The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2019

Head's Notebook - Being Our Best Selves

by Rob Gustavson, Head of School
Adapted from Rob’s remarks at this fall’s Parents’ Weekend
I’d like to spend a few minutes reflecting on this year’s school theme, Being Our Best Selves. Implicit in the idea that we can be our best selves is the assumption that each of us has multiple selves—or at least different versions of ourselves. It’s likely, for example, that we act differently with strangers than we do with friends, and differently still with our families. This variation is natural and to some extent desirable. Civility, propriety, and social convention direct our behavior, and the ability to adapt and act appropriately depending on the situation is an important life skill. On a deeper level, however, we don’t view frequent, fundamental shifts in personality or values as a positive character trait. We neither respect nor admire those who appear to be playing different roles at different times, especially if they seem to be trying to manipulate or deceive. It’s  hard to trust someone if you can’t be sure who he or she really is. Consistently embodying the best version of ourselves is difficult, however. From time to time—whether out of complacency, carelessness, or fatigue—all of us act against our better judgment. We lose our patience and say things we later regret; we give in to temptations; we are wasteful; we cut corners and take the easy path. None of us can be perfect, and perfection should not be our goal. But acknowledging these lesser versions of ourselves is essential. Striving to be our best selves requires that we recognize when we have not lived up to our own values and that we try to do a bit better the next time.

Ideally, over time, this ongoing reflection and refinement advance the integration of multiple versions of ourselves into one best self. Integration is, literally, what we mean when we say someone has integrity. A person of integrity is whole, not fragmented. He or she is reliable and trustworthy, fundamentally the same person in the ways that matter most, regardless of the situation. The journey toward integrity is an intensely personal process of self-discovery. 
Each of us must formulate our own conception of personal excellence, and we must determine our own standards. Just as I am the only one who knows who my best self is, I am the only one who can assess whether or not I have met my own expectations.

It’s often said that character is what you do when no one is watching. This aphorism is attributed to the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who went on to say, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” These are good reminders for our children at a time when reputation and perception seem to predominate in our larger culture, and the effects of social media are causing many of our young people to struggle with anxiety and depression resulting from unrelenting pressure to maintain an unrealistic, falsely positive, public persona.
 
In contrast, at Fay we want our students to understand that being their best selves does not depend upon the opinion of others. Rather, it is based on self-knowledge and an internal desire to achieve their own self-deter- mined goals. We also want them to know that this vision of their best selves can and should change over time. As David Epstein, author of the bestseller Range, told our Upper School students when he visited in September, in order for us to continue to learn and grow and become fully ourselves, it’s crucial that we actively pursue multiple areas of interest and bring knowledge we have gained from our past experiences to new challenges and opportunities.

Starting at the earliest grades, we want our children to understand that they are constantly making choices, and they can decide what kinds of people they want to be. One of the great benefits of a school like Fay is that we deliberately work to maintain a positive culture, centered around shared values, in which making good choices is affirmed. As parents and teachers, we can convey clear expectations and explain the logical consequences of children’s decisions. We also know that we can guide them and coach them and encourage them, but we can’t make them follow a particular path. When we ask our children, “Are you being your best self?” we nurture the development of their conscience and character. We hope that year by year, as we uphold consistent community standards and provide thoughtful feedback, they begin to regulate their own conduct, and it 
becomes instinctive for them to do the right thing, according to their own internal moral compass.

Joan Didion wrote, “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” At Fay, we hope that by the time our students graduate, they are grounded and secure, fully accepting responsibility for their own lives, confident in their aspirations, and not easily influ- enced by the opinions of others. We hope each has gained a better understanding of who his or her best self is, has internalized the determination to become the best self they envision, and has developed the ethical stamina to strive to become a person of integrity. All of us look forward to joining with you as we engage together in this profoundly important work.
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