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Stress Test

by Mark Peres

March 8,2009

On the first day of every class I teach, I draw a simple line graph on the board. On one side of the axis I write the word ‘speed’ and on the other side I write the word ‘load.’ Then I draw an arrow rising up over time. I tell my students that the graph depicts the purpose of education and the methodology of the class; namely, we are here together to master subject matter, but also, and perhaps more critically, to build capacity to do more, faster and better. I reinforce the point by having a student lift a small five pound weight five times slowly. The student is quite comfortable with the easy load. Then I have the same student lift a 25 pound weight 20 times fast. He or she can barely make it as the class shouts out the reps and encourages the student to complete the exercise. I explain that it takes stress on the muscles to build capacity to lift more, faster and better.

With the metaphor in place, we add more and more depth and complexity to assignments as the trimester unfolds. By the final exam, the students are exhausted under the load of research term papers, active learning exercises, take home papers, reading, and complex essay exams. Many initially resist and others fall by the wayside, but those who finish are transformed. They realize their own capacity to do more, faster and better – and are eager for the next greater challenge.

The hunger of the students for gratification and meaning in work reminds me of what I admire greatly in so many of my friends. They embrace difficulty. They are ambitious. And they understand that the big picture is mirrored in the details.

Our banks, city and nation are under stress, and it may be the best thing for us. I don’t say it to wish pain on anyone. I say it because it is getting us past the comfort of the easy load. Growth in human potential comes when citizens – executives, business owners, city officials and every last one of us – question deeply, explore new paradigms, take risk, and reinvent. We are testing our mettle for change.

I am impressed by our President who is modeling the capacity to do more, faster and better in the face of remarkable complexity with competency and off-the-chart emotional intelligence. He is able to do it because he has always done it. From Occidental College to Columbia to ground-breaking achievements at Harvard Law, to community building and writing two stunning memoirs well after everyone had gone to bed, to running for state and national office at an early age, to all of his personal skills and subject-matter expertise, his biography is one of inviting stress that builds capacity to accomplish even more.

This is all the more reason why during trying times we must invest equally on both ends of our hierarchy of needs. We must attend to those who have fallen by the wayside, offering them a hand up. Compassion is called for, and we are all served by a resilient and broad safety net. But we must also invest in those people and institutions that advance our intellectual and artistic capital. We are only as good as our critical insight. We are only as good as the intent of our action. We are only as good as our capacity to interpret and create meaningful change. It is no coincidence that great cities have great arts, cultural and educational institutions at their core. These institutions determine who we are.

The work at all of our universities and colleges hugely impact how students internalize innovation. The work of the Levine Museum of the New South in exploring how new residents are changing and are changed by the region is vital to our future. The museums and performance centers at the new Cultural Campus will engage thousands of citizens in artistic enterprise. And beyond these institutions, citizens, one by one, at kitchen tables across the city, are reexamining how they will earn a living, and their highest and best selves. This intellectual and artistic activity – stressful as it may be - is how we insure against decline and how we build lives that are ennobling.

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