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2019 Commencement Thoughts

| June 25, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Helpful thoughts for the next steps in your life’s journey

Every year, beginning near the end of May and continuing into early June, there is a flurry of ritual activity at this country’s educational institutions. In the U.S., there are over 4,200 degree granting colleges and universities and over 20,500 high schools who each celebrate the achievement of their students with graduation activities. And, each of these celebrations typically features one or more speakers who offer nuggets of wisdom that they hope will help graduates as they embark on the next stage of their life’s journey, no matter where it may lead. 
I’ve tried, each year, to mine some of these speeches for “golden nuggets” that might be helpful as we each take stock of where we are on our own journey and look forward to whatever it is we are continuing or embarking upon. Here are remarks from six of this year’s speeches that caught my attention.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, at Harvard University.  “There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of the difference, the space between beginning and ending. … The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities. It quite literally stood in my way. However, there was one thing which that wall couldn’t do through all those years: It couldn’t impose limits on my inner thoughts, my personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires. … [A]nything that seems set in stone or unalterable can indeed change.” Later in the speech she told the graduates that they ought to approach the walls they will surely encounter in their lives, whether physical, social, intellectual, or cultural in a like manner, believing that they can, indeed, be changed. [Video of the remarks.]
Oprah Winfrey, American media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer, and philanthropist, at Colorado College. [Your life is] “about taking one big life transforming step at a time. … [W]hat you can do, here and now, is make a decision, because life is about decisions. And the decision is that you will use your life in service; you will be in service to life. You will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. You will lend a hand.” Near the end of her speech, Winfrey reflected on an exchange she had with poet Maya Angelou about Winfrey’s legacy. Angelou said, “you have no idea what your legacy will be, because your legacy is every life that you touch.”  [Text of the remarks.]
Robert F. Smith, investor and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, at Morehouse College. [Note: Morehouse College was created in1867 to educate black men for careers in ministry and teaching. Today, the college offers a wide range of studies to a predominately African-American male student body.]  “[T]he great lesson of my life is that despite the challenges we face, America is truly an extraordinary country and our world is getting smaller by the day and you are equipped with every tool to make it your own. Today for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital, no ownership of land or natural resources or people. Today success can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas encouraged. Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized and instantaneously distributed across the globe. … Technology, the world that I live in, is creating a whole new set of on-ramps to the 21st century economy and together we will help assure that the African-American community will acquire the tech skills and be the beneficiaries in a sector that is being automated.” In his remarks Smith then stated his five rules for success:

  1. Nothing replaces actually doing the work.
  2. Take thoughtful risks.
  3. Be intentional about the words you choose.
  4. You are enough.
  5. We all have the responsibility to liberate others so that they can become their best selves.

And, at the end of his remarks, he made this startling announcement: “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus … This is my class, 2019. And, my family is making a grant to eliminate [all] their student loans.”  [Text of the remarks.]
Tim Cook, CEO Apple, at Tulane University. “As you go out into the world, don’t waste time on problems that have been solved. Don’t get hung up on what other people say is practical. Instead, steer your ship into choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those places that you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of being too cautious. Don’t assume that by staying put, the ground won’t move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won’t last. So get to work on building something better.” To emphasize his point, he quoted from a graduation address by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt said then, “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world.” Cook then continued: “Young people have changed the course of history time and time again. And now it’s time to change it once more.”  [Text of the remarks.]
Michael Bloomberg, entrepreneur and philanthropist, at MIT. “[T]oday, I’m happy to announce that, with our foundation, I am committing $500 million to the launch of a new national climate initiative, and I hope that you will all become part of it. We’re calling it Beyond Carbon. … [O]ur goal is to move the U.S. toward a 100 percent clean energy economy as expeditiously as possible, and begin that process right now. We intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need, but by investing in things we want: more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less congested roads. … We want to build a clean energy economy. … It is time for all or us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time. As President Kennedy said 57 years ago of the moon mission: we are willing to accept this challenge, we are unwilling to postpone it, and we intend to win it. We must again do what is hard. … As you leave this campus, I hope you will carry with you MIT’s tradition of taking – and making – moonshots. Be ambitious in every facet of your life. And don’t ever let something stop you because people say it’s impossible. Let those words inspire you. Because just trying to make the impossible possible can lead to achievements you never dreamed of. [Text of the remarks.]
L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, charge to the Class of 2019 at MIT. After speaking of MIT’s role in the Apollo Lunar Landing 50 years ago, President Reif continued. “From your time at MIT, I trust that you have experienced that feeling of learning from each other, respecting each other, and depending on each other. And I hope that this instinct for sharing the work, and sharing the credit, is something you never forget. The Moon-landing-story reflects many other MIT values. To seek-out bold ideas. To not be afraid of ‘impossible’ assignments. And always, to stay humble (especially when it comes to the laws of nature)!” … The most important wisdom we gained from Apollo was “the sudden, intense understanding of our shared humanity and the preciousness and fragility of our blue planet. 50 years later, those lessons feel more urgent than ever. And I believe that as members of the great global family of MIT, we must do everything in our power to help make a better world. … As you depart for your new destinations, I want to ask you to hack the world – until you make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind. And because the people of MIT so like to fix things that are broken, as you strive to hack the world, please try to heal the world, too.” (To hack is to do an incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed.  [Text of the remarks.]
While all these words were originally addressed to newly minted graduates, people who were moving forward in school or moving into their career, the words also speak just as strongly to those of us who are at later stages of our career. Whether it’s the advice of Angela Merkel to approach the walls you will encounter in your life knowing that they cannot impose limits on your inner thoughts, your personality, your imagination, your dreams or desires.
Or, Oprah Winfrey’s challenge to us with Maya Angelou’s words to take our legacy from the lives we touch.
Or, as Robert Smith reminds us that you have to do the work and help others be their best. (And, that you may also choose to step up and share your fortune.) 
Or, as Tim Cook tells us to not focus on solved problems but rather focus on building something better. 
Or, as Michael Bloomberg argues that we be ambitious with our resources however large or small in every aspect of our lives. 
Or, as Rafael Reif charges us to go hack the world, take on the big issues and do an incredibly good job that produces exactly what is needed.
Lots of very good words containing very good advice here, to new graduates as well as those of us who have been on the front line for a long spell. Do take the time to find from this advice one or two things that you will work to further develop in the coming weeks. And, then do it again. And, again…
Make it a great week for your team and for you.  .  . .  jim
.  . .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.