This posting is adapted from a speech given at an Upper School Honor Roll Assembly by Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations.
If I were a student here, what aspect of the SBS culture would captivate me? What would my story be? I fully appreciate the importance of finding one’s voice, and I hear stories from alumnae about their experiences of discovering their own voices. But in my case, you need to understand that I grew up one of seven children, so if I didn’t learn quickly to have a voice I would never have survived in my family, let alone the real world.
What I truly love about the culture here at SBS is that you are encouraged to take risks. That is my story. Taking risks and never failing. Did you hear me right? Did I just say never failing? I did. Let me tell you why I believe this to be true.
After 12 years of Catholic schooling, I guess you could say I had learned to play it safe. I was an A student, an accomplished athlete, and a friend to everyone. All of these things seemed to come easily, naturally for me. However, I can’t really say I was living on the edge or stretching myself. I guess you could say I was the proverbial big fish in the small pond.
So one summer day before my senior year, while on vacation in New Hampshire, my father, four siblings and I were climbing out onto a jetty, a row of rocks that jutted into the surf. At this point, I had an epiphany: I never take any risks. So despite my fear of the ocean (rarely having gone in above my waist), I stripped down to my bathing suit, handed my clothes to a brother, and dove in. My family was amazed. But now that I was in the water, I had to swim to shore! I started to simulate swim strokes, but it probably looked more like flailing. I swam and swam and swam towards shore and eventually I got very tired. But I was only half way there. My dad shouted out to me, “Are you OK?” “Yeah. I’m tired though,” I breathlessly responded. He said that I should just stop and get out. “I can’t, it’s too deep and I’m scared,” I shouted back as I continued with my struggling strokes.” “Liz, just get out of the water!” he shouted again. “I can’t, it’s too deep and I’m scared.” Exhausted by his own attempts to reason with me, he finally yelled, “Liz stand up!” I was confused, but I listened and I stopped haphazardly splashing at the water and I stood up. The water, embarrassingly enough, was below my waist. My siblings were roaring with laughter, and I eventually joined the chorus.
So, I took the plunge, then I stood up. And I was still here.
Clearly, this turned out to be a safe risk, but I didn’t know it when I took the plunge. And life is kind of funny that way. We need to realize that the risks we take don’t need to be life-threatening to be scary. We might fall short, or shallow, of our goals, but that is when we can learn the most.
Taking a risk can involve knowing when to go towards something, but it can also mean knowing when to leave behind what might be perceived as the holy grail. After college, my first job was at the University of Notre Dame. I was 23, I didn’t even have a driver’s license and I had landed this incredible opportunity as an assistant coach. This job was supposed to pave the way to a lucrative head coaching career in big time basketball. However, after one year I risked losing that lucrative career and decided it was time for a change. I never did make it to big time basketball, but I didn’t fail. I found my niche in smaller colleges where I spent the next twenty years coaching college basketball at outstanding academic institutions. I took the plunge, I stood up and I was still here.
One early morning, in the fall of 2006, I was out for a walk and passed by a house where they were building a beautifully structured addition. I said, “That is what I want to do: build things.” Eight months later, I retired from coaching and opened my own business in home renovation and design. I still had my beautiful home, but I sold my cool car and bought a truck, my fine clothes were traded in for jeans, and I learned a great deal along the way. People hired me for some amazing projects over the next two and a half years. But then business slowed down as the economy tanked, and I needed to close the doors to my business. I took the plunge, I stood up and I was still here.
Now what do I do? I had given up a secure career for a short-lived business. Lo and behold, less than two miles from my home, was another golden opportunity. A small independent girls’ school was looking to fill a position in Development and Alumnae Relations. Once again, I didn’t know a soul and it was going to be a great challenge to learn and adjust to an entirely new career path. But I took the plunge, I stood up, and here I am at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. Would anyone dare say I failed?
I hope I didn’t make all of this sound easy. Because it certainly was not.
I believe there are key elements to taking risks and never failing:
- You need to surround yourself with good people – I have been incredibly fortunate in that department.
- The harder you work, the luckier you get.
- Prepare yourself and do your homework. These were not blind risks I was taking. I was always learning from the incredible people around me.
- It is OK to be uncomfortable. Learning is uncomfortable in an exciting and weird way.
- There is a difference between being prepared, and being ready – I’d rather be prepared.
- The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.
- I learned this last one from Pete Carill, a legendary men’s basketball Coach I worked with at Princeton University – “Whatever you are doing is the most important thing that you’re doing while you’re doing it.”
So I encourage you; take lots of plunges, keep standing up and you will still find yourself here.
I need to leave you with a poem. I had this poem on my wall in my office as a very young coach, and with every risk I take I continue to learn more and more about what it truly means.
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.
Congratulations to all of you who took risks this past trimester. Whether you made honor roll or not, if you took risks, stood up and are still here, you did not fail.
– Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations