Commencement Address to North Carolina Central University Class of 2011

By Norman B. Anderson, PhD
Friday, May 13, 2011


Good afternoon, everyone. To Chancellor Nelms, NCCU Board of Trustees, distinguished platform guests, faculty members, families and friends of the graduates, and of course those getting degrees today.

It is difficult to express how honored I am to have been asked to be the first commencement speaker for this special graduate and professional school ceremony and to receive this honorary degree.

This is a real homecoming for me since not only am I an NCCU alum, but I lived in Durham after graduate school for over a decade while teaching at Duke, and even got married two blocks from here at St. Titus’s Church.

NCCU is special to me for many reasons, but mainly because some of the most pivotal and important moments, decisions, and events in my life happened on this campus, even in this gymnasium, on the floor you are sitting on. One moment in particular occurred at the top of the stairs in section XX. More about that later.

Today is all about you, who are about to receive your graduate and professional degrees. Believe it or not, you now have more education than 92 percent of the U.S. population; You are now among the world’s educated elite, and you are positioned to be leaders in many fields of endeavor.

Despite all that, I have to say, frankly, folks, I am a little bit worried about you. I am worried about you because I know you sacrificed a lot to get here: You made career sacrifices, family sacrifices, financial sacrifices, and sacrifices in your personal lives, your time, even your sleep. I am worried about you because getting an advanced degree, especially when you sacrificed so much to obtain it, really raises the stakes on your careers. 

The expectations are higher – you expect more from yourselves. Others expect more from you.

Because of those heightened expectations, you might even be asking yourselves, “What is the payoff of all this going to be?  Was it worth the sacrifices? Was it a worthwhile investment of my time, energy, and money?”

Although there are many studies about how people with various degrees fare in the labor market, those studies say nothing about how you personally will fare.

Those studies obviously can’t say whether or not you’re going to make it.

Whether you have what it takes. Whether you’re going to be successful in your chosen profession.

Answering those questions is harder than ever these days because, as you know, nothing’s guaranteed – even with an advanced degree.

You all read the paper, watch the news and keep up with developments in your fields.  I don’t have to tell you how complex and unpredictable the world is.

Futurist Bob Johansen has even coined an acronym for the environment you are entering, which he calls VUCA:  Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Things are not so straightforward anymore. No matter where you end up working and what you are doing – whether in schools, law firms, government, research laboratories, corporations or non-profits – you will be faced with challenge after challenge after challenge, where there are no easy answers or solutions.

So my main source of worry is about whether you as individuals are truly positioned to make it in this era of complexity and uncertainty.

You are probably thinking why on earth did they invite this guy to my graduation?

But, I have faith in you – I believe you will be able to meet the challenges you are going to be faced with.  But, there is one big “if” with my assessment.

That “if” has to do with whether or not you adopt and embrace one thing. And that one thing is the right mindset about yourselves and your abilities.

Research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a distinguished Stanford University psychology professor, has found that most people have one of two types of mindsets (or core beliefs) about their intelligence and abilities: They either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

People who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is innate and fixed – you either have high intelligence or you don’t. You are either smart or you are not.

People who have a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable, and can change with effort.

Approximately 40 percent of people have a fixed mindset; about 40 percent have a growth mindset; and about 20 percent are undecided.

Through decades of psychological research by Dr. Dweck and others, we know that there are profound differences between people with the two mindsets. It is really quite astonishing.

Here are some characteristics of people with a fixed mindset:

People with a fixed mindset believe they have to look smart at all costs – they avoid anything that might threaten their belief that they are smart (because they believe you are either smart or not).

They believe that grades are more important than knowledge.

They are terrified of making mistakes.

They sometimes hide or distort negative feedback about their performance. It’s too threatening.

They avoid putting in too much effort on anything. (They believe smart people don’t have to work too hard.)

They often give up in the face of difficulties.

They don’t believe in that old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe in continuous learning.

They focus on improving their abilities, not looking smart.

They emphasize knowledge more than grades.

They believe in challenging themselves; they choose situations that “stretch” them – that even make them uncomfortable.

They persist in the face of difficulties and challenges.

They accept failure, mistakes and setbacks as part of the learning and growth process.

Interestingly, research has shown that when given a complex task to complete, people with a growth mindset show more brain activity in regions associated with increased effort than those with a fixed mindset.

So what? What difference does all this research on mindset make to you? I know this from personal experience.

Which brings me back to my time at NCCU.

As a freshman, the kindest thing you could have said about me was that I was “academically indifferent.” And believe me, that would have been a charitable assessment.

My main concern was being able to come to NCCU without a basketball scholarship, “walk on” and make the team, which I did; the only walk-on and only freshman on the team, practicing and playing on this very floor.

But, then I took my first psychology class next door with the greatest professor I ever had, Dr. Alfonso Davis, and it blew me away. I wanted to become a psychologist. Then I found out you had to get a Ph.D., and that getting into a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology was extraordinarily competitive.

That is where the gym stairs come in. A common basketball fitness exercise is running up and down the stairs of a gym again and again. In one such drill in the fall of 1974, I got to the top stairs in section XX, looked out the window and made a life-changing decision.

I decided that I needed to stop playing basketball to give myself time to grow academically. I didn’t know if I could change from an indifferent to a great student. I didn’t know if it would work out, but I knew I needed to try. The main thing I had to do was change my mindset about who I was as a student and what might be possible.

The bottom line for me is this – everything that I have achieved since that day in this gym 37 years ago is based in large part on the change in my mindset to one of growth, and the fostering of that growth mindset at NCCU.

So, am I saying anybody can be anything if they just change their mindset and work hard enough?

No! We all have some limitations to our potential determined largely by the interaction of our genes and life circumstances or other factors. Some people seem to be born with high levels of abilities in particular areas: Music, math, sports.

However, we don’t know, and can’t know, what limits there are on our ability to achieve.

Looking at a plant seed, you don’t know how big a plant or tree will become. It requires water and other things for its potential to be revealed.

A growth mindset is like your intellectual water that pushes you to your potential.

A fixed mindset is like a seed without water – if you are not careful, it can artificially and prematurely place limits on your achievement.

So why is this important to you, who are in the top 8 percent of educated people in the U.S.? 

Because a good number of you likely have a fixed mindset about your abilities, reinforced by amazing success in school. School has perhaps come easy for you, reinforcing the idea that you are really smart.

But as I noted earlier, this complex and unpredictable world is going to throw some challenges at you.

In fact, these challenges might even lead you to confront the “f” word. Yes, I am going to say it! – the F word is failure!

Failure is lurking around every corner, and in all likelihood you will experience some of that on a small scale or large scale. You may even fail repeatedly. Failure is such a hot topic that The Harvard Business Review devoted a special issue to it. They called it the failure issue.

Tavis Smiley even has a new book out on failure.

If failure happens, and you have a fixed mindset, the chances are good that you give up, or even avoid situations where the potential for failure is high.

But, with a growth mindset you are able to fail well. By fail well, I mean you are able to use failure as an opportunity for further growth.

Here are some people who at one point in their lives looked like major failures:

Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Wilma Rudolph, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, and a slew of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, U.S. presidents, gold medalists and others we now consider wildly successful.

Many successful companies once looked like failures: IBM, Apple, Continental Airlines and Adidas.

They all failed well because these people and companies had a growth orientation.

The good news is that mindsets, like intelligence, are changeable.

To learn more about this, I highly recommend you look at Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, “The New Psychology Of Success.”

In closing, let me end by saying a few words about NCCU in the context of a growth mindset. Under Chancellor Nelms, NCCU has continued an organizational growth mindset, which is in the tradition of NCCU founder Dr. James E. Sheppard.

There are some great things happening here that reflect an organizational growth mindset:

US News & World Report has ranked NCCU as the No. 1 public historically black college or university for two years in a row.

The university’s School of Law has been named the nation’s best value law school for two years in a row by National Jurist magazine.

With two biotechnology research institutes, NCCU is emerging as a leader in the study of health disparities — significant differences in the quality of health and health care across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

NCCU’s award-winning marching band, the Marching Sound Machine, was selected to perform on New Year’s Day, 2011, in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

NCCU was the first of North Carolina’s state-supported universities to require community service for graduation. Last year, NCCU students performed service to the community valued at more than $2 million.

Dr. Maya Angelou wrote a wonderful essay about how our ancestors, regardless of where they were from, made sacrifices for us. Here are some lines from that essay that are relevant to us today, and I quote:

“People you may never know are depending on you—because they have paid for you. Yes, you have been paid for. Your ancestors have paid for you already. And you owe something to them.

“Isn’t it wonderful to realize that you’ve been paid for by people who had no chance of even knowing what your name would be? Somehow, they paid for you—or you wouldn’t be here. So, your responsibility is to prepare yourself to pay for someone else who has just come, or who is yet to come.”

So, graduates, let us continue to grow as professionals and as people, and to help continue to the growth of NCCU for those who are yet to come.

Yours in truth and service.