My son works at Union College in Schenectady as director of the Academic Opportunity Program. AOP helps disadvantaged students succeed in college. My son started there four years ago, so he had worked with the 2012 graduating students from when they first started as freshman. The graduation rate of that group was 100 percent, a remarkable accomplishment for them and for him.
One evening, my son called to ask if I would give the keynote speech at the 2012 AOP graduation ceremony. I knew he thought I would be flattered, but I told him it made me feel nervous. He said: “You speak to groups all the time. How could you possibly be nervous?” But you know there’s always that lingering doubt, that little voice inside you that says, “Maybe I won’t be good enough this time. Maybe they won’t like me.” After all, I was 70 years old and they were young college students. What could I possibly have to say that they would find meaningful?
Later that evening, I got excited and sat down at my computer and all that I wanted to say came flowing out. I was tapping into my imagination and creativity. I sent my son an email the next morning and told him that working on the speech was fun and was like making cotton candy.
You see, when I was in college, I worked for two summers at the old Glen Park in Williamsville. One of the things I did was to run the cotton candy machine. You’ve probably seen one – a metal drum. You turn it on to start the center part spinning and heating up. When it’s hot enough, you pour colored sugar into it – usually pink or blue. The sugar melts and the spun cotton candy gathers in the drum. Then you take a paper cone and move it around the drum until it is covered with cotton candy. Imagine that!
So where did my initial nervousness and fear of failure come from? And where did the excitement and inspiration come from?
I believe they both came from the same place – that small, young, vulnerable self we carry inside us, the self that reflects how we looked at the world as a child. And all of the people who loved us or wounded us. I have come to see that the love never dies and the wounds never entirely heal. That’s the truth of our lives.
So what do we do with that inner voice that sometimes discounts us? The one that says maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe I’m not lovable, maybe I won’t succeed, even maybe I don’t deserve to succeed. Well, we can’t pay too much attention to the negative messages, or we won’t ever take risks for fear of failure or rejection. Ultimately, we need to embrace that part of ourselves because that’s where our creativity and imagination and invention come from. It’s why artists, musicians, writers, actors and inventors work hard not to lose their childlike sense of vulnerability and wonder.
I’ve also come to see from my own life and from those I am close to that that inner voice is always with us. Even when there’s pain there, it’s not a good idea to build a wall around it. Sometimes near the wound lies the gift. When we make peace with that part of ourselves, we can unleash our imagination, our creativity and our potential. We can become a whole person.
So, I decided that whenever I feel insecure, I’m going to be thankful for that young, vulnerable part of myself – and I’m going to imagine making cotton candy!
I knew what I had to say to the students, and now I’ve shared it with you, too.