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Bringing Our Best Selves to the Table: A Responsibility We Owe to Our Students

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Some individuals who have lived through serious tragic or traumatic events are able to rise above the fray and help others in richer and more fulsome ways. Think about the Boston Marathon survivors. Think about Nelson Mandela. Think about Christopher Reeves.

Examples abound. I just finished Tom Greene's newest novel, The Headmaster's Wife, born out of his personal tragedy and trauma; he was able to create and then share a story, a disguised version of real life events, which is at once moving and uplifting.

The capacity to rise above or navigate through tragedy and trauma -- whether small t or big T trauma -- is something that scholars, authors, educators and psychiatrists, are increasingly addressing and debating. Who rises up and why? What accounts for some individuals' exceptional abilities, often against all odds, to see beyond themselves? How can we help others acquire whatever it is that will enable them to move onward with greater ease? To be sure, should we find the magic "it" (that is likely multiple "its"), we should bottle it up because, over a lifetime, tragedy and trauma, albeit in differing degrees, will touch us all.

Lately, though, I have been reflecting on how we can bring our best selves to the table in the absence of tragedy and large or small-t trauma. What can motivate us to "pivot right," to step up to help others (and perhaps ourselves in the process)? This is an issue in the workplace for both employers and employees; in educational settings for students, parents, teachers and staff; in families, among friends and within relationships.

Surely, this is (or should be) a challenge for leaders: finding pathways to bring out the best in others, a necessary precondition of which is bringing out our own best selves. And, despite the hue and cry surrounding the autonomy and selfishness of this and recent generations, I have a sense that this perception is exaggerated. Stated differently, while I appreciate Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation, I think we may be short-selling the current generations (individuals those who lived through 9/11, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Katrina ,Hurricane Sandy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) We have not recognized or tapped into these generations' considerable capacities -- capacities that enable them to look beyond themselves and consider the effect their actions have on others. They can bring their best selves to the table.

I was recently at a Chamber Music Concert at Lincoln Center featuring the youthful Escher Quartet. They were playing, with pianist Wu Han, a largely unknown work by 20th century Russian composer Sergei Taneyev. The violist, Pierre Lapointe, wrote a Playbill Note about the impending performance.

He explained that the last time he played this particular piece, he felt "a deep sense of responsibility... for the audience's experience and to the composer himself." He continued:

[C]omposers like Mozart, Beethoven and Ravel do not need that much help, especially from me, but lesser-known composers... are more vulnerable to harm from poor performances of their work. If my quartet would one day play a poor performance of a Beethoven string quartet in concert... Beethoven's reputation would remain untouched... However, Taneyev's reputation was somewhat in our hands... and people were judging him based on our performance of his work.

These observations got me thinking about many professionals -- across the disciplines -- who work at the many institutions lacking a "brand-name." We work for places more like the composer Taneyev than the composers Mozart and Beethoven. The reputations of our institutions and our graduates are not a forgone conclusion. Our SVC reputation is vastly more vulnerable if we perform poorly. In other words, the success of our institutions and our students requires that we bring our best selves to the table each and every day. And, like Lapointe observed related to his playing, we have a responsibility to "step it up" lest people who do not know us or trust us judge us in an unflattering way. In short, when one cannot rest on laurels, one needs to demonstrate extraordinary effort and talent and commitment.

I have always said that our faculty, staff and students "do us proud." After reflecting on Lapointe's observations about Taneyev, I can also add that, collectively, our best effort is needed for our students day in and day out -- and that itself is a remarkable motivator. "Being needed," then, creates an opportunity for extraordinary and meaningful work. These last two generations certainly have the capacity to do that; they understand and appreciate the importance of assisting others and engaging in work that matters.