I love commencement speeches, so I’m going to write one every year. Here’s my first. (See below for links to some of my favorites.)
To the graduating class of 2011, congratulations. In a terse internal memo from Western Union in 1876, back when they were leaders in long distance communication, an unnamed manager said, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
I came across this quote on the Internet, in a post titled “Famous Rejections and Bad Forecasts.” Here are a few more favorites.
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody?” This was a response from a potential investor in the beginnings of broadcast radio.
And here’s a good one. In 1927 H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers asked, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
And somewhat more recently a guy named Dick Rowe, head of pop music at a British record Label called Decca, famously said after an audition, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” This was 1962, and he was rejecting the Beatles.
Most people use stories like these as part of “don’t-let-the-critics-get-you-down” inspirational talks. The assumption here is that the audience, in this case you be-robed and deserving graduates, are on a higher plane than The Critics, and that so long as you dodge their misguided barbs you will go on to invent the next telephone.
I do think it’s true that you shouldn’t let the critics get you down, but I think the bigger, more important truth is that we are all critics. We are born that way. It seems as natural for us to point out the imperfections in the world and people around us as it is to walk or eat or fall in love. Even some relationships seem built almost entirely upon a mutual love of denigrating anything in line-of-sight.
I bring this up to you now because one of the great values of a college education, as I’m sure you’ve heard 100 times, is that you learn Critical Thinking. And of course it’s no coincidence that Critical Thinking contains the word Critic. The skills that you have spent the last four or five years learning are the skills that make an effective critic.
Have you found yourself over the course of your college education becoming increasingly and more eloquently critical of governments, or religions, or the media, or the very school that was giving you the tools of criticism? If you’re anything like me, of course you have. You’ve had long, brilliant, caffeine-catalyzed conversations that ferreted out the roots of all the world’s great problems and impugned the world’s leaders for their denseness in not seeing these problems as clearly as you and for their negligence in not hiring you to come in and spend a day or two solving them.
This ability to think critically is a vital skill for succeeding in the world. But I would suggest to you that more vital yet is your decision about how you will use this skill, that your decision about how you will apply your critical insight is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.
As a natural critic, it is very easy to figure out what you’re against, what’s not worth your time, what is bound to fail. But it’s exponentially more difficult to decide what you are for, what is worth your time, what you are going to believe in and support and throw yourself into whole-heartedly.
And it is this much more difficult task of deciding what you are for, that is not only one of the great ingredients of success, but is precisely what the world needs from you in the era of history that you now inherit.
We live in an unprecedented age. Did you know that in the 10,000 years leading up to 1800, the world population grew by less than one billion, but in the last 50 years it has grown by four billion? And that on average every one of the 7 billion people now alive on the planet earns 4,000% more than they would have 200 years ago? And that they therefore consume exponentially more?
The world today is not in the same sort of agrarian stasis that has typified most of human existence. What we are living today is a grand experiment with no precursor and no control group, and we will only know the results as they happen to us and our families and our countries.
And increasingly over the next 50 or 60 years it will be up to you and your critical insight to guide us through it. You will decide which projects and businesses and interventions are wrong, and more importantly, which ones are right. You will be called upon to dream a better, more sustainable future and to do the difficult and endless work of making it real.
Now, of course I don’t expect you to walk off of campus today with a twelve-step plan to fix the world. If you decide to take on the sorts of challenges I’m talking about, you will have false starts, you’ll make mistakes, you will fail over and over again. And that’s good. Failure is what learning is called when there aren’t any grades.
So I encourage you, starting right now, as soon and as often as you can, get neck-deep in something you care about. Make decisions, start businesses, take on challenges. Start chalking up some failures and successes.
This, of course, is the scary part, because this is where you show us what you’re really for, what you believe in. And that opens you up to criticism from all of us natural critics, pointing out the inevitable shortcomings of your plan and your leadership and your worldview.
But the reason that I’m not too worried about the critics getting to you, is that critics are impotent in the face of a good dream. They didn’t stop the telephone or radio or the Beatles. And they won’t stop you. Surround yourself with likeminded people who can think critically without being critics, who understand the value of failure and who will encourage you in your successes. And be one of those people for your friends.
The world needs you to dream good dreams and to chase them whole-heartedly. Not pipe dreams or fairy tales, but critically constructed dreams for a better world that, while unprecedented, just might be possible with enough imagination and hard work. And history, as it always has, will side with the dreamers.
My favorite commencement speech of all time is a piece of art by David Foster Wallace. Here is it in text form, and here it is in audio: Part 1 & Part 2. Here is a great compilation of commencement speeches including Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Jon Stewart.