The Ballerina Question

Last Friday I was in a presentation by four young alumni – two ’13 graduates who are working in Wake Forest Fellows positions (a one-year gig following graduation), and two ’12 graduates who have more permanent positions.  They were making a presentation about their reflections back to their student days, sharing what they wish their 23 year old selves knew when they were 18 or 19 and just starting Wake Forest.  All of these young alumni were exceptional students – high achieving academically, involved extracurricularly in many ways.

One of the pieces of advice given was [paraphrased] “I wish I had been more present and in the moment instead of always thinking ahead and worrying.  When I was in class, sometimes I was worrying about whatever was coming next or some other activity or person, instead of just enjoying the moment.  I could have been really focusing on the material I was learning, but my mind was in a million places instead.”

Another said something like this [again, paraphrased]  “I wish I had realized that the difference between getting a 93 and a 94 on something is really not that big a deal, and I could have used the time and energy on something else.”  In other words, it was not worth driving yourself crazy just to get that one extra point – a point that at the end of the day didn’t have an enormous impact on the overall grade.

Thinking about the perspective of young people and what we see anecdotally of this generation – huge ambition, eager to please, high achievers, but with an aversion to risking and potentially failing – led me to remember a conversation I had with a dear Wake Forest related friend.  She is a former professional ballerina, a weapons grade talent who has danced in major US cities and who has toured the world with prestigious companies.  She is teaching ballet now, and she was telling me once that one of her biggest struggles is to get her students to attempt big things, complicated jumps and such.

She said to me [more paraphrasing!] ‘The students don’t want to try because they are afraid to fall.  Do you have any idea how many times I fell flat on my face, on stage, in a tutu in a performance?  More times than I can tell you.’

My ballerina friend’s point was that she was willing as a student and as a professional dancer to try, to be bold – and I’d bet you your next Starbucks that 99% of the time she made the jumps and executed the moves perfectly.  But her fear of the potential of falling was not enough to keep her from making the attempt.

Which is something she isn’t seeing in some of her students.  They don’t want to try, lest they fail.

And until and unless these students try, they will never reach this ballerina’s level.

How can we help our students figure out that it is worth it to take the ballerina’s leap?  Even if they fall, they will learn something.  Is it better to keep your tutu pristine and unwrinkled?  Or is it better to try that jump, even if you stumble?

Therein lies the Ballerina Question.



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