Art Works Blog

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh CAPA Class of 2011!

Yesterday, Rocco was in Pittsburgh where he delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2011 at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). CAPA was one of the finalists in the White House's Race to the Top Commencement Challenge (take a look at their video down below). Here's an excerpt from Rocco's address, which urged the new graduates to "consider the importance of failure" as a tool toward ultimate success.


Video courtesy of The White House and Pittsburgh CAPA

And now here's Rocco to the CAPA Class of 2011:

[T]oday you graduate. You will leave CAPA and head off to places like the Manhattan School of Music, the United States Air Force Academy, Berklee School of Music, Penn State, and the University of Pittsburgh! Many of you will be arts majors. Some of you will keep the arts for an extracurricular passion. But each of you has been shaped by the artistic experiences that you have had in high school.

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by the arts: my father painted. My uncle ran a beatnik cabaret theater. My aunt Fran is a jazz lyricist. And my brother Knight publishes Art Forum.

My high school was no CAPA. I went to a public school in Clayton, Missouri, where I starred in The Diary of Anne Frank. Well, I was the dentist, but my mother told me it was a starring role!

Those early experiences with the arts set me on a path that would take me to graduate school, to teaching, to running an investment fund, to owning five Broadway theaters and producing Broadway shows, and eventually to the National Endowment for the Arts.

To borrow some of this administration’s catch phrases, the arts helped me “race to the top,” and the arts helped me to “win the future.” How did they do that?  The arts taught me a very important lesson, a lesson that I hope each of you has learned, too. Art taught me the importance of failure.

Well, the arts and my Uncle Jay. Uncle Jay used to give my brothers and me five dollars for every “F” we brought home. He went on to start a personal management company with the motto, “taking the sting out of success and putting the fun back into failure.” Ironically, the business never really took off….

[L]et me talk a little about the kind of failure I mean. The sort of failure that I think the arts can bring into our lives. A failure that also happens to be very useful in the business world, as well. I am talking about “productive failure”---a failure that stimulates adaptation and helps us find alternate pathways to success.

I am talking about IDEO, the leading design company in the world, which has as its motto “Fail often and succeed sooner.” I am talking about Charles Schwab, whose businesses experienced so many failures (mixed in with a few key successes) that his company coined the term “noble failures.” I am talking about the video game designer who described his job as making it fun to fail. Because when it is fun to fail, it is fun to try again.

Just look at “Angry Birds.” If you fail to kill all the pigs, what do any of us do? We try again. And again. And again. Failing can be a blast, and when it is, it inspires us to try harder.

Think about the times you could not make a scene work. Or you could not complete a dance combination. Or you failed at rendering the light just so in the scene you were trying to capture on canvas. You didn’t quit. You tried again. You tried harder. And you tried something new. It was a productive failure.

Those of you who failed often, succeeded sooner. Those of you who saw failure as permission to try again, learned that failure can be fun. Through the arts, you learned the values of the most successful members of our society.

But we do not talk about failure enough as we arrive at colleges and start our careers in the world. We can become too focused on success, on being perfect, on answering all of the questions correctly. But the key to winning the future is innovation. And innovation cannot come without failure.

Failure has to exist in any environment where people are pushing themselves as hard as they can. We just need to make it okay to fail, so it is okay to try again. Because, ironically, when failure is fun, we succeed more. Failure should be seen as nothing more than a new beginning.

If Columbus hadn’t failed at sailing to India, we wouldn’t be here today. If Alexander Fleming hadn’t failed to clean up his lab before his August holiday, we wouldn’t have penicillin. But there is no one who better understands the role of chance, of luck, and of perseverance through failure than artists....

Each of you is destined for a lot of success in life. And let me be honest: each of you will greet failure along the way. At times, those failures will seem like a giant cinder block being swung at you. And I hope, that with all you have learned and the strength you have found, your reaction will be: bring on the [next] block.

So let me congratulate you one last time. Let me say how much the National Endowment for the Arts is counting on you to be the next generation of artists, creative workers, and audiences. And let me say how proud I am to be here celebrating with you today.

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