How to adult

UQ graduate and former Duchesne College leader Grace Shuttleworth returned to campus recently to share some words of wisdom with current students. Read her speech in full below.

Good evening to Head of College Kate Tully, Dean of Studies Denis Brosnan, members of the Duchesne College council, distinguished guests and of course, good evening gals.

Now I know that anyone who has been forced to endure one of my student club meetings is probably shuddering to see me in control of this microphone again, but I promise to keep it short tonight.

I was extremely flattered to be invited to speak tonight, but I’m also wildly unqualified and a pretty massive hypocrite when it comes to advice. I’m trying to become an adult. I’m trying to get people to treat me like an adult. And through this process I’ve come to accept that the only way to truly do this is to treat myself like one. Tonight I’m going to share with you three lessons that have helped me do so.

Lesson number one: Everything is YOUR FAULT.

The notion of extreme ownership was pioneered by ex-Navy Seal Jocko Willink. Now this philosophy may sound harsh at first, but it is a solution to its own problem. Extreme ownership is an empowering notion in today’s society. It’s safe to say that in life we haven’t been told that everything is our fault. In fact, some of us may go our entire youths not being told that anything significant is our fault.

Our circumstances have been dictated by society, right? Women are underrepresented in STEM careers. Poverty is cyclical. Racist employers will throw out your resume if you have an ‘ethnic’ sounding name.

Is there some truth to these statements? Of course there is. But it is our willingness and tendency to overweight these variables when assessing outcomes in life that are detrimental.

There is a model of depression known as learned helplessness. It posits that if you put a puppy in a room where half the floor will electrocute it and half will not, the puppy walks to the safe side of the room. When you put the puppy in a room where the whole floor will electrocute it, then the puppy lies down and accepts his lot. When you put these shocked dogs back in the room with the safe zone, they still make no attempt to move. They have been taught that no matter what they do, they cannot escape the lot they’ve been given in life.

The bad news is that yes, this experiment was performed on actual puppies. Here’s the good news: you are not in a room with an electrocuting floor. Everything is YOUR FAULT. But everything is also within your power to change. If the blame no longer lies within an intangible social construct or a hypothetical electric floor then we mustn’t allow ourselves to believe that we are helpless.

Every single person in this room has the power to change their circumstance. No matter how small the first steps are, and no matter how large scale the change needs to be, we are held accountable for being complicit in our own learned helplessness. Because only when we take full ownership of the mistakes we make, can we also truly take ownership of our successes.

Lesson number two: FAIL PUBLICLY.

I’m currently completing my thesis in the psychology of education. And I could bore you with all the studies and meta-analyses that have shown how having our failures corrected results in better learning than getting it right the first time around. However, I’m a sucker for an extended metaphor and will use one whenever possible.

Studying psychological science I have heard plenty of the whole ‘yeah, but it’s not a REAL science, is it?’ rhetoric over the past four years. One of the ways a science can be labelled as such is through displays of experimental, replicable effects. The key word here is replicable. There’s no point in one researcher showing that one person’s cortisol levels went up when shown a picture of a black man holding a gun and then proclaiming that all humans are racist. There’s got to be some consistency to the effect. The second researcher will come along and test it with pictures of white and black men and discover that it’s actually just the gun that made people stress out.

So psychology, as a domain of science, is in a bit of hot water at the moment. Many famous effects that have never been disproved are all of a sudden becoming irreproducible. All the major journals are freaking the heck out as the very cornerstones of our ‘science’ crumble around us. So much so that they aptly named it the Replicability Crisis. So what changed? Are we fundamentally different now from what we were all those years ago?

No. We just ignored all the early warning signs. Researchers have been working on these problems for years, and essentially any inability to replicate a finding was seen not as a sign that the theory was wrong, but that they had failed to find it properly. So out of 50 projects analysing the same thing, only five find the effect. All of them get published, and the remaining 45 get burned and never see the light of day due to the potential shame of besmirching the good name of psychological science. The ‘failures’ are buried, despite the fact that they could have told us so much more about what was really going on.

So where am I actually going with this? Our successes are great. They confirm that we’re doing the right thing and we’re good at it. But they don’t teach us anything new at all. Our failures are the only opportunities to actually dig down and understand more about the world. And we can’t hide them. To fail publicly is to show the world where it needs improvement. It draws attention to a deficit, and if enough people are living with the same struggle the productive conversation about how to fix it becomes imperative.

And the final lesson: GET OFFENDED

This concept is pretty easy to sum up with just one anecdote. Daryl Davis is the encapsulation of an accidental courtesy. He is an African American man and was working as a musician in a bar in the 70s when he was called over to a patron’s table after one of his sets. This white man was completely in awe of his prowess and just simply could not believe he had heard such beautiful sounds being produced by a black man. In fact, he admitted to Davis that this is the first time in his life he’d ever sat across from a black man and had a drink. Now it was the 70s. Hardly a politically correct time but definitely a pretty integrated society. Davis naturally enquired as to why this was the case and the man answered quite simply that it was because he was the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan. Davis probably should have gotten the hell out of there as quickly as could, but he didn’t. He stayed. He talked. Eventually, over the years, he befriended this man. And then he befriended other members of the KKK.

To this day Davis is single-handedly responsible for 36 KKK leaders abandoning their position and denouncing their racist pasts. The klans that they led crumbled without their unshakeable convictions. In fact, he has started a museum with the memorabilia that old KKK members have donated to him because they cannot stand for it to be in their possession any longer. This was done because he engaged with those who hated him most. He risked offense rather than shielding himself from it and thusly began a dialogue.

Davis’s KKK museum acknowledges that we must never burn our history, no matter how despicable it is. We must also never censor our present, lest we fail to acknowledge very real and damaging ideas that still exist. Engage with those who disagree with you most fundamentally, because as long as two enemies are talking, they are not at war. We live in an era where it’s so easy to block someone you disagree with, or prevent an alternative opinion from getting a platform. These actions might make us feel better and less susceptible to offense, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. We must let all opinions see the light of day, lest they fester and manifest into actions.

So, in summary: it’s a pretty tough world out there, but we’ve got it better than anyone in history ever has. Take ownership, fail proudly and engage as widely and as deeply with all the other stupid, misinformed, well-meaning, malicious and brilliant ideas there are out there. Treat yourself like an adult. You’ll be better for it. And so will the world.