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.