As you walk out of this campus today for the last time as high school students, Class of 2017, many would say the world stands at three major turning points.
The first turning point is ideological, or political. There are those who believe that the world will fragment into ‘more separated’ countries. Over the next ten years we will have more Brexits, more walls separating countries, and more obstacles to free trade and the global migration that has continued slowly since the beginning of human history. I believe this is a worst-case scenario and I don’t believe this will happen. Even if we witness a slowdown in free trade or immigration, it will be only temporary. I believe you graduate into a world that is increasingly open. Borders will further blur, global trade expand, and national, religious, and most other differences (like sexual orientation) be increasingly embraced. You enter an ever-opening world. The long, slow transition from tribal communities to global humanity is inevitable. This is like a long slow stairway…any pause is a brief hesitation as we climb the stairs traveling from “many tribes” to “one open, accepting world.” In the long term, I don’t worry too much about the ideological issues we all talk about so much. While this might be a problem short term, I believe this will be okay in the end.
The second turning point is technological. In a prime example of the ‘chicken or egg’ scenario, technology evolves as humanity evolves. One of the big differences between humans and all other animals is the evolution of our tools. Those tools have evolved as we have evolved our sense of who we are. The tools of the individual came first (a knife, a spear, a fork). Next came the tools of our tribes (collective homes, farms) … then countries (highways, trains, and sophisticated weapons) to a world (the internet, satellites, an International Space Station, Facebook, Google, Amazon and airplanes). At each step of tool evolution, the old tools don’t go away, but relatively speaking they become less significant compared to where we will go next. Creation and adoption of tools has always been in lockstep, side by side, with the evolution of how we see the human family we are part of. First, it was just our families, then our tribes, then our countries, and now our world. We are still evolving toward that last one, the world. The evolution of our tools and of how we see ourselves have mostly been very positive. Of course, these steps have often been marked by brief steps to the side or backward…call these side or back steps ‘adjustment time.’ There are sometimes (often?) uncomfortable displacement of the old way in favor of the new. Some of the parents in the audience will remember when microwave ovens were thought to be dangerous or scary, or when calculators were forbidden from use in class. In an especially tragic example, atomic energy was first used, by my own country, to kill thousands of people before it became the earliest step toward one of the cleanest forms of energy. This adjustment never happens overnight, but we’ve always been able to adjust.
Technology has changed our business, knowledge of ourselves, and understanding of where we are in space and time. In fact, in just one lifetime we went from never having even left our own atmosphere to landing people on the moon, having men and women routinely in space, and sending an unmanned spacecraft to Saturn and mapping its topography. Just in the last two years we have created telescopes that have enabled us to see 1.4 billion years into the past, one-tenth the age of the universe we inhabit. All from this tiny green and blue planet that is so insignificant in the vast space its part of. We have witnessed an act unthinkable a lifetime ago in the last 24 months; Barry Barish and a group of scientists witnessed two black holes combine…bringing us closer than ever to understanding the most powerful forces in the universe. In these black holes, which are now beginning to observe more deeply, likely lies the answer to how can we reconcile one of science’s biggest questions: how does the power of large things (gravity) relate to the power of small ones (atoms and molecules)? How strange that we cannot solve this seemingly simple question. I imagine in your lifetime, thanks to the evolution of our tools, we will largely figure this out. And we will probably see all the way to the end of the universe, and what’s just beyond it.
Imagine, just imagine, what life will be like in your lifetime, one more generation, as we accelerate our advances. Even right now in transportation we start to believe in autonomous cars, flying cars, people flying for tourism into space, and manned missions to Mars and likely further will happen; that’s probably just in the next five to ten years. And if that happens in transportation, can you dream of what it will be like in other areas of our lives? Your lives will be amazing, and at a rate of change that shocks us at times today, but this rate will seem terribly slow in two decades. I believe this is the next big industrial revolution and you are part of it.
The third major turning point in history is your graduation from high school today. Ah, this starts to sound like a talk meant to just say nice things about you on graduation day. After all, you might think, just as the earth is a tiny little green and blue ball in a vast universe of trillions of objects, this school is a tiny little school among millions of schools around the world holding ceremonies this month. And you are one person in six billion.
And if the sheer numbers weren’t enough, we all intuitively know what it’s like as you graduate. Many of you don’t know what you will really do in the near future. Those of you who are certain of your career choice (yes, you know I’m talking to you) will find that work changes so fast, so whatever you think it is today, I can assure you will be very different in ten or twenty years.
In such a context of change and an unknown future, how can I say so confidently that your personal next step is so important to the world, but the future of our work lives, the nature of our entertainment and joy, and even the fate of mankind depends on you. It doesn’t depend on your generation, but it depends on each of you. I’m not exaggerating or trying to scare you. I believe it’s true. Here’s why:
1. We ARE a hyper connected world where the ideas of one bounce invisibly off many; you know this and you feel it. It would’ve been impossible to imagine a random video being seen by five percent of the world’s population just a decade ago. Today the top videos have over two billion views, and that is only limited by the fact that half the world does not yet have access to the internet. They will. One person with one idea and one creative video can reach the entire world. That one person can be any of you. And you can change the world, any one of you.
And you don’t have to redefine science or save lives to make a big difference. You can create a new idea, dedicate yourself to entertaining people, educate us in a world where continuous reeducation will be a given. On the topic of education, whatever you study in school next, I can assure you, will not be 1/100 as important as learning to learn…again and again. Also learning to forget when you should (more on that later). That’s because your generation will see that jobs will indeed be automated through machine learning more and more. Yet, in this never ending creation activity, you will do what humans have done since the first human tools: create and discover new forms of learning, education, innovation, and fun. You will continue to evolve the tools that evolve along with us. That ever opening and embracing world will one day give way to our view of ourselves as citizens of the universe, perhaps a universe where we discover that life does, in fact, exist in many other places, and we will try to understand it just as we continue to try to understand our own.
So this is your chance. Today is your day. It’s just your beginning and there is so much to do. Now let me give you three pieces of practical advice that are a little more down to earth, and important.
1. Set some goals. Do it routinely. Goals make you do more than you might. And goals are free so you might as well have some.
2. Start ‘failing.’ Stop thinking about failure and replace that word with learning. Every time you do something and it doesn’t work, it’s an opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, things often work so you learn a lot less. Thank god failure is common. Don’t play it safe in your life. Take risks. View failure as more valuable than success. Success, in fact, is dangerous in a way because it makes you think you need to do things the same way, or consolidate your gains since you are successful. Many who succeed stop innovating. Failing is wonderful. You learn from the mistake. You stay humble. And you have to go try again!
3. Finally, don’t worry about having a passion to follow. That’s right, forget all this exaggerated encouragement to ‘find your passion.’ As Adam Bryant, New York Times said in a commencement address a few years ago, if you have a passion, you have already found it, and you can ignore this. Do follow it. If you don’t have a particular passion you want to build a career on, don’t worry. Just get a rough path to something you think you might like. And then at every step of the way learn to love what you do (“love the one your with”). There is something to love about every job. I love my job at Logitech. But I love doing the laundry. Cleaning floors. Why? Because there is some little satisfaction, innovation, perfection to bring to each job that makes me feel I improved something or made a little difference. And if you love what you do – and I do mean deliberately love it – you will be good at it. And that will open new doors to things you will also need to learn to love. And eventually you will discover new passions. I have a hunch you’ll eventually have many passions in your life.
So, to close, I am very optimistic about the future, ours and yours.
1. From an ideological standpoint, I am not worried about the ideologies that discourage the continued opening of the world and embracing of our many differences. Like the various runners in a marathon, these forces sometimes take a temporary lead causing friction toward this inevitable openness, but we should all listen to both sides, have open and honest debates, and learn…there is almost always something to learn about the future in these debates. But as those debates mature, the inevitable opening of the world will continue for you. Decade, after decade, after decade.
2. From a technological perspective, I don’t believe the bad outcomes of technology will overwhelm us. Technology has always scared us because it is scary to change. Embrace it. I do sometimes feel there are those who unknowingly see the development of technology almost as an end in itself. Technology is here to extend human capability and knowledge, never as an end in itself. But I am convinced we will, YOU will, make the next generation of technology create a better earth…better lives, a deeper understanding of our place in space and time, and more peaceful. We will need safeguards on our privacy, our safety, and our liberties. However, we will develop them and continue to evolve those safeguards as our technologies, our tools, evolve. Remember that each of you can, and will, make a difference in the lives of many or the lives of those just around you.
3. Finally, from a personal standpoint, go out into that big universe on this little green and blue ball with excitement. Don’t worry about passion; you will find it eventually. Just set some goals. Embrace learning and even though a little success is probably good for your confidence, know that failure beats success every time for learning. So don’t be afraid of it.
My grandfather was the president of a college not unlike the ones you’ll be going to next fall. He was a real inspiration to me because he was a practical optimist in every sense of the word, like I hope you will be. Every night we were with him, he would stand up at around bedtime, he would stand up, look at his watch, and say what I will now say to you, “Bracken Buster, it’s later than it’s ever been.”
Time for us – time for you – to get started. It is later than it’s ever been. Congratulations, Class of 2017!