20 May 2012, Yale,
7 June 2007, Harvard, Massachussets, USA
President Bok, former President Rudenstine, incoming President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, parents, and especially, the graduates:
I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.”
I want to thank Harvard for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job next year … and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.
I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me “Harvard’s most successful dropout.” I guess that makes me valedictorian of my own special class … I did the best of everyone who failed.
But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today.
Harvard was just a phenomenal experience for me. Academic life was fascinating. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn’t even signed up for. And dorm life was terrific. I lived up at Radcliffe, in Currier House. There were always lots of people in my dorm room late at night discussing things, because everyone knew I didn’t worry about getting up in the morning. That’s how I came to be the leader of the anti-social group. We clung to each other as a way of validating our rejection of all those social people.
Radcliffe was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.
One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them software.
I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software yet. From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft.
What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was an amazing privilege – and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.
But taking a serious look back … I do have one big regret.
I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.
I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.
But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.
It took me decades to find out.
You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about the world’s inequities than the classes that came before. In your years here, I hope you’ve had a chance to think about how – in this age of accelerating technology – we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them.
Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a week and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause – and you wanted to spend that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in saving and improving lives. Where would you spend it?
For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.
During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million kids each year – none of them in the United States.
We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”
So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”
The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.
But you and I have both.
We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes.
If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world. This task is open-ended. It can never be finished. But a conscious effort to answer this challenge will change the world.
I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end – because people just … don’t … care.” I completely disagree.
I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.
All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing – not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.
The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.
To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps.
Even with the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news, it is still a complex enterprise to get people to truly see the problems. When an airplane crashes, officials immediately call a press conference. They promise to investigate, determine the cause, and prevent similar crashes in the future.
But if the officials were brutally honest, they would say: “Of all the people in the world who died today from preventable causes, one half of one percent of them were on this plane. We’re determined to do everything possible to solve the problem that took the lives of the one half of one percent.”
The bigger problem is not the plane crash, but the millions of preventable deaths.
We don’t read much about these deaths. The media covers what’s new – and millions of people dying is nothing new. So it stays in the background, where it’s easier to ignore. But even when we do see it or read about it, it’s difficult to keep our eyes on the problem. It’s hard to look at suffering if the situation is so complex that we don’t know how to help. And so we look away.
If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution.
Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks “How can I help?,” then we can get action – and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares — and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.
Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have — whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.
The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand – and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.
Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working – and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century – which is to surrender to complexity and quit.
The final step – after seeing the problem and finding an approach – is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.
You have to have the statistics, of course. You have to be able to show that a program is vaccinating millions more children. You have to be able to show a decline in the number of children dying from these diseases. This is essential not just to improve the program, but also to help draw more investment from business and government.
But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work – so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.
I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life – then multiply that by millions. … Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on – ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.
What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software – but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?
You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that – is a complex question.
Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new – they can help us make the most of our caring – and that’s why the future can be different from the past.
The defining and ongoing innovations of this age – biotechnology, the computer, the Internet – give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.
Sixty years ago, George Marshall came to this commencement and announced a plan to assist the nations of post-war Europe. He said: “I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation. It is virtually impossible at this distance to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.”
Thirty years after Marshall made his address, as my class graduated without me, technology was emerging that would make the world smaller, more open, more visible, less distant.
The emergence of low-cost personal computers gave rise to a powerful network that has transformed opportunities for learning and communicating.
The magical thing about this network is not just that it collapses distance and makes everyone your neighbor. It also dramatically increases the number of brilliant minds we can have working together on the same problem – and that scales up the rate of innovation to a staggering degree.
At the same time, for every person in the world who has access to this technology, five people don’t. That means many creative minds are left out of this discussion -- smart people with practical intelligence and relevant experience who don’t have the technology to hone their talents or contribute their ideas to the world.
We need as many people as possible to have access to this technology, because these advances are triggering a revolution in what human beings can do for one another. They are making it possible not just for national governments, but for universities, corporations, smaller organizations, and even individuals to see problems, see approaches, and measure the impact of their efforts to address the hunger, poverty, and desperation George Marshall spoke of 60 years ago.
Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great collections of intellectual talent in the world.
There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never even hear its name?
Let me make a request of the deans and the professors – the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:
Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?
Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst inequities? Should Harvard students learn about the depth of global poverty … the prevalence of world hunger … the scarcity of clean water …the girls kept out of school … the children who die from diseases we can cure?
Should the world’s most privileged people learn about the lives of the world’s least privileged?
These are not rhetorical questions – you will answer with your policies.
My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here – never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given – in talent, privilege, and opportunity – there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.
In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue – a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.
Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.
You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort. You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.
Knowing what you know, how could you not?
And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.
13 May 2007, University of Southern California, USA
Well, no doubt many of you are wondering why the speaker is so old. Well, the answer is obviously he hasn’t died yet.
And why was the speaker chosen? Well, I don’t know that either. I like to think that the development department had nothing to do with it. Whatever the reason I think it’s very fitting that I'm sitting here because I see one crowd of faces in the rear not wearing robes, and I know, from having educated an army of descendants, who really deserves a lot of the honors that are being given are the people here upfront. The sacrifice and the wisdom and the value transfer that comes from one generation to the next can never be underrated.
And that gives me enormous pleasure as I look at this sea of Asian faces to my left. All my life I’ve admired Confucius. I like the idea of filial piety, the idea that there are values that are taught and duties that come naturally and all that should be passed on to the next generation. And you people who don’t think there’s anything in this idea, please note how fast these Asian faces are rising in American life. I think they have something.
All right, I scratched out a few notes and I’m going to try and just give an account of some ideas and attitudes that have worked well for me. I don’t claim that they are perfect for everybody. Although I think many of them are pretty close to universal values and many of them are can’t fail ideas.
What are the core ideas that have helped me?
Well, luckily, I got at a very early age the idea that the safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want. It’s such a simple idea. It’s the golden rule so to speak. You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end. There is no ethos, in my opinion, that is better for any lawyer or any other person to have.
By and large, the people who have this ethos win in life and they don’t win just money, just honors and emoluments. They win the respect, the deserved trust, of the people they deal with, and there is huge pleasure in life to be obtained from getting deserved trust. And so the way to get it is to deliver what you’d want to buy if the circumstances were reversed.
Occasionally, you find a perfect rogue of a person, who dies rich and widely known. But mostly, these people are fully understood by the surrounding civilization, and when the cathedral is full of people at the funeral ceremony, most of them are there to celebrate the fact that the person is dead.
And that reminds me of the story of the time when one of these people died and the minister said, “It’s now time for someone to say something nice about the deceased.”
And nobody came forward.
And nobody came forward.
And nobody came forward.
And finally one man came up and he said, “Well, his brother was worse.”
That is not where you want to go! That’s not the kind of funeral you want to have. You'll leave entirely the wrong example.
A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life and it’s been very very useful to me.
A love like that celebrated by Somerset Maugham and his book “Of Human Bondage”… that’s a sick kind of love, it’s a disease. And if you find yourself in a disease like that my advice to you is turn around and fix it. Eliminate it.
Another idea that I got, and this may remind you of Confucius too, is that wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. It’s not something you do just to advance in life. Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty.
And there’s a corollary to that proposition which is very important. It means that you’re hooked for lifetime learning, and without lifetime learning you people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here.
If you take Berkshire Hathaway, which is certainly one of the best-regarded corporations in the world and may have the best long-term investment record in the entire history of civilization, the skill that got Berkshire through one decade would not have sufficed to get it through the next decade with the achievements made. Without Warren Buffett being a learning machine, a continuous learning machine, the record would have been absolutely impossible.
The same is true at lower walks of life. I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than when they got up and boy does that help—particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.
Alfred North Whitehead said it one time that “the rapid advance of civilization came only when man invented the method of invention” and, of course, he was referring to the huge growth of GDP per capita and all the other good things that we now take for granted, which started a few hundred years ago and before that all was stasis.
So, if civilization can progress only when it invents the method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning.
I was very lucky. I came to law school having learned the method of learning and nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. And if you take Warren Buffett and watched him with a time clock, I would say half of all the time he spends is sitting on his ass and reading. And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking one on one either on the telephone or personally with highly gifted people whom he trusts and who trust him. In other words, it looks quite academic, all this worldly success.
Academia has many wonderful values in it. I came across such a value not too long ago. It was several years ago, in my capacity as a hospital board chairman. I was dealing with a medical school academic. And this man over years of hard work had made himself know more about bone tumor pathology than almost anybody else in the world. And he wanted to pass this knowledge on to the rest of us.
And how was he going to do it? Well, he decided to write a textbook that would be very useful to other people. And I don’t think a textbook like this sells two thousand copies if those two thousand copies are in all the major cancer centers in the world.
He took a year sabbatical, he sat down in front of his computer and he had all the slides because he saved them and organized them and filed them. He worked 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a year and that was his sabbatical. At the end of the year, he had one of the great bone tumor pathology textbooks in the world. When you’re around values like that, you want to pick up as much as you can.
Another idea that was hugely useful to me was that I listened in law school when some wag said, “A legal mind is a mind that when two things are all twisted up together and interacting, it's feasible to think responsibly about one thing and not the other.”
Well, I could see from that one sentence that was perfectly ridiculous, and it pushed me further into my natural drift, which was into learning all the big ideas and all the big disciplines so I wouldn’t be a perfect damn fool who was trying to think about one aspect of something that couldn’t be removed from the totality of the situation in a constructive fashion. And what I noted, since the really big ideas carry 95 percent of the freight, it wasn’t at all that hard for me to pick up all the big ideas and all the big disciplines and make them a standard part of my mental routines.
Once you have the ideas, of course, they are no good if you don’t practice. You don’t practice, you lose it.
So, I went through life constantly practicing this model of disciplinary approach. Well, I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun. It’s made me more constructive. It’s made me more helpful to others. It’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.
Now there are dangers there, because it works so well, that if you do it, you will frequently find you are sitting in the presence of some other expert—maybe even an expert that’s superior to you, supervising you—and you will know more than he does about his own specialty, a lot more. You will see the correct answer when he’s missed it.
That is a very dangerous position to be in. You can cause enormous offense by helpfully being right in a way that causes somebody else to lose face. And I never found a perfect way to solve that problem. I was a great poker player when I was young, but I wasn’t a good enough poker player so people failed to sense that I thought I knew more than they did about their subjects, and it gave a lot of offense. Now I’m just regarded as eccentric, but it was a difficult period to go through. And my advice to you is to learn sometimes to keep your light under a bushel.
One of my colleagues, also number one in his class in law school—a great success in life, worked for the supreme court, etc.—he knew a lot and he tended to show it as a very young lawyer and one day the senior partner called him in and said, “Listen, Chuck, I want to explain something to you. Your duty under any circumstances is to behave in such a way that the client thinks he’s the smartest person in the world. If you have any little energy and insight available after that, use it to make your senior partner look like the smartest person in the world. And only after you’ve satisfied those two obligations do you want your light to shine at all.”
Well, that may be very good advice for rising in a large firm. It wasn’t what I did. I always obeyed the drift of my nature and if other people didn’t like it I didn’t need to be adored by everybody.
Another idea, and by the way, when I talk about this multidisciplinary attitude I’m really following a very key idea of the greatest lawyer of antiquity, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is famous for saying, “A man who doesn’t know what happened before he was born goes through life like a child.” That is a very correct idea of Cicero’s. And he’s right to ridicule somebody so foolish as not to know what happened before he was born.
But if you generalize Cicero as I think one should, there are all these other things that you should know in addition to history, and those other things are the big ideas in all the other disciplines. And it doesn’t help you just to know them enough just so you can prattle them back on an exam and get an A. You have to learn these things in such a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life.
If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and look to your right and left and think, “My heavenly days! I’m now one of the few most competent people of my whole age forward.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.
Another idea that I got—and it was encapsulated by that story the Dean recounted about the man who wanted to know where he was going to die and he wouldn’t go there—that rustic let that idea have a profound truth in his hand.
The way complex adaptive systems work and the way mental constructs work; problems frequently get easier and I would even say usually are easier to solve if you turn around in reverse. In other words, if you want to help India, the question you should ask is not, “How can I help India?” You think, “What’s doing the worst damage in India? What would automatically do the worst damage and how do I avoid it?”
You’d think they are logically the same thing, they’re not. Those of you who have mastered algebra know that inversion frequently will solve problems which nothing else will solve. And in life, unless you’re more gifted than Einstein, inversion will help you solve problems that you can't solve in other ways.
But to use a little inversion now, “What will really fail in life? What do you want to avoid?”
Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable, it doesn’t matter what your virtues are, you’re going to crater immediately. So doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.
Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You’ve seen that. You see a lot of it on TV. You know preachers, for instance, you know they’ve all got different ideas about theology and a lot of them have minds that are made of cabbage. But that can happen with political ideology. And if you're young, it’s easy to drift into loyalties. And when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind so you want to be very careful with this ideology. It’s a big danger.
In my mind, I got a little example I use whenever I think about ideology and it’s these Scandinavian canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools in the Aaron Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100 percent. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology.
I have what I call an “iron prescription” that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another. And that is I say, “I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.” I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.
Now, you can say that’s too much of an iron discipline. It’s not too much of an iron discipline. It’s not even that hard to do. It sounds a lot like the iron prescription of Ferdinand the Great, “It’s not necessary to hope in order to persevere.” That probably is too tough for most people. I don’t think it’s too tough for me, but it's too tough for most people.
But this business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very very important thing in life if you want to have more correct knowledge and be wiser than other people. A heavy ideology is very likely to do you in.
Another thing, of course, that does one in is the self-serving bias to which we are all subject. You think that your little me is entitled to do what it wants to do and, for instance, why shouldn’t the true little me overspend my income?
Well, there once was a man who became the most famous composer in the world, but he was utterly miserable most of the time and one of the reasons was he always overspent his income. That was Mozart. If Mozart can’t get by with this kind of asinine conduct, I don’t think you should try it.
Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought. Self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse. You do not want to drift into self-pity.
I have a friend who carried a big stack of linen cards about this thick, and when somebody would make a comment that reflected self-pity, he would take out one of the cards, take the top one off the stack and hand it to the person, and the card said, “Your story has touched my heart. Never have I heard of anyone with as many misfortunes as you.”
Well, you can say that’s waggery, but I suggest that every time you find you’re drifting into self-pity—I don’t care what the cause, your child could be dying of cancer, self-pity is not going to improve the situation—just give yourself one of those cards. It’s a ridiculous way to behave and when you avoid it you get a great advantage over everybody else, almost everybody else, because self-pity is a standard condition and yet you can train yourself out of it.
And, of course, a self-serving bias, you want to get out of yourself: thinking that what’s good for you is good for the wider civilization and rationalizing all these ridiculous conclusions based on the subconscious tendency to serve one’s self. It’s a terribly inaccurate way to think and, of course, you want to drive that out of yourself because you want to be wise, not foolish.
You also have to allow for the self-serving bias of everybody else, because most people are not gonna remove it all that successfully, the only condition being what it is. If you don’t allow for self-serving bias in your conduct, again, you’re a fool.
I watched the brilliant Harvard Law Review-trained general counsel of Salomon lose his career. And what he did was, when the CEO was aware some underling had done something wrong, the general counsel said, “Gee, we don’t have any legal duty to report this, but I think it’s what we should do. It’s our moral duty.”
Of course, the general counsel was totally correct, but, of course, it didn’t work. It was a very unpleasant thing for the CEO to do and he put it off and put it off and, of course, everything eroded into a major scandal and down went the CEO and the general counsel with him.
The correct answer in situations like that was given by Ben Franklin. He said, “If you want to persuade, appeal to interest not to reason.” The self-serving bias is so extreme. If the general counsel said, “Look, this is going to erupt. It’s something that will destroy you, take away your money, take away your status. It’s a perfect disaster.” It would have worked! You want to appeal to interest. You want to do it of lofty motives, but you should not avoid appealing to interest.
Another thing: perverse incentives. You don’t want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse. Incentives are too powerful a controller of human cognition and human behavior, and one of the things you are going to find in some modern law firms is billable hour quotas and I could not have lived under a billable hour quota of 2,400 hours a year. That would have caused serious problems for me. I wouldn’t have done it and I don’t have a solution for you for that. You have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.
And you particularly want to avoid working directly under somebody you really don't admire and don't want to be like. It's very dangerous. We're all subject to control to some extent by authority figures—particularly authority figures that are rewarding us. And that requires some talent.
The way I solved that is I figured out the people I did admire and I maneuvered cleverly, without criticizing anybody, so I was working entirely under people I admired. And a lot of law firms will permit that if you're shrewd enough to work it out. And your outcome in life will be way more satisfactory and way better if you work under people you really admire. The alternative is not a good idea.
Objectivity maintenance. Well, we all remember that Darwin paid special attention to disconfirming evidence, particularly to disconfirm something he believed and loved. Well, objectivity maintenance routines are totally required in life if you’re going to be a correct thinker. And they were talking about Darwin’s attitude—special attention to the disconfirming evidence—and also to checklist routines. Checklist routines avoid a lot of errors. You should have all this elementary wisdom and then you should go through and have a checklist in order to use it. There is no other procedure that will work as well.
A last idea that I found very important is I realized very early that non-egality would work better in the parts of the world I wanted to inhabit. What do I mean by non-egality? I mean John Wooden, when he was the number one basketball coach in the world. He just said to the bottom five players, “You don't get to play. You're sparring partners.”
The top seven did all the playing. Well, the top seven learned more—remember the learning machine—because they were doing all the playing. And when he got to that system, why, Wooden won more than he'd ever won before.
I think the game of life, in many respects, is getting a lot of practice into the hands of the people that have the most aptitude to learn and the most tendency to be learning machines. And if you want the very highest reaches of human civilization, that’s where you have to go. You do not want to choose a brain surgeon for your child among fifty applicants, all of them just take turns during the procedure. You don’t want your airplanes designed that way. You don’t want your Berkshire Hathaway’s run that way. You want to get the power into the right people.
I frequently tell the story of Max Planck, when he won the Nobel prize and went around Germany giving lectures on quantum mechanics. And the chauffeur gradually memorized the lecture and he said, “Would you mind, professor Planck, just because it's so boring staying in our routines, would you mind if I gave the lecture this time and you just sat in front with my chauffeur's hat?” And Planck said, “Sure.”
And the chauffeur got up and he gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics, after which a physics professor stood up in the rear and asked a perfectly ghastly question. And the chauffeur said, “Well, I'm surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I'm going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”
Well, the reason I tell that story is not entirely to celebrate the quick wittiness of the protagonist. In this world, we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge—the people who really know. They've paid the dues, they have the aptitude.
Then, we've got chauffeur knowledge—they have learned to prattle the talk and they have a big head of hair. They may have fine timbre in the voice. They really make a hell of an impression. But in the end, they've got chauffeur knowledge. I think I've just described practically every politician in the United States.
And you are going to have the problem in your life of getting the responsibility to the people with the Planck knowledge and away for the people who have the chauffeur knowledge. And there are huge forces working against you.
My generation has failed you to some extent. We are delivering to you, in California, a legislature where only the certified nuts from the left and the certified nuts from the right are allowed to serve and none of them are removable. That’s what my generation has done for you, but you wouldn’t like it to be too easy would you?
Another thing that I found is an intense interest of the subject is indispensable if you are really going to excel. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things, but I couldn’t be really good in anything where I didn’t have an intense interest. So, to some extent, you’re going to have to follow me. If at all feasible you want to drift into doing something in which you really have a natural interest.
Another thing you have to do, of course, is have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means “sit down in your ass until you do it.”
I’ve had marvelous partners all my life. I think I got them partly because I tried to deserve them and, partly, because I was wise enough to select them and, partly, maybe it was some luck. But two partners that I chose for one little phase of my life had the following rule and they created a little design-build construction team. And they sat down and said, “Two-man partnership. Divide everything equally. Here’s the rule: Whenever we're behind in our commitments to other people, we will both work 14 hours a day until we're caught up.”
Well, needless to say, that firm didn’t fail! The people died rich. It’s such a simple idea.
Another thing, of course, is life will have terrible blows, horrible blows, unfair blows. Doesn’t matter. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He thought that every mischance in life was an opportunity to behave well. Every mischance in life was an opportunity to learn something and your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in a constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.
And you may remember the epitaph which Epictetus left for himself: “Here lies Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favored of the gods.”
Well, that’s the way Epictetus is now remembered. He said big consequences. And he was favorite of the Gods! He was favored because he became wise, and he became manly. Very good idea.
I got a final little idea because I’m all for prudence as well as opportunism. My grandfather was the only federal judge in his city for nearly forty years and I really admired him. I’m his namesake. And I’m Confucian enough that, even now, I sit here and I’m saying, “Well, Judge Munger would be pleased to see me here.”
So I'm Confucian enough, all these years after my grandfather is dead, to carry the torch for my grandfather's values. And, grandfather Munger was a federal judge at a time when there were no pensions for widows of federal judges. So if he didn't save from his income, why, my grandmother would have been in penury. And being the kind of man he was he underspent his income all his life and left her in comfortable circumstances.
Along the way, in the thirties, my uncle's bank failed and couldn't reopen. And my grandfather saved the bank by taking over a third of his assets—good assets—and putting them into the bank and taking the horrible assets in exchange. And, of course, it did save the bank.
While my grandfather took a loss, he got most of his money back eventually. But I've always remembered the example. And so when I got to college and I came across Houseman, I remember the little poem from Houseman, and that went something like this:
“The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting,
Of lovers' meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady;
So I was ready
When trouble came.”
You can say, “Who wants to go through life anticipating trouble?” Well, I did! All my life, I've gone through life anticipating trouble. And here I am, well along on my eighty-fourth year, and like Epictetus, I've had a favored life. It didn't make me unhappy to anticipate trouble all the time and be ready to perform adequately if trouble came. It didn't hurt me at all. In fact, it helped me. So I quick claim to you Houseman and Judge Munger.
The last idea that I want to give you, as you go out into a profession that frequently puts a lot of procedure, and a lot of precautions, and a lot of mumbo-jumbo into what it does, this is not the highest form which civilization can reach. The highest form that civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.
That's the way an operating room works at the Mayo Clinic. If a bunch of lawyers were to introduce a lot of process, the patients would all die. So never forget, when you're a lawyer, that you may be rewarded for selling this stuff, but you don't have to buy it. In your own life, what you want is a seamless web of deserved trust. And if your proposed marriage contract has forty-seven pages, my suggestion is you not enter.
Well, that’s enough for one graduation. I hope these ruminations of an old man are useful to you. In the end, I’m like the Old Valiant-for-Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “My sword I leave to him who can wear it.”
June 2004, New England School of Photography, Waltham, Masachussets, USA
We are in the midst of sea change – a tidal wave might be more accurate – with the medium of photography. While the lens is still firmly fixed to the camera body, the body itself appears to have imploded. The inner workings, that is—the guts of the camera from Talbot’s days (when cameras were called “mousetraps” by his wife who was always tripping over them) have changed faster than anyone expected.
The digital camera, the D-SLR, has become the new tool for lens-based professionals and artists almost overnight. Everywhere. We all have them now. But the pictures have not changed. Nor have the ground rules for making them. The need for pictures that make a mark on our lives, that give meaning to experience, that park themselves deep in our consciousness, the way new music always does, has never been greater, the appetite for lens-based visual culture stands above most other mediums of communication hands down.
In the art world, photography has stepped forward as the most important art medium of our times.
Roberta Smith, writing for New York Times a few years back, put it this way (and I am paraphrasing here): “In the last 30 years no medium has had a more profound effect on art than the medium of photography.” This, mind you, comes from one of America’s foremost critics of sculpture!
There is a bus station in Helsinki I want to introduce you to, a bus station just next to Eliel Saarinen’s famous train station. Surrounded by Jugenstil architectural gems like the National Theater and the National Art Museum, the bus station makes a cool backdrop for Magnum wannabees armed with D-SLRs and vintage Leica’s.
You might find yourself there sometime, too.
But getting back to the bus station and what makes it famous, at least among the students I teach at UMass Lowell, the University of Art & Design Helsinki, École d’Art Appliqués in Lausanne, or the many workshops I give in Tuscany, Maine and Santa Fe, is the metaphor it offers students and professionals alike for creative continuity in a life-long journey in photography, the metaphor it provides to young artists seeking to discover their own unique vision one day.
The Helsinki Bus Station: let me describe what happens there.
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.
Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.
Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.
You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that elicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.
Why, because if you do, in time you will begin to see a difference.
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest.
For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.
Your vision takes off.
And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!
You regain the whole bus route in fact. The vintage prints made in twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated, and for what it is worth, start selling at a premium.
At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.
Why, because you stayed on the bus.
When I began photography I was enamored with the work of Ralph Gibson, Duane Michals, and Jerry Uelsmann. I was on their platforms. Each told me that it was possible to use your mind to make pictures. As a copywriter on the Minolta account (before I became a photographer) I wrote: “What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera.” I took that credo and made it my own. Not with multiple images like Uelsmann or in sequences like Michals. But it was Ralph Gibson’s images that haunted me.
There was this one picture in particular of hands coming up over the prow of boat he made in 1970 that I loved. I had picture of my foot coming over the prow of a Finnish rowboat the other way made in 1976. I am sure his image had inspired mine even though I wasn’t thinking about it when I made my picture.
In 1989, there was a show in Antibes called Three Masters of the Surreal with Eikoh Hosoe, the great Japanese master, Ralph Gibson, and humbly, myself. At the party after the vernissage, I told Ralph about my trepidations when I first began photography. He nodded his head and said, “When I first saw your work (this was in 1975 or thereabouts), I had that feeling of something familiar.” But then he was quick to add: “But you know, it didn’t take you long to find your way.”
I had found the difference. Ralph went on to photograph women and walls, color and surreal light. I continued my bus route less haunted, more assured.
So, our best chance of making our voice and vision heard is to find that common attribute by which the work can be recognized, by which audiences are made curious. It can happen early, as my teacher Harry Callahan stated it: you never get much better than your first important works. And they come soon.
At an auction in London at Sotheby’s a few years back, one of my pieces came up for bidding. It shows my upside down face with mouth wide open on a boardwalk in Narragansett, Rhode Island. When the auctioneer announced the piece, certainly he or she didn’t describe it as a student work, which, in fact, it was. I had made it for Harry’s class.
And it is why I teach. Teachers who say, “Oh, it’s just student work,” should maybe think twice about teaching.
Georges Braque has said that out of limited means, new forms emerge. I say we find out what we will do by knowing what we will not do.
And so, if your heart is set on 8×10 platinum landscapes in misty southern terrains, work your way through those who inspire you, ride their bus route and damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before. Wait for the months and years to pass and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, when your originality will become visible, even the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed so done before.
We can do a whole lot of things in art, become ten different artists, but if we do that, there is great danger that we will communicate very little in the end. I say ride the bus of your dreams and stay the course.
In closing, I now want to take you to Switzerland where I also teach.
Stand back, stand back, far enough so you can see your own mountain top, then head straight for it knowing it will disappear from sight for most of your life as you meander the hidden forest trails that lift you ever higher even as many sections force you to drop down into the mountainside pockets of disappointment or even despair, but you will be climbing soon enough and always headed towards your goal.
There will be those special occasions, and may there be many of them, when the fruits of your labors are suddenly made visible, to be celebrated, when you will again see that peak, only closer now, giving you the confidence to step forward ever more briskly and bravely.
At one point the tree line will thin out the way hair on the top of old man begins to bald away but air will be clear and the path sure.
At the top you will delight in what you have accomplished as much as become aware of peaks far higher than what you had ever dreamed of, peaks that from the distance when you first saw them were hard to judge for their heights.
But now you see them way up there but your climbing days are done.
If you look up to those lofty peaks with raging jealousy, you will end your days in sadness and regret.
If you look down at the path you came up, you can become proud or even arrogant if you like of every step you took.
But if you skim the horizon with your eyes and take in the gorgeous sweep of panorama before you, you will know peace and rare humility.
We do not have to be number one in this world. We only have to be number one to ourselves. There is a special peace that comes with such humility, one that showers respect on you from your peers both above and below you.
When you reach this peak in life, you’ve reached the highest peak of them all.
God can’t bless both sides of a football field any more than she or he should bless one country over another.
You can’t be number one without having a number deux, tres, quatro, or funf.
It’s a lesson we are back in the classrooms of America learning I think. I hope.
When I see bumper stickers that read my son made the dean’s list, I see all the sons and daughters that didn’t. Tracey Moffatt has this poignant series of works dedicated to athletes who’ve come in fourth place: no gold, no silver, not even bronze. Being number uno? Stardom is no dream to chase. We just need to be good. And make good work.
So, be the caretaker of your vision. Make it famous. And above all, remember, that art is risk made visible.
Good luck and see you out there. You’re going to be great.
1 June 2018, UCLA, Los Angeles, USA
I want to start with a story. One night, on my surgery rotation, during my third year of medical school, I followed my chief resident into the trauma bay in the emergency department. We’d been summoned to see a prisoner who’d swallowed half a razor blade and slashed his left wrist with the corner of the crimp on a toothpaste tube. He was about thirty, built like a boxer, with a tattooed neck, hands shackled to the gurney, and gauze around his left wrist showing bright crimson seeping through.
The first thing out of his mouth was a creepy comment about the chief resident, an Asian-American woman. I won’t say what he said. Just know he managed in only a few words to be racist, sexist, and utterly menacing to her. She turned on her heels, handed me the clipboard, and said, “He’s all yours.”
I looked at the two policemen with him to see what they were going to do. I don’t know what I expected. That they’d yell at him? Beat him? But they only looked at me impassively, maybe slightly amused. He was all mine.
So what now?
Graduates, wherever you go from here, and whatever you do, you will be tested. And the test will be about your ability to hold onto your principles. The foundational principle of medicine, going back centuries, is that all lives are of equal worth.
This is a radical idea, one ultimately inscribed in our nation’s founding documents: we are all created equal and should be respected as such. I do not think it a mere coincidence that among the fifty-six founding fathers who signed the declaration of our independence was a physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush. He was a committed revolutionary and abolitionist precisely because of his belief in the principle.
We in medicine do not always live up to that principle. History has been about the struggle to close the gap between the aspiration and the reality. But when that gap is exposed—when it turns out that some people get worse or no treatment because of their lack of money, lack of connections, background, darker skin pigment, or additional X chromosome—we are at least ashamed about it. We believe a C.E.O. and a cabbie with the same heart disease deserve the same chance at survival.
Hospitals are one of the very few places left where you encounter the whole span of society. Walking the halls, you begin to understand that the average American is someone who has a high-school education and thirty thousand dollars a year in per-capita earnings, out of which thirty per cent goes to taxes and another thirty per cent to housing and health-care costs. (These Americans are also told, by the way, that people like them, the majority of the population, have no future in a knowledge economy, because, hey, what can anyone do about it, anyway?) Working in health care, you also know, more than most, that we incarcerate more people than any other economically developed country; that thirty per cent of adults carry a criminal arrest record; that seven million people are currently incarcerated, on parole, or on probation; and that a massive and troubling proportion of all of them are mentally ill or black.
Most people don’t have this broad vantage. We all occupy our own bubbles. Trust in others, even our neighbors, is at an historic low. Much of society has become like an airplane boarding line, with different rights and privileges for zones one to ninety-seven, depending on your wealth, frequent-flier miles, credit rating, and S.A.T. scores; and many of those in line think—though no one likes to admit it—that they deserve what they have more than the others behind them. Then the boarding agent catches some people from zone eighty-four jumping ahead of the people in zone fifty-seven, and all hell breaks loose.
Insisting that people are equally worthy of respect is an especially challenging idea today. In medicine, you see people who are troublesome in every way: the complainer, the person with the unfriendly tone, the unwitting bigot, the guy who, as they say, makes “poor life choices.” People can be untrustworthy, even scary. When they’re an actual threat—as the inmate was for my chief resident—you have to walk away. But you will also see lots of people whom you might have written off prove generous, caring, resourceful, brilliant. You don’t have to like or trust everyone to believe their lives are worth preserving.
We’ve divided the world into us versus them—an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it’s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It’s true of all of us. We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it.
Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care to people—to insure, for instance, that you’ve given them enough anesthetic before doing a procedure. To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.
We are in a dangerous moment because every kind of curiosity is under attack—scientific curiosity, journalistic curiosity, artistic curiosity, cultural curiosity. This is what happens when the abiding emotions have become anger and fear. Underneath that anger and fear are often legitimate feelings of being ignored and unheard—a sense, for many, that others don’t care what it’s like in their shoes. So why offer curiosity to anyone else?
Once we lose the desire to understand—to be surprised, to listen and bear witness—we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy. When others say that someone is evil or crazy, or even a hero or an angel, they are usually trying to shut off curiosity. Don’t let them. We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth.
In medicine, you are asked to open yourself to others’ lives and perspectives—to people as well as to circumstances you do not and perhaps will not understand. This is part of what I love most about this profession. It aims to sustain bedrock values that matter across all of society.
But the work of preserving those values is hard. When I began my story, I made a point of not telling you the inmate’s crime, although one of the policemen told me. I wasn’t sure whether it’d change how open you’d be to putting yourself in my shoes as I wrestled with what to do.
The man’s vital signs were normal. He had no abdominal tenderness. An X-ray showed the razor hadn’t perforated his gastrointestinal tract. I put on gloves and unwrapped his blood-soaked dressing. I held pressure. He’d made numerous slashes but none deep enough to reach an artery. I’d heard that inmates sometimes swallowed blades wrapped in cellophane or inflicted wounds on themselves that, though not life-threatening, were severe enough to get them time out of prison. This man had done both.
I tried to summon enough curiosity to wonder what it had taken to push him over that edge, but I couldn’t. I only saw a bully. As I reluctantly set about suturing together the long strips of skin on his forearm, he kept up a stream of invective: about the hospital, the policemen, the inexpert job I was doing. I don’t do well when I feel humiliated. I had the urge to tell him to shut up and be a little appreciative. I thought about abandoning him.
But he’d controlled himself enough to hold still for my ministrations. And I suddenly remembered a lesson a professor had taught about brain function. When people speak, they aren’t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.
“You seem really angry and like you feel disrespected,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I am. I am angry and disrespected.”
His voice changed. He told me that I have no idea what it was like inside. He’d been in solitary for two years straight. His eyes began to water. He calmed down. I did, too. For the next hour, I just sewed and listened, trying to hear the feelings behind his words.
I didn’t understand him or like him. But all it took to see his humanity—to be able to treat him—was to supply that tiny bit of openness and curiosity.
Graduates, you have studied for thousands of hours on end. You will be licensed to make diagnoses and prescribe an armament of drugs and procedures. Most of all, you will be given trust to see human beings at their most vulnerable and serve them. That trust is earned because of your values, your commitment to serving all as equals, and your openness to people’s humanity. The renewal of these values is why we’re all so grateful to be here—and so grateful that you will carry those values on, beyond us.
1 March 2010, Plebe Class, West Point, New York, USA
My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.
Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.
We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions—senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth—we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.
So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.
See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.
So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.
That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.
But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read, Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn’t about Vietnam; it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.
Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy—what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like—and here’s why I’m telling you all this—just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym “snafu”: “situation normal: all fucked up”—or “all fouled up” in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the U.S. Army in World War II.
You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior—what kind of character—they reward, and what kind they punish.
So, back to the novel. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages, just like Captain Willard does in the movie. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss:
He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.
Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department—who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what. Like the manager—and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her—why?
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together—the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution—I realized that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.
Finally—and I know I’m on sensitive ground here—look at what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War. We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, whether military or civilian or both. We weren’t just not winning, we weren’t even changing direction.
We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don’t have are leaders.
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
Now some people would say, great. Tell this to the kids at Yale, but why bother telling it to the ones at West Point? Most people, when they think of this institution, assume that it’s the last place anyone would want to talk about thinking creatively or cultivating independence of mind. It’s the Army, after all. It’s no accident that the word regiment is the root of the word regimentation. Surely you who have come here must be the ultimate conformists. Must be people who have bought in to the way things are and have no interest in changing it. Are not the kind of young people who think about the world, who ponder the big issues, who question authority. If you were, you would have gone to Amherst or Pomona. You’re at West Point to be told what to do and how to think.
But you know that’s not true. I know it, too; otherwise I would never have been invited to talk to you, and I’m even more convinced of it now that I’ve spent a few days on campus. To quote Colonel Scott Krawczyk, your course director, in a lecture he gave last year to English 102:
From the very earliest days of this country, the model for our officers, which was built on the model of the citizenry and reflective of democratic ideals, was to be different. They were to be possessed of a democratic spirit marked by independent judgment, the freedom to measure action and to express disagreement, and the crucial responsibility never to tolerate tyranny.
All the more so now. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last few years understands that the changing nature of warfare means that officers, including junior officers, are required more than ever to be able to think independently, creatively, flexibly. To deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation. Lieutenant colonels who are essentially functioning as provincial governors in Iraq, or captains who find themselves in charge of a remote town somewhere in Afghanistan. People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines.
Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus. He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008—that’s in the world. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.
No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.
It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently.
That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.
One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?
You and the members of the other service academies are in a unique position among college students, especially today. Not only do you know that you’re going to have a job when you graduate, you even know who your employer is going to be. But what happens after you fulfill your commitment to the Army? Unless you know who you are, how will you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life? Unless you’re able to listen to yourself, to that quiet voice inside that tells you what you really care about, what you really believe in—indeed, how those things might be evolving under the pressure of your experiences. Students everywhere else agonize over these questions, and while you may not be doing so now, you are only postponing them for a few years.
Maybe some of you are agonizing over them now. Not everyone who starts here decides to finish here. It’s no wonder and no cause for shame. You are being put through the most demanding training anyone can ask of people your age, and you are committing yourself to work of awesome responsibility and mortal danger. The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were intensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.
So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.
But let me be clear that solitude doesn’t always have to mean introspection. Let’s go back to Heart of Darkness. It’s the solitude of concentration that saves Marlow amidst the madness of the Central Station. When he gets there he finds out that the steamboat he’s supposed to sail upriver has a giant hole in it, and no one is going to help him fix it. “I let him run on,” he says, “this papier-mâché Mephistopheles”—he’s talking not about the manager but his assistant, who’s even worse, since he’s still trying to kiss his way up the hierarchy, and who’s been raving away at him. You can think of him as the Internet, the ever-present social buzz, chattering away at you 24/7:
I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt. . . .
It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.
“The chance to find yourself.” Now that phrase, “finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space. But here’s Marlow, a mariner, a ship’s captain. A more practical, hardheaded person you could not find. And I should say that Marlow’s creator, Conrad, spent 19 years as a merchant marine, eight of them as a ship’s captain, before he became a writer, so this wasn’t just some artist’s idea of a sailor. Marlow believes in the need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it, he says, is work, solitary work. Concentration. Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.
“Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.
Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”
Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.
This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.
I know that none of this is easy for you. Even if you threw away your cell phones and unplugged your computers, the rigors of your training here keep you too busy to make solitude, in any of these forms, anything less than very difficult to find. But the highest reason you need to try is precisely because of what the job you are training for will demand of you.
You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?
How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?
These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.
How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.
30 May 2010, Princeton University, New Jersey, USA
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially “Days of our Lives.” My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather’s car, and off we’d go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.
At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage — figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”
I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
This is a group with many gifts. I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I’m confident that’s the case because admission is competitive and if there weren’t some signs that you’re clever, the dean of admission wouldn’t have let you in.
Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans — plodding as we are — will astonish ourselves. We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we’ll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years, we’ll not only synthesize it, but we’ll engineer it to specifications. I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton — all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.
How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?
I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I’d never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles — something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world — was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most startups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy, I’d been a garage inventor. I’d invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, baking-pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I’d always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.
I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, “That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.” That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.
Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life — the life you author from scratch on your own — begins.
How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?
Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!
16 May 2018, Yankee Stadium, New York City, USA
Bonjour tout le monde! Merci et félicitations!
I am very happy to be here with you today, deeply honored. Thank you for that kind introduction, Niobe. Andy, it’s wonderful to see you again. I am so grateful for the honor you and NYU have given me today. Now, you know — you may not know, but Andrew is an honorary Canadian and British Columbian because, like me, he studied at the University of British Columbia back in the day. It makes me proud that Canada was part of Andrew’s formation, just as NYU has helped form so many amazing Canadians, including two members of my own staff.
I’m actually told that 180 of the NYU class of 2018 are Canadians. Hello! Welcome, my friends!
I have to say, to be here now, speaking with all of you — in Yankee Stadium, one of the greatest places in one of the greatest cities on Earth — is more than a little humbling. My friends, you are now NYU graduates — the best and the brightest. You have great potential and possibilities. And therefore, you have enormous responsibility, too. So today, I’d like to talk about the nature of both those things, and I’d like to offer you a challenge. One that I think is essential for your future success as individuals, and as the leaders that you are becoming.
Among the many things I admire about NYU, is that about a fifth of the students are international. And a similar proportion are the very first in their families to go to college. This group is truly diverse in every possible way. And I think that is an extraordinarily valuable and important thing. When I graduated in the early 1990s, I went on a trip around the world with a few good friends — who actually remain good friends to this day, which is sort of a miracle.
We trekked and traveled, mostly over land, from Europe to Africa to Asia. And that remains one of the great formative experiences of my life. It was an amazing adventure.
Le voyage s’est aussi avéré essentiel à mon éducation au sens plus large du terme, parce que j’ai dû, pour la première fois en tant qu’adulte, rencontrer, échanger et tisser des liens d’amitié avec des gens qui ne partageaient toujours pas mes opinions, mes expériences, mes idées et mes valeurs.
It was also a really important contributor to my continued, broader education. Because it forced me, really for the first time as an adult, to meet, engage, befriend people whose views and experiences, ideas, values and language were very different from my own. When a kid from Montreal meets a Korean fisherman living in Mauritania, befriends a Russian veteran of their Afghan war, or a shopkeeper and his family living in Danang, interesting conversations always happen. Now, maybe some of you have talked about doing something like a great trip like that after graduation. But I’d be willing to bet one of the first things you heard was a warning: “You can’t do that in this day and age. It’s not safe!” But here’s my question: Is it really just the issue of physical safety that makes our loved ones so anxious at the idea of us getting out there, or is it the threat that if we look past our frames — the frames of our own lives, of our own community’s structured values and belief systems — to truly engage with people who believe fundamentally different things, we could perhaps be transformed into someone new and unfamiliar to those who know and love us?
See, there’s no question that today’s world is more complex than it was in the mid-1990s. There are serious and important problems that we are grappling with and will continue to grapple with.
But we are not going to arrive at mutual respect, which is where we solve common problems, if we cocoon ourselves in an ideological, social or intellectual bubble. Now, we can see it all around us — there’s a peculiar fascination with dystopia in our culture today. You see it everywhere on film and TV, but the truth is that, on balance, we have the good fortune to live in a time of tremendous possibility and potential; a time when it is within our grasp to eliminate extreme poverty, to end terrible diseases like malaria and TB, and to offer a real chance at an education to everyone on this planet.
But for us to move forward, to keep moving and moving forward, we have to do it together — all together. Humanity has to fight our tribal mindset. We go to the same church? Cool, you’re in my tribe. You speak my language? You’re in my tribe. You’re an NYU alumni? You’re in my tribe. You play Pokémon Go? You’re a vegetarian? You like the Yankees? You go to the gun range? You’re pro-choice? Tribe, tribe, tribe. But of course, its not the “belonging” part that is the problem, it’s the corollary: You are part of my tribe, and they are not.
Whether it’s race, gender, language, sexual orientation, religious or ethnic origin, or our beliefs and values themselves — diversity doesn’t have to be a weakness. It can be our greatest strength. Now often, people talk about striving for tolerance. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are places in this world where a little more tolerance would go a long way, but if we’re being honest right here, right now, I think we can aim a little higher than mere tolerance.
Think about it: Saying “I tolerate you” actually means something like, “Ok, I grudgingly admit that you have a right to exist, just don’t get in my face about it, and oh, don’t date my sister.” There’s not a religion in the world that asks you to “tolerate thy neighbor.” So let’s try for something a little more like acceptance, respect, friendship, and yes, even love. And why does this matter? Because, in our aspiration to relevance; in our love for our families; in our desire to contribute, to make this world a better place, despite our differences, we are all the same.
And when you meet and befriend someone from another country or another culture who speaks a different language or who worships differently, you quickly realize this. And here’s my main point, and the challenge I’m offering you today. Our celebration of difference needs to extend to differences of values and belief, too. Diversity includes political and cultural diversity. It includes a diversity of perspectives and approaches to solving problems. See, it’s far too easy, with social media shaping our interactions, to engage only with people with whom we already agree — members of our tribe. Well, this world is and must be bigger than that.
So here is my request: As you go forward from this place, I would like you to make a point of reaching out to people whose beliefs and values differ from your own. I would like you to listen to them, truly listen, and try to understand them, and find that common ground. You have a world of opportunity at your fingertips. But as you go forward from here, understand that just around the corner, a whole different order of learning awaits, in which your teachers will come from every station in life, every education level, every belief system, every lifestyle. And I hope you will embrace that. You have been students, you will continue to learn all your lives, but now it is also time for you to become leaders.
In every generation, leaders emerge because they one day awake to the realization that it’s not up to someone else to fix this problem, or take up that cause. It’s up to them. So now is the time for you to lead.
Leaders. Now, I’m sure that’s a word that’s been tossed around you and at you quite a bit over the past few hours, days, weeks and years. Leaders of tomorrow. Leaders of today. But what does it mean? What attributes does a 21st century leader need to have? What do people need most from their leaders today and tomorrow? Now, I think you need to be brave. Really brave. And I know, when you think of courageous leaders, you think of those folks who stood implacably and fearlessly, anchored in their sense of rightness, willing to pit their ideals against all comers, against the slings and arrows aimed their way. Well, I don’t think that’s brave enough. I don’t think that’s good enough for what our shared future will ask of you. I actually don’t think it’s ever been good enough.
Let me tell you a bit about Wilfrid Laurier, a promising young lawyer at the end of the 19th century, who would go on to become my second-favorite Prime Minister. He was raised and educated as a proud, Catholic French-Canadian, an exemplary representative of one side of the two identities that had come together to found Canada just a few decades before. The two solitudes — the other half being English-speaking, Protestant, and fiercely loyal to the British Crown — accommodated each other, cooperated together, and generally put up with each other to build our country, but still felt all too well the divisions and fault lines that had led them through almost a millennium of tensions and wars between English and French. It was impressed upon young Wilfrid by his teachers and elders that he must stand up unflinchingly for the values and the identity of his heritage, those beliefs and approaches that were his birthright, and would be his legacy. That, they told him, was leadership.
But Wilfrid grew to believe otherwise. He realized that it’s actually easy to stand rooted in the conviction that you are right, and either wait for others to come to you, or wait for your chance to impose your rightness on others. He saw that it’s actually harder to seek compromise, to dig deep into yourself, your ideas and convictions, honestly and rigorously, to see where you can give and where you do need to stand, while opening yourself up to the other point of view, to seek out and find that common ground. And that remains Wilfrid Laurier’s political legacy, more than 100 years later. To let yourself be vulnerable to another point of view — that’s what takes true courage. To open yourself to another’s convictions, and risk being convinced, a little, or a lot, of the validity of their perspective.
Now that’s scary: discovering that someone you vehemently disagree with might have a point. Might even be right. But it shouldn’t be scary, or threatening. Particularly to all of you, who have worked so hard these past years to pursue truth, to learn, to grow. Being open to others is what has gradually led Canadians to the understanding that differences can and must be a source of strength, not of weakness. And I say “gradually,” because 20th century Canadian history is filled with counter-examples and terrible setbacks that we are still trying to remedy today, most notably the systemic marginalization and oppression of Indigenous Peoples. We’re not perfect, of course, but that sense of openness, respect for other points of view, and acceptance of each other really does underpin our approach as we try to solve the great problems of our time. And not because we’re nice — but of course we are — but because by bringing together diverse perspectives, you get a much better shot at meeting those challenges. And that’s how we come back to you and the leaders the world needs you to be.
Leadership has always been about getting people to act in common cause. “We’re going to build a new country! We’re going to war! We’re going to the moon!” It usually required convincing, or coercing, a specific group to follow you. And the easiest way to do that has always been through tribal contrasts: “They believe in a different God! They speak a different language! They don’t want the same things as we do.” But the leadership we need most today and in the years to come is leadership that brings people together. That brings diversity to a common cause. This is the antithesis of the polarization, the aggressive nationalism, the identity politics that have grown so common of late. It’s harder, of course. It’s always been easier to divide than unite. But mostly, it requires true courage. Because if you want to bring people around to your way of thinking, you need to first show them that you are open to theirs. That you are willing to enter into a conversation that might change your mind. Show respect for their point of view, and you have a better chance of actually having them listen to yours. And regardless of what happens, you will have had a genuine exchange that focused on understanding, not on winning a debate or scoring points. And you will both be improved for it.
Let me be very clear: this is not an endorsement of moral relativism or a declaration that all points of view are valid. Female genital mutilation is wrong, no matter how many generations have practiced it. Anthropogenic climate change is real, no matter how much some folks want to deny it. But here’s the question: do you want to win an argument and feel good about how superior you are? Or do you actually want to change behaviors and beliefs? See, it’s been pointed out that one of the many differences between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis was that Davis preferred to win a debate, while Lincoln would rather win the war. And that’s the question: Do you want to win an argument or do you want to change the world?
“With malice toward none, and charity toward all.” Let those greatest words of this country’s greatest president guide your ambitions, your hopes for yourselves, your families, your country, your planet. There is no shortage of cynicism and selfishness in the world. Be their answer, their antidote. I am abundantly optimistic about the future because of you. It is yours to make and mold and shape. The world eagerly awaits, indeed requires, your ideas. Your initiative. Your enterprise. Your energy. Your passion and compassion. Your idealism, and your ambition. But remember that true courage is the essential ingredient in all your efforts.
Congratulations, Class of 2018. Now go change the world.
23 May 2018, Harvard Law School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Dean Manning, graduates, class marshalls, families and faculty:
It is such an honor to stand before you today, on this very special day of celebration and accomplishment for you and your families, in this annual season of advice-giving. That is why I am here. I am very much hoping you can give me some advice.
I’ll soon be in the job market myself.
I feel truly privileged by your invitation. Congratulations to the Harvard Law Class of 2018! To be here in this place that has produced so many of our nation’s leaders and our finest legal minds is deeply humbling. An institution that gave the world Oliver Wendell Holmes, a majority of the current Supreme Court, and not only Barack but Michelle Obama, too — well, it all has me wondering if I didn’t somehow receive this invitation by mistake.
I’ll always remember the decadent celebration after graduation at my beloved alma mater, BYU. Bowl after bowl of rocky road, double fudge chunk and butter pecan. Hey, when you’re Mormon, ice cream is all you’ve got.
I am not only humbled by this place, I am also humbled by this moment in the life of our country. You see, you are set to inherit the world in just the nick of time.
I am also especially humbled given the fact that I come to you today from the political class. In utter seriousness, it is I who could benefit from listening to you today rather than speaking to you, as I am not so sure that there is much distilled wisdom to be imparted from Washington these days, given what has lately become the tawdriness of my profession. I am here today as representative of a co-equal branch of our federal government — which is failing its constitutional obligations to counteract the power of the president, and in so doing is dishonoring itself — at a critical moment in the life of our nation.
And so, with humility, let me suggest that perhaps it is best to consider what I have to say today as something of a cautionary tale —
-about the rule of law and its fragility;
-about our democratic norms and how hard-won and vulnerable they are;
-about the independence of our system of justice, and how critically important it is to safeguard it from malign actors who would casually destroy that independence for their own purposes and without a thought to the consequences;
-about the crucial predicate for all of these cherished American values: Truth. Empirical, objective truth;
-and lastly, about the necessity to defend these values and these institutions that you will soon inherit, even if that means sometimes standing alone, even if it means risking something important to you, maybe even your career. Because there are times when circumstances may call on you to risk your career in favor of your principles.
But you — and your country — will be better for it. You can go elsewhere for a job, but you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.
Not to be unpleasant, but I do bring news from our nation’s capital. First, the good news: Your national leadership is… not good. At all. Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the constitution works.
And our Article I branch of government, the Congress (that’s me), is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily. I do not think that the founders could have anticipated that the beauty of their invention might someday founder on the rocks of reality television, and that the Congress would be such willing accomplices to this calamity. Our most ardent enemies, doing their worst (and they are doing their worst), couldn’t hurt us more than we are hurting ourselves.
Now, you might reasonably ask, where is the good news in that?
Well, simply put: We may have hit bottom.
(Oh, and that’s also the bad news. In a rare convergence, the good news and bad news are the same — our leadership is not good, but it probably can’t get much worse.)
This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like. This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time. You could say that we are witnesses to history, and if it were possible to divorce ourselves from the obvious tragedy of this debacle, I suppose that might even be interesting, from an academic perspective. The way some rare diseases are interesting to medical researchers.
But this is an experience we could and should have avoided. Getting to this state of distress did not occur naturally. Rather, this was thoroughly man-made. This disease of our polity is far too serious to not be recognized for what it is, the damage it threatens to do to our vital organs is far too great for us to carry on as if all is well. All is not well. We have a sickness of the spirit. To complete the medical metaphor, you might say that we are now in critical condition.
How did we arrive at a moment of such peril, wherein a president of the United States publicly threatens— on Fox & Friends, historians will note — to interfere in the administration of justice, and seems to think that the office confers on him the ability to decide who and what gets investigated, and who and what does not? And just this week, the President — offering an outlandish rationale, ordered an investigation into the investigation of the Russian attack on our electoral process — not to defend the country against further attacks, mind you, but to defend himself. Obviously, ordering investigations is not a legitimate use of presidential power.
I pick this egregious example of recent presidential conduct not because it is rare in terms of this president’s body of work, but because it so perfectly represents what we have tragically grown accustomed to in the past year and a half. Who would have thought that we would ever see encouragement coming from the White House for chants at rallies calling for the jailing of a defeated political opponent. When you don’t even know that there are limits on presidential power, then you might not even care when you are abusing that power.
How did this happen to us? And what might we learn from it? How did we get swept up in this global resurgence of the authoritarian impulse, which now has democracies teetering on the brink, strongmen placing themselves above the law, and in our own country a leader who reveres some of the most loathsome enemies of democracy in our time?
Have we really grown tired of democracy? Are we watching its passing, cheered on by the America First crowd even as we cast aside global institutions that have fostered freedom, prosperity and peace for more than a half-century?
For just a moment, let us marvel at the miracle that is the rule of law. We have seldom been moved to pause for such an appreciation, as we have been too busy taking it for granted and assuming its inviolability — like gravity. But unlike Newton’s Laws, the rule of law was neither innate nor inevitable. What goes up must come down is a piece of cake compared to curbing the impulses of man and asking free people to abide rules and norms that form a country, and foster civilization.
It took centuries of war and sacrifice and social upheaval and more war and great civil rights struggles to establish the foundational notion that no one is either above the law or unworthy of the protections afforded by a robust legal system, a system that took us from feudal servility to a constitutional model that is the envy of the world. And will continue to be, with your help.
We trace the beginnings of this radical egalitarianism — of the awesome and leveling effect of the law – to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the death of the divine right of kings, as even the monarch from that point forward would be subject to the law — and the parliament even threw in a bill of rights for good measure.
But we are now testing the durability of this idea that William III first had the good sense to agree to, an idea which was then forged and tempered over the ensuing centuries. And we are seeing its vulnerabilities. In other parts of the world where democracy’s roots are not so deep, we are seeing it being torn down with sickening ease and shocking speed. And worse, we are seeing the rise of simulated democracies, Potemkin democracies, democracies in appearance and affect only.
Rule of thumb: If the only acceptable outcome in a matter of law or justice is a result that is satisfactory to the leader, then you might live in a democracy that is in trouble. If the leader attacks the legitimacy of any institution that does not pay him obeisance — say, the independent judiciary, or the free press — then you might live in a democracy that is in trouble. Further to that point: when a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.
It will be the work of your generation to make sure that this degradation of democracy does not continue — to see to it that our current flirtation with lawlessness and authoritarianism does not become a heritable trait to be passed down from this presidency.
The rule of law is an elemental value, a value that preceded and gave rise to our Constitution. It is not an ideology subject to the pendulum swings of politics, or something to be given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in a call-in to your favorite morning show. It is the basis of our system of self-governance. America without the rule of law is no longer America.
I am a conservative Republican, a throwback from the days when those words actually meant something, before the collapse of our politics into the rank tribalism we currently endure. My sounding this alarm against a government that was elected under the Republican banner and that calls itself conservative makes me no less Republican or conservative. And opposing this president and much of what he stands for is not an act of apostasy — it is, rather, an act of fidelity.
Because we forget this fact far too often, and it bears repeating a thousand times, especially in times such as these: Values transcend politics.
As a conservative Republican, I dare say that my idea of government may differ with the beliefs of many of you here today. I will be thoroughly presumptuous and assume that in terms of policy prescriptions, we disagree on much. (Call me crazy.)
But I have long believed that the only lasting solutions to the problems before us must involve both sides. Lawmaking should never be an exercise in revenge, because vengeful people are myopic, self-interested, and not fit to lead. I believe that our government should include people who believe as I do, just as I believe it must include people who believe as my friend Tim Kaine does, or as my friend Cory Booker does, to name but two.
The greatness of our system is that it is designed to be difficult, in order to force compromise. And when you honor the system, and seek to govern in good faith, the system works.
Which brings us back to our current peril. It is a testament to our times — and to the inflection point that we face — that I am here today. For, setting aside the usual requirements of politics, and the usual ways that politics keeps score, the things that normally divide us seem trivial compared to the trials that have now been visited upon our democracy.
In the face of these challenges, we agree on something far more important than a legislative program, even more important than our thoughts on the proper role of government in the economy and in the lives of individuals: We agree on the need to safeguard the health and survival of constitutional democracy in America and the preservation of the American idea itself — at a time when the values underpinning our constitutional system and that extraordinary idea are under threat, from the top.
The values of the Enlightenment that led to the creation of this idea of America — this unique experiment in world history — are light years removed from the base, cruelly transactional brand of politics that in this moment some people mistakenly think is what it means to make America great.
To be clear, we did not become great — and will never be great — by indulging and encouraging our very worst impulses. It doesn’t matter how many red caps you sell.
The historian Jon Meacham, in his splendid new book, The Soul of America, reassures that history shows us that “we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness, and strife.” The good news, he says, “is that we have come through such darkness before.”
Perhaps. But not with both nuclear weapons and Twitter. And certainly not with such an anomalous presidency as this one. But I take your point, Mr. Meacham, and am heartened by it.
We will get through this, of course. But at the moment, we are in it, and we must face it squarely. Because too much is at stake for us to turn away, to leave it to others to defend the things we hold most dear.
A culminating event such as the election of our current president scrambles normal binary notions of politics, and I am as disoriented as many of you are at this dealignment. We find that many of the day’s biggest issues simply don’t break down neatly to familiar ideas of left v. right, but rather more along these lines:
— Do you believe in democracy, or not?
— Are you faithful to your country, or to your party?
— Are you loyal to the law and the Constitution, or to a man?
— Do you reflexively ascribe the worst motives to your opponents, but somehow deny, excuse, or endorse every repulsive thing your compatriot says, does or tweets?
These questions have sent some of us wandering into the political wilderness. And it is in that wilderness where your wonderful letter of invitation reached me.
Well, the wilderness suits me fine. In fact, I so love the way Washington has become that in recent years, during congressional recesses, I have taken to stranding myself on deserted islands in the middle of the ocean to detoxify all these feelings of love out of my system. I am not kidding.
I once spent a week alone, voluntarily marooned, on a tiny island called Jabonwod, a remote spit of sand and coconut trees in the central Pacific, about 7,000 miles from Washington.
As penance, and determined to test my survival skills, I brought no food or water, relying solely on what I could catch or collect. That, it turned out, was the easier part. More difficult was dealing with the stultifying loneliness that set in on the first night and never left me.
By day three, for companionship, I began to mark the hermit crabs that wandered through my camp with a number, just to see if they would reoccur. By the end of the week I had 126 numbered friends. I still miss number 72, who rarely left my side after developing an addiction to coconut scraps. I was less fond of number 12, who pinched my big toe.
Now, I would not recommend such drastic measures to escape your situation, but I hope that should you be presented with the hard choice, you too will eschew comfort and set out into the wilderness rather than compromise your conscience.
From my cautionary tale to you today, I urge you to challenge all of your assumptions, regularly. Recognize the good in your opponents. Apologize every now and then. Admit to mistakes. Forgive, and ask for forgiveness. Listen more. Speak up more, for politics sometimes keeps us silent when we should speak.
And if you find yourself in a herd, crane your neck, look back there and check out your brand, ask yourself if it really suits you. From personal experience, I can say that it’s never too late to leave the herd.
When you peel off from the herd, your equilibrium returns. Food tastes better. You sleep very well. Your mind is your own again. You cease being captive to some bad impulses and even worse ideas.
It can strain relationships, to be sure, and leave you eating alone in the senate dining room every now and then. But that’s okay. To revise and extend a remark the president himself may recognize: You might say that I like people whose minds weren’t captured.
That one was for you, Senator McCain. We’re all pulling for you.
Politically speaking, I have not changed my beliefs much at all. But my goodness, how I have changed. How can we live through these abnormal times and not be changed?
Our country needs us now. Our country needs you.
We need each other, and it is a scoundrel who would prosper politically by turning us against each other.
From our time, let us send a message into the future that we did not fail democracy, but that we renewed it. That a patchwork of populist resentments and authoritarian whims that for a while succeeded in its cynical mission of discord had the ultimate effect of shaking us from our complacency, reminding us of who we are and of our responsibilities to each other. Of reawakening us to our obligations as citizens.
Let us be able to say in the future that we faced these forces that would threaten the institutions of our liberty and tear us apart and that we said: NO.
I leave you today with more good news and bad news. This time I will start with the bad news, which is: All of this is yours to fix. All of it.
And that of course is also the good news: All of this is yours to fix, and our country could not be more fortunate than to have people of your high character, strong principle and awesome talent soon taking the helm.
I grew up as a kid on the F-Bar Ranch in rural Arizona, and if we needed to gauge the condition of the range or to measure the damage after a flood, we would find the highest hill or butte and ride our horses to the top. From such a vista we could dispatch cowboys to gather cattle, machinery to shore up roads, or workers to repair fences — to restore some semblance of order.
There are no tall buttes in Washington. But it is nonetheless our obligation to assess the condition of our politics, then to mitigate and repair the damage.
It is the story of America, though, that we will be better for the hard lessons of this experience. We are much better and more decent than Washington shows us to be. We are a good people. And we are a deeply resourceful and resilient nation, and our greatness is based on no one man — no one man who “alone can fix it,” but rather on enduring ideas of self-governance and the rule of law that have been a model for the world for centuries. Ideas that can be mocked, but not marred.
No, there are no high buttes in Washington, but still we must gain the high ground, and survey the damage. And the thing about gaining the high ground is from up there you can see beyond the damage, too. You can see everything. Everything that is good and decent.
That is the job before us — to get through this, and beyond it. And you’re just the ones to take us there.
Thank you. And once again, congratulations to the Harvard Law Class of 2018!
10 May 2018, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Here are some quotes from the speech. We are still chasing down a full video /transcript.
I think what will define you is your courage. Becase that is the virtue on which all others depend.
It is up to you to pick your battles, the things you care about, and your choices that you make every day .
When I look at the world today I see that courage is needed more than ever. At a time when women all over the world face physical abuse, restrictions on their ability to work, own property, travel, and even have custody over their children, we need courage.
At a time when the LGBT community in every country struggles for equal rights, freedom from imprisonment, and even death, we need courage.
At a time when more journalists are imprisoned around the world than any time in the last three decades, and even here at home the media is under attack from the White House, we need courage.
At a time when our politicians try to conflate the terms refugee and terrorist and make us fear one another, we need courage.
We need young people with the courage to say, ‘This is our world now, and there are going to be some changes.
I believe you the class the 2018 will show courage, and my generation is counting on you.
Courage, as they say, is contagious. People who have had the courage to to change their societies — in India, in South Africa, in the United States — inspire each other and create rights for future generations.
My advice isn’t that you have to be Gandhi or Mandela or Martin Luther King or that you should be a human rights activist or get jobs where the salary decreases at every turn. To quote the poet Robert Frost “There will be moments in your life where two roads diverge in the wood, and when that happens, be courageous.”
When I told people I was coming to Vanderbilt, I kept being told the same thing: ‘You know, it’s the Harvard of the South.’ Having spent time here, I’d say that Harvard is the Vanderbilt of the North.
13 May 2018, Duke University,
Hello, Blue Devils! It’s great to be back.
It’s an honor to stand before you—both as your commencement speaker and a fellow Duke graduate.
I earned my degree from the Fuqua School in 1988. In preparing for this speech, I reached out to one of my favorite professors from back then. Bob Reinheimer taught a great course in Management Communications, which included sharpening your public speaking skills.
We hadn’t spoken for decades, so I was thrilled when he told me: he remembered a particularly gifted public speaker who took his class in the 1980s…
With a bright mind and a charming personality!
He said he knew—way back then—this person was destined for greatness.
You can imagine how this made me feel. Professor Reinheimer had an eye for talent. And, if I do say so, I think his instincts were right…
Melinda Gates has really made her mark on the world.
I’m grateful to Bob, Dean Boulding, and all of my Duke professors. Their teachings have stayed with me throughout my career.
I want to thank President Price, the Duke Faculty, and my fellow members of the Board of Trustees for the honor of speaking with you today. I’d also like to recognize this year’s honorary degree recipients.
And most of all, congratulations to the class of 2018!
No graduate gets to this moment alone. I want to acknowledge your parents, grandparents and friends here cheering you on, just as they have every step of the way. Let’s give them our thanks.
Today especially, I remember my mother, who watched me graduate from Duke. I wouldn’t have been there that day—or made it here today—without her support.
Let’s give our special thanks to all the mothers here today, on Mother’s Day.
I have wonderful memories here. Studying—and not studying—with people I still count as friends to this day. Cheering at Cameron for every victory.
Cheering even louder when that victory is over Carolina.
Look back over your shoulder fondly and say goodbye to act one of your life. And then quickly look forward. Act two begins today. It’s your turn to reach out and take the baton.
You enter the world at a time of great challenge.
Our country is deeply divided—and too many Americans refuse to hear any opinion that differs from their own.
Our planet is warming with devastating consequences—and there are some who deny it’s even happening.
Our schools and communities suffer from deep inequality—we fail to guarantee every student the right to a good education.
And yet we are not powerless in the face of these problems. You are not powerless to fix them.
No generation has ever held more power than yours. And no generation has been able to make change happen faster than yours can. The pace at which progress is possible has accelerated dramatically. Aided by technology, every individual has the tools, potential, and reach to build a better world.
That makes this the best time in history to be alive.
Whatever you choose to do with your life…
Wherever your passion takes you.
I urge you to take the power you have been given and use it for good. Aspire to leave this world better than you found it.
I didn’t always see life as clearly as I do now. But I’ve learned the greatest challenge of life is knowing when to break with conventional wisdom.
Don’t just accept the world you inherit today.
Don’t just accept the status quo.
No big challenge has ever been solved, and no lasting improvement has ever been achieved, unless people dare to try something different. Dare to think different.
I was lucky to learn from someone who believed this deeply. Someone who knew that changing the world starts with “following a vision, not a path.” He was my friend and mentor, Steve Jobs.
Steve’s vision was that great ideas come from a restless refusal to accept things as they are. And those principles still guide us at Apple today.
We reject the notion that global warming is inevitable.
That’s why we run Apple on 100% renewable energy.
We reject the excuse that getting the most out of technology means trading away your right to privacy.
So we choose a different path: Collecting as little of your data as possible. Being thoughtful and respectful when it’s in our care. Because we know it belongs to you.
In every way, at every turn, the question we ask ourselves is not ‘what can we do’ but ‘what should we do’.
Because Steve taught us that’s how change happens. And from him I learned to never be content with things as they are.
I believe this mindset comes naturally to young people…and you should never let go of that restlessness.
So today’s ceremony isn’t just about presenting you with a degree, it’s about presenting you with a question.
How will you challenge the status quo? How will you push the world forward?
Fifty years ago today—May 13th, 1968—Robert Kennedy was campaigning in Nebraska, and spoke to a group of students who were wrestling with that same question.
Those were troubled times, too. The U.S. was at war in Vietnam. There was violent unrest in America’s cities. And the country was still reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King a month earlier.
Kennedy gave the students a call to action. When you look across this country, and when you see peoples’ lives held back by discrimination and poverty… when you see injustice and inequality. He said, you should be the last people to accept things as they are.
Let Kennedy’s words echo here today.
“You should be the last people to accept [it].”
Whatever path you’ve chosen…
Be it medicine, business, engineering, the humanities—whatever drives your passion. Be the last to accept the notion that the world you inherit cannot be improved.
Be the last to accept the excuse that says, “that’s just how things are done here.” Duke graduates, you should be the last people to accept it.
And you should be the first to change it.
The world-class education you’ve received—that you’ve worked so hard for—gives you opportunities that few people have.
You are uniquely qualified, and therefore uniquely responsible, to build a better way forward. That won’t be easy. It will require great courage.
But that courage will not only help you live your life to the fullest—it will empower you to transform the lives of others.
Last month I was in Birmingham to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. And I had the incredible privilege of spending time with women and men who marched and worked alongside him.
Many of them were younger at the time than you are now. They told me that when they defied their parents and joined the sit-ins and boycotts, when they faced the police dogs and firehoses, they were risking everything they had—becoming foot soldiers for justice without a second thought.
Because they knew that change had to come.
Because they believed so deeply in the cause of justice.
Because they knew, even with all the adversity they had faced, they had the chance to build something better for the next generation.
We can all learn from their example. If you hope to change the world, you must find your fearlessness.
Now, if you’re anything like I was on graduation day, maybe you’re not feeling so fearless.
Maybe you’re thinking about the job you hope to get, or wondering where you’re going to live, or how to repay that student loan. These, I know, are real concerns. I had them, too. But don’t let those worries stop you from making a difference.
Fearlessness means taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose, rather than by applause.
It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart, more than when you stand with the crowd.
If you step up, without fear of failure… if you talk and listen to each other, without fear of rejection… if you act with decency and kindness, even when no one is looking, even if it seems small or inconsequential, trust me, the rest will fall into place.
More importantly, you’ll be able to tackle the big things when they come your way. It’s in those truly trying moments that the fearless inspire us.
Fearless like the students of Parkland, Florida—who refuse to be silent about the epidemic of gun violence, and have rallied millions to their cause.
Fearless like the women who say “me, too” and “time’s up”… women who cast light into dark places, and move us toward a more just and equal future.
Fearless like those who fight for the rights of immigrants… who understand that our only hopeful future is one that embraces all who want to contribute.
Duke graduates, be fearless.
Be the last people to accept things as they are, and the first people to stand up and change them for the better.
In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Page Auditorium to an overflow crowd. Students who couldn’t get a seat listened from outside on the lawn. Dr. King warned them that someday we would all have to atone, not only for the words and actions of the bad people, but for “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people, who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
Martin Luther King stood right here at Duke, and said: “The time is always right to do right.” For you, graduates, that time is now.
It will always be now.
It’s time to add your brick to the path of progress.
It’s time for all of us to move forward.
And it’s time for you to lead the way.
Thank you—and congratulations, Class of 2018!
16 May 2018, Virginia Military Academy, Virginia, USA
Maintain and protect who you are, and remember that being a person with integrity is the most valuable asset you have. Don’t ever let anyone take it from you. Carefully consider the values and the culture of the organizations in which you seek to work. Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership. Identify mentors who exemplify integrity and leadership excellence. Developing as a leader largely comes from also practicing good followership.
23 May 2018, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
If I were asked the title of my address to you today, I would say: Above all else, do not lie. Or don't lie too often. Which is really to say, tell the truth. But lying — the word, the idea, the act — has such political potency in America today that it somehow feels more apt. Above all else, do not lie. I grew up in Nigeria through military dictatorships and through incipient democracies. And America always felt aspirational. When yet another absurd thing happened politically, we would say, 'This can never happen in America.' But today, the political discourse in America includes questions that are straight from the land of the absurd. Questions such as, 'Should we call a lie a lie? When is a lie a lie?' And so, Class of 2018, at no time has it felt as urgent as now that we must protect and value the truth.
12 May 2018, Rice University,. Houston, Texas, USA
David thank you for those kind words.
Good morning, everyone and Members of the Board, faculty, staff, parents and family – it really is an honor to be with you to celebrate the great Class of 2018. How about a nice round of applause for them again?
Today, you’re ready to go ‘beyond the hedges’ -- and who knows what the future holds for you.
Rice alumni have been Nobel Prize winners, cabinet members, astronauts, titans of industry, award-winning artists, and everything in between -- including the two scientists who discovered Bucky balls.
And I’m glad to say that one member of the Class of 2018 has already begun working for my company, bringing the total number of Owls at Bloomberg LP to 13, so I’m doing my part, and many of you have similar exciting plans lined up I’m sure, and that's great.
But if you don't yet know what you're going to do for the rest of your life, don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. Leave that to your parents! As excited as they are today, they'll be even more excited if you don't move back home into their basement.
So let's give a big round of applause to all the parents and families who supported you and made this day possible!
Now for the serious stuff. When I was deciding what I really wanted to say today, I kept thinking about a Rice tradition that's an incredibly important part of student life here. No, I'm not talking about Willy Week. I'm talking about the honor code.
When you first arrived on campus for O-week, you attended a presentation on the Honor Code. Your very first quiz tested your knowledge of the code, you had to say what it was about, and so today, I thought it would be fitting for you as graduates to end your time here the same way you began it: by hearing a few words about the meaning of honor.
Don't worry: There’s no quiz involved. But there will be a test when you leave this campus -- one that will last for the rest of your life. And that's what I want to explain today -- and it actually starts with the opposite of honor.
As a New Yorker, I was surprised to learn that an act of dishonor in my hometown almost blocked Rice from coming into existence. William Marsh Rice was murdered at his home in Manhattan, just a few blocks from my company's headquarters, by two schemers who tried to re-write his will.
They were caught, his money went where he wanted it to go, the university was built, and fittingly, an honor code was created that has been central to student life here from the beginning.
And ever since you arrived here on campus, on nearly every test and paper you submitted, you signed a statement that began, ‘On my honor.’ But have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means?
The concept of honor has taken on different meanings through the ages: chivalry, chastity, courage, strength. And when divorced from morality, or attached to prejudice, honor has been used to justify murder, and repression, and deceit. But the essence of honor has always been found in the word itself.
As those of you who majored in Linguistics probably know, the words ‘honor’ and ‘honest’ are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the Latin word ‘honestus’ can mean both ‘honest’ and ‘honorable.’
To be honorable, you must be honest. And that means speaking honestly, and acting honestly, even when it requires you to admit wrongdoing -- and suffer the consequences. The commitment to honesty is a responsibility that you accepted as an Owl. It is also, I believe, a patriotic responsibility.
As young children, one of the first things we learn about American history is the story of George Washington and the fallen cherry tree. ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ young George tells his father. ‘I cut it down.’ That story is a legend, of course. But legends are passed down from generation to generation because they carry some larger truth.
The cherry tree legend has endured because it's not really about George Washington. It's about us, as a nation. It's about what we want for our children -- and what we value in our leaders: honesty.
We’ve always lionized our two greatest presidents -- Washington and Lincoln -- not only for their accomplishments, but also for their honesty. We see their integrity and morals as a reflection of our honor as a nation.
However, today when we look at the city that bears Washington's name, it's hard not to wonder: What the hell happened?
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year was ‘post-truth.’ And last year brought us the phrase, ‘alternative facts.’ In essence, they both mean: Up can be down. Black can be white. True can be false. Feelings can be facts.
A New York Senator known for working across the aisle, my old friend Pat Moynihan, once said: ‘People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.’ That didn’t used to be a controversial statement.
Today, those in politics routinely dismiss any inconvenient information, no matter how factual, as fake -- and they routinely say things that are demonstrably false. When authoritarian regimes around the world did this, we scoffed at them. We thought the American people would never stand for that!
For my generation, the plain truth about America -- the freedom, opportunity, and prosperity we enjoyed -- was our most powerful advantage in the Cold War. The more communists had access to real news, the more they would demand freedom. We believed that -- and we were right.
Today, though, many of those at the highest levels of power see the plain truth as a threat. They fear it. They deny it. And they attack it -- just as the communists once did. And so here we are, in the midst of an epidemic of dishonesty, and an endless barrage of lies.
The trend toward elected officials propagating alternate realities -- or winking at those who do -- is one of the most serious dangers facing democracies. Free societies depend on citizens who recognize that deceit in government isn’t something to shrug your shoulders at.
When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality.
Sometimes, it's in the form of corruption. Sometimes, it's abuse of power. And sometimes, it's both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that preserve and protect our rights and freedoms -- and open the door to tyranny and fascism.
Now, you might say: There’s always been deceitful politicians and dishonest politicians -- in both parties. And that's true. But there is now more tolerance for dishonesty in politics than I have seen in my lifetime. And I've been alive for one-third of the time the United States has existed! I know, you find that hard to believe. So do I, but if you do the math, that’s what it is.
My generation can tell you: The only thing more dangerous than dishonest politicians who have no respect for the law, is a chorus of enablers who defend their every lie.
Remember: The Honor Code here at Rice just doesn’t require you to be honest. It requires you to say something if you saw others acting dishonestly. Now that might be the most difficult part of an honor code, but it may also be the most important, because violations affect the whole community.
And the same is true in our country. If we want elected officials to be honest, we have to hold them accountable when they are not -- or else suffer the consequences.
Now, don't get me wrong: honest people can disagree. That's what democracy is all about! But productive debate requires an acceptance of basic reality.
Take science for example: If 99 percent of scientists whose research has been peer-reviewed reach the same general conclusion about a theory, then we ought to accept it as the best available information -- even if it's not a 100 percent certainty.
Yes, climate change is only a theory -- just like gravity is only a theory. And the fact that Newton's theory of motion didn’t take into account Maxwell’s observations on the speed of electromagnetic waves as a constant and that Einstein’s special theory of relativity better described motion when things move very fast -- doesn’t mean that if I let go of this pen it won’t fall to the ground.
That, graduates, is not a Chinese hoax. It's called science -- and we should demand that politicians have the honesty to respect it.
Hard though it is to believe, some federal agencies have actually banned their employees from using the phrase ‘climate change.’ If censorship solved problems, today we’d all be part of the old USSR, and the Soviets would have us speaking Russian.
Of course, it's always good to be skeptical and ask questions. But we must be willing to place a certain amount of trust in the integrity of scientists. If you aren’t willing to do that, don't get on an airplane, don't use a cell phone or microwave, don't get treated in a hospital, and don’t even think about binge-watching Netflix.
Scientific discovery permeates practically every aspect of our lives -- except, too often, our political debates.
The dishonesty in Washington isn't just about science, of course. We weren’t tackling so many of the biggest problems that affect your future – from the lack of good jobs in many communities, to the prevalence of gun violence, to the threats to the economy and threats to the environment -- because too many political leaders are being dishonest about facts and data, and too many people are letting them get away with it.
So how did we get here? How did we go from a president who could not tell a lie to politicians who can not tell the truth? From a George Washington who embodied honesty, to a Washington, D.C. defined by deceit?
It’s popular to blame social media for spreading false information. I for one am totally convinced that Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber are still dating, but the problem isn't just unreliable stories. It's also the public's willingness -- even eagerness -- to believe anything that paints the other side in a bad light. That's extreme partisanship -- and that is what's fueling and excusing all this dishonesty.
Extreme partisanship is like an infectious disease. But instead of crippling the body, it cripples the mind. It blocks us from understanding the other side. It blinds us from seeing the strengths in their ideas -- and the weaknesses of our own. And it leads us to defend or excuse lies and unethical actions when our own side commits them.
For example: In the 1990s, leading Democrats spent the decade defending the occupant of the Oval Office against charges of lying and personal immorality, and attempting to silence and discredit the women who spoke out. At the same time, leading Republicans spent that decade attacking the lack of ethics and honesty in the White House.
Today, the roles are exactly reversed -- not because the parties have changed their beliefs -- but because the party occupying the Oval Office has changed.
When someone's judgment about an action depends on the party affiliation of the person who committed it, they're being dishonest with themselves and with the public. And yet, those kinds of judgments have become so second nature that many people -- in both parties -- don't even realize that they are making them.
Now, I know it's natural to root for your own side -- especially when the other side is the Houston Cougars. But governing is not a game.
When people see the world as a battle between left and right, they become more loyal to their tribe than to our country. When power -- not progress -- becomes the object of the battle, truth and honesty become the first casualties.
You learned here at Rice that honesty leads to trust and trust leads to freedom -- like the freedom to take tests outside the classroom. In democracy, it's no different. If we aren't honest with one another, we don't trust one another, then we place limits on what we ourselves can do, and what we can do together as a country.
It's a formula for gridlock and national decline -- but graduates, here's the thing: It doesn't have to be that way.
When I was in city government, I didn't care which party proposed an idea -- and I never once asked someone his or her party affiliation during a job interview, or who they voted for. As a result, we had a dream team of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. That diversity made our debates sharper, our policies smarter, and our government better.
Arguments were won and lost on facts and data -- not parties and polls. That was why we had success. And it's been great to see other mayors around the country taking that same kind of approach. But at the national level, in Washington today, partisanship is everything. And I think the dishonesty that it produces is one of the greatest challenges that your generation will have to confront.
Of course, partisanship is not a new problem. George Washington warned against it in his Farewell Address. He referred to the ‘dangers of parties,’ and called the passion that people have for our parties, quote, ‘worst enemy’ of democracy -- a precursor to tyranny. Washington urged Americans to, quote, ‘discourage and restrain’ partisanship. Sadly, in recent years, the opposite has happened.
There is now unrestrained, rabid partisanship everywhere we look. It’s not just on social media and cable news. It's in the communities where we live, which are becoming more deeply red or more deeply blue. It’s in the groups and associations and churches we join, which increasingly attract like-minded people. It’s even in the people we marry.
Fifty years ago, most parents didn't care whether their children married a member of another political party, but they didn't want them marrying outside their race or religion, or inside their gender.
Today, thankfully, polls show a strong majority support for inter-racial, inter-religious, and same-sex marriage and that is progress. But unfortunately, the percentage of parents who don't want their children marrying outside of their political party has doubled and the more people segregate themselves by party, the harder it becomes to understand the other side, and the more extreme each party grows.
Studies show that people become more extreme in their views when they are grouped together with like-minded people. And that’s now happening in both parties. And as a result, I think it's fair to say the country is more divided by party than it has ever been since the Civil War.
Last month, legislators in South Carolina -- which was the first state in the Union to secede back in 1860 -- introduced a resolution that contemplated a debate on secession. Now it's easy to dismiss that as a fringe idea -- and let’s hope it never happens. But in like-minded groups, fringe ideas can gather momentum with dangerous speed – just remember Germany in the late 1930s.
If that continues to happen here, America will become even more divided, and our national anthem may as well become the Taylor Swift song: ‘We are never, ever, ever, getting back together.’
So why do I bring this up as you finish your time at this great university?
Well, I'm hoping you graduates will draw more inspiration from a song by a different artist: Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey: ‘Why don't you just meet me in the middle? I'm losing my mind just a little.’
Bringing the country back together I know won't be easy. But I believe it can be done -- and if we are to continue as a true democracy, it must be done, and it will be up to your generation to help lead it.
Graduates, you're ready for this challenge. Because bringing the country back together starts with the first lesson you learned here at Rice: Honesty matters. And everyone must be held accountable for being honest. So as you go out into the world, I urge you to do what honesty requires.
Recognize that no one, nor either party, has a monopoly on good ideas. Judge events based on what happened, not who did it. Hold yourself and our leaders to the highest standards of ethics and morality. Respect the knowledge of scientists. Follow the data, wherever it leads. Listen to people you disagree with -- without trying to censor them or shout over them. And have the courage to say things that your own side does not want to hear.
I just came yesterday from visiting an old friend in Arizona, who has displayed that kind of courage throughout his life: Senator John McCain, who is currently fighting brain cancer.
Now, John and I often don’t see eye to eye on issues. But I have always admired his willingness to reach across the aisle, when others wouldn't dare.
He bucked party leaders when his conscience demanded it. He defended the honor of his opponents, even if it cost him votes. And he owned up to his mistakes -- just like that young kid with the cherry tree.
Imagine what our country would be like if more of our elected officials had the courage to serve with the honor that John has always shown on the battlefield, in Washington and in his personal life.
Graduates, after today, you will no longer be bound by the Rice honor code. It will be up to you to decide how to live your life -- and to follow your own honor code.
This university has given you a special opportunity to learn the true meaning of honor to base that code on. And now, I believe, you have a special obligation to carry it forward -- into your work places, your communities, your political discussions, and yes, into the voting booth because the greatest threat to American democracy isn't communism or jihadism, or any other external force or foreign power. It's our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party, and in pursuit of power.
So let me leave you with one final thought: We can all recite the inspiring words that begin the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident --
But remember that the Founding Fathers were able to bring those truths to life only because of the Declaration's final words: ‘We mutually pledge to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.’
That pledge of honor and that commitment to truth is why we are here today. And in order to preserve those truths, and the rights they guarantee us, every generation must take that same pledge, and it's now your turn.
Earlier today, I told President Leebron that I'd like to make a donation to Rice. His eyes lit up! But I said, ‘No, not a financial donation.’ I told him I'd like to donate a cherry tree to be planted here on campus with a plaque that reads: ‘In Honor of the Class of 2018.’
And when you come back to campus as alumni, if you pass by the tree, I hope you'll remember why it's there -- and what it represents to our great country. And throughout your life, when you chop down a cherry tree, as we all do from time to time, admit it -- and demand nothing less from those who represent us.
Graduates, you have earned this great celebration. So tonight, have one last Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit. And tomorrow, carry the values of this great university with you, wherever you go.
You will never regret it. I make that pledge to you on my honor.
Congratulations -- and go Owls!”
11 May 2018, USC Anneneberg, Los Angeles, California, USA
Thank you Annenberg and a special thank you to Dean Willow Bay for inviting me here today and to the parents again I say and faculty, family, friends, graduates: Good morning. I want to give a special shout out because I was happy that Dean Bay invited me, but I was going to be here anyway. Because one of my lovely daughter girls attends the Annenberg School of Journalism and is getting her master's today. So I was coming in whether I was speaking or not. So a special shout out to a young woman who I met when she was in the seventh grade and it was the first year that I was looking for smart, bright, giving, resilient, kind, openhearted girls who had 'it' that factor that means that you keep going no matter what. This was the year that I chose everybody individually and I remember her walking into the office in a little township where we were doing interviews all over South Africa and she came in and recited a poem about her teacher. And when she walked out the door I go "that's an 'it' girl. Thando Dlomo, I am here to say I am so proud of you! Long way from the township in South Africa and her aunt has flown 30 hours to be here for this celebration today. Thank you so much.
So today I come bearing some good news and some bad news for anybody who intends to build the life around your ability to communicate. So I want to get the bad news out first so you can be clear. I always like to get the bad stuff up front. So here it is. Everything around us including and in particular the internet and social media is now being used to erode trust in our institutions. Interfere in our elections and wreak havoc on our infrastructure. It hands advertisers a map to our deepest desires. It enables misinformation to run rampant. Attention spans to run short and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets. We have literally walked into traffic while staring at our phones.
Now the good news. Many of your parents are probably taking you somewhere really special for dinner tonight. I heard. I heard. I heard. I can do a little better than that. Now that I've presented some of the bad news, the good news is that there really is a solution and the solution is each and every one of you because you will become the new editorial gatekeepers, an ambitious army of truth-seekers who will arm yourselves with the intelligence, with the insight and the facts necessary to strike down deceit. You are in a position to keep all of those who now disparage real news. You all are the ones who are going to keep those people in check. Why? Because you can push back and you can answer false narratives with real information and you can set the record straight. And you also have the ability and the power to give a voice as Dean Bay was saying to people who desperately now need to tell their stories and have their stories told. And this is what I do know for sure because I've been doing it a long time. If you can capture the humanity of people... if you can just capture the humanity of the people, of the stories that you are telling, you then get that much closer to your own humanity. And you could confront your bias and you can build your credibility, hone your instincts and compound your compassion. You could use your gifts. That's what you're really here to do to illuminate the darkness in our world. So this is what I also know that this moment in time this is your time to rise. It is.
Even though you can't go anywhere. You can't stand in line at Starbucks. You can go to a party. You can't go to any place without everywhere you turn, people are talking about how bad things are, how terrible it is. This is what I know. The problem is everybody is meeting hysteria with more hysteria and then we just are all becoming hysterical and it's getting worse. What I've learned all these years is that we're not supposed to match it or even get locked into resisting or pushing against it. We're supposed to see this moment in time for what it is, we're supposed to see through it and then transcend it. That is how you overcome hysteria. That is how you overcome the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean-spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices and the out-and-out hatred. You use it. Use this moment to encourage you to embolden you and to literally push you into the rising of your life. And to borrow a phrase from my beloved mentor Maya Angelou. 'Just like moons and like suns with the certainty of tides just like the hopes springing high you will rise.'
So your job now, let me tell you, is to take everything you've learned here and use what you've learned to challenge the left, to challenge the right and the center. When you see something, you say something and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it up. Here's what you have to do. You make the choice every day, every single day to exemplify honesty because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth, the truth exonerates and it convicts. It disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair. The truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here USC Annenberg to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth! Be the truth!
So I want to get down to the real reason we're here today and about an hour and a half you're going to be catapulted into a world that appears to have gone off its rocker. And I can tell you I've hosted on the Oprah Show for 25 years, the number one show, never missed a day never missed a day. 25 years, 4561 shows. So I know how to talk, I can tell you that. But I was a little intimidated coming here because graduations... it's tough. It's hard trying to come up with something to share with you that you haven't already heard. What can I possibly say because I know this any inspiration or guidance I can offer is nothing that your parents or your deans or professors or Siri haven't already provided. So I'm here to really tell you I don't have any new lessons. I don't have any new lessons but I often think that it's not the new lessons, but so much as it is really learning the old ones again and again. So here are variations on a few grand themes beginning with this pick a problem, any problem. The list is long here just a few that are at the top of my list. There's gun violence and there's climate change and systemic racism, economic inequality, media bias. The homeless need opportunity, the addicted need treatment, the Dreamers need protection, the prison system needs reforming, the LGBTQ community needs acceptance, the social safety net needs saving and the misogyny needs to stop. But you can't fix everything and you can't save every soul. But what can you do? Here now I believe you have to declare war on one of our most dangerous enemies. And that is cynicism because when that little creature sinks in its hooks into you it'll cloud your clarity. It will compromise your integrity, it will lower your standards, it'll choke your empathy. And sooner or later, cynicism shatters your faith. When you hear yourself saying it doesn't matter what one person says oh well so work, it's not going to make any difference what I do. Who cares? When you hear yourself saying that know that you're on a collision course for our culture. And I understand how it's so easy to become disillusioned, so tempting to allow apathy to set in.
Because anxiety is being broadcast on 157 channels, 24 hours a day, all night long. And everybody I know is feeling it. But these times, these times are here to let us know that we need to take a stand for our right to have hope and we need to take a stand with every ounce of wit and courage we can muster. The question is what are you willing to stand for? That question is going to follow you throughout your life. And here's how you answer it. You put your honor where your mouth is. Put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it, show up, do the work, get your hands dirty and then you will begin to draw strength from the understanding the true knowing that history is still being written. You're writing it every day. The wheels still in spin and what you do or what you don't do will be a part of it.
You build a legacy not from one thing, but from everything. I remember when I just opened my school in 2007 I came back and I had the great joy of sitting at Maya Angelou's table. She hadn't been able to attend the opening in South Africa and I said to her 'Oh Maya, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy that's going to be my greatest legacy.' I remember she was standing at the counter making biscuits and she turned, she put the dough down and she looked at me and she said 'you have no idea what your legacy will be.' I said 'excuse me? I just opened the school and these girls and it's going to be...' And she said 'you have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch, every life you touch.' That changed me. And it's true you can't personally stop anybody from walking into a school with an assault rifle, nor can you singlehandedly ensure that the rights that your mothers and your grandmothers fought so hard for will be preserved for the daughters that you may someday have. It Will take more than you alone to pull 40 million Americans out of poverty, but who will you be if you don't care enough to try. And what mountains could we move I think, what gridlock could we eradicate if we were to join forces and work together in service of something greater than ourselves? You know my deepest satisfaction and my biggest rewards have come from exactly that. Pick a problem, any problem and do something about it because to somebody who's hurting, something is everything. So I hesitate to say this because there are rumors from my last big speech have finally died down, but here it is. Vote! Vote! Vote! Pay attention to what the people who claim to represent you are doing and saying in your name and on your behalf. They represent you and if they've not done right by you, if their policies are at odds with your core beliefs, then you have a responsibility to send them packing. If they go low, thank you Michelle Obama, if they go low, we go to the polls. People died for that right. They died for that right. I think about it every time I cast a vote. So don't let their sacrifice be in vain.
A couple of other thoughts. Eat a good breakfast. It really pays off. Pay your bills on time. Recycle. Make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you to people and actually really mean it. Ask for help when you need it and put your phone away at the dinner table. Just sit on it really and know that what you tweet and post, and Instagram today might be asked about in a job interview tomorrow or 20 years from tomorrow. Be nice to little kids. Be nice to your elders. Be nice to animals and know that it's better to be interested than interesting. Invest in a quality mattress. I'm telling you, your back will thank you later. And don't cheap out on your shoes and if you're fighting with someone you really love, for God's sakes, find your way back to them because life is short even on our longest days. And another thing you already know that definitely bears repeating, don't ever confuse what is legal with what is moral because they are entirely different animals. You see in a court of law there are loopholes and technicalities and bargains to be struck, but in life you're either principled or you're not. So do the right thing especially when nobody's looking. And while I'm at it, do not equate money and fame with accomplishment and character because I can assure you based on the thousands of people I've interviewed one does not automatically follow the other. Something else, you need to know this: your job is not always going to fulfill you.
There will be some days that you just might be bored. Other days you may not feel like going to work it all, go anyway. And remember that your job is not who you are, it's just what you're doing on the way to who you will become. Every remedial chore, every boss who takes credit for your ideas, that is going to happen. Look for the lessons because the lessons are always there and the number one lesson I could offer you where your work is concerned has this become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed. And finally this will save you. Stop comparing yourself to other people.
15 May 2009, University of Southern California, USA
Well, thank you very much. (Applause) Hello, everybody. What a great introduction, what a wonderful thing. What a great, great welcome I'm getting here, so thank you very much. I mean, I haven't heard applause like that since I announced that I was going to stop acting. (Applause)
But anyway, it is really terrific to see here so many graduate students and undergraduate students graduating here today. I heard that there are 4,500 graduating here today, undergraduate students, so this is fantastic. There are 2,200 men, 2,300 women and five have listed yourselves as undecided. (Applause)
So this is really a great, great bunch of people here, I love it. But seriously, President Sample, trustees, faculty, family, friends and graduates, it is a tremendous privilege to stand before you this morning. There's nothing that I enjoy more than celebrating great achievements. And I don't just mean your parents celebrating never having to pay another tuition bill, that's not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about just celebrating the great accomplishment. So let me congratulate the Trojan class of 2009 on your graduation from one of the finest universities in the world. Let's give our graduates a tremendous round of applause. What a special day, what a great accomplishment. (Applause)
Now, this an equally special day, of course, for the parents, for the grandparents, siblings and other family members whose support made all of this today possible. And let's not forget, of course, the professors, those dedicated individuals who taught you, who came up with exciting ways to share their vast wisdom, knowledge and experience with you.
And I must also say thank you to President Sample for honoring me with this fantastic degree. Thank you very much. Wow, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Doctor of Humane Letters. I love it. (Applause) But, of course, I noticed that it wasn't a doctorate in film or in cinema or in acting. I wonder why?
But anyway, that's OK. I take whatever I can get. But maybe now since I'm the doctor, I can go back up to Sacramento and maybe now the Legislature will finally listen to me. (Applause) But anyway, I stand before you today not just as Dr. Schwarzenegger or as Governor Schwarzenegger, or as The Terminator, or as Conan the Barbarian, but also as a proud new member of this Trojan family.
Now, some of you may know that my daughter just completed her freshman year right here. One of the most exciting things for me has been to learn about the great traditions that make this university so wonderful and so special.
My daughter told me all about, for instance, the Victory Bell. She sat me down and she told me it weighs 295 pounds and how the winner of the annual football game between USC and UCLA takes this bell and gets to paint it in the school colors. And I stopped her in the middle of talking, I said, "Wait a minute, Katherine, back up a little bit. UCLA has a football team?" (Applause)
Now, of course, my daughter's journey here at USC is just beginning, and yours is ending. I know that you're a little bit stressed out right now as you start this exciting new chapter in your lives. Some people say it is scary to leave the comfort of the university and to go out into the cold, hard world.
But I have to tell you something; I think this is a bunch of nonsense because after all, this is America. This is the greatest country on earth, with the greatest opportunities. (Applause) It is one thing if you were born in Afghanistan or in Swat Valley in Pakistan where you'd be forced to join the Taliban or be killed. Now, then I would say yes, that is a little bit scary.
But this, this is going to be a piece of cake for you, trust me. You live in America and you're prepared for the future with this tremendous education you have gotten here at one of the greatest universities in the world. This is going to be exciting, it's a great adventure and this is a new phase in your life. This is going to be awesome. (Applause)
Now, of course, this journey is not going to be without any setbacks, failures or disappointments. That's just the way life is. But you're ready and you are able, and you would not be here today with your degrees and with your honors if you wouldn't be ready.
So now, of course, to help you along the way, I thought that the best Schwarzenegger gift I could give you today is to give you a few of my own personal ideas on how to be successful. And parents, I just want you to know, maybe you should close your ears, you should plug your ears, because maybe there a few things that you maybe won't like in what I have to say.
But anyway, I can explain how I became successful and who I am today by going through what I call Dr. Schwarzenegger's Six Rules of Success. (Applause)
Now, of course, people ask me all the time, they say to me, "What is the secret to success?" And I give them always the short version. I say, "Number one, come to America. Number two, work your butt off. And number three, marry a Kennedy." (Applause)
But anyway, those are the short rules. Now today, I'm going to give you the six rules of success. But before I start, I just wanted to say these are my rules. I think that they can apply to anyone, but that is for you to decide, because not everyone is the same. There are some people that just like to kick back and coast through life and others want to be very intense and want to be number one and want to be successful. And that's like me.
I always wanted to be very intense, I always wanted to be number one. I took it very seriously, my career. So this was the same when I started with bodybuilding. I didn't want to just be a bodybuilding champion, I wanted to be the best bodybuilder of all time. The same was in the movies. I didn't want to just be a movie star; I wanted to be a great movie star that is the highest paid movie star and have above-the-title billing.
And so this intensity always paid off for me, this commitment always paid off for me. So here are some of the rules.
The first rule is: Trust yourself
And what I mean by that is, so many young people are getting so much advice from their parents and from their teachers and from everyone. But what is most important is that you have to dig deep down, dig deep down and ask yourselves, who do you want to be? Not what, but who.
And I'm talking about not what your parents and teachers want you to be, but you. I’m talking about figuring out for yourselves what makes you happy, no matter how crazy it may sound to other people.
I was lucky growing up because I did not have television or didn't have telephones, I didn't have the computers and the iPods. And, of course, Twitter was then something that birds did outside the window. I didn't have all these distractions and all this.
I spent a lot of time by myself, so I could figure out and listen to what is inside my heart and inside my head.
And I recognized very quickly that inside my head and heart were a burning desire to leave my small village in Austria -- not that there was something wrong with Austria, it's a beautiful country. But I wanted to leave that little place and I wanted to be part of something big, the United States of America, a powerful nation, the place where dreams can come true.
I knew when I came over here I could realize my dreams. And I decided that the best way for me to come to America was to become a bodybuilding champion, because I knew that was ticket the instant that I saw a magazine cover of my idol, Reg Park. He was Mr. Universe, he was starring in Hercules movies, he looked strong and powerful, he was so confident.
So when I found out how he got that way I became obsessed, and I went home and I said to my family, "I want to be a bodybuilding champion."
Now, you can imagine how that went over in my home in Austria. My parents, they couldn't believe it. They would have been just happy if I would have become a police officer like my father, or married someone like Heidi, had a bunch of kids and ran around like the von Trapp family in Sound of Music.
That's what my family had in mind for me, but something else burned inside me. Something burned inside me. I wanted to be different; I was determined to be unique. I was driven to think big and to dream big. Everyone else thought that I was crazy. My friends said, "If you want to be a champion in a sport, why don't you go and become a bicycle champion or a skiing champion or a soccer champion? Those are the Austrian sports."
But I didn't care. I wanted to be a bodybuilding champion and use that to come to America, and use that to go into the movies and make millions of dollars. So, of course, for extra motivation I read books on strongmen and on bodybuilding and looked at magazines. And one of the things I did was, I decorated my bedroom wall.
Right next to my bed there was this big wall that I decorated all with pictures. I hung up pictures of strongmen and bodybuilders and wrestlers and boxers and so on. And I was so excited about this great decoration that I took my mother to the bedroom and I showed her. And she shook her head. She was absolutely in shock and tears started running down her eyes.
And she called the doctor, she called our house doctor and she brought him in and she explained to him, "There's something wrong here." She looked at the wall with the doctor and she said, "Where did I go wrong? I mean, all of Arnold's friends have pictures on the wall of girls, and Arnold has all these men.
But it's not just men, they're half naked and they're oiled up with baby oil. What is going on here? Where did I go wrong?" So you can imagine, the doctor shook his head and he said, "There's nothing wrong. At this age you have idols and you go and have those -- this is just quite normal."
So this is rule number one. I wanted to become a champion; I was on a mission. So rule number one is, of course, trust yourself, no matter how and what anyone else thinks.
Rule number two is: Break the rules
. We have so many rules in life about everything. I say break the rules. Not the law, but break the rules. My wife has a t-shirt that says, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Well, you know, I don't want to burst her bubble, but the same is true with men.
It is impossible to be a maverick or a true original if you're too well behaved and don't want to break the rules. You have to think outside the box. That's what I believe. After all, what is the point of being on this earth if all you want to do is be liked by everyone and avoid trouble?
The only way that I ever got anyplace was by breaking some of the rules. After all, I remember that after I was finished with my bodybuilding career I wanted to get into acting and I wanted to be a star in films. You can imagine what the agents said when I went to meet all those agents. Everyone had the same line, that it can't be done, the rules are different here. They said, "Look at your body. You have this huge monstrous body, overly developed. That doesn't fit into the movies. You don't understand.
This was 20 years ago, the Hercules movies. Now the little guys are in, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson." Before he gained weight, of course, that is. But anyway, those are the guys that were in. And the agents also complained about my accent. They said, "No one ever became a star with an accent like that, especially not with a German accent.
And yes, I can imagine with your name, Arnold Schwartzenschnitzel, or whatever the name, is, on a billboard. Yeah, that's going to draw a lot of tickets and sell a lot of tickets. Yeah, right." So this is the kind of negative attitude they had.
But I didn't listen to those rules, even though they were very nice and they said, "Look, we can get you some bit parts. We can get you to be playing a wrestler or a bouncer. Oh, maybe with your German accent we can get you to be a Nazi officer in Hogan's Heroes or something like that."
But I didn't listen to all this. Those were their rules, not my rules. I was convinced I could do it if I worked as hard as I did in bodybuilding, five hours a day. And I started getting to work, I started taking acting classes. I took English classes, took speech classes, dialogue classes. Accent removal classes I even took.
I remember running around saying, "A fine wine grows on the vine." You see, because Germans have difficulties with the F and the W and V, so, "A fine wine grows on the vine." I know what some of you are now saying, is I hope that Arnold got his money back.
But let me tell you something, I had a good time doing those things and it really helped me. And finally I broke through. I broke through and I started getting the first parts in TV; Streets of San Francisco, Lucille Ball hired me, I made Pumping Iron, Stay Hungry. And then I got the big break in Conan the Barbarian. (Applause)
And there the director said, "If we wouldn't have Schwarzenegger, we would have to build one." Now, think about that. And then, when I did Terminator, "I'll be back," became one of the most famous lines in movie history, all because of my crazy accent.
Now, think about it. The things that the agents said would be totally a detriment and would make it impossible for me to get a job, all of a sudden became an asset for me, all of those things, my accent, my body and everything.
So it just shows to you, never listen to that you can't do something. And, "You have to work your way up, of course, run for something else first." I mean, it was the same when I ran for governor, the same lines, that you have to work your way up, it can't be done. And then, of course, I ran for governor and the rest, of course, is history.
They said you have to start with a small job as mayor and then as assemblyman and then as lieutenant governor and then as governor. And they said that's the way it works in a political career. I said, "I'm not interested in a political career. I want to be a public servant. I want to fix California's problems and bring people together and bring the parties together.
So, like I said, I decided to run, I didn't pay attention to the rules. And I made it and the rest is history. Which, of course, brings me to
Rule number three: Don't be afraid to fail.
Anything I've ever attempted, I was always willing to fail. In the movie business, I remember, that you pick scripts. Many times you think this is a wining script, but then, of course, you find out later on, when you do the movie, that it didn't work and the movie goes in the toilet.
Now, we have seen my movies; I mean, Red Sonja, Hercules in New York, Last Action Hero. Those movies went in the toilet. But that's OK, because at the same time I made movies like Terminator and Conan and True Lies and Predator and Twins that went through the roof.
So you can't always win, but don't afraid of making decisions.
You can't be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that it is the right thing to do, and success will come. So don't be afraid to fail.
Rule number four: Don’t listen to the naysayers.
How many times have you heard that you can't do this and you can't do that and it's never been done before? Just imagine if Bill Gates had quit when people said it can't be done.
I hear this all the time. As a matter of fact, I love it when someone says that no one has ever done this before, because then when I do it that means that I'm the first one that has done it. So pay no attention to the people that say it can't be done.
I remember my mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, when she started Special Olympics in 1968 people said that it would not work. The experts, the doctors that specialized in mental disabilities and mental retardation said, "It can't be done. You can't bring people out of their institutions. You can't make them participate in sports, in jumping and swimming and in running. They will hurt themselves, they will hurt each other, they will drown in the pool."
Well, let me tell you something. Now, 40 years later, Special Olympics is one of the greatest organizations, in 164 countries, dedicated to people with mental disabilities and that are intellectually challenged. (Applause)
And she did not take no for an answer. And the same is when you look at Barack Obama. I mean, imagine, if he would have listened. (Applause) If he would have listened to the naysayers he would have never run for president. People said it couldn't be done, that he couldn't get elected, that he couldn’t beat Hillary Clinton, that he would never win the general election.
But he followed his own heart, he didn’t listen to the "You can't," and he changed the course of American history.
So over and over you see that. If I would have listened to the naysayers I would still be in the Austrian Alps yodeling. (Laughter) I would never have come to America. I would have never met my wonderful wife Maria Shriver, I would have never had the wonderful four kids, I would have never done Terminator, and I wouldn't be standing here in front of you today as governor of the greatest state of the greatest country in the world.
So I never listen that, "You can't." (Applause) I always listen to myself and say, "Yes, you can."
And that brings me to rule number five, which is the most important rule of all: Work your butt off. You never want to fail because you didn't work hard enough. I never wanted to lose a competition or lose an election because I didn't work hard enough. I always believed leaving no stone unturned.
Mohammed Ali, one of my great heroes, had a great line in the '70s when he was asked, "How many sit-ups do you do?" He said, "I don't count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that's when I start counting, because that's when it really counts."
That's what makes you a champion. Arnold Scvhwarzenegger in Kindergarten CopAnd that's the way it is with everything. No pain, no gain. So many of those lessons that I apply in life I have learned from sports, let me tell you, and especially that one. And let me tell you, it is important to have fun in life, of course.
But when you're out there partying, horsing around, someone out there at the same time is working hard.
Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning. Just remember that. Now, if you want to coast through life, don't pay attention to any of those rules.
But if you want to win, there is absolutely no way around hard, hard work.
None of my rules, by the way, of success, will work unless you do. I've always figured out that there 24 hours a day. You sleep six hours and have 18 hours left. Now, I know there are some of you out there that say well, wait a minute, I sleep eight hours or nine hours. Well, then, just sleep faster, I would recommend. (Laughter)
Because you only need to sleep six hours and then you have 18 hours left, and there are a lot of things you can accomplish. As a matter of fact, Ed Turner used to say always, "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise."
And, of course, all of you know already those things, because otherwise you wouldn't be sitting here today. Just remember, you can't climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.
And that takes me to rule number six, which is a very important rule: it's about giving back. Whatever path that you take in your lives, you must always find time to give something back, something back to your community, give something back to your state or to your country.
My father-in-law, Sargent Shriver -- who is a great American, a truly great American who started the Peace Corps, the Job Corps, Legal Aid to the Poor -- he said at Yale University to the students at a commencement speech, "Tear down that mirror. Tear down that mirror that makes you always look at yourself, and you will be able to look beyond that mirror and you will see the millions of people that need your help."
And let me tell you something, reaching out and helping people will bring you more satisfaction than anything else you have ever done. As a matter of fact today, after having worked for Special Olympics and having started After School Programs, I've promoted fitness, and now with my job as governor, I can tell you, playing a game of chess with an eight-year-old kid in an inner city school is far more exciting for me than walking down another red carpet or a movie premiere.
So let me tell you, as you prepare to go off into the world, remember those six rules:
Trust yourself, Break some rules, Don't be afraid to fail, Ignore the naysayers, Work like hell, and Give something back.
And now let me leave you with one final thought, and I will be brief, I promise. This university was conceived in 1880, back when Los Angeles was just a small frontier town. One hundred and twenty-five classes of Trojans have gone before you. They have sat there, exactly where you sit today, in good times and in bad, in times of war and in times of peace, in times of great promise and in times of great uncertainty.
Through it all, this great country, this great state, this great university, have stood tall and persevered. We are in tough times now and there's a lot of uncertainty in the world. But there is one thing certain; we'll be back. (Applause)
And we will back stronger and more prosperous than ever before, because that is what California and America have always done. The ancient Trojans were known for their fighting spirit, their refusal to give up, their ability to overcome great odds.
So as you graduate today, never lose that optimism and that fighting spirit. Never lose the spirit of Troy. Because remember, this is America and you are USC Trojans, proud, strong and ready to soar. Congratulations and God bless all of you. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause)
Six Rules on How to Be Successful
1. Trust yourself
2. Break some rules
3. Don't be afraid to fail
4. Ignore the naysayers
5. Work like hell
6. Give something back.
16 May 2011, Booker T Washington High School, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
The school was the winner of the 2011 Commencement Challenge contest.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.) Everybody, please have a seat. Thank you, Chris. Hello, Memphis! (Applause.) Congratulations to the class of 2011! (Applause.)
Now, I will admit being President is a great job. (Laughter.) I have a very nice plane. (Laughter.) I have a theme song. (Laughter.) But what I enjoy most is having a chance to come to a school like Booker T. Washington High School and share this day with its graduates. (Applause.) So I could not be more pleased to be here.
We’ve got some wonderful guests who are here as well, and I just want to make mention of them very quickly. First of all, the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, is here. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.) Three outstanding members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, all of whom care deeply about education — Senator Bob Corker, Senator Lamar Alexander, and Congressman Steve Cohen is here. (Applause.) You’ve got one of Memphis’s own, former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is in the house. (Applause.) And the Mayor of Memphis, A.C. Wharton is here. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.)
I am so proud of each and every one of you.
STUDENT: Thank you!
THE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome. You made it — and not just through high school. You made it past Principal Kiner. (Laughter and applause.) I’ve spent a little bit of time with her now, and you can tell she is not messing around. (Laughter.) I’ve only been in Memphis a couple of hours, but I’m pretty sure that if she told me to do something I’d do it. (Laughter.)
Then I had the chance to meet her mom and her daughter, Amber, a little while back, and we took a picture. It turns out Amber actually goes to another high school. She was worried that the boys would be afraid to talk to her if her mom was lurking in the hallways — (laughter) — which is why my next job will be principal at Sasha and Malia’s high school. (Laughter and applause.) And then I’ll be president of their college. (Laughter.)
Let me also say to Alexis and Vashti — I heard that you were a little nervous about speaking today, but now I’m a little nervous speaking after you, because you both did terrific jobs. (Applause.) We’ve had some great performances by Shalonda and Tecia and Paula, and the jazz band. Give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
Last but not least, I want to recognize all the people who helped you to reach this milestone: the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the sisters, the brothers, the friends, the neighbors — (applause) — who have loved you and stood behind you every step of the way. Congratulations, family.
And I want to acknowledge the devoted teachers and administrators at Booker T. Washington, who believed in you — (applause) — who kept the heat on you, and have never treated teaching as a job, but rather as a calling.
Every commencement is a day of celebration. I was just telling somebody backstage, I just love commencements. I get all choked up at commencements. So I can tell you already right now, I will cry at my children’s commencement. I cry at other people’s commencements. (Laughter.) But this one is especially hopeful. This one is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, “The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods.” “The schools are too broken.” “The kids don’t stand a chance.”
We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, “Yes, we can.” (Applause.) Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed. You decided you would not be defined by where you come from but by where you want to go, by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill.
Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation. For a long time, just a handful headed to college each year. But at Booker T. Washington, you changed all that.
You created special academies for ninth graders to start students off on the right track. You made it possible for kids to take AP classes and earn college credits. You even had a team take part in robotics competition so students can learn with their hands by building and creating. And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture — a culture that prizes hard work and discipline; a culture that shows every student here that they matter and that their teachers believe in them. As Principal Kiner says, the kids have to know that you care, before they care what you know. (Applause.)
And because you created this culture of caring and learning, today we’re standing with a very different Booker T. Washington High School. Today, this is a place where more than four out of five students are earning a diploma; a place where 70 percent of the graduates will continue their education; where many will be the very first in their families to go to college. (Applause.)
Today, Booker T. Washington is a place that has proven why we can’t accept excuses — any excuses — when it comes to education. In the United States of America, we should never accept anything less than the best that our children have to offer.
As your teacher Steve McKinney — where’s Steve at? There he is. (Applause.) AKA Big Mac. (Laughter.) And I see why they call you Big Mac. (Laughter.) As Mr. McKinney said in the local paper, “We need everyone to broaden their ideas about what is possible. We need parents, politicians, and the media to see how success is possible, how success is happening every day.”
So that’s why I came here today. Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. (Applause.) And if it can happen in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America. (Applause.)
So ever since I became President, my administration has been working hard to make sure that we build on the progress that’s taking place in schools like this. We’ve got to encourage the kind of change that’s led not by politicians, not by Washington, D.C., but by teachers and principals and parents, and entire communities; by ordinary people standing up and demanding a better future for their children.
We have more work to do so that every child can fulfill his or her God-given potential. And here in Tennessee we’ve been seeing great progress. Tennessee has been a leader, one of the first winners of the nationwide “Race to the Top” that we’ve launched to reward the kind of results you’re getting here at Booker T. Washington.
And understand, this isn’t just an issue for me. I’m standing here as President because of the education that I received. As Chris said, my father left my family when I was two years old. And I was raised by a single mom, and sometimes she struggled to provide for me and my sister. But my mother, my grandparents, they pushed me to excel. They refused to let me make excuses. And they kept pushing me, especially on those rare occasions where I’d slack off or get into trouble. They weren’t that rare, actually. (Laughter.) I’m sure nobody here has done anything like that. (Laughter.)
I’m so blessed that they kept pushing; I’m so lucky that my teachers kept pushing — because education made all the difference in my life. The same is true for Michelle. Education made such a difference in her life. Michelle’s dad was a city worker, had multiple sclerosis, had to wake up every day and it took him a couple hours just to get ready for work. But he went to work every day. Her mom was a secretary, went to work every day, and kept on pushing her just like my folks pushed me.
That’s what’s made a difference in our lives. And it’s going to make an even greater difference in your lives — not just for your own success but for the success of the United States of America. Because we live in a new world now. Used to be that you didn’t have to have an education. If you were willing to work hard, you could go to a factory somewhere and get a job. Those times are passed. Believe it or not, when you go out there looking for a job, you’re not just competing against people in Nashville or Atlanta. You’re competing against young people in Beijing and Mumbai. That’s some tough competition. Those kids are hungry. They’re working hard. And you’ll need to be prepared for it.
And as a country, we need all of our young people to be ready. We can’t just have some young people successful. We’ve got to have every young person contributing; earning those high school diplomas and then earning those college diplomas, or getting certified in a trade or profession. We can’t succeed without it.
Through education, you can also better yourselves in other ways. You learn how to learn — how to think critically and find solutions to unexpected challenges. I remember we used to ask our teachers, “Why am I going to need algebra?” Well, you may not have to solve for x to get a good job or to be a good parent. But you will need to think through tough problems. You’ll need to think on your feet. You’ll need to know how to gather facts and evaluate information. So, math teachers, you can tell your students that the President says they need algebra. (Laughter.)
Education also teaches you the value of discipline — that the greatest rewards come not from instant gratification but from sustained effort and from hard work. This is a lesson that’s especially true today, in a culture that prizes flash over substance, that tells us that the goal in life is to be entertained, that says you can be famous just for being famous. You get on a reality show — don’t know what you’ve done — suddenly you’re famous. But that’s not going to lead to lasting, sustained achievement.
And finally, with the right education, both at home and at school, you can learn how to be a better human being. For when you read a great story or you learn about an important moment in history, it helps you imagine what it would be like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to know their struggles. The success of our economy will depend on your skills, but the success of our community will depend on your ability to follow the Golden Rule — to treat others as you would like to be treated.
We’ve seen how important this is even in the past few weeks, as communities here in Memphis and all across the South have come together to deal with floodwaters, and to help each other in the aftermath of terrible tornadoes.
All of these qualities — empathy, discipline, the capacity to solve problems, the capacity to think critically — these skills don’t just change how the world sees us. They change how we see ourselves. They allow each of us to seek out new horizons and new opportunities with confidence — with the knowledge that we’re ready; that we can face obstacles and challenges and unexpected setbacks. That’s the power of your education. That’s the power of the diploma that you receive today.
And this is something that Booker T. Washington himself understood. Think about it. He entered this world a slave on a Southern plantation. But he would leave this world as the leader of a growing civil rights movement and the president of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute.
Booker T. Washington believed that change and equality would be won in the classroom. So he convinced folks to help him buy farmland. Once he had the land, he needed a school. So he assigned his first students to actually build the chairs and the desks and even a couple of the classrooms. You thought your teachers were tough.
Booker T. Washington ran a tight ship. He’d ride the train to Tuskegee and scare some of the new students. This is before YouTube and TMZ, so the kids didn’t recognize him. (Laughter.) He’d walk up to them and say, “Oh, you’re heading to Tuskegee. I heard the work there is hard. I heard they give the students too much to do. I hear the food is terrible. You probably won’t last three months.” But the students would reply they weren’t afraid of hard work. They were going to complete their studies no matter what Booker T. Washington threw at them. And in that way, he prepared them — because life will throw some things at you.
The truth is, not a single one of the graduates here today has had it easy. Not a single one of you had anything handed to you on a silver platter. You had to work for it. You had to earn it. Most of all, you had to believe in yourselves.
I think of Chris’s stories, and what he’s faced in his life: Lost his father to violence at the age of four. Had a childhood illness that could have been debilitating. But somehow he knew in his heart that he could take a different path.
I think of all the graduates here who had to leave their homes when their apartments were torn down, but who took two buses each morning to come back to Booker T. Washington. (Applause.)
I think of Eron Jackon. Where is Eron? Eron has known a lot of setbacks in her young life. There was a period when she lashed out and she got into trouble and she made mistakes. And when she first came to Booker T. Washington, she struggled. Is that right? There are plenty of people out there who would have counted Eron out; a lot of people who would have thought of her as another statistic. But that’s not how the teachers here at Booker T. Washington saw her. And that’s not how Eron came to see herself. So she kept coming back to school, and she didn’t give up and she didn’t quit. And in time, she became a great student.
And she remembered what Principal Kiner told her: “You can’t let the past get you down. You have to let it motivate you.” And so now here Eron is, graduating. (Applause.) She’s going to keep studying to get her barber’s certificate so she can cut hair and save for college. She’s working toward her dream to becoming a lawyer. She’s got a bright future.
Everybody here has got a unique story like that to tell. Each of you knows what it took for you to get here. But in reaching this milestone, there is a common lesson shared by every graduate in this hall. And Chris said it himself in a recent interview: “It’s not where you are or what you are. It’s who you are.”
Yes, you’re from South Memphis. Yes, you’ve always been underdogs. Nobody has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you will have earned it. Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you’ll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your own sweat and tears, products of your own effort and your own talents. You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will. That’s who you are. (Applause.)
So, class of 2011, the hard road does not end here. Your journey has just begun. Your diploma is not a free pass. It won’t protect you against every setback or challenge or mistake. You’ll make some, I promise. You’re going to have to keep working hard. You’re going to have to keep pushing yourselves. And you’ll find yourselves sometime in situations where folks have had an easier time, they’re a little bit ahead of you, and you’re going to have to work harder than they are. And you may be frustrated by that.
But if you do push yourselves, if you build on what you’ve already accomplished here, then I couldn’t be more confident about your futures. I’m hopeful and I’m excited about what all of you can achieve. And I know that armed with the skills and experience and the love that you’ve gained at Booker T. Washington High School, you’re ready to make your mark on the world.
So thank you. Thanks for inspiring me. God bless you. God bless the United States. (Applause.)
19 May 2014, Whitman College, Washington, USA
President Bridges, faculty, graduating class, parents, yes, students, and the man in the back who's wondered into the wrong place by mistake. Good morning. My task is a pleasant one. I'm here today because I'm a proud parent of one of the graduating class of 2013, my daughter Lily, congratulations.
And like the other proud parents, I'm kinda anxious to hear what on earth I'm gonna to say. I have been especially asked not to be rude or inappropriate. Which is a bit like inviting a boxer to fight and not asking him to hit anyone. But, I have reassured your president, whose job is at stake, that today's address is rated MBL, NV, and NN. No bad language, no violence, and definitely no nudity.
I've also been asked not to be too long, as I'm sure you're bursting for a pee. And, to be funny, I do hope I will be funny. But do feel free to laugh sycophantically at anything that sounds even remotely amusing. I hope I can say something that you can take away with you today, as you commence your life. Or as the rest of us know, go down hill from here. This is not so much a commencement as the end of the good bit. After college, it's a bit like being cast out of paradise. From now on, it's all debts and taxes, and death and jobs, marriages and divorces, and money problems. It's a mess out there. And then you have to watch yourself turning into your parents.
Well I'm not gonna say any of that. Obviously, because I think we need today to hear something encouraging. Something, you remember, when other people say, "Oh, we had Steve Jobs." Or, "We had Oprah." "We had Obama." "We had the Pope." So you don't feel you have to say, "Oh, we had that twit from Monty Python."
So I really do want to say something touching and real, but don't hold your breath. Okay? Because my track record on the touchy-feely stuff is not good. Not just because I'm a professional idiot, but because, as you might have spotted, I'm British. And as you know, we Brits have no emotions. Instead, we have royalty. And they have emotions for us.
We are always very happy for them. Getting married, getting pregnant, getting buried. It's nice and it stops us having to worry about our own feelings. We stand out in the rain for hours and wave little flags and cheer as they celebrate themselves.
"Hooray. Shall we go inside now?"
"No, no. Let's stay outside. It's still raining."
So the Queen's 'rain' is actually literal in England. And so we do love royalty in England. Now. When I do this. It means I'm being ironic. Now, I'm being genuine. Now I'm being ironic. Sincere. Ironic. Okay. Got it? And I've been forced to invent this sign recently as I find that nowadays, nobody gets irony, because we are now living in the post-ironic age. Once George Bush gets a library, irony is dead.
But I don't want to be controversial today, because I know you Americans are very sensitive. Plus, you have a lot of guns.
And a quick word, on the Second Amendment, which I understand, but I think I can promise you we Brits are not coming back. So you don't need that many muskets.
Okay. That's the irony sign. I think you're gonna find that really helpful in your future life. Now, President Bridges, I'm so sorry. President Bridges kindly blackmailed me into coming today. And showed his perfect understanding of the British by offering me no money, but a chance to dress up in a silly costume. That, for Brits, is irresistible. So thank you President Bridges for the great honor you do me today. My wife is absolutely thrilled she's finally married to a doctor. And of course, I am thrilled, because I can now prescribe my own medical marijuana.
Actually, I can't imagine why you asked me. I presume the Kardashians were busy. Now, I've called this address, "There's No Time Like the Pleasant." And here's a little poem I wrote to help remind you what I'm trying to say.
Life has a very simple plot.
First you're here and then you're not.
So remember life is very short. And life can be very pleasant. So do enjoy it. Just remember, that throughout all of history, and all of the people who ever lived, there's not one single person, not Shakespeare, not Mozart, not Chaucer, not Einstein, not Hubble, not Jeff who feeds the donkeys, who wouldn't give up everything they ever achieved in their lifetimes to stand here in your place and be alive here today, right now.
Not one. Well there is one, yes. But a part from Jeff who feeds the donkeys, there's nobody who wouldn't gladly change with you today being young and here and alive. I would give all of my money to be you. I'm not going to, because my wife has it. I'm allowed one wife joke, and that's it. And I agreed because I am a married liberal. I believe in a woman's right to choose for me.
So, your life is precious. You've only got one. Don't waste it on bad relationships, on bad marriages, on bad jobs, on bad people. Waste it wisely, on what you want to do. But if you're still playing beer pong in five years from now, you may be on the wrong track.
You are alive at the finest point in mankind's history, where we now know more about our origins and our planet and our universe, than any preceding generations. Life took over 4 billion years to evolve into year. And you've about 70 more years to enjoy it. Billions of years ago, right here, mollusks frolicked. In the grand age of the mollusk, when mollusks ruled the world, as seen on PBS. That was of course in the great period that scientists call the flirtatious. I mean, can you imagine, one mollusk saying to another, "Ooh, love, swim around a bit, you know? In only a few billion years, we'll all've evolved into a graduating class at Whitman."
No, you can't imagine that because mollusks can't speak. Nor are they qualified for Whitman degrees, though they'd probably have more chance of getting a Whitman degree than the Kardashians.
Now there aren't that many days in life that you can pretty much guarantee you won't forget. Your first arrest, prison, obviously, first sex, it's hard to forget that, no matter how hard you try. And graduation day is on of those days that you will remember until you the day forget. So what else are you going to remember about Whitman, apart from beer bong and beer pong.
Well you'll probably remember the first time you got drunk. Who knew the room would go round and round and around. They don't say that on the bottle, do they? Warning: the room will go round and round and round. The wineries here in Walla Walla don't say 'come to a room going round and round and round' party. So be careful of that. When a room's spinning, you've pretty much had enough. It's the same with marriage.
Some bit of advice, never apologise, never explain. That's what I hear a lot of people say, and I think it's bollocks. Okay? "Never apologise, never explain," was said by Henry Ford the Second, when he was caught drunk driving in a car, in California, with a young lady not his wife. She was chorus girl and he was a millionaire. There are still some things money can buy. But under those terms, he never apologised and never explained, is good advice. But I think apologising every now and again is a very good thing to do. It puts you in very high moral position with people you've hurt. I'm not suggesting you become like the English and say sorry all the time. Because they don't mean it. You know? They push you down and go, "Oops, sorry!" And they elbow you aside in shops, but they don't mean it, the British do not mean sorry-
Her Majesty the Queen was hosting the Nigerian President in London, and they were in a horse and carriage in a parade on their way to a public banquet. Now one of the horses loudly farted. "I'm terribly sorry," said the Queen. "That's all right," said the President, "I thought it was the horse."
Winston Churchill addressing the kids at his old school, said, "Never, never, never, never, never give up." And I think that's really important, don't give up and don't be afraid to not know what you're doing. Uncertainty is the atomic principle on which we are all organised. So why try and beat your own chemistry? It's okay to uncertain, okay.
The other thing I'd say is begin to learn to trust yourselves. That's very vital. You know, don't say, "Oh, I'm sure they're right, I probably shouldn't go and invent Apple." Just stand with yourself. Remember in his lifetime Van Gogh sold only two paintings. I've personally sold even fewer. So persevere. And excuse me one second. Argh ... This is a very wonderful moment for me, I have to say this:
Someone once said, "America is 300 million people all walking in the same direction, singing 'I did it my way' ", actually it was me, I said that. But remember to persevere. Your life is very precious, you're travelling round a galaxy, you're not in Walla Walla, you're on the surface of a planet. Pull back, it helps to put everything in perspective. Okay? Remember you're a tiny little speck of consciousness in an incredibly expanding and immense and virtually eternal universe, a 190 billion light years across. And that's just the bit we can see.
So don't just pursue happiness, catch it. And they may even have a cure for it by then. All right, so other bits of advice. Do see some of the planets, get a little further adrift than Walmart. And don't stop reading, your brain doesn't know it's graduated. Feed it, okay. We proud parents are here to salute you and to give thanks that we no longer have to pay Whitman fees.
But most of us old farts are sadly sentimental to see our little kids all grown up and about to make their way into the world, that's you Lily. Thank you son Carey for being here. My wife of 36 years Tania. Make us proud Whitmanese, get out there Class of 2013, go and kick some ass.
Later, Eric Idle finished with the greatest of finishing songs.
17 May 2018, Columbia University, New York City, USA
Ira Glass starts around 17 minutes into the video.
Dean, faculty, parents and hello my new colleagues. Look at you.
Welcome to the next phase of your life. It’s gonna be amazing. There’s a war in this country over facts and truth – and it’s not clear how it’s gonna play out and congratulations – you’re heading to the front lines.
I know those are words every parent wants to hear.
Speaking for everyone else who’s been slogging away in the trenches: glad to have you! We need the reinforcements. Couldn’t be a better time to become a journalist.
I’m honored to be here. To be offered an award that’s also gone to so many journalists I’ve admired.
It’s funny to me that you had Maggie Haberman here yesterday as your other graduation speaker, since she and I represent such radically different approaches to this job. I like imagining a version of the world where this ceremony today were a little more like the Grammys and she and I would hate each other’s guts … snipe at each other on Twitter … snatch each others’ awards like dueling, nerdy Kanyes.
I am very aware that in my twenties I got interested in the idea of doing stories about regular people and their lives precisely because I had no idea how to do what she does and what normal reporters do. I didn’t know how to cultivate sources or cover the news or unearth important things the public needs to know.
I am very aware that Maggie Haberman shows us all, day after day, a rigorous demonstration of how you use the traditional tools of journalism to get inside information from suspicious sources and break news and answer the biggest questions in the most important ongoing story out there right now.
And as for me … there’s this thing the drummer for the Who once said that I relate to a lot. His name was Keith Moon. And when he tried to explain what he did for a living, he once said: “I … am the greatest … Keith-Moon-type drummer in the world.”
I am very aware that I make my living with a weird grab bag of skills that probably shouldn’t add up to anything. My primary skill is that I’m a good editor. That’s the main thing I do all week. From the start it was the one thing in journalism I had a natural talent for … an easy command of. I also have a bunch of showbizzy skills that go into packaging material into a program – pacing and flow and humor and emotional arcs. Stuff I learned basically in high school musicals and as a teenaged magician at children’s birthday parties.
In my 20s there was a feeling I got in a certain kind of recorded interview that I became transfixed with. And loved. And tried to make happen again and again. There’s a feeling I got when music hits underneath a radio story that just got to me. And still does. And I cultivated that.
I’m also good at running and promoting a business. I like spreadsheets and budgets and dealing with member stations and all the machinery of making a radio show. I enjoy selling, which is fortunate because a certain amount of my job is selling. On the pledge drive. In promos. During the radio show … when I’m saying things to try to bait people to “stay with us.”
I guess the lesson of this for you guys … is that there are lots of ways to be a journalist. Maggie’s way. My way. Which is good news for you as each of you discovers your way.
Before I go further, I want to acknowledge my co-workers. In particular Julie Snyder who ran This American Life with me as my partner in making the show for two decades. And who left that job to create the podcasts Serial and S-Town, which – I think I can be braggy on her behalf – made the world rethink what podcasting can be.
The kind of journalism we do at our shows is a team sport. To be totally honest, most weeks I spend most of my hours at work not working on my own stories but in a scrum of people who are puzzling out how to make somebody else’s work the very best it can be. We edit each story over and over and over, each time dragging in some new person who hasn’t heard the thing yet to bring fresh ears. Our show is made as a collaboration – to serve our pleasure and curiosity as a group. It’s best when one or more of us gets obsessed and excited about something and then pulls the rest along. To figure out something original to say about Afro-futurism or police violence or Iraq or post-Katrina New Orleans or whatever.
Together we all set the editorial agenda. Together we chew over which stories to pursue and what the angles should be. And in the interest of factual accuracy I will say that the majority of the stories on the program that’ve gotten the most attention – Harper High School, the Giant Pool of Money, convicted murderers putting up a production of Hamlet in prison, Nikole Hannah Jones stories on our show and Sarah Koenig’s and Chana Jaffe Walt’s – they were not my idea or my doing. In fact, there are not one but two stories that I was totally completely against us taking on … that went on to win Peabody Awards.
With all that in mind, I accept this fancy honor on behalf of everyone I work with in making the product you’re honoring.
A brief digression now about editing. Brief but urgent. Editing does not get the respect it should. There are so many awards for reporters. Where are the awards for editors? There are so many famous reporters. So few famous editors. I believe that gifted editors are rarer than talented reporters. If you have the knack for it, I just wanna say: go for it. I really want to give you a nudge of encouragement in that direction. It’s a wonderful job and journalism needs you.
Editing is crucial because in my experience anything you try to make - what YOU want is for the story to be AMAZING. But what the story wants to be is MEDIOCRE OR WORSE. And the entire process of making the story is convincing the story to not be what it wants to be, which is BAD.
And turning it from the bad thing it’s trying to be, where the sources are inarticulate, and you don’t know how to structure it, and the structure you make doesn’t work, into the shining gleaming jewel that you have in your heart … that is editing!
Everyone else … Love your editors. Choose them with the care you’d choose someone to have sex with.
Do not have sex with them!
Let me go back. Choose them with the care you’d choose a good friend.
Choose your jobs with a careful eye on who your editor will be. Good news is very few editors, in my experience, are awful. The overwhelming majority are solid, decent, helpful. And then if you’re lucky you get somebody like the people I work with, like Julie Snyder, people who make everything they touch, so much better.
I’m guessing some of you are focused and directed and you know exactly what you want to do. But I bet many of you are like I was all through my 20s, when I really struggled to figure out how to do work that was meaningful to me. The work I do now really came from that long experience of being lost and trying to invent something that made sense to me. And seemed special to me. Something I was actually good at.
So if in the coming months and years … you feel lost and you’re stuck in some job that isn’t what you want … I just wanna say to you and to your parents … that’s normal. You’re not crazy. Happens to lots of us. You just have to get in there and make stuff and try things and push yourself hard and that’s the only way to find your way.
For those of you who feel like your work still isn’t at the level of skill that you want it to be, I can offer this: I started at NPR when I was 19 … and was not a decent writer or reporter until a decade into it. Editing I could always do. But those other skills were hard fought and didn’t come easily. I was 36 when I started This American Life, 17 years into doing this.
I realized this thing recently …
We’ve always had a paid internship at This American Life. It’s so competitive that eventually we had to stop calling it an internship and we now call it a fellowship. Like one intern came to us from a reporting job at NBC News, another from the digital staff of the New York Times. We were like “we can’t call these grown-ass people ‘interns.’”
And at some point … I looked at the skills of the candidates applying and I realized, “oh … if at any point in my 20s I’d applied for the internship at This American Life … I wouldn’t have gotten it!” Like … I couldn’t have been an intern on my own show! I wouldn’t make the cut.
It can take a long time to be as good as you want to be.
And be kind to yourself, during that period. And work hard.
You all are entering journalism at a fascinating and intense time.
For starters, I don’t know if you’ve heard … everyone in the country hates everyone else all the time.
Doing fact-based stories in that environment has some challenges.
Two weeks ago we were lucky to work with a great reporter, Steve Kolowich of the Chronicle of Higher Education … about something that happened at the University of Nebraska between a sophomore who put out a table to try to start a chapter of Turning Point USA — a right-wing group — on campus … and a left-wing teacher-slash-grad student in her 40s who started yelling at this girl and calling her names till the sophomore was in tears. Video of this, of course, went online … and things sort of exploded … the legislature got involved. Everyone assumed the worst of everyone else at pretty much every single moment.
Steve and his producer Dana Chivvis did a careful and sympathetic and evenhanded job parsing out everyone’s motives and what we should make of all of it.
But the fact that we talked to the right wing student, to hear her side of it, as one part of that story … one listener wrote:
I don’t even want to listen to this bullshit. I’m so sick of TAL highlighting the right. You don’t have to give equal airtime to stupidity just because stupidity took the office.
Thanks for giving voice to a fascist organization. I’m out.
So many pieces about how we “elite” liberals just don’t understand conservatives.
That was not what the story was about in any way by the way. The fact that someone took it that way is so … dispiriting.
I understand them just fine. They’re usually racist, don’t “believe” in science or facts. I’ve had enough of these kinds of “but what about the poor conservatives?” pieces.
Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of This American Life’s fixation on conservatives. I really have no interest in them or their feelings.
This intolerance to even listen to someone else … that’s new among our audience. Three or four years ago, we never got this reaction.
Often, reading the comments, one of my co-workers says it freaks him out because he feels like people don’t understand what journalism is. Sending some of our stories into this environment is like throwing baby bunnies into a cage of hungry snakes.
Like, we really expect them not to lick their lips and eat the bunnies?
I will say … the good news … is that most listeners were not like the ones I’m quoting here. That was a tiny percentage of the comments we got. Lots of people seem to be okay with the way we’re doing this coverage.
I did a fundraiser for a public radio station last night in someone’s very nice home in the suburbs, and the woman who hosted it told me she heard the episode we did a couple months ago on Republican Senator Jeff Flake. Producer Zoe Chace followed him for four months as he tried to get DACA legislation passed.
This woman told me she had that this feeling listening, which was she described like; “No. Don’t make me LIKE him!” She was like, “I didn’t want it to happen but you humanized him.”
And I was like “we didn’t humanize him! He is a human!”
You know? We were simply documenting who he is like we document anyone else. Zoe presented his stubborn idealism and also his flaws – argued with his premises – challenged him point by point throughout the hour. The same way we do with anyone who comes on the show.
This listener seemed cautiously okay with the fact that she was seeing him as a human being. Seeing a Republican senator as a person. To be sure, a person she did not agree with. But a person with principles and decency … and not a monster.
The fact that journalism can do that ... I think that’s one of the things journalism can accomplish in this present moment. Like, I don’t think anyone is going to change their minds about DACA. Or about any other issue facing the country because of some story they hear on the radio. That’s just not how people work. Like you would never change your minds about abortion or guns or who to vote for based on a story you heard on the radio. Nobody would.
But I do think it’s possible – in this utterly divided moment in our country – to get listeners to understand the reality and complexity of people who are not in their particular group — whatever that group might be.
We do a lot of stories on refugees and immigrants. We’ve done stories on kids who live in neighorhoods where their friends have been shot, and they fear getting shot. We did an hour of women in an office talking about – among other things – how it messed them up – like messed with their minds and feelings – to have a sexually harassing boss.
And I don’t think we changed anyone’s mind on any of those issues.
But I do think those kinds of stories made clear the stakes of what those experiences are. In some crude dumb way, those stories do the most old-fashioned thing a story is supposed to do. Which is: they make it possible to imagine, if this happened to you, this is what it might feel like.
I want to be clear about what I’m saying. Empathy is not enough, in reporting. There are lots of people I do not empathize with. After Charlottesville there was real disagreement on our staff about putting certain white nationalists on the air. About whether it promoted their ideas, no matter how we framed it.
With respect to people who feel differently, I believe that you can put someone like that on the air and interrogate them the way we interrogate anyone and anything else. In that case, to talk to the organizer of that rally about what he was trying to do and how he felt about the results. Did the fact that someone died, was he glad about that? Sorry? Guilty? That seemed worth knowing. Some stories are not about empathy, but about investigating a phenonenon to try to understand what we’re really dealing with.
Another thing I think about all the time lately is that there are all sorts of stories that nobody wants to hear anything about any more ever … refugee coverage is a perfect example ... because it has the two key ingredients of any story you don’t want to hear anything else about: 1) it’s depressing and 2) ... YOU ALREADY KNOW THE STORY. Like, it’s not complicated! 60 million displaced people, the largest refugee crisis since World War II ... nice middle class people from Syria and elsewhere whose homes were bombed out of existence ... they have no place to go ... Europe and America don’t want them ... dying on boats ... living in camps.
People are like, “We’ve got it. What else would I ever need to know?”
There are so many other stories in this category: climate change … I’d argue almost anything about the environment for most people is like that … This is awful to say, but so many human rights stories - it’s so hard to get people interested no matter how important they are to document … so many social justice stories, so many criminal justice stories, so many of these issues that we cover and I think are so important to cover. It is very hard to get anybody to listen to. We still do those stories, and they require cunning. They require cunning. To get people to listen. And when you guys do them, that should be part of what you think about. I really believe that the more idealistic your mission, the more cunning you have to employ to get people to engage with what you have to say.
On our show, we did two hours from the refugee camps in Greece, and we were very aware that if we said at the top of the show “Okay, great! America! Two hours from refugee camps in Greece!” I think any reasonable person would turn off the radio. Like that’s just too sad.
But being cunning means, for starters, you have to get really hardcore about how you begin those stories. How you’re going to pull people in and get them listening.
And again, this is kind of terrible thing to say … but our goal is to get them pulled in and listening before they actually understand what the story’s about.
And before we went to Greece, a bunch of us sat around a table and brainstormed about what we could possibly do at the beginning of those shows.
And we thought, okay maybe a couple falling in love.
Maybe something with kids, and we brainstormed what that would be. Or basically any little narrative with someone fun to listen to. We could get the characters going ... let plot kick in ... so the audience is invested in these people and would want to see how the plot would play out.
I have to say, this is one of the great strengths of narrative for a journalist, is that you can get audiences to listen to material they might think they’re not interested in, simply by getting them caught up in the people and wondering what will happen next, like, what’s the next beat of the plot. That’s enormously powerful.
The thing we actually started those shows with ... I remember I was reporting in this camp called Ritsona and this thing happened and I was like, “Oh, this is the opening of the show!”
And what it was, they were showing me around the camp, and every now and then someone would mention, “Oh yeah, and then there’s the wild boars that come out at night.”
I was like, “The wild boars that come out at night?”
They were these giant wild pigs. The camp was in the forest. And at night, these wild boars would roam between the tents. So if you had a little kid who wanted to pee or whatever, it was actually pretty dangerous to leave your tent. You’d have to time it around the wild pigs.
And everybody had pictures of the pigs, and stories about the pigs. And one of the older guys had set up this trap in the woods that was not gonna work at all. Like, I made him take me out there and show me the trap.
And I was like, okay, this is so surprising. This can open the show.
You gotta be tricky.
Something came up in a story we did on our show that I’ve been thinking for months since we broadcast it. Our senior producer Brian Reed was the reporter. He’s also the host of the podcast S-Town.
The story started with this political fight in Homer, Alaska, about immigration. This was right after the presidential election. Liberals on the city council proposed a resolution that would welcome immigrants to Homer, including undocumented immigrants and Muslims.
Trump supporters on the city council rightly recognized it as a slap against their guy.
And as Brian reported, it became the most bitter political fight anyone in the town could remember. Truly turned people against each other in a very ugly way. Led to a recall election. They had their own email scandal.
Everyone in town seemed to take a side.
Except apparently, this one guy ... Ben Tyrer. 27 years old. Who is not into the news. Never followed immigration as an issue – it just never interested him – but now that everyone he knew was fighting over this resolution, he thought he should have an opinion.
And so he went on the internet and started doing something new for him. He started visiting news sites, to figure out for himself: Would it be okay to welcome immigrants into Homer?
Brian did a story about what happened.
As Ben told Brian, when it came to news he was basically a baby learning to walk. Brian said in the story: “His understanding was that publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post had a bad rap, so he didn't really spend too much time there. He would go to a site like the BBC, but worried maybe they were giving him a liberal bent. So then he'd go to a site like this conservative Canadian one he found, The Rebel. But he knew he couldn't fully trust that either.”
So … this is a really good test case for journalism today, right? Here’s this guy who doesn’t really follow the news. Going out among the work of people like us. Looking for an answer to a question he has.
And he discovers in today’s journalism environment, he really didn’t know who to turn to. The whole experience was kind of headspinning.
Ben read about Muslim extremists setting fire to Germany’s oldest church — there’s a video of them celebrating. He read about “no go” zones in France — neighborhoods where Muslims don’t allow non-Muslims.
He read about crime waves sweeping Germany and France thanks to Muslim refugees there. One Breitbart article quoted a German government report that said 402,000 crimes were committed by Muslim refugees in Germany in 2015.
And after a week of this … Ben came to his conclusion.
He was convinced that it would not be safe to welcome immigrants to Homer. Immigrants, especially Muslims, seemed dangerous.
In fact he was so alarmed at what he’d learned that he decided to testify at this big city council meeting they had, where anyone could speak. He brought his news clippings with him.
And then the story took a surprising turn. As Brian was leaving one of his interviews with Ben, Ben said to him, “I’d love for you to tell me that I'm wrong. If you can read this stuff and tell me that I'm wrong, I would love that. Because, I don't like thinking this way about people.”
So Brian found an expert to fact-check the stories that’d alarmed Ben so much ... a BBC correspondent in Berlin ... who’d been reporting on all this for years.
And yes, the BBC was a source Ben wasn't sure he could trust, but he was game to listen.
And the reporter ran down all the stories that Ben had found so convincing.
And Brian set up a time for the two of them to talk.
Turns out … perhaps you anticipated this plot turn ... a couple of the alarming stories were true … but MOST of the stories Ben had read were exaggerated or totally false.
No-go zones in France don’t exist. There was no increase in crime by immigrants in Germany in 2015, other than the crime of crossing the border or overstaying a visa.
The video Ben saw on Breitbart … of Muslim men supposedly celebrating after setting Germany’s oldest church on fire.
Turns out: The church was not Germany's oldest. And it had not been set on fire!
And the men celebrating in the video? They were Syrian refugees celebrating a ceasefire in the war back home.
Ben was flabbergasted. He felt deceived. He concluded that he’d be wrong. About the whole thing. Immigrants no longer seemed dangerous.
And I bring up all this up to say … one of the things that struck me as we were working on that story, is that NONE of the news stories Ben had found so convincing were things I’d heard of.
It had never hit me so starkly. I mean we all know there’s a massive machine churning out non-factual stories that the fact-based media where I work doesn’t even bother to counter. Because there are just so many of them.
And so they just stand. Uncorrected.
And even if they WERE corrected, the people who trust those right-wing media sources don’t trust the mainstream sources who’d correct them anyway.
I am alarmed at how much non-factual material is out there, how gleefully it’s generated, and how exciting it is to read and pass around. And I know everyone in this room is very familiar with all this but I just wanna say: I’m disturbed by how often when I’m out reporting, I find myself in conversations with people I like a lot. Lovely people, good people, who say things that are just not close to being true.
That’s what I find most alarming about this moment we’re living through.
President Trump, like President Obama, will be out of the White House someday. As a non-partisan journalist I have no position on that.
But this information ecosystem …. this will be around for the rest of our lives. That’s the most frightening thing to me right now.
Non-factual information is whipping up people’s feelings and pushing the policy debate … to very strange places like … Homer, Alaska. All of Homer, Alaska, is up in arms debating whether to welcome immigrants to their town.
But immigrants do not want to go to Homer, Alaska!
The police chief told us - quote - "Homer is not a destination for immigrants, illegal or legal, and it never has been.”
Okay imagine. You’re a person who wants to cross into the United States and be undocumented in the United States. Let’s say you’re coming from Central America. Okay. Pass through Mexico. Cross into California or Texas. Cross through the entire length of the United States. Go to the northern border of the United States. Cross into Canada. Cross through Canada. Cross BACK into the United States at Alaska. It’s like you have to cross over to the very tip, the end of the Peninsula. It is the furthest point in the road.
Or! You’re a member of ISIS. You’re fleeing Syria. Where you gonna go next? I know! The United States! Wreak some havoc there. New York City? Nah! Chicago? No! You know where I'm gonna go? Homer, Alaska! Fly to Homer, Alaska. You will not be conspicuous in any way! You will hate the food.
And … the people pushing untruths see this is a war. They talk about this as a war. They fund it like a war. On the theory that – as Andrew Breitbart famously declared – “Politics is downstream from culture.” To change our country’s politics you have to first change our culture.
And I think most of the fact-based news media – our people – we don’t see treat it like a war.
And I think we need to do that. To flood the zone with money and new ideas about how to reach people and what to reach them with.
I think this is a moment that requires a strategy that has yet to be invented by people who have yet to take up arms.
Because when you have one side fighting a war against an opponent who isn’t fighting a war, guess who loses a lot of territory?
And we have lost a lot of territory. We have lots of the country that does not trust us, and a President who calls what we do “fake news.”
We need your ideas and energy to fight this war.
And we need great reporting.
One hopeful thing about this moment is watching so many organizations rise to the occasion with inspiringly great reporting, excellent reporting.
But there’s plenty of room for more. All of us in this room are living through a moment of seismic, historic change in this country. You bring fresh eyes to this. And a perspective those of us who are older do not have.
It’s traditional in this sort of speech to give advice. I will not do that.
Except this: amuse yourself.
I don’t think enough gets said about that when we’re training journalists. Everything will be better if you’re out for your own pleasure. Noticing what you’re actually truly interested in ... and curious about ... and making your work about that.
Like I said earlier, our radio show is run on the principle that among other things, it’s there for our pleasure. For our fun and curiosity as a staff. And the show is at its very best when one of us gets obsessed.
But even when I was a baby freelancer and taking any story NPR threw my way, I had a rule. In every story there had to be something in there for me. Some little thing I observed that amused me, some funny line I could get in there, some interesting back-and-forth in a quote.
And by the way, any of you doing broadcast or podcast: be in the tape! Cajoling, hondling, joking with, arguing with, interacting with your interviewees. It’s the single easiest way to make your stories better. Be in the tape. An interview properly done is a drama with two characters and not being in there as one of the characters is giving up one of your greatest powers. Don’t leave that power unused. Be in the tape. Don’t settle for less. Don’t do less than you can. Be in the tape.
If you’re funny in real life … be funny in your stories. It makes them better. And it doesn’t mean you aren’t a serious person dealing with serious subjects in a serious way.
If you’re not funny in real life … for god’s sake don’t try to be funny. Be yourself!
Don’t wait. Make the stuff you want to make now. No excuses. Don’t wait for the perfect job or whatever. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. One of the advantages of being a journalist is you don’t need permission. You can go and run down the story now and then find a home for it. Pay someone you respect - pay a friend - a little money to be your editor and the person you talk to about your next steps. Don’t wait. You have everything you need. Don’t wait.
Commencement addresses are a ridiculous form. It’s a kind of speech that’s doomed to failure. Precisely because nothing can be said that’s up to the task at hand. You are being launched from the training phase of your life into the vast exciting unknown of everything that’s to come. What words could possibly make that better? Seriously. What poncy little speech makes the liftoff of a rocket any better? Your ambition and your hopes for your coming lives … those are enough to fill this day with feeling. The wishes of your parents and loved ones for you … that’s enough.
To those I add my wishes for you. Which are big. I want you to be bold. I want you to change things. Although I am what came before you, I want you to tear up what came before you.
I really truly, no kidding, envy you. Starting as journalists today. To be starting at this moment when journalism itself is changing so much. To be part of remaking it into something new. To be reporting on these difficult times.
To be battling untruth with truth.
Best to you all, my new colleagues.
12 May 2018, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California, USA
Good afternoon! Daniel, let me thank you for that very kind introduction.
In my career I have spoken after Presidents, Prime Ministers, and even some celebrities. But I do not believe I have ever followed a Jeopardy! contestant — so this is a true honor for me!
To President Chodosh, to the trustees, to the faculty and administration, thank you for inviting me.
To the class of 2018 — congratulations! Each of you has completed a remarkable journey to get here. No one goes on that journey alone, however. So, to your parents, your entire family, your teachers and your professors, congratulations as well. Your sacrifice, support, engagement, and passion have made this day possible.
And if I may, since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, can we take a moment to give special recognition to all our mothers and thank them for the love they have given us?
A few years ago, I watched my own son graduate from college — so I know the pride and joy you feel this morning.
Part I: A New Odyssey
Now, there is one more group I would like to acknowledge — your very own national champion women’s volleyball team: The Athenas.
As a daughter of classics teachers, I was intrigued to learn of your team name. And I was even more fascinated when I read that in order to motivate the team, your coach developed an “Athena inspired journey” for the season. Borrowing from the Parthenon, the team created “pillars” that represented your values: focus, passion, and resilience.
I am a bit jealous. When I was your age I was on the French national synchronized swimming team, but no coach ever proposed something so clever.
When I read about this plan, I immediately thought of another famous journey involving Athena: The Odyssey. In Homer’s epic poem, Odysseus, guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena, spends ten years trying to find his way home. Ten years! This is after Odysseus had already spent a decade fighting in the Trojan war. Clearly ten years seems to be a time period of some significance.
Today, I thought I would take a page from Homer, and borrow his idea of “ten years.” Ten years backward, ten years forward:
So let us take a look back at the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis on the students who sat in your chairs ten years ago. And then, let us take a look forward. What will the world be like in 2028, when today’s middle schoolers graduate from college? And, most importantly, how will each of you make a difference in shaping that future?
Part II: The Class of 2008
In May 2008, what was happening in the world? The global economy was rattled. Bear Stearns had just folded and Lehman Brothers was about to go under.
As the French Finance Minister, I was in constant contact with European and US leaders. There was a very real sense that the entire financial system could collapse. The global economy turned negative, international trade came to a halt, unemployment skyrocketed and people lost their homes.
During this turmoil the institution I now lead, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), sprang into action. The IMF deployed its firepower and supported its member countries, committing hundreds of billions of dollars to help secure the global financial system, to make sure that people would not lose their deposits in the bank, and to kickstart the global economy.
Through international cooperation, we avoided a global depression. But the consequences of the recession were felt by hundreds of millions all over the world, including right here in California.
In May 2008, what was happening at Claremont? The class of 2008 prepared to graduate and faced a job market in crisis. Research shows that students who graduated in the US in 2008 and 2009 faced higher rates of unemployment and lower salaries than their peers who graduated before and after.
By 2013, the average college graduate who finished school during the recession earned 36 percent less than peers who graduated a few years earlier. To put it in Homer’s terms, the class of 2008, possibly distracted by the voices of the financial sirens, faced a near shipwreck.
Many of you have studied the economic consequences of the great recession. How do I know? I looked at your thesis topics! One of you wrote about quantitative easing in the US and the UK. Another wrote about the large infrastructure gaps remaining in advanced economies. One of the most impressive topics was covered by Tim De Silva. Where is Tim? Can I read the title of your thesis?
Ok, here it is:
“Are volatility expectations in different countries interdependent? A data-driven solution to structural VAR identification for implied equity volatility indices.”
Wow, Tim, this is quite a relevant topic, and I understand an award-winning one too. Congratulations. This is the kind of work anyone who has been tracking the recent ups and downs in the stock market might want to read.
Now, like Odysseus, the class of 2008 turned adversity into an advantage. Homer tells us that Odysseus used the narrow escape from the Cyclops to convince his crew that they could survive any future test on their journey. Soon after, when Poseidon sends a tempest, Odysseus’ men remain confident that they will find a way through.
In the midst of an economic storm, the class of 2008 also found new paths they may not have imagined during their years in college. In fact, a few Claremont students who lost their finance jobs in New York moved to Silicon Valley and developed start-ups that turned into successful businesses.
Others embarked on careers in law, public service, and education.
These young men and women were part of rebuilding the American economy. The international students who returned home were part of rebuilding their respective economies. The IMF was part of rebuilding the global economy — we all cooperated in the same endeavor: Rescue the system.
That system was severely tested at the beginning of 2008. And that system was rescued and improved thanks to international cooperation, thanks to the belief that we could be stronger together.
A lot was done over the past decade. A great depression was prevented. More resilient economies and safer financial systems were built. And because of this work, you, the class of 2018, have more freedom to chart your own course.
To graduate at this moment, in this time of prosperity and technological revolution, is an extraordinary gift. But it does come with strings attached.
To quote from a modern-day writer of epic stories, J.K. Rowling, “You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”
This is your challenge. What kind of country, what kind of world, will you help build? What values will you respect? What will drive your life and the lives of others? Ten years from now, when the class of 2028 stands here and prepares to graduate, what will you have done to help them?
Part III: The Class of 2028
Right now, the class of 2028 is about twelve years old. So they are not looking for a job just yet.
But imagine the nature of the global economy when they finish college.
You might walk into a meeting and sit next to someone who looks a lot like you, makes a joke, and then offers to help you with a project. An hour later, that same “someone” — who in reality is a robot — will walk outside to recharge its solar battery.
When you buy a cup of coffee a quick retinal scan may automatically deduct money from your bank account — or maybe even your crypto-currency account. Cash may seem quaint.
Here at Claremont, think of the experience future students will have:
The Athenaeum could become a digital speaker’s forum — where playwrights and poets interact with students via a hologram.
Your professors will be available around the clock. Office hours may only happen twice a week, but through artificial intelligence you could soon debate Aristotle with your philosophy teacher anytime day or night.
Some things will not change of course. It will still be impossible to get into Econ 50. You think they would make an exception for the head of the IMF but apparently not.
So yes, our lives will be more efficient, but there will be a cost. We may be increasingly connected to each other or possibly disconnected from one another at the very same time as many of us need to find new jobs and learn new skills. The fourth industrial revolution may well have morphed into the fifth industrial revolution that will owe much to services and data.
How this all happens — who benefits from these changes and who is left behind — is a story that you will help write.
You arrive on the scene at an inflection point. The decisions you help make, through careers in government, finance, the tech sector and academia, will change the course of this narrative.
Will the technology companies become regulated like public utilities? Will they be expected to respect your privacy and seek your consent prior to sharing your data?
What will happen to those who lose jobs due to automation?
Will excessive inequality continue to fracture our society?
Shall we control our carbon emissions and find a way to tackle climate change?
Will we invest in our human capital more than in tangible assets?
These questions cannot wait for the class of 2028. We need your help in finding answers today. As of now, you become the writers of your own epic poem.
The truth is that every class, every student, faces a unique set of challenges. History judges whether they meet the moment.
For me, one of those challenges has been gender empowerment.
I finished high school in France in 1973 and came to America as an American Field Service Scholar. I worked on the Hill, just as some of you will do next year. Later, in France, I went to law school and initially had trouble finding a job as a lawyer. Why? When I interviewed it was clear that a few firms would not treat me the same way they treated the male associates. As a young working mother, I raced from meetings to get back home and take care of my two sons.
My generation confronted unequal pay for equal work, and gender discriminations that would prevent women from finding jobs and rising to the top of their fields.
The reality is that we have not fully resolved these issues.
Progress has been made, yes, but not enough. Today, women in the United States make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. The percentage of women in the workforce in the US has stagnated — it is at the same level it was in the mid-1980s. Less than seven percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In fact, a recent report showed that there are more Fortune 500 CEOs named James than Fortune 500 CEOs who are women. And around the world millions of women face legal barriers that prevent them from working at all. Think of places where women cannot hold title to property, control their own bank accounts, let alone travel by themselves.
The job is not finished.
I am committed to helping solve these problems and today I am reenergized. Why? Because of you, the new wave of young leaders, sitting right here, who I know will take on this challenge along with the others facing your generation.
My hope is that when the Claremont McKenna Commencement speaker addresses the class of 2028 she will be able to say with confidence, “Thanks to the class of 2018, the world is a better place. One where there are better choices than just between Charybdis and Scylla.”
Now, I started with Athena, goddess of wisdom, so let me end with her.
At the conclusion of Homer’s story, when Odysseus finally comes home, he discovers all is not well.
His island, Ithaca, is consumed by conflict. His wife, Penelope, is harassed by suitors and his son, Telemachus, is suffering. He has found his way home, only to confront new questions and hurdles. You might think he would be dejected. Instead he is determined. He is determined because he receives help and love. Athena comes to him, in disguise, and gives him the encouragement he needs to face the next challenge. He also encounters his wet nurse, Eurycleia, who recognizes him, embraces him, and gives him all the love he needs.
You too will face setbacks and unanswered questions in your life and your career.
But remember you also have a goddess of wisdom in your corner.
It is your education, your experience, and the incredible lessons you have learned right here at Claremont McKenna.
And there will always be someone to give you the love that generates confidence that will help you move on and face the next hurdle.
Thank you and congratulations class of 2018!