Be Free from Fear. Be Audacious!
By Sage Sanderson, '26 and Ellen Petrill, '77, MS '78
“Fear is learned!” said Dr. Iris C. Gibbs, in her keynote speech at the 2023 Cap and Gown Stanford Women Winter Welcome. Dr. Gibbs joined Cap and Gown and other Stanford women leaders on Tuesday evening, January 24, 2023, in welcoming its newest members – frosh, sophomores and grad students – to the community of women at Stanford. Dr. Gibbs, Professor of Radiation Oncology, Professor of Neurosurgery (courtesy), and the first African-American Associate Dean of MD Admissions at Stanford Medicine, shared learnings from her life and reflections on how she cultivates her superpowers.
Embrace fearlessness. Picture the fearlessness of a child. They don't see the obstacles; they just move. We learn to fear based on our experiences and begin to see obstacles in our way even when they aren't there. When you place fear into a balanced subjection, you can become comfortably afraid as Michelle Obama describes in her most recent book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times. If we understand where fear comes from, we can confront it and be free of it to move forward with audacity and take bold risks. Embracing fearlessness can help us make the impact we want to make by being the bold person we want to be.
Cultivate faith in the goodness of humanity. Dr. Gibbs had faith in the goodness of humanity from a young age. When young Iris took her brother’s punishment in return for his promise to change (which he typically didn’t do), Dr. Gibbs's mother ached for her young daughter, worrying that she would be hurt. Iris held on to her unwavering trust in her brother, though, and that trust encouraged him to eventually grow into a trustworthy man. “I have a thick skin,” Dr. Gibbs told us, “which makes grace and forgiveness easier to give. Endless forgiveness helps people turn around.” Trust makes a strong foundation for relationships and can help others rise above their own expectations. For Dr. Gibbs, her faith in the goodness of humanity is a superpower that helps her build genuine, lasting relationships with others and encourage others to be their best.
Use quiet moments to build connections and relationships. We often use big events and conferences as opportunities to network and make professional connections. Professional connections are important, but relationships are even more valuable. Relationships are built in the quiet moments where trust is built through vulnerability. Not only will these moments strengthen the relationships’ bonds, they may reveal our superpowers. Take time for the quiet moments to get to know others and let them get to know you. To keep herself happy and healthy, Dr. Gibbs intentionally plans weekly time with family and friends and makes it work in her busy life. Take time for your happiness and mental health with your important relationships.
Recognize and take advantage of your stages of growth. This may help you to see and cultivate your superpowers. Dr. Gibbs first learned about the Conscious Competence Learning Model* from colleague and fellow Stanford Medicine alum, Dr. Odette Harris.
When you are just starting, you are likely unconsciously incompetent (you don’t even know what you don’t know). This is when you don’t see obstacles. You are fearless, you can be bold. Dr. Gibbs reflected on her upbringing in a family of African-American ancestors. She was raised largely ignorant of the trauma of racism and grew up believing she could do and become anything. She returns to this belief to regain fearlessness and be audacious.
When you become aware of what you don't know, you’re consciously incompetent. At this stage, you are free to ask questions without fear. It’s a great time to learn from others and focus on building skills and knowledge essential for success. Dr. Gibbs became a voracious learner. Rather than doubt yourself, do the work required to become competent. Take courses, read materials, and talk with experienced colleagues about their work.
Soon you bring more value than you give yourself credit for. You are unconsciously competent. You become a source of expertise and you make contributions. Dr. Gibbs told us she built her character during this phase. Building character is more than gaining knowledge, it’s about gaining experience, stepping into leadership, and overall growth.
When you recognize that you bring value, you’re consciously competent. At this stage, use your voice. You will be heard.
Step up to be first. Be the voice of the voiceless. Dr. Gibbs said she realized that the cavalry is not coming to save the day. “If not me, then who?” she told us. Because of that, she has been accustomed to being first. She was the first African-American woman to train in Radiation Oncology at Stanford and the first African-American to be on the faculty in Radiation Oncology at Stanford. Being first has led Dr. Gibbs to be the voice of the voiceless. She uses her platform to bring about change. To get to this place, she went through some dark times in academics and had to fight for a seat at the table. During these times, colleagues, many of whom do not look like her, fought battles with her and for her. These relationships and the support they provided helped her to be able to step up. Now, she is in a position to provide perspectives not usually brought forth, because she is different. She can see talent differently, thus enabling increased diversity by including and hiring differently. When you can bring about a change, do it.
Be a truthteller. In one of her favorite books, Black Women Will Save the World by April Ryan, the author talks about the superpowers of black women, including their expertise as organizers, navigators, and truth-tellers. Dr. Gibbs has a thick skin but sometimes even a thick skin is too thin to stay quiet when things are not right. Dr. Gibbs recounted a recent experience of being a speaker at an exclusive medical conference. She was thrilled to be invited but when she arrived at the venue, a resort that had been a slaveholder plantation, she immediately felt uncomfortable and out of place. “Was I the only one feeling this way?” she recalled. “No,” she realized. But she might be the only one who would be heard. Using her truthtelling superpower, she shared her perspectives with the event chair, emphasizing that while we cannot change history, we can choose not to support narratives that condone past injustices**. As a result, the chair added a land and historical acknowledgment to the conference opening and even more importantly, agreed to change the venue selection process for future conferences to consider diversity and inclusivity impacts. Tell the truth when you see things are not right.
Take steps that might be difficult, but fulfilling. Dr. Gibbs ended her speech with a Mother Pollard quote: "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested," and reminded us that she is here, living out her ancestors' wildest dreams. Dr. Gibbs’ superpowers are shining examples of how we can step up to bring change–through faith in the goodness of humanity and by putting aside our fears. It is up to us to work together toward a better future, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
If not us, then who?
About the Winter Welcome
The Stanford Women Winter Welcome is an annual Cap and Gown event to welcome new women students to the community of women at Stanford. At the 2023 Winter Welcome, the 17th since Cap and Gown started the tradition in 2006, 75 participants came together in Vidalakis Dining Room to learn from and connect with Stanford women leaders.
Thank you to the Cap and Gown Winter Welcome student and alumnae team who made this event happen, especially Megan Loh, Grace Bagga, Sage Sanderson, Alice Ku, Daisy Cisneros, Ellen Petrill, and Jessica Mahler.
*The Conscious Competence Learning Model has been variously attributed to Martin Broadwell, Paul Curtiss and Phillip Warren, or Noel Brusch.
**Dr. Gibbs’ editorial piece on this topic will be published soon in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics (Red Journal).