About the Department

“Savage Strife and Stresses”

By Scott A. Sandage
Keynote Address, Carnegie Mellon University Convocation, August 25, 2016

I study, teach, and write history. But although I’ve got a doctorate in that subject and a job in our history department, I am not a historian. That may sound like I am offering you a riddle. I study history, I teach history, I write history, but I am not a historian. I love doing all those things, but what I do is not who I am, even though I can’t remember when I did not love doing anything related to history. Picture me as a dorky 7-year-old (as opposed to a dorky 52-year-old), confiding to my parents … “I see dead people.”

You’ve probably heard the old expression that history is written by the winners, but my expertise is in the history of the losers. My first book analyzed the underside of the American Dream: what has it meant to fail in a nation and culture so driven to succeed? I was a few years into this project when I figured out why there are many books about success but very few about failure: failure is a bummer. And I spent years thinking and struggling to write about it – more years than I should have. People asked me, “If you never finish your book about failure, will you actually have succeeded?”
Along the way, I discovered that over the past two hundred years or so, the definition and experience of failure changed, in two very stark ways. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, when somebody failed, people said they were “too ambitious.” They bit off more than they could chew, for example by trying to expand a business too quickly. But by the early 20th century, many who failed were deemed not ambitious enough. They had no drive or direction, wandering aimlessly through life.

So that’s the first of two ways the definition of failure changed dramatically. The second is found in the difference between losing a business and drifting through life. The first is an ordeal, but the second is an identity. One is something you did; the other is something you are. There is a big difference between saying, “Rats! I lost!” and “I’m a total loser.” [Hand gesture]

Over the course of American history, that difference has gotten blurrier – which is why we fear failure so much. I wouldn’t be surprised if your commencement speaker encouraged you should fail more and risk more, in order to learn more. And that sounds pretty good, in a speech. But that’s not the speech I’m giving right now, because I learned from the dead people about that slippery slope between merely failing and becoming a failure. Struggling to finish my book, some days felt like I was writing my autobiography.

And yet, figuring out the two ways in which failure changed over two centuries – from too ambitious to not ambitious enough, and from an unpleasant ordeal to an engulfing identity – actually helped me finish my book. Too ambitious is just another way of describing perfectionism: I was trying to make my book perfect. Imagine: a perfect book about failure. No book on any topic is perfect, of course, and no history book can perfectly capture the past because … well … I don’t actually see dead people. My book was printed under the title Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, because my publisher rejected the title I really wanted to use: “Oh, the Places You Won’t Go!”

The place I hope you won’t go relates to the second change in how American define and experience failure – from something you did to something you are – because that’s another way of saying that you are what you do.

When I was struggling, I would never have said out loud that if I write a bad book I am a bad person, or if I write no book I am nobody. But that’s the unspoken logic of equating what we do with who we are. This is as true of success, of course, as it is of failure.

Finishing my book was something I did. I succeeded. But that doesn’t make me “a success,” any more than it would have made me “a loser” had I failed to do those things. The ordeal of failure can become the identity of failure only if you perpetuate the mistake of thinking you are what you do. I study, teach, and write history, but I am not a historian.

This is why (with apologies to Andrew Carnegie) I’m not crazy about our school motto, “My Heart is in the Work.” It’s a fine thought, but in the daily grind it can easily be misconstrued to mean, “I am what I do.” If my work fails, what happens to my heart? Put your brain and your body into your work; keep your heart for yourself and those you love.

If I am alone in not liking our school motto, I may also be the only Tartan who loves – I mean really loves – our school song, the Alma Mater. You’ve got the words on the back of your fans, and soon we’ll all sing it together. When we do, watch the group on the stage, because even we who have been here for decades will be reading off the fan just like you are. Nobody knows the words, because they make no sense. What the heck is a “crimson quest”? What is a “Gypsy tide,” besides politically incorrect? Shouldn’t it be “ethnically Romanian tide”?

These words were written in 1912 by Professor Charles J. Taylor, who was the chairman of the Department of Painting and Illustration. Let me repeat that: our school song lyrics were written by a painter. No wonder the quest was crimson!
Even though I have no idea what this song is about, still I love that third line: “the savage strife and stresses.” That’s the line that hit home when I was failing to write a book about failure, because it reminded me that I love studying and teaching and writing about history.

Even people who do what they love and love what they do can savaged by stress. I know this first hand, because I am a person who has experienced and been treated for depression and anxiety all my life, starting when I was a dorky young boy and continuing as a dorky old professor. Every semester, and in every course, I take a few minutes to share this with my students. I feel no embarrassment or stigma in seeking or needing treatment or counseling, or in talking openly about it, because in all honesty, I really might not be here talking to you if I had not asked for help when I needed it. I share this in my classes because I think it is important for students to know that your professors have self-doubts and failings just like anybody else, that your professors are human and not superhuman, and that your professors really do care deeply about you as people, not just as students. Struggling and asking for help are not only inherent parts of being human and of pursuing success; struggling and asking for help are the essence of learning and growing. Your needs and challenges may be different from ours, but we will understand when you are struggling, and we will help you find whatever support you may need to reach your goals. You are not and never will be alone at Carnegie Mellon.

This is as easy for faculty and staff to forget as it is for students, but every time I hear the Alma Mater, that line about “savage strife and stresses” triggers me to pull my head out of my … er … my heart out of my work and remember the two lessons I learned from all those dead losers. Being too ambitious can be as dangerous as not being ambitious enough, and however much I may fail or succeed, I will never be a failure or be a success. I’ll be me.

The other thing I love about the Alma Mater is that we almost never sing it without bagpipes – which cover up the fact that nobody knows the words or what they mean. But our glorious Tartan bagpipes also make a wonderful mnemonic device – you know, like your old friend Roy G. Biv? Over the next four years, every time you hear bagpipes on campus, no matter what song they may be playing, let them remind you to stop a moment and pull back from “the savage strife and stresses” of the moment. You will succeed – often, and you may fail – sometimes, but you will never be a failure. You’ll be you.