Recipient of the Dewey Prize, awarded to the member of the graduating class who presents the most creditable oration in point of composition and delivery at the commencement exercises.
Todd M. Hall, 2016 Phi Beta Kappa Speaker
I felt two impulses the morning I submitted the title of this speech. First: “Don’t mess up.” A professor warned me that when you begin a new job you will say this phrase to yourself before you do anything else. “Don’t mess up.” It precedes even the thought of trying to do well. Second, I felt the word unseamed perfectly articulated my message. Unseamed as a noun means the same thing as “seamless,” but as a verb refers to Shakespeare: unseamed is the word he used to describe Macbeth tearing apart his adversary.
Needless to say, I’ve never torn apart an adversary. But I have accidentally torn apart two pair of pants while dancing.
I first ripped my pants on a Friday night in Greylock Hall. When the DJ played a hit song, I bounded across the dance floor. I dropped quickly, on beat, into a squat deep enough to tear open an inconspicuous seam in my Olive green khakis. Thank God, the pants held together. A second seam had undergirded the first.
The next time, I wasn’t so lucky. On a different night, at a different party, I attempted another risky dance move. And this time, I destroyed the right leg of my wornout jeans, from from my knee to my hip.
I had messed up. I had literally unseamed myself. With my dance floor moves, I had become my own adversary — and exposed myself, I thought, to embarrassment. But as I walked back to my dorm, cold air rushing down my thigh, I laughed. I found humility and humor despite feeling exposed.
The words “don’t mess up” and “unseamed” converged literally on the dance floor. But many times at Williams, I wondered if I was fooling my peers, professors, and employers into thinking that I could dance, or lead, or write, or do whatever. I would hesitate, telling myself “don’t mess up,” expecting my next failure to unseam the facade that I believed my success rested upon. This feeling, a professor and mentor explained, is imposter syndrome.
I have no solution to imposter syndrome, but I know now that others feel it too. And I can also attest that humor, humility, perspective, and support from others allow me to work through it.
As you climb high in your field or drop low on the dance floor, you are bound to rip a seam. You may be self-critical, but don’t become your own enemy. When you feel exposed, know that you are yourself and not a sham. Your potential is real and you can learn from your failures. For example, I now do squats when choosing my dancing pants.
You will likely remember the phrase “Don’t mess up” and not just because I said it five times today. That phrase echoes incessantly through our selfcritical minds. For times when it stifles you, I leave you with a silly rhyme that you might remember in years to come: take a chance and do your dance, even if you rip your pants. It’ll be okay.
Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2016, the families, and the entire squad. Stay woke!