Nick Gilson ’07: carving your own path and adapting to change (Commencement 2021 address)

Moses Brown was pleased to welcome Nick Gilson ’07 as this year’s Commencement speaker. Nick last stood on the MB stage 14 years ago as the president of the Class of 2007. His 2021 address beautifully covered humility, challenge, support, the importance of failure and carving your own path, adapting to change, the importance of people, and just how rigorous an MB education is. Thank you, Nick!

Video and text below:

I am honored to be with you at your commencement from one of the finest and longest-standing educational institutions in the world. Congratulations.

It is truly wonderful to all be back together today. What a rejuvenating contrast this is to what has been an incredibly challenging year.

I last stood on this stage 14 years ago, delivering the student speech as the president of the class of 2007. I think it was just as shocking then to the faculty that knew me when I was younger as it is to me now.

I knew I was a late bloomer, mildly dyslexic, and not turning heads with my academic record, but I recently bumped into Jared Schott and got a real dose of the truth.

He teased that I could write this whole speech about how if I could turn it around, truly anyone could. He said, “It’s anybody’s guess.” I like that.

In any event, here we are. I’m going to share three stories from the early days of building Gilson Snow. Each story gives way to an insight that went on to be mission critical for me, and I believe these 3 observations may be valuable to you as you frame your thinking and look ahead.

The 1st story is about the role of failure, and it begins in 8th grade at MB.

At 14, I was building a sailboat with my father, a catamaran of New Zealand design, and we were dedicating a painstaking amount of attention to every curvature and detail in the boat’s shape.

Around the same time, I was sitting in Tony’s science class here at MB, and it struck me that the nomenclature for H2O Solid and H2O liquid looked awfully similar.

I now know the connection lacked any real scientific basis, but it did get me wondering why snowboards and skis remained flat on the bottom when all other objects that move through a fluid are curved. Boats, planes and cars — all curved. Mother Nature gets it right too. There aren’t too many flat birds or fish out there.

It turns out, snow does behave like a fluid, particularly soft snow, and we can dramatically change the performance characteristics of our equipment by introducing this new variable in design.

I became intensely curious about fluid dynamics in snow, and like any good middle schooler, I tried to get school credit for something I wanted to do anyway.

This question became the focus of my 8th grade independent study, and I built the first two prototypes in my father’s basement workshop, pressed between two doors clamped together.

I could tell you they worked, but I’m biased, and I wouldn’t take my word for it anyway.

The reality is, I found out years later that the initial shape didn’t work. Austin Royer, my now business partner, compared our next generation of prototypes to trying to ride a canoe down a mountain.

Today, our boards and skis look a lot different, and as I chart the course of development over the last two decades, each major innovation in product, and then later in marketing and business development, is defined by a response not to a success, but to an acute failure.

Failure is how we got here, and it’s how we run our business today.

Putting all your eggs in one basket and then trying to ensure success is like trying to put lightning in a bottle in a high stakes game. You might get lucky once or twice, but you’re not in control. Instead of maximizing the likelihood of a single success, at Gilson Snow, we have learned to focus on making lots of failures really fast and really cheap.

In this way, we can systematically identify the best path forward through a process of rapid elimination, and it helps prevent us from getting emotionally attached to any one option. Do not fear failure. Use it. It’s the only way to keep up these days.

The 2nd story is about rejection. More specifically, rejecting ideas you don’t like.

The better part of a decade later, I graduated from Johns Hopkins University and moved to Nashville, TN to teach middle school science.

Yes, the humor is not lost on me that despite my best efforts I had to return to middle school to realize my idea.

My students were a motley crew to say the least. All bright, wonderful young people, but with an extraordinary range in past education levels.

There was no way one teacher could address all the needs in the classroom, and we were averaging 18% proficiency on the state standardized testing. To be successful, we needed to grow multiple grades per year.

It didn’t seem possible within the bounds of the curriculum I was handed and with the teaching methods I was required to subscribe. I was working over 100 hours per week, eating only rice and vegetables from an automated cooker, and I knew for the first time in my life the consequences of failure did not rest with me, but on my students.

Early on, I was called into the admin office and reprimanded for teaching evolution– in a science class– no joke. Turns out, it wasn’t just my school, it was the region I was in, and I was legally banned from teaching such heresy.

That was the last straw.

I threw out the state-mandated curriculum. I told my students the standardized test they so deeply feared was beyond stupid, and that we would be learning together so far beyond the test that when they took it, it would seem easy.

We set a big goal that we recited together every day. I would yell out, “whats our big goal?” and they would all scream, “To be the fastest growing science class in Nashville.”

I stopped teaching from in front of the room, and we moved entirely to a hands-on curriculum where everyone was responsible to be both a teacher and a student, myself included.

Each individual began their own “year-long curiosity project,” and the only rules were that it had to be school appropriate, and you had to really care. In an act of solidarity, I brought the original prototypes I had built when I was my student’s age back into the classroom, and the fluid-dynamics snowboard initiative became the example project.

We went from having one teacher in the room to having a room full of teachers, and the level of unity went through the roof.

We were incredibly loud, and incredibly messy, and I regularly got in trouble. I guess I did middle school pretty much in the same way again.

I truly didn’t care though. I had the data, and I knew we were picking up speed.

I’d smile nicely, agree to get my classroom in order, and then my students and I would joke about how I got called into the principal’s office as much as they did. We were very much in it together.

Without selectively rejecting the way things had been done, I wouldn’t be here today.

It was amazing to see how attitudes changed when my students took that stupid test later that year. They scored at 88% proficiency, up from 18%, and we achieved our big goal of becoming the fastest growing science class in Nashville. The school’s program went from being unranked to being amongst the top 4 in the district, and we launched the company out of the classroom.

We did it by changing our mindsets on failure and learning– and not by memorizing the answers to multiple choice questions in an age when you can just look it up anyway.

And yes, my students very much understood evolution.

The rejection of other human beings’ ideas when appropriate is incredibly important.

Before turning to the third story, with the benefit of my teaching experience, I want to take a moment to thank all of the teachers and faculty at Moses Brown for the work you do, and for everything you did for me. Thank you.

The 3rd story is all about the people.

Most people have a tendency to share good news with a megaphone and then bottle up the hard stuff. Don’t make that mistake.

By 2013, I had left my teaching job, formed the company, and moved to a cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity.

We were hiking out each day and building our shop in a donkey and horse stable… and I mean that quite literally. We had our first CNC robot in a horse stall, with actual donkeys walking around.

Cleanliness is pretty important to our manufacturing process too, so you can imagine the daily challenges.

We had refined our first fluid-dynamics inspired design and our early manufacturing process was coming together. I was adamant about the fact that we didn’t need artwork. I believed that if we could get the performance advancements right, the artwork wouldn’t matter.

Turns out, I was flat-out wrong, and I began to see evidence of my misguided thinking in our data.

It was the first time of many that I called everyone together, stood in front of the room and admitted to our early team, “I was wrong.” It was a moment of vulnerability, and I’ve since learned how powerful those three words can be. “I was wrong”

You can’t be expected to always be right, but you can absolutely demonstrate that you adhere to honest interpretation of data over hubris, and that builds trust.

Trust is the highest currency when building a meaningful culture and team, because it is what allows people to rely on each other in the more challenging moments.

A strong culture is nice to have when times are good, but it is the glue that holds good organizations together when times are hard.

Artwork and art-driven collaborations are now core to our strategic heading. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Rely on people, and trust them with the hard stuff. You will suffer less, and you will generate better outcomes together.

In these stories, we touched on 3 insights that I believe to be of critical importance in today’s world.

1) Failure and rapid iteration are paramount to success.

2) Reject ideas you don’t like. They were just made up by someone else anyway.

3) It’s all about the people, no matter what you do.

I believe these observations are relevant on a broader scale as you graduate from Moses Brown and shape your future primarily because the world is now changing at an accelerating pace.
We’ve connected all our brains like the computers in a network, and as the linkages continue to get faster and more efficient, the pace of change will continue to increase.

There is only one way I’ve observed to keep up: fail quickly, fail cheaply and then get creative. Repeatable success comes from a mindset directly tied to repeated failure.

This wasn’t always the case. What it took to make someone successful 500 years ago is roughly similar to what it took 5,000 years ago. And now, look how much has changed even in the last 4 years you’ve been in high school.

I still don’t know how to get back to the homescreen on Snapchat, I literally have to quit out of the app and open it back up again, and it took me writing this speech for my wife to tell me that wasn’t even a relevant reference anymore. Things are moving fast.

Unlike our ancestors, we cannot guarantee long term success by mastering a skill or a trade, becoming an expert, and then enjoying a successful plateau and coast.

Instead, we must intertwine learning throughout our entire lives.

In that vein, I encourage you to be kinetic.

Like heated molecules in a solution that bump into more things, carrying a high level of kinetic energy and sharing your ideas will generate more opportunities, oftentimes ones you couldn’t have predicted.

As Moses Brown Graduates, you are actually more prepared for this than you likely know.
-As an exercise in what you definitely shouldn’t do in college, in my more irresponsible moments, I resubmitted my Moses Brown essays to what was, at the time, the #1 Writing Seminars program in the country, and got better grades on them there than I ever got here.

Communication is so important, because it’s how we connect, share ideas and coordinate to create something bigger than ourselves. You have a major head start.

2 – Rejecting ideas you don’t like.

In this world that is changing at an accelerating rate, remember almost everything is made up by other people that came before us, often with less access to information than we have now.

Grades, businesses, brands, phones, media, even language, all made up.

We spend a lot of time in childhood thinking adults have all the answers, only to grow up and realize everyone in life is fumbling along trying to figure it out too.

We’re all people, and no one has all the answers.

Changing something or creating something new is not always easy, and it typically takes a lot of people working together, but that is how it’s always worked.

These systems and organizations that stand before us can seem awfully grand and rigid, but someone just made them up at some point, and for a long time they were likely fledgling and barely surviving.

You can make stuff up too, and if it’s compelling, and if you can inspire other people to build that future with you, almost anything is possible within the bounds of physics.

So, reject stuff you don’t like (like the idea that teaching evolution should be banned) and make stuff up that you believe in and care about, and then share your ideas with other people.

3 – It’s all about the people.

Value people, and build community. It is more important now than ever.

Stress and anxiety are evolutionarily helpful responses, but, they are now being applied to a new world that is changing at an accelerating pace.

That means existential discomfort is bound to be part of the deal. and that’s okay.

Our lower brain stem cannot reasonably keep up with this rate of change.

Think about the amount of stress and anxiety in the world about MONEY alone. We made that up too. Seriously, money used to be sea shells. Now we have doge coin. Totally made up.

It has real world impacts, and the stress is sometimes justified and needed and even helpful, but it’s not what stress was originally built for.

In the most difficult moments, it can sometimes be helpful to zoom out and remember this fact.

Applying our hardware to this rate of change, and having this level of access to information can be incredibly uncomfortable. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that. I’m sure we all know what doom scrolling feels like.

Remember, it’s not just you. You are not alone. It is literally everyone.

No matter how amazing someone’s life looks, it’s not the whole story. They too are struggling at times, wondering why they exist, what their purpose is, and applying stress to a new and uncertain world. It is part of the human experience.

And to complicate the matter, at the same time and with the benefit of advanced science, we have begun to step away from previous methods of dealing with existential discomfort.

It is quite difficult today to live by the old adage, “ignorance is bliss.”

In all of human history, just about everyone before us has relied on some version of story telling to answer existential questions, and as our level of knowledge goes up, those answers are becoming more and more like tradition and less like helpful explanations.

So far, I have found only one answer to this, and it is in the people.

I encourage you to find each other. Go beyond the public posts and get into the real talk. Take care of each other. Rely on each other. Build community. Have fun and work hard on things you care about. In that you will almost certainly find a sense of purpose.

I don’t think in the history of humanity we have witnessed such a kind, caring, thoughtful, questioning, interconnected and compassionate generation.

It gives me great faith for the future of humanity.

So Fail quickly. Fail cheaply. Never stop learning. Reject ideas you don’t believe in. And remember, it’s always all about the people.

Thank you and Congratulations.