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Challenge Opens the Door to Opportunity

How will you enter the year ahead? How will you use your ingenuity to find success?


Can you raise your hand if you recall our opening meeting a year ago when I talked about our school being a ship sailing on the high seas and Raelyn Gonzales rang the bell on Zoom? Raise your hand if you do. It doesn’t look like too many hands are up. Bummer—I worked so hard on that speech. My point then was that we were carrying Prep with us in our hearts and minds even when we could not be here. And we succeeded in teaching, learning, and sustaining the community and spirit of Prep during a very challenging time.

But now, today, in August 2021, we are here together on land! And we are—under the beauty of a New Mexican sky—rooted in both the hills and arroyos of Santa Fe, and the grass, stone, and earth of our campus.

In Greek mythology, when the god Antaeus touched Earth, his mother, he was invincible. His power flowed from his connection to the earth. Similarly, I feel great energy being here with you in this particular space that has been occupied and loved by so many students and teachers before us. This space and place are synonymous with mentorship, achievement, and community.

As you listen to my story, please disregard the fact that Heracles, in combat with Antaeus, discovered the source of his strength, lifted him off the ground, and crushed him to death. That’s not my point.

Last year and the spring before it were challenging. There’s no denying it, and the Delta variant is serious, and something that we all wish was long behind us. Let’s keep our feet on the ground and be strong.

Yes, we have been challenged, and we have some choices about how we view those challenges, which might be critical to our future success. This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to a brilliant thinker: Dr. Dashun Wang from Northwestern Kellogg School of Business. Dr. Wang is the founder of the Center for Science of Science & Innovation. CSSI is a multidisciplinary community for thought leaders in such fields as computational social science, network science, artificial intelligence, and complex systems. Yes, you heard me right: his center is named the Center for Science of Science & Innovation. Recently he published an article entitled Hot Streaks in Artistic, Cultural, and Scientific Careers.

Dr. Wang studied what happens to people right before they have a big success or series of successes, which he calls a “hot streak.” And he found that successes do tend to come in what he calls bursts of high-impact works occurring in sequence.

Before the math department calls me out, though, please note that hot streaks in gambling and shooting a basketball are largely myths. But as Dr. Wang proves, hot streaks in careers aren’t. And the optimistic thing is that they can happen early, middle, and late in somebody’s career.

To prove his point, Dr. Wang looked at movie directors, Olympic athletes, and college professors. Is there any more diverse group of people than that? You might find it easy to imagine what a hot streak looks like for a movie director or an Olympic athlete and harder to imagine what a hot streak looks like for a college professor. Does that mean that they wear a lot of cardigan sweaters or something? The truth is that there is a very clear metric—he looked at the number of times their articles were cited by other researchers and the amount of funding their grant applications received.

If I’ve lost you already, please tune back into my channel. The amazing thing that Dr. Wang found was that early challenge and/or failure was more predictive of later career success than early success. And as I mentioned, he looked at it very objectively: ticket sales, medals, and the number of citations and grant money earned by academic papers.

How many of you followed the Olympics this summer? Dr. Wang’s research on the Olympics was fascinating; he found that people who won gold medals in the past tend to win gold medals in the future. That makes sense; Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles are a level above their competition and have been for a long time. But what he also found was that a fourth-place finish was more predictive of future success than a silver or a bronze medal. Finishing just off the podium, while an incredible achievement, is emotionally challenging. Fourth-place finishers had to go back to their hotel rooms and decide whether to watch the medal ceremony on TV. They found themselves on the outside looking in, and they were so, so close.

Dr. Wang found that the same thing is true with academic researchers. Professors who failed to get funded in their first grant applications are more likely to get funded in their next attempt than those who achieved early success. As with athletes, this was not because anybody took pity on them a second time. They responded to their challenges with increased creativity energy, which fueled their future success. While there is certainly such a thing as post-traumatic stress, there is equally such a thing as post-traumatic growth.

There are examples of this in the world of art, too. One of my favorite examples of post-traumatic growth comes from the Italian Renaissance. In 1401, the Cloth Merchants’ Guild decided to commission a second set of doors for the Florence Baptistery.

Artists contending for the commission were required to build a small sculpture depicting Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son, Isaac. After a great deal of debate and struggle, the commission went to the archrival of Filippo Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Both talented sculptors and architects Brunelleschi and Ghiberti competed vigorously for the patronage of the Medici and other wealthy Florentines. In defeat and humiliation after losing the commission, Brunelleschi left Florence and went to Rome for nearly 20 years. According to all reports, he spent nearly all that time being extraordinarily grumpy and studying the way the ancient Romans had built the Dome of the Pantheon—a skill that had been lost since antiquity, even in the High Renaissance. 

Later, still very grumpy, Brunelleschi was able to use the knowledge he gained to win the most lucrative and massive project Europe had seen since the fall of the Roman Empire: the commission to build the Duomo, still, one of the most innovative pieces of architecture ever created. Brunelleschi didn’t just win the competition—his design (again learned while in self-imposed exile in Rome) ensured the Duomo would be completed, even though it took an amazing 142 years to do so.

Let’s compare these examples to what we all went through last year. (By the way, I’m by no means characterizing last year as a failure. As I mentioned, I think it was a grand success, but it was a time of unpredictable and grinding challenges.) We all spent some time on the outside looking in.

  • I have to wonder, did these experiences make us, as often happens with fourth-place finishers, hungry to achieve at the higher level?
  • Like Brunelleschi, did we learn something that we can apply going forward?
  • Like Antaeus, can we draw our strength from the ground?

Let’s find out this year. Be proud of yourself and your school. We have much to look forward to this year. Thank you for being a part of it.

Aaron Schubach
Head of School