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Scott Sipprelle ’81 delivers the chapel talk at the Founders Day Chapel Service on April 26, 2024
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Scott Sipprelle ’81 P’08

Outgoing President of Board of Trustees Scott Sipprelle ’81 P’08 gave this reflection at the Trustee Weekend chapel service on Friday, April 26.

Good afternoon.

Did you know that studies show that 47% of you will be daydreaming at some point? Wait. Actually, I decided not to use that as my opening line.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. No, no. Wait, wait, wait. That one’s not right, either.

I remember when I was a student at St. Andrew’s and sitting in the Chapel, sometimes I would pass the time counting … wait.

None of these lines are the opening lines for my talk with you today, and I didn’t actually write any of them. They were all manufactured by a large language model, AI for shorthand, based on the simple instructions to, “Write an opening line for a talk that would grab your attention.” It’s still in its early days, but it works well enough. GPT has trained itself by scrolling pretty much all the texts that have ever been written, and it knows good speeches.

AI outputs often start with a startling fact, an intriguing question, or a relatable anecdote, but there is a massive difference between the texts that a really smart computer regurgitates and the words that flow as the product of your own thoughts and your own experiences. 

Here’s what AI will tell you if you ask AI the question: I don’t have emotions. I don’t have subjective experiences. I don’t have personal preferences, and I shape my responses depending on my instructions. In other words, this incredible innovation expertly tells us what we want to hear. 

Post St. Andrew’s, many, or probably most of you, will spend half of your waking and work hours looking into a screen of some sort, and behind that screen is a really savvy software algorithm. It learns as it watches you and it curates what you see. It creates your lens onto the world, and that feels like reality.

But the world that is presented to you on that little screen or big screen is built on biases, and those are the biases that are evident in your past viewing habits. The results that you see are based on your search history and the people you meet. The stories you hear and the opinions that you encounter in this highly curated world will invariably confirm the beliefs and experiences that you already have. If you don’t actively fight it, you will fall into a world of rigid beliefs and shrinking perspectives. This software wants to map you, and to graph you, and to stereotype you based on your gender or your ethnicity or your age or your demographic profile, or your most recent experiences, or some other crude and limiting characteristic that it discovers about you. 

When I was young, I used to read a lot of science fiction, and one of the genres that fascinated me was the dystopian future when the machines conquered the humans. The reality that we are seeing develop today is only a little different. The machines are actually becoming part of us, like we’ve added a new alien organ to control our five senses. So here’s the punchline of my advice to each of you today. It’s just one word, sort of like the advice that Dustin Hoffman received in the movie The Graduate, which was also one word. It was a great movie. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. My word is “plasticity.” (Spoiler alert: In The Graduate, the word was “plastic.”) Neuroscientists now understand that your brain has the capacity to adapt and change over the course of an entire lifetime. It’s called “neuroplasticity.” Every new experience that you have is forming new neural pathways and pruning away old ones. Every time you meet a new friend or develop a new skill or go to an unfamiliar place, you are enhancing your cognitive function and fueling your potential for adaptation.

Every action that you take, that defies routine, that challenges stereotypes, that questions what you thought you knew, is making you more alive and less susceptible to the boring predictability of machine programming. My experiences as a student at St. Andrew’s were hugely impactful in helping me to learn to be plastic and not rigid. I remember my first night at sit-down dinner at Mr. Ryan’s table when he said out loud, “I see that your brother’s baby blue blazer has matriculated back at St. Andrew’s, along with you.” Of course, I was hugely embarrassed to be outed for wearing hand-me-down clothes in front of the other students, but that wasn’t the end of my relationship with Mr. Ryan. I later discovered he was just a lovable curmudgeon. I won the French Prize at graduation and I learned to be slow at taking offense. Sandy Ogilby, who was my advisor, JV baseball coach, and the assistant chaplain, convinced me to join the choir.

In spite of the fact, or maybe because of the fact I couldn’t sing, I think he might have also been a little tired of seeing the marks that I got for accidentally forgetting about Chapel. That’s a different story. I loved stretching my tiny music muscle back then, and sadly, it is still a very tiny muscle, but I learned to enjoy the process of trying things I wasn’t good at. Bob Stegeman constantly goaded me to take dissenting views in his history classes and his eyes grew huge and elated when I expressed an opinion that contrasted with my classmates. I learned that the best arguments are informed by seeing the other side. 

I had the very good fortune as a child to grow up living around the world since my father was a diplomat. Perhaps being exposed to all of these different cultures and having classmates every couple of years helped me to develop my plasticity. But I also believe firmly that this personal trait will be developed in my own life. I continue to try to learn new things and strive to change my habits. I took up yoga this winter. I actually own a yoga mat. I just funded the creation of a new venture capital business in Africa after spending an entire career focused exclusively on investing in America. After many years of feeling very confident in my political opinions, I’ve become active with organizations working to promote nonpartisan election reforms.

Every week, I spend several hours of what I call “stretch time.” It’s like the stretching you do for your muscles before an athletic activity, except it’s for your brain. Sometimes I read poetry or sometimes I read a dense and esoteric journal on something like neurology, which is very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes I will attend a random event where I know nobody. 

Each of you has a unique opportunity here at St. Andrew’s to build your plasticity, to take new risks, and expose yourself to new things just for the experience. You have an incredible faculty here, and they are here to help you with your stretch time. If you’re a three-sport athlete, sign up for a play or take a dance class. If you think your artistic team completely defines you, sign up for a road race. Do the Polar Bear Plunge. When you have a chance to have lunch with someone you don’t know, just take the seat next to them. If you have really strong opinions about something, seek out and talk to someone who thinks differently. Get outside and away from the autopilot of your screens as much as you possibly can. Go explore this incredible 2,200-acre campus, inhale life, and let your senses wander. During one of my recent stretch times, I read a bunch of poems by Wendell Berry. He describes the therapy you get from nature as the “peace of wild things.” I like how that phrase captures the gift we all have to experience a life.

I’m going to close now by telling you that I had no idea when I wrote this Chapel Talk that it would occur during your phone-free weekend, but it certainly is a happy coincidence. 

It’s been a joy to speak with all of you.

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