Sunday, May 20, 2012

Commencement Speech, 2012

I had the opportunity to give the commencement speech for the Psychology Department graduates at the University of Texas on May 19, 2012.  Here it is
It is an honor to be speaking to all of you today.  Before I really get started, I want all of the graduates; the proud parents, relatives, and friends; and my colleagues on stage here from UT to enjoy this moment. 
It is funny, but we all celebrate a lot early in life.  There are now graduation ceremonies from Kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, and finally college.  As we get older, though, we spend less time celebrating our own achievements.  Eventually, it seems that we just complete things and move on.  In my opinion, it is always worth celebrating our achievements. So, drink this moment in.  And remember to take time to enjoy the things you have done.
Ok.  Now back to business.
I have one last opportunity to say something enlightening to all of you.  Here goes.  “You just never know what is going to happen in life.”  That’s it. 
Because you never know what is going to happen, though, you need to be open to life’s possibilities.  Even the ones you are not expecting.  And you need to help the people around you to be open to fulfilling their potential.
There are three ways to do this.
First, keep learning.
You never know where your next good idea is going to come from.  Take the example of Swiss engineer George de Mestral.  He came home after walking his dog and spent some time pulling off the cockleburs that stuck to the dog’s fur.  Rather than just be annoyed at the nuisance, he wanted to know what it was made the cockleburs stick so persistently to the fur.  He examined them under a microscope and discovered that the cockleburs had little hooks on them that allowed them to stick to the dog’s tangled fur.  From this observation, he had an idea.  He then found some cloth manufacturers and got them to create a synthetic set of cocklebur hooks and some synthetic dog fur.  In the end, he used them to create the reusable connection we call Velcro.
You just never know.
The second thing you need to do is to let the world tell you unexpected things.
Over the course of my career, I have spent a lot of time running experiments.  Without a doubt, the most exciting studies have been the ones that did not come out as I expected.  There is a temptation to look at these surprising results and to be disappointed that the experiment did not work. 
But, every well-run experiment works. 
The beauty of running studies is that every once in a while the world is more interesting than you thought it was.  That means you have to be open to recognizing that the world is telling you that you are wrong.  In those situations, you have to re-think your beliefs about the world and ask new questions in order to understand it.  If you listen to the world around you, though, you open yourself up to incredibly rewarding experiences.  I truly have learned more from the experiments that “didn’t work” than from those that came out as I hoped.
You just never know.
The third thing you need to do is to encourage the people around you.
I was thinking about this last month when I opened the alumni magazine from Brown University where I got my undergraduate degree and saw that a math professor I had named Frank Stewart had passed away.  He was in his 90s and had a long career.  Professor Stewart taught my linear algebra class.  He was a real education innovator.  He developed a lot of his own software to teach math, and designed an elegant curriculum to go with it.
But, he was also a great person. 
When I took his class, I completely flubbed the first exam.  It was one of those exams where you go in certain that you have nailed the material only to watch your confidence evaporate with each successive question.  After getting back the graded exam, I went to his office and asked what I should do.  He just smiled and told me two things.  First, I should come back to his office whenever I had a question about the material.  Second, he said that many of the people who did best in his class started off with horrible scores on the first exam. 
Encouraged, I kept at it.  He gave an innovative take-home final exam in which each of us had to discover the final set of principles in this class by ourselves.  He guided us through this process by the structure of the exam itself.  Ultimately, I had one of those wonderful moments in which clouds parted, the choir sang in my head, and I truly understood the material.  I was so excited, I actually left my dorm and hurried across campus just to stick my head in his office and say, “I got it!”
If he hadn’t been so encouraging, though, I would not have gotten it.  I might just have dropped the class and never had that beautiful experience.
You just never know.
Graduates, as you prepare to leave the University of Texas, remember to be open.  If the branding folks here are right and “What happens here changes the world,” it is not because there is some specific fact that you learned in your classes that will change you.  It is that you learned how to learn.  You learned to let the world tell you things—even those things you may not have wanted to hear at the time. And—I hope—you have learned to help the people around you to see the possibilities in front of them, even when they may think they have failed.
So, for now, spend a few days to celebrate your accomplishment surrounded by your family and friends.  Then, go off and do great things.  And every once in a while come back and tell us what you have been up to.