Words of Wisdom
Published: June 11, 2011
Read excerpts from some of this year's commencement addresses:
I won’t detain you long today. We have research from the department of psychology at Harvard that if a college commencement speaker drones on for more than 15 minutes, only about a quarter of students continue to pay attention; another quarter drift off to sleep; and the other half — these being undergraduates — engage in sexual fantasies.
Your parents, proudly here today, and their parents before them, perhaps proudly here today, understood a simple equation for success: your children would do better than you had. Ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge.
We’re now supposed to apologize to you because it seems that that’s no longer how it works, that you won’t inherit the S.U.V., which was way too big, or the McMansion that was way too big, or the corner office that was way too big.
But I suggest that this is a moment to consider what “doing better” really means. If you are part of the first generation of Americans who genuinely see race and ethnicity as attributes, not stereotypes, will you not have done better than we did? If you are part of the first generation of Americans with a clear understanding that gay men and lesbians are entitled to be full citizens of this country with all its rights, will you not have done better than we did? If you are part of the first generation of Americans who assume women merit full equality instead of grudging acceptance, will you not have done better than we did?
Reach out to others. And in your reaching out, you will not only grow as a human being, but you will do something very practical — you’ll enhance your résumé. Be open to possibilities. And finally remember if you are terrified that you’ll never get a job and that you will still be living at home when you’re 35, remember your parents are even more terrified by that possibility!
There’s this big building in Chicago called the Sears Tower. You heard of it? It’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
I told people I’m going to rename it the Willis Tower. They said to me: “You can’t do that. It’s impossible. That name has been on there since 1973. Who are you to come along and change the name?” I said that Sears hadn’t been in the building since 1993; why not? I met with the owner of the building, which was 20 percent vacant, and I said I need 2 percent of the space. I negotiated $14.50 a square foot. And he says to me, “Do we have deal?” I said, “Not exactly.” He said, “What do you want now?”
I said that the problem with the Sears Tower is the name. It’s a jinx. I said you need a new name, a vibrant name, a name that signifies the future, not the past. ... When we dedicated that building, I was on the evening news with Brian Williams and he said to me, “How, Joe, after so many years it was called the Sears Tower, how did you get them to change the name to Willis?” And I looked into the camera and I said, “I asked.”
You’ve got to be all in. This means leaving your technology behind occasionally and listening to a friend without half of your brain being preoccupied by its inner longing for the red light on the BlackBerry.
In many college classes, laptops depict split screens — notes from a class, and then a range of parallel stimulants: NBA playoff statistics on ESPN.com, a flight home on Expedia, a new flirtation on Facebook. I know how good you all are at multitasking. And I know of what I speak, because I, too, am a culprit. You have never seen a U.S. government official and new mother so dexterous in her ability simultaneously to BlackBerry and breastfeed.
But I promise you that over time this doesn’t cut it. Something or someone loses out. No more than a surgeon can operate while tweeting can you reach your potential with one ear in, one ear out. You actually have to reacquaint yourself with concentration. We all do. We should all become, as Henry James prescribed, a person “on whom nothing is lost.”
I reached what I then thought was the pinnacle of my career when I raised tens of millions of dollars and became C.E.O. of my seventh start-up, a hot new video game company. My picture was in all the business magazines, and I had made it onto the cover of Wired magazine. Life was perfect.
And then one day it wasn’t. It all came tumbling down. We believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and headed up a company that made lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. In the end it was due to my own hubris — the evil twin of entrepreneurial passion and drive. I thought my career and life were over.
But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience. All of you will fail at some time in your career, or in love or in life. No one ever sets out to fail. But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.
Women almost never make one decision to leave the work force. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, “I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day.” Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, “I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.” These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.
So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.
People think passion is something you either have or you don’t. People think passion is something that has to manifest itself in some kind of explosive and emotional format. It’s not. It’s the thing that you find in your life that you can care about, that you can cling to, that you can invest yourself in, heart, body and soul. Finding passion is kind of your job now.
Don’t buy the lie that the “real” world is all about staying safe and secure, accumulating money, piling up possessions. The real world — the world we love — is a green, living world, full of real dangers and stunning beauty and breathtaking surprises.
There is a Buddhist koan I want to share with you that goes like this: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The teachers don’t always look like the professors in the classroom. I’ve found my teachers sometimes have fur and scales or hooves and tusks. One of the best had a curly tail and a flexible nose disk.
When I flew in space, I was privileged to witness our Earth from a totally different vantage point, where you see no boundaries between nations and people except as established by Mother Nature. There’s just not much we can do about some of those mountain ranges, or the vast deserts, and sheets of glacial ice, which, by the way, we continue to observe keenly at NASA.
Boundaries today are largely political, but even those, as witnessed by the recent uprisings in the Middle East so much fueled by the social media, are at best constructs that are rapidly changing.
I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as the third right — although I understand in the first draft it was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land, acquisition of resources, acquisition of slaves.
Still, I would rather he had written “life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness” or “integrity” or “truth.” I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter. But I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough.
Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life; it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.
A couple of years ago, I spent a bunch of time in Tibet and I came home. And I went to go get my mail. My mailbox is at the end of my street, so I parked my car and started pulling my chair out. And this little girl rode by, probably like 6 years old, on her little pink bike, streamers coming off her handlebars, and she said, “What happened to your legs?”
I said: “I was a ski racer here at Middlebury, and it was my first day of Christmas vacation. I went to the mountain with my brother, met up with a bunch of friends, took a couple of runs preparing to train, and my ski popped off in the middle of the turn. And I fell in the middle of the trail, and I broke two vertebrae.”
She said, “So you’ll never walk again?” And I said, “No, probably not.” As she rode away, she said, “That’s too bad.”
I wish that I had stopped her because if I’d never had my accident I never would have been the best in the world at anything. I wouldn’t have turned a hobby into a profession. I don’t think I would have had the guts to get up in front of you and talk. Wouldn’t have acted in a soap opera. I wouldn’t have met presidents and heads of state.
But that little girl saw the tragedy; she didn’t see the potential gift.
I do have a few final bits of advice:
Acknowledge your mistakes, learn from them and move on.
Don’t be afraid of new ideas; be afraid of old ones.
Be faithful to your family and friends. You’ll get the same in return.
Tell the truth and always play by the rules.
If you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.
It’s cool, again, to buy American!