First some good news:
The March, 2019 edition of DOWNBEAT magazine included a story about our annual summer jazz camp. “It’s clear that the five-day camp has touched a lot of people on the jazz scene around Oklahoma City. The camp experience mirrors what it’s like to attend UCO for a music degree and take part in the weekly jam sessions there.” UCO is increasingly “on the national map” for excellence in jazz education. Congratulations!
Now a story:
Achieving my undergraduate degree was a six-year, mapless meander through a wide-ranging landscape of academic pursuits. I test drove majors in political science, history, English, X-Ray technology, and journalism before finally arriving at a B.F.A. in painting, with a secondary emphasis in ceramics. Certain people undoubtedly perceived these academic detours as boondoggles, and branded me a failing, indecisive ne’er-do-well. However, I gained valuable insights and skills from each of those academic sorties. My classes in political science afforded me an understanding of citizenship and an ability to comprehend sociological processes. My partial majors in history, English and Journalism lent me a broader understanding of the humanities, and an ability to write. The year-and-a-half venture into X-Ray technology gained me a working knowledge of a medical profession, human biology, and a shared vocabulary with my wife, who is an Occupational Therapist. Those five false-starts, were essential “mistakes” during my metamorphosis into adulthood. As Maya Angelou said, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now”.
During my M.F.A. years at Notre Dame, my Riley Hall studio was located in what was once the chemistry building. In the same basement room where I struggled to infuse art with ideas, a faculty chemist named Julius A. Nieuwland, C.S.C., accidently discovered the molecular backbone of neoprene when the surprise result of mixing divinyl acetylene and Sulphur dichloride gelled into an unlooked-for rubbery substance. He mentioned this weird happenstance as an aside during an academic conference where a pair of chemists from Dupont were in attendance. They seized on the nearly discarded bit of research and the “accident” became the missing link in the creation of synthetic rubber, one of the more lucrative and important chemical discoveries of the 20th century. At Notre Dame they built a sprawling new science building and named it Nieuwland Hall.
One of the great dichotomies of our human experience is that we yearn for routine, knowing full-well that it is the chaotic stumbling about, the “not-knowing”, the accidents, the being pushed outside our comfort zone where the transformational moments of creativity and growth occur. Like misers, we hoard long-cherished beliefs and behavioral patterns with stubborn self-righteousness, while knowing in our hearts that the secret to self-transcendence is literally contingent on the discomfort of revolution. Growth requires metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is change. We cannot marinate in our established creative and professional routines and concurrently expect to experience any sort of transformation. If we want to become butterflies, we must abandon our lives as caterpillars, overcome fear of change, cocoon up, and visualize glittering wings.
The initial anxiety and discomfort integral to any transformational experience is an impediment to creative achievement. Too often our students fear making a misstep. There are societal forces at work, sirens singing that happiness is dependent on taking the right courses, matriculating through a sensible major in four years, and immediately scoring an internship with a prestigious corporation. Within this paradigm, the pebble of a single mediocrity catastrophizes into a boulder worthy of Sisyphus. The generation raised gawking into their phones at the carefully curated, Photoshopped and perfected lives of peers propagandized on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are so profoundly afraid of failure that they succumb to anxiety and depression at rates unheard of in American history. Students worry that fractional academic gaffes signal a terminal inability to achieve eventual success. We need to infuse our classes and conversations with the assurance that imperfections, “not-knowing”, detours, and frustration are often the exact alchemical ingredients that produce gold. Stumbling after stepping into the dark is often the first motion necessary to achieve ultimate success. Let’s remind ourselves and our students that the angst of abandoning the map is an essential element in the discovery of new domains. Life’s greatest successes are frequently the result of accidental alchemy, or ignoring the conventional wisdom of society’s G.P.S. Occasionally we need to toss the map, turn off Google Maps, and drive.