What are you scared of?

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Can you remember what the commencement speaker said at your graduation? We are in commencement “season” and platitudes aplenty will be spoken to graduates across our state. Most will be forgotten as soon as tassels are turned, but this year’s graduates of the UNC School of the Arts heard an address worth remembering.

Mary Mitchell Campbell, a Wilson native and School of the Arts high school graduate, was the speaker. Campbell is an acclaimed Broadway music director with a long list of credits. She also directs solo artists, like Kristen Chenoweth, and sometimes directs symphony orchestras. But there’s another side. Campbell frequently contributes time to charitable events and is the founder of ASTEP, an international charitable organization that brings artists and young people together for education, the arts and financial help. Highly motivated, laser focused and always moving, Mary Mitchell likes to remain behind the scenes, but people in the theatre and music world know and respect this accomplished woman. And did I mention she is my niece? Our family is proud of her.

Before her address, the School of the Arts presented Mary Mitchell an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree and Dr. Campbell (as she wants us to address her henceforth) remembered that going to the School of the Arts was terrifying at first, but she quickly found herself with “my people.” While in college Mary Mitchell determined to pursue a career in theater music, but nobody in her life thought it was a good idea. In fact, they thought it was a terrible idea. She says, “One of my favorite professors sat me down — he was very much a father figure for me, and we were very close. He knew I had no money, and that there wasn’t going to be someone to fall back on financially, and he very simply and clearly told me he was worried about me. I had some amazing job opportunities in front of me, and it didn’t make sense to chase a dream where the success rate is so low. He said, and I will never forget this moment — ‘I know you are talented, but I have watched so many talented people try to do this, and it always ends badly. I think you will fail, and you will have passed up these other sure things and regret it. I think you need to reconsider this decision.’

That was a turning point. In what Campbell terms a rare glimpse of clarity, “Call it God, call it your inner voice, whatever. I said to him — I know you care, and you want to look out for me, and I believe you 100 percent. I think you are right that I will probably fail. But the thing I’m realizing in this moment is that I’m not scared of failing. I am scared of not trying.”

With graduation speakers, “You get a before picture, and an after picture, and you literally skip the middle part and it all looks like it just went really well. I’m here to tell you ... that middle part ... that part was good sometimes, but a lot of the time it just sucked. Success is not a straight line. Don’t get fooled into thinking it is.”

The life lesson for graduates and all of us is that you can’t just sit on the sidelines, afraid to fail. You can never succeed if you don’t try. Don’t be scared to try.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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