2019 Commencement Address: Amy Johnson-Smith
Aaron Schubach: The Class of 2019 asked Amy Johnson-Smith to be their Commencement Speaker today. A highly respected member of our faculty, Amy has taught at CSS for 26 years. She is our Upper School English Department Chair and the Director of the Full Steam Ahead program.
Thank you, Mr. Schubach, and thank you, seniors, for asking me to speak to you today. After speaking to, with, and sometimes even at you for several years, this is truly an honor, especially in front of this illustrious audience of my family of colleagues, the CSS Board of Trustees, alumni, parents, grandparents, all you excited and proud family members (including some of my own), and the many future CSS seniors amongst you. This class is indeed dear to my heart, for I had the unusual pleasure of meeting half of them when they became my students in 7th grade English in a rogue year of my teaching two sections of Middle School. Back in 2013, those twelve amongst these 23 endeared themselves to me. I may have simply nursed an especially soft heart that year, but I still contend that they turned into absolute angels in my classroom. We bonded then, so when I watched those 12 walk back into El Pomar 213 as sophomores, picking up 8 more with them, I was so excited! Some of them stuck around with me for 11th grade, adding in the final 3, and then they all returned for yet another year of J-S English in their final year. Together, we’ve created a lot of memories — from Witch of Blackbird Pond movie trailers to Beowulf narrative projects to the pursuit of the American Dream to reenacting scenes from Macbeth and eating sushi and mochi together before reflecting on our own meanings of the word “home.” Creating memories with you has enriched my life, so I chose “creativity” as the central theme of today’s talk.
As I embarked on this journey of commencement speech writing, my mind drifted to a topic that has long fascinated me: the pursuit of dreams and creating reality out of even seemingly impossible dreams.
This daunting task requires some adventurous thinking and a leap of faith in many ways. Fortunately, I’m not the only one to recognize this. In fact, an entire school of thought has burgeoned for several decades, directing many of my wanderings as an educator, a parent, and a human being. That “school” is known as Design Thinking, and it is utilized in not only the worlds of art and design but also in business, computer science, and education. In fact, several of us attended a Design Thinking workshop for teachers a few years ago, and it persists as a model for fostering creativity and development in many arenas. When I recently asked my oldest son, a Microsoft UX Engineer, about the topic, he exclaimed that Design Thinking is the focus of his daily professional life. This creative process was first introduced in 1969 by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon and has since undergone several iterations. Today, I will delineate the most widely accepted model of Design Thinking created by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University in the early 2000s, right around the time that you seniors were created. This model involves the following five steps: Empathizing, Defining, Ideating, Prototyping, and Testing. Since I’ve often recommended to my writing students to accept a set organizational pattern when it’s handed to them, I followed my own advice here and shaped my address around these five principles. Doing so not only helps keep me organized but also allows for connections in the study of dreams and reality.
When an idea first comes to us in its most abstract form, Design Thinking advises empathizing with the needs of our audience. To empathize, one must understand the human needs involved in the creative endeavor. This, in turn, involves communicating with experts to understand their experiences and motivations. Empathy also allows design thinkers to set aside assumptions as they gain insight into the needs of their audience. Hence, my research began. Naturally, after working with these seniors day in and day out, I had compiled several assumptions about them that I did indeed have to set aside. I had to discover more details about my seniors who were the vital inspiration for this entire design process to begin with. Hmm…who were some experts I could ask without asking the seniors themselves? Who would know the origins of these individuals’ earliest dreams? Ah, when one wants originality, go to the origin. So I consulted the best experts on these students available: their parents. I asked these most esteemed experts to recall the seniors’ earliest visions of what they wanted to be when they grew up, and the wonderful stories flowed in. I took all those early dreams, sorted and categorized them, and allowed these seniors’ dreams to sculpt my message to them. You see? This empathy thing is great, and in Design Thinking, it’s the step with no limits, no judgments — just pure creative, imaginative thinking. I contemplated the information about dreams that I’d gathered from the experts, set aside my assumptions, and found wonderful ways to empathize with my subject matter. And so my creative endeavor began to take shape. By looking at your earliest dreams, seniors, I discovered connections between us as well as connections to this whole idea of “Design Thinking.” My research about you provided just the evidence I needed to illustrate the power of Design Thinking itself! Win-win-win!
So here we go! I knew that in the first stage of Empathy, we can be superhuman, so with delight, I discovered that I could easily empathize with some of my seniors’ earliest dreams for themselves. I myself, as a five-year-old, was determined to realize my dream: After spending countless hours putting on elaborate dance performances for my family in the living room, I knew in my heart that I was destined to be a Spanish dancer, not just someone who performs dances that originated in Spain, mind you, but actually a dancer who had real Spanish heritage. My mean older sisters, though, laughed at me, telling me I had a bit of a problem: I wasn’t Spanish. Nonetheless, I was not swayed, much like Zoe, future mermaid, who wasn’t born with a fishtail or underwater; or Jamie, the new alter-ego of Batman, who was not born as a skilled martial artist with an impressive armory or a clever butler named Alfred (at least not to my knowledge). Nay, my dreams were not daunted, only dented slightly, and I encourage you two to continue to follow those early dreams. Don’t let apparently insurmountable, fantastic obstacles get in your way.
Once you’ve been inspired and have empathized with others in the Design Thinking process, it’s time to define and re-frame a bit. During the Define stage, you put together the information you’ve created and gathered during the Empathize stage. This is where you analyze your observations and synthesize them to define core problems in a human-centered problem statement. I did this with the information about your dreams and in doing so, granted, I realized that some of our early dreams do indeed have a problem related to how remarkably difficult they might be for a human to achieve. OK, so I wasn’t Spanish; I got that. It was a problem, a very human problem. Sabrina, I know you wanted to be a Cirque du Soleil performer, and you still can be, but let’s identify the human-centered problems here: can you currently contort into shapes no human should be able to form at will? Do you have any experience on trapezes yet? If not, it’s OK, but we need to at least acknowledge the human limitations here. And Miles, I can definitely see you as the alligator wrestler you dreamed of becoming, but do you own an alligator to practice with? And will your college allow you to take one with you? Now, I refuse to frame these human-centered problems as limitations, for that would counter much of the entire philosophy surrounding Design Thinking itself. Instead, I pose these so-called problems to you as temporary obstacles that I believe you may certainly overcome, for growth mindset is an inherent part of the entire process itself. You two can do this — it’s all in the way you think about it.
Now, some of you apparently skipped the whole superhuman phase entirely and defined early on a dream of something more down to earth. Tyler, for instance, who loved anything “dinosaur,” could definitely become a paleontologist as planned or may even bring that ill-fated Jurassic Park out of the fictional phase, and Joosung, who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian or zoologist in the wilds of Africa could realize those early, defined dreams. Likewise, Sabryn could also still become a veterinarian — in fact, you and Joosung could start a practice together, and Payton’s designs on culinary arts, which have now morphed into more mouth-related topics like dentistry, are completely within reach. Not surprisingly, Jack felt a pull to become a scientist even from a young age. He’s on the right track for realizing that goal, to be sure. These young dreamers felt definite dreams in their future, albeit ones with few unrealistic obstacles in their way.
Yes, some of you dreamed like I did of becoming the improbable, and others of you were more practical and defined a more realistic dream. Even if that dream has changed, you were the pragmatic ones who set your own limits early on.
Still others of you apparently dreamed in the third stage of the Design Thinking process, for you recognized some limits and decided to search for options. During the third stage, Ideation, designers are ready to start generating ideas and exploring what is possible. You’ve grown to understand your dreams in terms of the realities surrounding you, and you’ve analyzed and synthesized your observations in the Define stage. With this solid background, you start to “think outside the box” to identify new solutions to the problems you’ve identified, and you can start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problems.
I did this, too — just more gradually. I decided that perhaps my sisters were right. By the time I turned 10, I accepted the fact that I could never be a Spanish dancer, so instead I decided to become a cardiologist. I pored over my mom’s old nursing school books and took copious notes about the heart to accelerate my way to med school. I sketched aortas and vena cavas, chambers and membranes, and even forgot about dancing for a little while. Like Hannah, who wanted to be an astronaut, and I quote, “like really bad” but who then very practically said, “But if I can’t be an astronaut, I want to be a marine biologist,” I too found options for my dreams. And I can relate to Amber, who initially wanted to be a flight attendant. Later, she thought about being a lawyer, but that didn’t last long. Then it was an actor or a director. And I respect Reese’s openness to dreaming of being a dancer or singer or waitress. Reese, I believe in you — you can become all three at once. Or Victoria who kept so many options open by wanting to be a “firefighting culinary connoisseur veterinary ballerina by day and an ER doctor by night.” Wow! What’s not to admire there? These young dreamers did not limit themselves; instead, they explored options and left many doors open.
So we’ve had the fantastic, the practical, the alternatives. The next step in Design Thinking involves investigating prototypes and experimenting with solutions to identified problems. I, for one, started taking dance lessons and discovered that even if I could not change my heritage, I could at least learn some techniques. So I experimented in Modern and Ballet and Jazz, perhaps subconsciously avoiding the elusive Flamenco and Merengue. I continued my dance experiments, and much to my delight, I eventually was able to gloat to my cynical big sisters when, even though I still hadn’t miraculously become culturally or certainly not linguistically Spanish, I did land the role of the Cuban dancer in my high school’s production of Guys and Dolls. By the way, those big sisters actually turned out pretty great and became my biggest supporters and best friends, too. See? Lots of fantastic dreams do come true.
Like me, many of you seniors have realized at least some of your early dreams, too, through experimenting with prototypes. For instance, Luke built his first computer at age 12; Jan has repeatedly practiced his dream of being a “take-aparter and fixer”; Grace, with early visions of being a professional barrel racer, has definitely tried out this dream, as many of us witnessed last night. Molly has investigated what marine biology is like by becoming scuba certified, and Haddie experimented with interior design by designing her mom’s office and decorating her room when only 9. Likewise, we have several athletic superstar dreamers in our midst who prototyped their dreams either early or continuing to this day: Jacky planned on becoming a professional hockey goalie and John, a professional football player. Steph went so far with his dream of becoming a professional basketball player that he chose his English name to honor his NBA idol Steph Curry, and Katherine proved her own reality of becoming a professional soccer player by setting many records this year for the CSS soccer team. Of course, Prototyping helps us realize not only what works, but also what doesn’t. Take for instance, Matthew, aka “Doc” Chavez who aspired, either through an early dream or simply some fortuitous family initials, to become a doctor, until he decided in middle school that he hated science, or me, who abandoned my cardiology dreams when I hit chemistry on the block plan at Colorado College.
As creative designers, prototypers investigate problems in our designs, experiment, and identify possible solutions to the problems inherent in our dreams. We either accept, improve, re-examine, or reject those dreams based on the evidence in our discoveries. And receiving feedback from others as well as our personal sense of success or failure helps us continue to shape and iterate our dream prototypes to discover which ones work and which ones do not. Through these prototypes, we can develop a better sense of how our dreams could or could not become realities.
And we finally reach the last step of the Design Thinking process: Testing. After moving through my earliest fantastic dreams where I defined problems, explored alternatives, and experimented with prototypes, by midway through college, I finally tested a dream I had never imagined before. I had realized by then that dancing, Spanish or otherwise, was my passionate hobby, and living the demanding life of a doctor actually had nothing to do with what I prioritized most in my life. So I started volunteering in schools, testing out some new dreams. By the third semester when I helped out at my own high school alma mater, I had discovered my passion, one I had never before dreamed of: teaching. Seniors, you are about to embark on a period of life full of serious testing of all kinds. Fear not, though; instead, embrace these times as true opportunities for trying out your dreams and discovering new ones.
The 5-stage Stanford model is an “iterative process,” and indeed it was for me, and it will be for you, too. Dreaming rarely follows a linear path. It’s often random and sudden and surprising. Design Thinking is like this, too, for although the process itself is iterative, it is not prescriptive. Reflective of life itself, Design Thinking steps often occur out of order and offer new and exciting ways of looking at sometimes old ideas. For you see? Creative Design Thinking need never end. We must continue to create seemingly impossible ideas, define the problems we may face along the way, ideate alternatives to solve those problems, prototype ways to achieve our dreams, and then test those ways, even if we discover that those ways lead us to brand new dreams. We refine, we deliver, we redefine when necessary, we adapt to make even our most fantastic dreams our realities, and we repeat the process.
So, seniors, head off to the next chapter of your life, ready to create who you dream of becoming. Exalt who you were, celebrate who you are, and anticipate with joy who you will be; and then repeat endlessly.