An Excerpt from Seven Lessons for Dreamers and Makers

On April 26, 1336, nearly 700 years ago in what is now Southern France, at the western verge of the Alps, a wandering medieval poet named Petrarch stood at the foot of Mont Ventoux and did something remarkable: He climbed the mountain, because he could. Up until that point in history, mountaineering and indeed most exploration of any kind always had an adjacent purpose, ancillary to a military campaign, a religious pilgrimage, the pursuit of fortunes tucked away in some hidden crevasse. But not Petrarch. His ascent is the first in recorded history undertaken for the sheer delight and experience of it. He wanted the beauty, the view, the satisfaction and achievement. He wanted to live in a world where anyone could seek their own destinies and ascend to their own peaks.

In the seven centuries since, millions of others have followed in his footsteps up mountains both metaphorical and literal, from Junko Ishibashi (the first woman to summit Mount Everest—in 1975), to Kobe Bryant (the youngest player ever to start in an NBA basketball game—18 years old), to you. What do you want out of life? What peak do you want to claim as your own?

As I write this essay, the world has only just begun to emerge from the strange fog of COVID-19, the largest public health crisis in a century. We will not fully understand the impact of the pandemic on human life and culture for many years, but one thing we do know: In the years ahead, young people will continue to dream, grow, learn, and long to make the world a better place, just as parents and teachers will continue to nurture students to discover their purpose and climb the great mountain of their highest hopes.

If you’ve studied psychology, chances are you’ve encountered the work of Abraham Maslow, the 20th-century American psychologist who wrote Theory of Human Motivation (1943). Maslow describes a “hierarchy of needs” every human has. The theory goes like this: All members of the human race have basically the same needs: safety, food, love, shelter, community, and so on. But all needs are not created equal. Some are more essential, and only when we meet the most urgent needs can we ascend to higher stages of human development. For example, someone in dire need of find food has little time to think about the long-term future or a career, just as someone without friends or family may never climb to the stage of self-esteem and self-respect. Thus, Maslow’s hierarchy:

Uppermost in Maslow’s pyramid is the stage of self-actualization, when each of us becomes who we were born to be. When parents, friends, teachers, and others encourage you to live up to your potential, that’s Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. They see something in you—a sign and premonition of success that you’re fully capable of seizing with all your strength of mind and heart.

Over the last century, Maslow’s pyramid has revolutionized education, healthcare, social work, therapy, and just about every other realm of human endeavor. Previous generations believed that some were doomed to failure while others were predestined for success, whereas Maslow posited that each and every human being holds within them the capacity to reach the peak of their potential. If this idea—that each of us holds within us the capacity for greatness—sounds obvious in today’s culture of self-care, thank Dr. Maslow, the O.G. motivational speaker.

In my long career as a teacher, academic dean, provost, and university founder and president, I’ve seen self-actualization happen again and again—that wondrous, chill-bumps moment when students discover who they are and what they were born to do. I’ve seen this miracle in labs and ateliers, on soundstages and sets, at fashion shows, jewelry exhibits, showcases, readings, screenings, and company headquarters. I’ve seen nearly 50,000 university graduates walk across stages, graduates who are now working at BMW, Apple, Deloitte, and hundreds more top companies and startups and studios the world over, with clients in cities from Berlin to Beijing, Baton Rouge to Buenos Aires. I’ve seen what happens when you help young people discover a calling.

This new book, Seven Lessons for Dreamers and Makers, provides a path toward that triumphant moment of discovery, equipping students (and their families and educators) with actionable steps toward rewarding professions—for you and others in your life. We have distilled all our learning and research into seven lessons, drawing on insights from SCAD alumni, professors, celebrated guests, researchers, and others who have learned and lived out these lessons in their own careers. 

Think of this book as a favorite teacher or professor, encouraging you with a little of their own wisdom. Our message to you in the book iis that every student has the power to articulate unique passions and translate those talents into a lifelong profession—that each of us can climb Maslow’s mountain and become our best, most authentic selves. By the way … the windswept peak of Mont Ventoux I mentioned earlier? It’s visible from SCAD Lacoste, the university’s European campus, where SCAD students from around the world travel every quarter to study.

Two caveats, before you launch upward: First, though SCAD is a university for creative professions, this book is written for every student, no matter where you’re studying or hope to go. Future neurologists, pilots, attorneys, and veterinarians—this book is for you, too! What has worked for our graduates works for everyone who wants to learn, do more, and go further.

Second, I want you to take a deep breath and say it with me: There are no wrong career decisions. Choices lead to more choices. If you’re anxious about attending the “wrong” college, remember: you can transfer. If you’re worried that you might be in the “wrong” major, redeclare! If you fear you’ve chosen the “wrong” career, you can reenroll and earn another degree. It’s not possible to have too much education. Your path will change. That’s part of the fun. One of our graduates, Danielle, a successful designer with Catherine Macfee Interior Design in the Bay Area, changed majors four times. Another of our alumni, Chris, also a four-time major-changer, is now thriving as a UX designer with FireEye, a cybersecurity company. The “UX” denotes user experience design, a profession that creates positive interactions between humans and objects (e.g., phones, apps, websites, physical spaces). UX designers apply knowledge from psychology, programming, storytelling, graphic design, research, business strategy, and more. SCAD offers a B.F.A. in UX design that we developed in collaboration with Google. Remember, no moves are wrong moves when it comes to your education. Every choice yields new discovery. What I love about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is how every experience equips you to ascend higher. Use those discoveries, keep them close to your heart, and get ready to climb. Up we go!

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