Several weeks ago I was nominated–and then auditioned–to speak at the commencement ceremony for graduating graduate students from Brown. Though I was not selected to be the speaker (I have some conspiracy theories on that front, I assure you!) I would like to share the text of the speech that I wrote, because I believe it captures the essence of how I feel about leaving the confines of the university and entering the ‘real world.’
New Opportunities in A Global Century of Innovation
At first glance it would seem that now is an inopportune time to leave the grounds of the university and venture out into the world. After all, between rising unemployment, a financial system in disarray, and a whole host of other local, regional and global problems ranging from urban blight to climate change, it would seem that the prospects for putting our newly minted skills to work as teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and employees of firms large and small are, to put it bluntly, dim. Yet we are also entering a world rife with unprecedented opportunities for those willing and able to take advantage of them. An explosion of innovation in information technology has made it easier for more people to collaborate to tackle poverty, to create new products and services, and to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. The cost of renewable energy is falling. Social entrepreneurs are creating self-sufficient businesses that solve social and environmental problems. The list is seemingly endless, and I believe that regardless of our particular field of study, as graduates of one of the finest universities in the nation, we are in a unique position to seek out these opportunities and apply our intellectual and financial capital toward them.
It used to be that upon receiving an advanced degree one would have to choose between a career that would be rewarding financially and one that would be rewarding emotionally or spiritually. Yet the aforementioned opportunities speak to the fact that such a dichotomy is no longer valid. For as daunting as the challenges of today are, we also live in exciting times. It is possible that during our lifetimes a cure for cancer will be found, poverty, as Dr. Muhammad Yunus often says, will be relegated to museums, and catastrophic climate change will be averted thanks to a proliferation of clean energy and energy efficient technologies that also lead to a more equitable use of natural resources. However none of these scenarios are foregone solutions. They will only become reality if they first take hold as dreams in our hearts and minds and take shape through countless hours of tinkering, innovating and collaborating.
During our time at Brown, we have all developed highly specialized skills in our respective fields, but we have also lived in an atmosphere of intellectual rigor, experimentation and debate. We have cultivated the holistic understanding needed to be able to carve out careers for ourselves that are thrilling and challenging and also create a better life for our fellow human beings. Rest assured that beyond the confines of this campus we will find more conformity than creativity, more laxity than discipline. It is imperative, then, that we take with us a spirit of freethinking and open-mindedness because, as Martin Luther King once said, “the hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined noncomformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.” I would add that the hope of a satisfying career rests on our ability to creatively apply ourselves to the issues that matter to us and to prove that it is possible to make a living by living our passion.
I encourage you to be bold and audacious in the pursuit of your goals. When a naysayer tells you that technology cannot address poverty, tell them how in Bangladesh farmers use cell phones to find the best price for their goods, tell them how in the slums of Cairo entrepreneurs are using iPods to teach people how to build solar water heaters out of locally available materials, and then seek out new ways of using old technologies, or create new technologies altogether. Or, if a skeptic points out that financiers are all crooks, remind them that microfinance–the idea of providing tiny loans to people deemed not credit worthy by banks–has now reached over 100 million people globally, with miniscule default rates and tremendous social benefits. Then go out and develop a new financing mechanism, such as an affordable health insurance for low-income Americans or a fund that invests in socially responsible businesses.
In short, do not allow yourselves to be limited by what others tell you is possible. Have confidence in your abilities, your values and your passions. Be unyieldingly open minded but never to yield to the status quo. At one time these admonitions may have seemed superfluous to the task of finding a job and starting our post-academic lives. But the job market, as well as our hearts and minds, demand that we ask more of ourselves. The opportunities in this century will not come to us; rather, we must find and create them. If we do so, there is no limit to what we will achieve.