111th Undergraduate Commencement
May 3, 2013
President Joseph E. Aoun,
Distinguished faculty members and administrators,
Members of the Class of 2013,
Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a great privilege to be here today with all of you, especially the members of the Class of 2013 and your families and friends. You should be very proud. This is a day for memories, a day to savor. A day, also, to join in honoring those who two weeks ago responded so courageously in the face of tragedy-including Northeastern students and staff who provided critical care and support to victims of the attack.
It’s truly an honor to stand before you just at the moment when you’re leaving this great University and about to step into your life, the script of which is yet to be written. Throughout my years in the academy, I’ve loved commencements because they embody those rare moments in our modern culture when ritual, tradition and a bit of pageantry brighten our lives.
But I’m sure many of you are more than a little concerned about what the future will bring, and I just want to say to you today that not only is your future uncertain, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s far more uncertain than you think. And you know what, that’s a good thing. A recent study by a group of psychologists in the journal Science found that people are extremely poor at predicting their futures. The study showed that, for example, a typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for life changes in the next decade of her life were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. In other words, 20-year-olds had little idea of just how much they would change over the next ten years. And this sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.
This study’s findings are essentially the story of my life. In fact, even before I was born, given the obstacles my parents faced, I would never have predicted that I would, in fact, be born. My father spent his childhood in North Korea and, at the age of 19, escaped across the border into South Korea, leaving his parents, his brothers and sisters, his entire extended family — everything he had ever known — behind. He had no money. Still, he managed to enroll in the Seoul National University Dental School and became a dentist. He told me stories about how he had so little money he often could only afford to buy lunch from the illegal noodle vendors on the street. Once when he was eating his contraband ramyun next to the vendor, police came and chased after the vendors and their customers. But while he ran, my father kept eating his noodles because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford another bowl.
My mother was born in China near Shanghai among a small community of Korean expatriates. After returning to Korea, on a day she will never forget toward the end of the Korean War, her mother — my grandmother — went outside to hang the laundry and never returned, probably either kidnapped or killed by North Korean soldiers. At one point during the war, with the battles closing in around her, at the age of 17, my mother became a refugee and literally walked, with her younger sister on her back, for 200 miles to escape the fighting. Luckily, she was able to resume her schooling in a tent in the southern city of Masan. She was an excellent student and with great good luck she received a scholarship from a secret women’s society in the United States and was able to enroll as a freshman at Morehead State College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Through almost unthinkably divergent and unlikely paths, my parents ended up meeting through mutual friends who had gathered in New York City during the Christmas holidays along with the few hundred Korean students who were living in the United States at that time. They fell in love, married in New York, where my older brother was born, then returned to Korea.
I was born in Seoul and when I was five, my family moved back to the United States and we eventually settled in Muscatine, Iowa. My father opened his dental practice, and my mother set to work on her PhD in philosophy at the University of Iowa. In the late 60’s, influenced by my mother’s passion for social justice, we watched the civil rights and anti-war movements unfold from our living room in Muscatine. We lived, as you can tell, the classic All-American, Korean family grows up in a small town in Iowa story. We fully embraced our lives in the heartland of this great country.
As you might imagine, there weren’t a lot of Asians in Iowa in the 60’s and 70’s but happily, one of the most popular shows at that time was Kung Fu, the story of a former Shaolin priest, half-Chinese, half-American, who comes to the United States to find his American father. So while we were outsiders in Iowa in a profound sense, at least the bully kids left us alone, because they thought all Asians knew Kung Fu — even my sister, and she was 3 when we moved to Iowa. I played quarterback on the high school football team — but don’t be too impressed, we had the longest losing streak in the nation by the time I was done with my senior year. Years and years went by without a single victory. It was said that grandfathers of my teammates had contributed to the multi-generational streak.
After high school, I eventually ended up at Brown University, and I remember one particular day vividly. My father picked me up at the airport after I flew back to Muscatine from Providence, and when we were driving home, he asked me, “So what are you thinking of studying?”
I told him I was excited about philosophy and political science.
I thought I could make a difference in the world and I was thinking of going into politics.
My father put on the blinker, pulled off the road, and turned off the car.
He turned to me in the back seat.
“Look,” he said, “once you finish your medical residency, you can do anything you want.”
You see, my father knew all about uncertainty. He knew that it’s impossible to be sure about where you might end up in life. And he worried that his own success might have deprived his children of the opportunity to understand deeply the meaning of running away from the noodle police while, of course, finishing your noodles. He wanted me to have a skill and he wanted me to butt my head up against the joy but also the hard reality of finishing medical school, finishing residency and caring for patients in life-or-death situations.
I’m so grateful to my father.
So far I’ve told you that life is uncertain, but you already knew that. What I really want you to know is that you have abundant tools to face that uncertainty and to lead an extraordinary life, even beyond your wildest dreams.
Roy Baumeister is a psychologist who has devoted his career to studying the qualities in human beings that lead them to achieve what he calls “positive outcomes.” In this fascinating field, researchers have found that two traits are most consistently associated with success: intelligence and willpower. In Baumeister’s book entitled Willpower, we learn that efforts to permanently increase intelligence have failed, but people can in fact improve their willpower. Baumeister and his colleagues have shown that taking certain actions to improve willpower is the surest way to a more successful life. Moreover, they’ve shown that willpower is like a muscle that can be built with practice, but also, if you don’t actively exercise your willpower, your capacity to do so will atrophy just like your stomach muscles if you stop doing sit-ups. They’ve even learned that because willpower is associated with a certain part of your brain, maintaining glucose levels in your blood to feed that part of your brain is critical for sustaining your willpower!
Looked at from another angle, a group of researchers has shown that, more than talent, practice is what determines mastery over any given skill or ability. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, popularized an important body of work that showed that the path to mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice. Books with titles like “talent is overrated” have been published to make the point.
Now I want you to know that there’s really good news here, especially for Northeastern graduates. By graduating today, you’ve shown your families and the world that you have plenty of IQ points to accomplish anything you set out to achieve. Willpower, discipline and focus — the essential qualities for success that everyone needs — are in your hands to develop and build. As Baumeister shows in his book, you can indeed go to the willpower gym and come out mentally buff, ready to take on the world.
Now about the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve mastery. Well, because you’ve studied here at Northeastern, you’ve got a head start. My own estimate is that, through your cooperative education in which you’ve received both classroom knowledge and practical knowledge, you all deserve at least a couple of thousand hours of discount off the standard 10,000. Good for you and congratulations!
But in addition to thinking about uncertainty and willpower, there’s one more thing I want you to try to will yourself to remember today. I want you to think about how you can use time effectively and for good in this complex world.
Back in Iowa, my mother used to read to me the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. In Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he writes about the need to understand the urgency of the present. He recounts an experience with a white moderate — an ally of the civil rights movement — who wrote to him saying that he, Dr. King, was in too great a hurry and that “the lessons of Christ take time to come to earth.” African Americans, the moderate argued, would eventually — eventually — be granted their full civil rights.
Dr. King responded, and I quote: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time and a strangely irrational notion that there is something in the flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral. It can be used destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of goodwill. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” End quote.
With all the willpower I can muster, I try to bring the sense of urgency in Dr. King’s words to my work today. I do this with an understanding that I still have no idea of what the future may bring. After all, I had no idea that I would not only get my medical degree but also a PhD in anthropology at an institution known as that “small technical school” just up Huntington Ave from the historic legendary campus of Northeastern University. I had no idea that I would help found an organization, Partners in Health, with my colleague Paul Farmer and others and eventually work in 10 countries around the world. I had no idea that my experience at Partners In Health would lead to my taking charge of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS efforts and to starting a campaign to treat 3 million people by the year 2005. And with only minimal experience in academic administration, I was given the enormous honor of becoming President of Dartmouth College. Finally, completely out of the blue, last year President Obama asked me to stand as a candidate to lead the World Bank Group.
Always with some trepidation, I embraced these completely unexpected opportunities, and now I find myself in one of the most interesting jobs in the world. The World Bank Group is an extraordinary organization, founded in the 1940’s to rebuild Europe after World War II. Over the 66 years of its existence, it has evolved into the premier development institution in the world.
Just two weeks ago, the World Bank Group governing body endorsed a target to end extreme poverty by 2030 — just 17 years from now. Our Governors, who are made up of the Ministers of Finance and Development of 188 member countries, also endorsed a goal to boost shared prosperity, so that the bottom 40% of income earners in our member states can share in economic growth. Our Governors also emphasized that prosperity must be shared with future generations, which means that we will be leaders in tackling climate change, because we know that climate change has the potential to wipe out many of the development gains of the past decades and plunge people back into poverty.
By setting such bold targets for our organization and setting an expiration date for extreme poverty in the world, our Governors have given us the gift of focus and urgency. We will now use time to drive forward what we hope will be a signal achievement in human history.
In closing, my challenge to you is this: set bold goals, deliberately and consciously build your willpower, and use your time well. You are so fortunate. Northeastern’s co-op program and emphasis on experiential learning make this one of the most innovative educational models in the world today. With co-op options now in more than 90 countries, in all types of organizations, this University has given you an unexcelled preparation for global citizenship. As countries around the world, including the United States, search for ways to overhaul higher education, they’re looking to Northeastern’s example. Through your hard work in these past four years, you’ve acquired something exceptional: the foundations for critical and self-critical thinking, joined to the practical skills to solve tough problems in the real world.
These are extraordinary qualifications. They give you power — and responsibility.
Like my father on the streets of Seoul — though in a different way — you face a world of uncertainty. Don’t fear that uncertainty. Embrace it. Use it. Uncertainty means that nothing is predetermined. Uncertainty means that the future is yours to shape — with the force of your will, the force of your intellect, and the force of your compassion. Uncertainty is freedom. Take that freedom and run with it. And please don’t forget to eat some noodles as you go. You’ll need the glucose to feed your impressive well-toned willpower.
Thank you very much, and congratulations to the graduating class.