An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Felicia Wilks, Upper School director

On Friday, Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed back Upper School students at the opening assembly. Following is an excerpt from her speech.

One of the things I love most about the summer is how much time I have to read. It is truly my favorite hobby, but as you all know, the school year can make it difficult to read as much as I’d like. The best book I read this summer was a book by Hans Rosling, who created Gapminder, an online resource that uses data visualization tools to share global statistics. His book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, provides strategies for understanding the world based on facts, and not on our fears or our misinformed beliefs or biases.
Near the end of the book, Rosling makes a point that I take to heart. He asserts that we should all strive to be more humble and curious, saying, “Being humble...means being realistic about the extent of our knowledge… Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out. It means embracing facts that don’t fit your worldview and trying to understand their implications.”
His words made me reflect on my own journey toward being humbler about what I do know and more curious about what I don’t know. Like many people, I like to be right. Knowing the right answer inspires confidence and I’ve worked hard my entire life to be knowledgeable about the world in which I live. I can still remember what it felt like as a student, as early as 1st grade, to raise my hand in class knowing I had the right answer. The problem is, of course, that the world’s most important questions often don’t have a single right answer.

Over the years, I have tried to cultivate three mindsets and practices that have aided in my growth in humility and curiosity. These are things I have to work on every day and some days are better than others. When I have a good day, I get a glimpse of the transformational, ongoing learning Rosling describes in his book.

They are:

  1. Admitting when I’ve changed my mind
  2. Apologize directly when I am wrong
  3. Replacing judgement with curiosity

First practice. I worked in a Quaker school for many years and one of the concepts I learned there was that the truth is continually revealed - that none of us can determine alone the whole shape of the world, but that by putting our pieces of perspective together, that we can get a clearer picture of things. I am the sort of person who gets pretty passionate about my ideas. But if I stay open, sometimes I hear an idea that I’ve never thought of before, and my thinking shifts. At first, admitting that I had changed my thinking on a topic I’d argued strongly about felt like conceding defeat. But then I made a conscious move from debating to trying to engage in dialogue. Debate focuses on winning while dialogue focuses on an exchange of ideas, on learning. See what happens if you try to focus one of your conversations - especially a heated one where there’s some disagreement - on learning and understanding rather than on winning. Listen as carefully as you can to what the other person is saying. Resist the urge to begin forming your response while they talk. Give yourself the opportunity to learn something new and to change your mind.

Second: Being wrong and apologizing: I said earlier that I really enjoy being right. But much to my chagrin, I’m not actually always right. I try to make a practice of admitting when I am wrong and apologizing when my actions have a negative impact on someone else. However, an apology is not always enough, so I don’t expect anything in return for my apology. And I stay open to finding ways to further repair things if I can. Whenever I’ve had the courage and awareness to make a genuine apology, I have opened the way for a connection with someone else that is founded on mutual respect and honesty.
Often, it takes self-reflection to even notice that I’ve made a mistake. If I am moving too quickly, I can topple things and never notice that things are falling in my wake. So I’d also encourage you to reflect on your actions. Look around, and look back to see your impact on the people around you. And then build up the courage to try to fix things when you mess up. An important note: it is easy to get stuck in guilt about our mistakes that hurt other people. But guilt is inactive; It doesn’t change you or the situation for the better. Try to be as kind, as generous, and forgiving to yourself as you try to be with other people. Because self-reflection is an important example of curiosity: being curious about ourselves, and why we do the things we do and think the things we think can help us move closer to who we really want to be. Replace judgement with curiosity about yourself, too.

Which brings me to the last mindset on my list: replacing judgement with curiosity. The first thing most people think when someone disagrees with them is that the other person must be misinformed or ignorant. When I am faced with someone who holds a radically different opinion than me, I try to hold judgement at bay. I ask, “How did this person come to a conclusion so different from mine?” Whenever I do that, it leads to my learning something. And sometimes it has led to an unexpected connection. An example: My junior year of college I studied abroad in Kenya for several months. There was a young man on the trip who just rubbed me the wrong way from the very start. We disagreed on everything. And if I’m honest, I thought he was an idiot because he didn’t see how obviously right I always was. Since we were there together for three months, however, we had to spend time with each other. For most of the trip, we were responsible for making our meals in small teams. Of course he was on my team and of course I couldn’t cook. He was so patient with me - and he taught me how to sauté my first onion, which for anyone who cooks knows is the cornerstone of flavor in many dishes. As we cooked, he told me about his life at home in rural Virginia and what his family was like. It took more than one sautéed onion and many conversations, but by the end, I knew he was anything but an idiot. And while we didn’t become best friends, he certainly earned my respect - not just for teaching me key cooking tricks, but also for teaching me that it was foolish to make assumptions about someone I knew nothing about.

In being open to a variety of perspectives, I want to be clear that some things are just not okay. As I said on Tuesday, it is never okay to demean someone because of who they are, or because of some aspect of their identity. I call these things out when I encounter them. This is not always easy, but I do it. But even in telling someone that what they said was offensive, I try to be mindful of their dignity - I try to leave them room to move forward, to learn if there is learning to be done, and to continue the conversation. It’s calling someone in, instead of calling someone out. Calling in avoids shaming people for their mistakes. If we ultimately want to make things better - and if we care about the people we are talking to, practicing this grace - even while you highlight offenses, is important. Each of us has a perspective shaped by our particular experience. I try to stay open and respectful - I don’t know everyone’s story. I am personally grateful whenever someone tells me I’ve made a mistake - especially if I’ve made a mistake that hurt of offended someone. I am especially grateful when they tell me in a way that allows me to feel like I can move forward.
In her Ted Talk, the Olympic volleyball player Nicole Davis suggests that we ask "how can you get more reps at being your best self?" For me, listening for where people are coming from - especially when I disagree with them - is one of those exercises to grow my humility and curiosity. I will try to get in as many reps as I can this year. I hope you will join me by doing something each day that opens conversations and creates new connections with the people around you.