Ever Tried, and Now Graduated

I graduated from the University of Saint Thomas on Saturday, walked out with a Master of Business Administration from the Opus College of Business. Which was a little surreal, as I had finished up all of my coursework in December and been mailed my diploma in February, and my wife had already thrown a surprise party for me. I really had thought that I had moved on, gotten on with the job of living. I had almost forgotten that I had planned to walk and the date totally crept up on me.

But over the course of Friday and the Beta Gamma Sigma honors ceremony, and the full commencement on Saturday, I became increasingly grateful that I had the chance to participate in graduation, and not just because it really meant that I had done it. One of the benefits of ceremonies, of events with ritual, is that they create a rhythm that allows for reflection, not just for yourself, but back on the other participants. As Archie Black, the commencement speaker, phrased one of his tenets in his remarks, “You can’t do it alone, and why would you want to?”

In the three and a half years that it took to complete the program, I took two new jobs, bought a house, got married, and had a baby, joined a nonprofit board, worked on theater projects and launched a national storytelling and resource hub. Looking around, talking to my fellow graduates, there were babies, job changes, moves, weddings and more reflected in their own experiences, with the lives that carried on while classes, group projects and late-night study sessions were fit in and often took precedence.

As with any ceremony like this, there was a moment to thank the spouses, parents, children, colleagues and co-workers who supported the graduates. I am thankful for the flexibility of the amazing artists of Springboard for the Arts and Savage Umbrella and the nonprofit whiz-kids of YNPN-TC for their willingness to bear with me. I am, obviously, outspokenly, eternally grateful for the patience of my family as I made my way though this program - I am grateful for their patience on a daily basis, and it was nice to have someone else thank them on my behalf this time around.

Unique to this MBA degree, there were many professors who shaped the experience to whom I owe a special debt. Thanks to Tom Ressler, whose brutally thorough statistics course and generous teaching style in my first semester set a standard for everything to come. Lisa Abendroth and John McVea gave me a one-two punch in Marketing and Entrepreneurship in what may have been the challenging semester of my academic career, and from which I am a better analyst and thinker. Susan Campion and her use of examples from outside of the usual suspects helped make operations management an interesting and engrossing subject. Jason Pattit helped tie it all together at the end, with a critical eye that demanded we make use of the program, and Al Tischler and Kevin Twohy gave me a great course in negotiations, which I use on a regular basis.

I am grateful also for the fundamental opportunity to try new things and to fail. An MBA, any education really, is no guarantee of future success, only a set of tools to help see and shape the world. Business programs often have a rap of being factories for captains of industry, where the bottom line takes precedence and profit rules. The faculty at Opus, with its mission-driven values of ethics, enduring value and the common good, helped create space to explore further than that. In fact, abandoning the  bloody-mindedness about success was one of the first, and most important moments of my MBA career.

In my first semester, we were assigned a group exercise in our Organizational Behaviors course. We are divided in to three groups, each with an assigned characteristic - one was stereotypically win-at-all-costs, one could only operate by consensus, one was supposed to be led by the women of the group. (Let’s not get into the assumptions behind those divisions here, it’s worth its own discussion.) Three decks of cards was shuffled and distributed, with the goal of trading amongst the groups to reclaim your entire deck. First group with a whole deck would be the winners.

A frenzy kicked off, and regardless of the assignment, the win-at-all-costs mentality and energy quickly filled the room, until we had reached a point where there were no more direct negotiations to be made - a three way trade would have to be worked out, but other groups were stonewalling. Now, if you’ve stood next to me watching football, you’ll know I like to compete. And when the rules are well defined and you have referees, then competition is checked and all well and good. But in a situation where the rules are more vague, competition can get away from you. There were, on the professor’s table, a host of spare cards - jokers and such - which were not initially distributed. In this stonewall situation, I picked up one of those cards and offered it to the team that had the card we needed to win. Thinking they were getting the card that they needed to win, they traded, only to wind up with a joker, while we put out cards down and declared victory. Which it was, but only technically - it’s an action and “win” that I reflect on a lot as I try and decide what to do.

Nico may have asked not to be confronted with her failures in “Chelsea Girl,” but she had not forgotten them. There were better solutions, although perhaps not quicker solutions, available. I could have taken the time to redefine success, to change what “winning” meant in the game, and to find different solutions. As my wife is fond of reminding me, “We have options.” Seeking to find those options and to negotiate better, grander, more inclusive outcomes has been a benefit of this educational path, and a critical lens that I try and use in every situation. I’m a fixer by nature, and want to do that as well and as widely as I can.

Both of the speakers at the honor ceremony and at the commencement made a point of telling us graduates to take the time to know and be ourselves. It is impossible to really do that, though, if you do lot put yourself in new and challenging situations. You may fail, but if you keep on failing, you can succeed. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” as Samuel Beckett put it. The last three years have been those small, building failures and little validations as the pool of resources for success has grown, and I am grateful for that. As the word “commencement” intimates, the work has begun.

Carl Atiya Swanson '15 M.B.A. is director of movement building at Springboard for the Arts. This post was originally published on his blog and is republished here with permission.