2018 Elizabeth Miller '81 Lecture


On October 30, Busy Burr '83 delivered the Elizabeth Miller '81 Lecture with a talk titled “Moxie: Fear, Fun, and Face-Plants in a Life of Change.”  Burr started her career in a very traditional way: investment banking, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and back to investment banking. Advice from her father and (soon-to-be) wife, gave her the courage to leave a career at Morgan Stanley and leap into the unknown. Busy discussed how curating experiences through trial and error, fear and uncertainty, crises in confidence, improvisation and joy have played a role in her varied life.

With every risk there’s potential for failure, but the trick is to know that these moments are coming, [and prepare for] the times when we need to tap into resilience, accept, learn, and move on. The risk is actually fearing the stakes, in fearing we lose so much that we’re paralyzed from action.
— Busy Burr ‘83

Burr believes there are three reasons why taking risks are important and necessary:

  1. Boldness Drives Change: In order to make a change or innovate, “risk isn’t just nice to have, it is absolutely vital.” Many of the innovations we have now came from one person taking the risk of being bold, or questioning the status quo.

  2. Personal Resilience - We all know change is inevitable, and often it feels like they occur in the moments you’re least prepared for them. It’s important to continuously take on (and find joy in) uncomfortable changes throughout life. “The more you get yourself out of your comfort zone, the more resilient you’re going to be when you get your gut punched.”

  3. Live Fully, without Regrets - When we become too fixated on how we want things to go, we aren’t living wholly and fully. The beauty (and sometimes the curse) of life is that we make decisions that sometimes have poor outcomes - but from these mistakes we learn and grow.

Busy ‘83 catches up with her former economics professors Andrew Zimbalist and Randy Bartlett.

Busy ‘83 catches up with her former economics professors Andrew Zimbalist and Randy Bartlett.

Since risk is really a measure of how comfortable you are with something, it’s important that you can quickly adapt to changes you weren’t expecting - or as Burr sees it, improvising! In the spirit of taking risk, Burr asked audience members to engage in an improv warm-up activity. The challenge was to hold a conversation with the person sitting next to you, starting each sentence based on alphabetical chronology. As an audience member I can admit it felt uncomfortable (and slightly awkward), but that was the point - mastering how you can improvise when you face moments of vulnerability and risk is an invaluable life skill. It’s also important to consider how you feel about the spontaneity associated with risk because it’s vital to your creativity and resilience, which fosters innovation.

Burr has spent the vast majority of her career helping companies manage, assess, and mitigate risks within their business operations. However, she’s also faced a number of personal risks in her life, which she chose to highlight.  Burr framed her talk as a walk down her risk-trodden memory lane. She used five specific memories where she took leaps of faith to convey important takeaways from each that taught her to value and appreciate risk-taking:

  • Let go of your something that you’re attached to
    This means letting go of ideas, values, beliefs, plans, what you believe status quo is. While at Smith, Burr faced extreme uncertainty as she had to learn how to reassess her long held values and beliefs. “Clearly, this is something that’s easier said than done - but when you are emotionally agile to reassess your beliefs,” Burr said. “It’s easier to see and accept change in yourself and others and accept defeat, thus creating openings to find out what else is out there in the world for you.”

  • Oops...
    Burr used “Oops” to reduce the severity that comes with the failure you may face after making a risky decision that ending up costing more than the benefit it was supposed to reap. Burr spoke about her risky decision to leave Morgan Stanley, where she was a successful investment banker for many years after receiving her MBA from Stanford Business School. She took the risk of losing her job security, healthcare, and salary she described as “dangerously addictive” in order to jumpstart herself into a career where she would be genuinely happy. However, this transitional period was super risky for her, as her savings started to dwindle and other life circumstances were limiting her job search.

  • Life is Short but your Career is Long
    Just as any portfolio manager desires a diversified portfolio, Burr believes we should all desire to curate a variety of different experiences and do a lot of different things throughout your career. For us current Smithies, there’s so much opportunity to try new things, make mistakes, get knocked down, get up and try again. Burr also warned, “Beware of the messages you get around what success is, they're often financially driven, not intention driven...Beware of people who see money as a measure of smarts, brilliance, or even success.”

  • Forget True North, Think True East
    Burr believes the idea of finding your true passion (i.e. looking True North) based on what society tells you isn’t the best option. Rather, she recommends looking True East - as this direction points your gaze towards the sunrise, indicative of beginnings and “newness”. Thus, she says if you can’t find your true passion, start following things that are new and exciting - as a new beginning now can evolve into passion later on.

  • Live With Your Whole Heart
    Be Brave, Be Fierce, Be Vulnerable! “Taking risks means not just recognizing vulnerability, but diving into it. Vulnerability is authenticity, it’s your truth, it’s your humanness.” Once we learn how to be open, emotionally engaged, purposeful, intentional, and vulnerable human beings, risks begin to feel easier to mitigate over time.

Smith College President  McCartney (left) and Elizabeth Miller ‘81 (right) engaging in an improv exercise led by Busy Burr ‘83.

Smith College President McCartney (left) and Elizabeth Miller ‘81 (right) engaging in an improv exercise led by Busy Burr ‘83.

This framework not only allowed the audience to get to know the real Busy apart from her numerous lifetime achievements and personal difficulties, but also drove home her main point - taking risks isn’t easy, but once you begin to become self-aware and slowly dismantle the behaviors and actions that support risk-aversion, there isn’t any risk you can’t take.

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