and small have a time of cocooning, during which they are protected and nurtured and given boundaries and experiences so that they can GROW.  And in an atmosphere of expectation and achievement, creativity and rigor, with faculty and facilities, classmates and friends of extraordinary diversity, interests, skills, creativity with unparalleled performance opportunities, you have grown. 

If there is frustration with being in the bubble too long, it comes from the fact that you have started to experience life “on the outside” earlier than any previous generations of student—much earlier.  Technology and media—laptops, wifi, the access and information of the web, media of every type,  frequent travels—have let today’s students experience life and see the world away from Interlochen in ways previous generations of Interlochen students never could.  Can you imagine what it was like here nearly 50 years ago, when your only contact with the outside world were the local newspapers they delivered to the dorms? No television; perhaps local AM radio; a weekly letter from mom and dad; no e-mail, texting or cell phone calls. And boys and girls walked into Stone Cafeteria on either side of a rope so they couldn’t touch one another!  Talk about a real bubble. 

Just as everything happens faster, quicker and with greater intensity, you are given more options and choices to create, make a difference and have an impact, earlier than previous generations.  You have been teased with the glimpses of life that lie beyond, and you’re ready to leave the nest.

As you prepare to leave, I think you need to give thanks for the bubble.  The bubble let you be you. Being inside it also helped you FIND you.  That process may have affirmed something you already knew, or confirmed questions or doubts; either way, it gave you a glimpse of who you can—or will—become when you leave here.

If we were up at 30,000 feet, we would be able to see the bubble that surrounds Interlochen cracking and tearing, like the eggshell of a baby bird as it pecks its way out into the world.  It is an age-old process that is part of life on this planet.  And so as president of Interlochen, by the powers vested in me by the process of life, I declare that you have officially left the bubble of Interlochen.

But wait a minute; the process isn’t that easy; be careful what you wish for, for it could be yours.  As you step out into the world, there are still rules, lots of rules and expectations – many more than what you found here at Interlochen.  So how do you use your experience from this bubble in the next one, and the next one, and the next one?

Here’s the second part of my thoughts: fail fast.

Fail fast was an idea brought by our new director of technology, Roger Valade.  Fail fast is a kind of evolutionary theory of failure. The idea of fail fast actually came from the theories of British physicist Freeman Dyson, retired professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.  Dyson proposes that undertaking huge projects too soon will almost always guarantee failure, because you never had the time to fix everything before you were expected to be successful.  He suggests that failure is, in fact, a vital part of success; and that the success of failure comes by knowing the size of the problem that you choose to solve or overcome, which leads to making the right incremental changes to create success from failure because you know how and what must change. Dyson is a strong believer that trial and error is an essential part of failure, but if you do fail, then do it quickly, or fail fast and move on. 

You can fail faster than previous generations. You have at your fingertips an amazing amount of opportunities, information and tools to “fail fast,” a set of options and choices from your life experiences that most will never have.  The key is taking the right amount of risk, mixing it with passion and courage, and going for it—again and again and again.

Finally, I want to tie all this together with a personal experience that I had this spring.  It connects all the ideas we have already covered and is linked to the larger question, why art matters?

This past March, as I was leaving Miami after watching our dancers at the National High School Dance Festival, I struck up a conversation with a friendly officer from transportation security. The fellow was giving me the usual pat-down. (My titanium knee sets off the metal-detectors.)  His name was Juan, and he was in his late 20s.  He asked what I did and I told him and he began asking multiple questions about the creative process and how you develop it. This was a long way from the usual “no gels and liquids” speech! 

We finished the pat-down and I was putting my shoes on when he came over to me. “May I ask you a question?”  I said sure, and he asked: “how do you know that the art that you make is worth anything?  How do you know its value?” 

I thought about it for a second before telling him that sometimes the value in a work of art is only known to the creator, and in the act of creating.  But over time, that creative process develops a work of art that can speak to the souls and hearts and minds of others. If that happens, then there is a far greater value. But it is that process, from the original creation to the shared experience of appreciation, that makes us see, think, feel, listen differently.  That is why art matters.

Then Juan said something that made this routine trip through security a really profound experience.  “So do you have kids in your school that are doing visual art?”  I said yes.  And he looked down at the floor and said, “I used to draw, constantly, and I was good, but my parents told me I was wasting my time.  So I went to business school.  And look at me now – patting people down all day.”

And I reminded him that it is never too late to create. “Start now, follow your passion. Keep trying.  Fail fast.” 

And so my friends, it is time for the graduates of the Academy class of 2010 to go on their way.  Travel safely.  Make wise choices.  Do the right thing.  Keep in touch.  Visit often.  Fail fast.  Remember Interlochen.   Learn, love, and lead.  It is your destiny.