"Ruminations on Existential Questions, Habits of Mind and a Timeless Formula for Hiring," by Head of School Bob Henderson '76

From time to time I have a difficult day, and I turn for a lift to the very funny column “Ruminations” by Aaron Karo, which you can find on the Internet. Karo offers long lists of short, pithy observations on daily life that somehow help me place my own challenges in the proper perspective.  Recently I came across this one that seemed to capture both my mood and something more broadly significant:

“Life progresses through a series of questions.  “Can I have some juice?” becomes “Why is the sky blue?” becomes “Why doesn’t she like me?” becomes “How am I gonna pay the rent?” becomes “Will you marry me?” becomes “Is it a boy or a girl” becomes “Did you notice all these gray hairs?” becomes “Where are my teeth?”  And then, once again, “Can I have some juice?”  We are taught from an early age to question everything.  But I’ve spent far less time pondering life’s great existential crises than I have obsessing over life’s inconsequential annoyances.”

And therein lies the challenge.  I know for most of these graduating seniors sitting here before us these last few weeks have been accompanied by a swirl of mixed ideas and emotions.  There have been inconsequential annoyances, certainly, from the persistence of the dress code to the final paper due for that one teacher.  But looming over that has been the big picture, existential question of what has my time at this school meant and how do I feel about it.

I can promise that, as of today, the inconsequential annoyances will end (although you will hear from the Graduate Affairs and Development Offices for the rest of your life).  The existential question, however, of what to make of this experience, will linger.  For the majority of graduates, there is no complete clarity on that issue until later in life, as new challenges and opportunities come your way.  Then, perhaps, it will be much more obvious even than it is today what you took away from Nobles, and to whom you owe gratitude.

So what is it that I hope you are taking away?  This is the moment where school heads tend to fall back on quoting the mission of the school.  I will spare you that, as much as I do believe it is the essential guide for everything that goes on here.  Instead, I will share with you some thoughts about the world I believe you will enter and how you need to be equipped for it.    

Certainly you walk away from here with lots of knowledge in your heads, from chemical formulas, to mathematical models, to language proficiency, to writing skill and historical perspective.  But, to be completely honest, little of the specific information you have ingested will make much direct difference in the world you create for yourself after high school and college. What will make a difference are the habits of mind and character that you have fostered, because they will give you the chance to lead and make positive change.

Recently I read an article on the five attributes that Google looks for when they are hiring for all positions across their company, for both technical and non-technical jobs.  They are instructive, and they are the qualities for which I hope this school has laid the indelible foundation.

The first thing Google looks for is general cognitive ability. They specifically say that they do not mean I.Q by this.  Rather, they mean the ability to process ideas and information swiftly and clearly, the ability to pull together disparate data to form productive conclusions, and the ability to hear, understand, and connect the ideas of other people.

The second thing is leadership.  And by this they do not mean traditional heierarchical leadership. Instead, what they care about is the moment when you are faced with a problem or challenge; do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead.  And, just as important, do you step back and relinquish authority at the appropriate time to let others lead.  The essential quality here is whether you are an effective collaborator on a team.

Third is humility – do you have the ability to step back and accept the ideas of others.  Can you empathize with and understand people from profoundly different backgrounds, experiences and points of view?  Google asserts bluntly that, without humility, you are unable to learn.

The fourth attribute is ownership.  Do you step in and take responsibility for problems and challenges?  More importantly, they argue, successful, bright people rarely experience failure.  When it happens, it is especially hard.  Can you fully own your failures, which are an inevitable element of the human condition, and take complete reponsibility for them, and then grow and learn from them?

Finally, they emphasize the passion to be a life-long learner.  They ask, are you teachable?  They have learned that the most succesful people in their organization are zealots in search of new ideas and approaches, and they communicate those ideas and approaches forcefully and effectively.  But when they encounter a new fact or a better inspiration from someone else, they can readily acknowledge that reality.  They say they look for “people who have big egos and small egos in the same person at the same time.”

My point is not to say you should be prepared to obtain employment with Google.  Rather, I happen to believe that I seek precisely the same qualities in people to work at Nobles.  And, indeed, I think Google has identified a rather timeless formula for what a great education should foster. I think it will be as relevant in twenty years as it is today. So I say goodbye to you today with great affection, accompanied by the hope that your years here have laid the foundation for a life characterized by the passion for learning, with the capacity for leadership and collaboration, with sincere humility along with the perspective to own fully, and learn from, both your successes and failures.  I urge you to build on that foundation in the next stage of your education, and to enter the world with the wisdom, empathy and perspective to make the world a better place.

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"Ruminations on Existential Questions, Habits of Mind and a Timeless Formula for Hiring" by Head of School Bob Henderson '76
speech, head of school, graduation, class of 2014