30 April 2016, University of Michigan, Michigan, USA
Thank you, President Schlissel, and to the Board of Regents. Good morning, everyone!
It’s a real honor to be on this great campus where so much history has been made. And it’s a thrill to walk in the footsteps of Gerald Ford, James Earl Jones, Lucy Loo, and Tom Brady! I’m told that no quarterback has played in more Super Bowls than Tom Brady and in case there are any New Yorkers here, I would just note that he played against the Giants in two of them.
I’m honored to have been asked to speak to all of the faculty, administrators, alumni, and most of all, to the great class of 2016! So, graduates: This is a great day, but there’s another group here that also deserves a big round of applause: your parents and families.
Of course, there were many other people who helped you on your journey, so after you receive your diploma, and as you make your way in the world, remember that your greatest achievements – like today’s – will owe an awful lot to the people around you.
If there’s a secret to success beyond hard work and good luck, it’s that the more you say ‘we’, and the less you say ‘I’, the farther you’ll go. It’s something that the most effective leaders understand and take to heart. Remember: There is almost nothing we do in life that we do alone.
The most useful knowledge that you leave here with today, like the importance of teamwork, has nothing to do with your major. It’s about how to study, how to cooperate, how to listen carefully, how to think critically, and how to resolve conflicts through reason. Those are the most important skills in the working world and it’s why colleges have always exposed students to challenging and uncomfortable ideas.
The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through ‘safe spaces,’ ‘code words,’ and ‘trigger warnings’ is, in my view, a terrible mistake. The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations – not run away from them.
A micro-aggression is exactly that: micro! But in a macro-sense, one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views. We can’t – and we shouldn’t try, not in politics, or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.
Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about why that’s true based on the lessons I’ve learned over the course of my career. Let’s start with the global economy, and let me put in perspective the job market many of you are entering. For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles. For 3,000 years, humankind had an economy based on farming: till the soil, plant the seed, harvest the crop. Hard to do, but fairly easy to learn.
Then, for 300 years, we had an economy based on industry: mold the parts, turn the crank, assemble the product. Hard to do, but also fairly easy to learn.
Now, we have an economy based on information: acquire the knowledge, apply the analytics, use your creativity. Hard to do, hard to learn, and even once you’ve mastered it, you’ll have to start learning all over again, pretty much every day.
If you have the luxury of more than one job offer – now or in the future – don’t pick the one that pays the most; pick the one that teaches you the most and don’t worry if the people around you seem quicker or smarter. You can’t control that, but you can decide that you’re going to outwork them.
In my company, I always give the most complex and important projects to our busiest employees. Why? Because they are the hardest-working and most dedicated. They’re the first ones in the office and the last to leave. They’re the ones who take the shortest lunch breaks and the least vacation. It may not sound like great fun, but in the end, you have to set your priorities.
The secret to success is not rocket science. It just requires true dedication and a willingness to go the extra mile. Whatever your field, volunteer to take on new assignments even if they’re outside your comfort zone. Take the initiative on your own to learn and develop new skills and build contacts who can help you down the road. When will you have learned enough? Let’s put it this way: I know of no Nobel Prize winner who has stopped studying. And in the information economy, everyone – in both white collar and blue collar jobs – will have to keep deepening their knowledge and adapting to technological change.
My life is a perfect example of how important it is to keep an open mind about careers and technology. After college, I went to business school in hopes of landing a middle management job in a factory. I had no idea that factories would soon be closing all across the country, and neither did anyone else.
I ended up finding a job at a Wall Street firm. I loved the job, and soon, my interest in managing a plant disappeared. I thought I’d stay at the firm forever. And I might have – except for one small thing: I got fired.
I was 38 years old, and it was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to my career. It led me to start a tech company to computerize real-time financial data. It sounds simple now, but this was 1981 – the dawn of the computer age. We were trying to invent a computer that no one wanted with technology that didn’t exist – a classic example of innovation. Everyone said I was crazy, and maybe they were right. I had only a limited background in computers, and I had never started or run a company, but with a lot of help from some very talented and driven people, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
So the lesson is: Whatever you think your dream job is today, don’t get too attached to it. Chances are, if the job still exists in 15 years, it will be very different – and you may have found other passions. Keeping an open mind to new ideas will be essential to your professional success, and it will be just as crucial to our collective future as a democratic society.
That’s the other lesson I’ve learned that I’d like to share with you today. During the 12 years I had the honor of serving as Mayor of New York City, I witnessed a disturbing change in the nature of American politics: a rise in extreme partisanship and intolerance for other views.
I’m a political independent, but over the course of my life, for non-ideological reasons, I’ve been a Republican and a Democrat. So I can tell you: Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas; each demonizes the other unfairly and dishonestly. This is not a new phenomenon – but it has reached a dangerous new level.
In 1796, George Washington spent much of his farewell address warning Americans against political parties, which he called ‘the worst enemy’ of democratic governments. He wrote of the natural tendency parties have to elevate a single leader who seeks power, in his words, ‘on the ruins of public liberty.’
In this political season, it’s worth remembering what Washington had to say. And so, allow me to read a brief passage from his farewell address.
Partisanship, Washington wrote, ‘serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, and foments occasionally riot and insurrection… A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame… lest, instead of warming, it should consume.’
Well said, George. We have survived more than 200 years of political parties largely because the Founding Fathers created checks and balances to temper the fires of partisanship. Of course, they also excluded most Americans from their vision of democracy because they feared what democracy might produce. But over the past two centuries, through the sacrifices of so many civil rights leaders and soldiers, the promise of equal rights has spread across income, religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
We still have a long way to go, and it would be a mistake to think that our progress is irreversible or that Washington’s warning is a relic of history. Neither is true and never will be. Democracy and citizenship will always require constant vigilance against those who fan the flames of partisanship in ways that consume us and lead to the ruins of public liberty.
We have certainly seen such figures before, in both parties. In the 1930s, there was the despotic Huey Long in Louisiana, and just a few miles up the road in Dearborn Father Coughlin blamed ‘Jewish conspirators’ for America’s troubles. Then came Charles Lindbergh in the 40s, Joe McCarthy in the 50s, George Wallace in the 60s, and Pat Buchanan in the 90s.
Every generation has had to confront its own demagogues and every generation has stood up and kept them away from the White House, at least so far. Now, it’s your turn.
In this year’s presidential election, we’ve seen more demagoguery from both parties than I can remember in my lifetime. Our country is facing serious and difficult challenges, but rather than offering realistic solutions, candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment. For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims, and for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street.
The truth is: We cannot solve the problems we face by blaming anyone. We are all in this together, and we all must be part of the solution. America’s power in the world comes not from the walls we build, but the doors we open, and it comes not from tearing down success, but building up opportunity.
American citizenship does not require much of us. We have no military draft; no mandatory national service; no compulsory voting. Our taxes, compared to Europe, are relatively low. And yet, our voting rates are terrible, and they’re especially low among young people. This year, you can help change that.
Voting is the only way to stop demagogues. But the best way to stop demagogues from rising in the first place is to elect leaders with the courage to face reality, make tough decisions, and lead from the front, rather than following from behind. That has become harder over time. Let me share a story from my time in City Hall that illustrates why.
In 2002, we banned smoking in New York City’s bars and restaurants, and it caused a huge backlash. We got a lot of angry letters and phone calls, and I got a lot of one-fingered waves when I walked down the street. But as time went by, the ban proved to be a huge boon to the bar and restaurant business – surprise, surprise – and smoking rates in our city went down by nearly 30 percent, helping to increase life expectancy for New Yorkers two years above the national average. In fact, I’m glad to say, the policy became so popular that cities and states all over the world copied it.
Today, elected officials who decide to support a controversial policy will also get angry letters, phone calls, and faxes, if they still have fax machines. And for sure, they will now get millions of angry Tweets and Facebook posts denouncing them in the harshest possible terms. That’s democracy in action. But that kind of instant condemnation also makes some elected officials afraid to do things that, in their heart of hearts, they know are right.
So democracy in action can actually produce a lot of inaction, which we see every day in Washington, D.C., and other levels of government, too. When governments fail to address the needs of the people, voters in both parties get angry and some politicians exploit that anger by offering scapegoats instead of solutions.
If we want to stop demagogues, we have to start governing again, and that requires us to be more civil; to support politicians who have the courage to take risks; and to reward those who reach across the aisle in search of compromise.
Now I know doing this won’t be easy, and that’s partly because it’s not just social media that has changed the civic dialogue. The constant bombardment of news that we see on our phones, computers, and TVs gives us the impression we are acquiring knowledge. Yet many of the sources, facts, and interpretations are either dubious, or colored by partisanship, or outright lies. I say that as the owner of a media company who has seen how the marketplace has shifted. Today, people choose cable TV channels and websites that affirm their own political beliefs rather than ones that inform and challenge their beliefs. As a result, we have grown more politically cloistered and more intolerant of those who hold different opinions.
Think about this: In 1960, only four to five percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats, and one in two Republicans, said they would disapprove of such a marriage. In 1960, most people would never have believed that inter-party marriage would attract such resistance, while inter-racial marriage and same-sex marriage would gain such acceptance. For all the progress we have made on cultural tolerance, when it comes to political tolerance, we are moving in the wrong direction.
We see this trend of political intolerance across the country: At campaign rallies that turn violent; on social media threads that turn vitriolic; and even on college campuses, where students and faculty have attempted to censor political opponents.
I know that one of today’s graduates, Omar Mahmood, has faced threats and intimidation because he dared to write political satire about being left-handed in the Michigan Daily and he refused to apologize for it. Omar, wherever you are out there, I’m glad you stood your ground.
Never be afraid to stand up for what you believe is right, no matter how unpopular it may be or how many people try to shout you down. And just as importantly: Never hesitate to stand up for the rights of others to express their views and exercise their rights, no matter how unpopular that may be. The only way to ensure your right to express yourself is to protect others’ rights to express themselves.
In 2010, I found myself in the middle of a huge debate over free expression. There was a national uproar over a proposal to build a mosque several blocks from the World Trade Center. Members of both parties attacked the plan as an affront to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Even the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is to protect against religious discrimination, opposed the idea. But they had all forgotten: the terrorists didn’t just attack buildings, they attacked our freedom to live and pray as we choose according to our own beliefs and values, equally.
The torch that Lady Liberty holds aloft in the New York Harbor lights the way for people of every faith and philosophy, and it shines down on every corner of the city and every community across this great land. No religion should ever face special restrictions on their rights, whether it concerns building a house of worship or getting a visa.
As durable as the American system of government has been, democracy is fragile – and demagogues are always lurking. When Ben Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, a woman approached him and asked him: ‘Well, doctor – what have we got: a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic – if you can keep it.’
Well, graduates: It is now your responsibility to keep it. That starts with keeping an open mind, voting, and demanding that politicians offer practical solutions, not scapegoats or pie-in-the-sky promises. In 1928, Republicans promised ‘a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard.’ They won control of Congress and the White House – and a year later, instead of a chicken and a car, we got the Great Depression.
Today, when a populist candidate promises free college, free health care, and a pony, or another candidate promises to make other countries pay for our needs – remember: those who promise you a free lunch will invariably eat you for breakfast. If there were simple solutions to complex problems, we wouldn’t have those problems.
I’m optimistic that you graduates will rise to the occasion and help protect our Republic against the dangers of demagogues and the fires of partisanship that Washington warned us about 220 years ago. I believe in you. I support you. And I will stand with you in this battle to the end of my days so that my children and grandchildren can be as proud of America’s devotion to freedom and equality as I am.
As for today: this is a day of celebration, so relish it; enjoy every minute.
Congratulations and Go Blue!