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Steve Nowicki to Students: Achievement Is an Invitation

Duke dean tells first-year students to look forward

Dean Steve Nowicki takes a photo of the Class of 2016 at the undergraduate convocation Wednesday.  Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
Dean Steve Nowicki takes a photo of the Class of 2016 at the undergraduate convocation Wednesday. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

Thank you, Mr. President, and welcome, Class of 2016!  Before I start, let me ask a favor of you.  You see, I want to send a "tweet" about you and need to include a picture.  So everyone smile and, on three, shout as loud as you can: "Let's go Duke"!

Now give me just a second to send this tweet: "At Convocation w/#Duke2016 who are #AWESOME!"  OK, sent.  Let's get started.

A remarkable thing happened about two weeks ago, an accomplishment that was the culmination of an extraordinary amount of inspiration, intelligence, and hard work.  A one-ton robot-with-wheels reached Mars after racing for eight months through interplanetary space, arriving at a speed of about 13,000 mph and then somehow landing on the surface of that planet seven minutes later, exactly where planned and with only the gentlest of bumps.  Just consider what had to happen for this roving laboratory to have made it there safely!

Landing softly on Mars is particularly hard because the atmosphere is too thin for parachutes alone, but at the same time the air is too thick to land with rockets alone.  So NASA had to use a whole bag of tricks, beginning with a parachute to grab ahold of what atmosphere there is, followed by a rocket-powered backpack that took over when the parachute had done as much as it could.  And then -- because all this still wasn't enough -- a sky crane, of all things, was used to gently lower the rover, named Curiosity, the last 20 yards to the surface.  This landing required the entry vehicle to change its shape -- like a Transformer -- six times in seven minutes, it needed the largest supersonic parachute ever built to work perfectly without having been fully tested, it required 76 different rockets and explosive devices to fire at just the right time, and it needed more than half a million lines of computer code to allow the robotic rover to handle all of this on its own. What an extraordinary achievement!

Your arrival here at Duke, while perhaps not fraught with the same technical challenges, is also a remarkable achievement, and also the culmination of an extraordinary amount of inspiration, intelligence, and hard work.  In this country alone, over 4 million kids went to high school the same time you did; the number world-wide is of course much, much larger.  About 32,000 of those kids eventually applied to Duke.  And here you are, only seventeen hundred of you -- a vanishingly small percentage of people your age around the world – sitting here today, making up Duke's distinguished Class of 2016.  You didn't have to travel 350 million miles (although I know some of you came quite far!) and you didn't have to slow from 13,000 mph to zero while plunging through the atmosphere to land on East Campus.  But you did have to work for years -- diligently, creatively, and intelligently -- to have made it here.  Like the landing of Curiosity on Mars, your arrival at Duke is a remarkable achievement and one worth celebrating.

But let's think for a moment about what Curiosity's achievement really is.  As incredible as it was to successfully land this thing on Mars, simply getting there wasn't the point!  No scientist or engineer ever said, "Hey, let's see if we can land a 1-ton machine on Mars just for the hell of it."  Or if someone did say that, nobody was going to spend two and a half billion dollars to see it done.  No -- the point of landing Curiosity on Mars was not the landing itself, but what comes next.  The important work for Curiosity is just beginning and it'll last for the next several years.  The important achievements to come from this Mars rover mission are what's in store for its future, not what it accomplished a couple of weeks ago.

The same is true for you.  As wonderful an achievement as it is for you to have landed on Planet Duke, what's really important is what lies ahead.  If your only achievement over the next four years is to have gotten admitted to Duke, then -- truth be told -- you really won't have achieved much at all.  Same as for the Mars rover, your mission is just beginning and your truly important achievements lie ahead.

Actually, this is always the case.  As you go on to achieve things in this world, there'll always be the potential for an even greater achievement in your future.  The next achievement of the Mars rover may be to find that there's a lot of water on that planet.  That would be an important discovery.  But if Curiosity does find this, do you think NASA will decide to turn the thing off, saying "That's enough for this mission, let's call it a day."  Of course not.  If they find water, then maybe next they'll find evidence for organic matter -- the kinds of molecules associated with living things.  That would be amazing, too, but not the end, because it would just lead to the question of whether there ever were – or maybe still are! -- actual living things on that planet, like our Earthly microbes.  The cycle never stops. 

Imagine if Einstein, after having discovered what's called the "photoelectric effect" -- a turning point in our modern understanding of physics, and, in fact, the discovery that earned Einstein his Nobel prize -- imagine if he had decided that this singular achievement was enough, took it easy, and never went on to develop his theory of relativity.  Imagine if Beethoven, after writing his Fifth Symphony -- a defining point in the history of Western music -- imagine if he sat on his laurels after that and never went on to write the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth symphonies.  Imagine if Steve Jobs thought that producing the first Macintosh computer was enough and never went on to develop the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad.  Or imagine if JK Rowling had decided to stop writing after the first couple of Harry Potter books.  Imagine if Coach K thought to himself "One Olympic gold medal is enough," or "Three national championships are enough." 

My point is this:  Every achievement is an invitation to a new set of opportunities to achieve something more.  You've all achieved much in your lives, even at your young age – that's why you're sitting here in this Chapel.  And becoming part of Duke's Class of 2016 is perhaps your most recent great achievement.  But don't let it be your last.  Achievement is all about looking forward, not looking backward.

Let me be clear that I'm not advocating for a life of overachievement.  I'm not saying that you should think of collecting achievements like merit badges, so you can say you've done a lot of stuff -- that you've joined more clubs, taken more courses, had more internships, completed more majors, just for the sake of doing it.  Don't mistake doing something for achieving something.

What I am saying is this:  Now that you've been given this opportunity -- now that you've landed on Planet Duke -- it's time to look forward and ask yourself -- thoughtfully -- what do you want to do with this opportunity? what do you want to achieve next?

I'll go further and suggest this is a good habit to form.  At every point in your life when you feel you've accomplished something, you should both celebrate that accomplishment and use it as a touchstone for reflection, asking yourself, "Now that I've done this great thing, what does it allow me to do next?"

Here's another useful similarity to consider between your next few years at Duke and Curiosity's time on Mars:  Now that Curiosity has landed, you can be sure that NASA engineers have a full schedule for it worked out in advance.  But you can be equally sure that their plan is flexible.  The overarching goals of Curiosity's mission are well defined, but the specifics have to remain adaptable.  It if finds a particularly interesting rock, for example, it'll stay and analyze that rock for a while; if, on the other hand, its sensors detect something more interesting on the horizon, it'll motor over there and work on that other more interesting thing.  You get the idea -- what Curiosity does next at any point in its mission could -- and should! -- change depending on what it's found previously.

The same should be true for you as you embark on your own exploration here at Duke.  I'm sure you all have some kind of plan in mind.  This plan may be as specific as "become a brain surgeon" or "write the next Great American Novel," or your plan might be more general, such as "maybe I'll be a History major" (and let me reassure you, it's perfectly fine at this stage to have a more general plan like this!).  But whatever your plan, you'd be wise to remain open to changing that plan as you encounter new ideas, new insights, and new perspectives.  I know this from personal experience.  I went to college thinking I'd be a music major and then become a professional musician.  But along the way I took a biology class, and that class changed my life completely, leading me to a career as a research scientist instead.  I never would have guessed this could happen when I was sitting in your seat.  So stay open to new ideas and new prospects as you move through Duke -- the most significant achievements in life often come from unanticipated opportunities.

Now, I've likened your arrival at Duke to Curiosity's landing on Mars, but this analogy can only go so far. Let me point out some critical differences between you and that Mars rover.

Here's the first:  Although Curiosity can be reprogrammed and its work redirected in response to new opportunities, NASA engineers pretty much know its capabilities, what it can do and what it can't do.  Not so with you!  You know some of what you can do, but I'll bet you have yet to learn your full potential.  So a big part of your mission here at Duke will be to stretch yourself and find out what your limits truly are.  The way you do this is easy: try new things, go out of your way to meet people different from you, take a class in something you never thought you'd study or start an extracurricular activity that expands your boundaries.  Significant achievements often occur when someone stretches beyond what they think they're capable of doing.  Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, put it this way:  He said, "I am always doing things I can't do, that's how I get to do them."

Another big difference between you and the Mars rover -- perhaps the single most important difference for you to think about -- is that your primary mission is fundamentally different in one critical way.  Curiosity went to Mars to discover things about Mars.  You, on the other hand, did not come to Duke to discover things about Duke.  I expect you'll learn much about Duke itself during your four years here, and there are certainly things you'll learn about the rest of the world during that time (and maybe even about Mars). But the point of you being here is not for you to report back to your family some interesting facts about Duke, the way that Curiosity's mission is to report back about Mars.  Rather, the most important things you'll learn over the next four years will be about yourself.

Think of it this way:  Curiosity will never transmit the following message back to NASA:  "Mission Control, I've figured out what I really want to do with myself!"  You, on the other hand, are very likely to phone home in the next few years with a message that goes something like "Hey mom! Hey dad! I've figured what I really want to do with my life -- I want to ... [you fill in the blank]."  You've arrived at Duke to get an education, of course.  But the most important thing you can gain from this place is to better understand what your own passions are, how you want to use your talents, what you want to do with your life. 

Let me recap:  I've asked you to think carefully about what you want to achieve now that you've been given the opportunity of a Duke education.  I've told you should always look forward and ask "what's next," and I've suggested that you need to keep an open mind and take advantage of the unexpected.  I've asked you to stretch yourself, to try new things, to find your passions, and to let your own "curiosity" -- the trait, not the Mars rover – guide you.

Does that sound daunting?  Well, if so, let me end by reassuring you.  Now that you've landed on Planet Duke, you have our equivalent of Mission Control backing you up all the way.  Your faculty and staff, your fellow students and your new-found friends are all here in support of you, to give you whatever help you need and to make sure that you succeed.  Class of 2016, you have landed.  Now let's all get to work.