On May 6, 2022 I was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. Following that I was invited to give the commencement address. What follows is my address edited for clarity.
President Molla, trustees, faculty, staff, students, graduates or soon to be alumni and their families, thank you very much for this distinct honor and the opportunity to address you here today. I make my living as a keynote speaker. I travel all over the world, addressing audiences about the changing nature of work, but this is my first commencement address. To prepare for this, I listened to all the commencement addresses out there that I could find on YouTube. I then reflected on my own graduations and commencement addresses. I asked everybody I ran into for the past two months what they remember most about their commencement address. They had one thing in common. No one remembered their commencement address. That fact made this task a whole lot less daunting.
I have organized my remarks in three parts. First, I’m going to give you some practical data, the kind of stuff they don’t tell you when you start your education, that might be informative now. Then I’m going to give you some conceptual insights from my work, the kind of stuff that I do when I’m out there traveling around, giving keynotes. Finally, I’m going to end with some emotional perspectives, the kind of insight a commencement address speakers supposed to give you.
I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in industrial design on June 5th, 1993. Back then I had a whole lot of ideas about who I would be and what I would do. I was wrong about most of them. That was 10,551 days ago. That separates where you sit to where I stand. I don’t know much, but I one thing, nobody had keynote speaker, motivational speaker, on their bingo card of possibilities for me. My wife and my mother are in the audience, my dad and my family’s watching from home. I recently found out just before I came up here, that my junior high school principal is also watching. And I know Dr. Coleman, you had no idea I would be doing this. So, I can say with certainty, your future is likely beyond your imagination today and I can also say—do not worry about it because your future will appear before you.
Here’s some statistics that I found alarming when I discovered them and then later liberating when you process them. First, statistically you will not work in the field of your major. On average 27% of people do. And for art and design, it’s even less as purportedly 10% of folks who go to colleges of art and design work in their field. Although I do question the “in their field” and how narrowly they might define that. Does that mean your education earned today is not important? Was the four years of time you just spent and the money you now owe wasted? Absolutely not. When I look back on how I live my life, how I do the work that I do, and how I invented this career, it all comes back to my education from Rhode Island School of Design. Design education is optimal for this unique moment in time of human history.
I also know this, you will fail. Nobody talks about that. You’ll lose jobs. Someone will break your heart. You won’t get into a graduate school that you want. We don’t have time to inventory all my failures, but trust me, you will fail. All that really means is your path will deviate from whatever you have in mind today. But I also know this, you fought some very strong headwinds to come here today. Let’s face it, high schools in the United States do not encourage creativity. They do not encourage explorers. They do not encourage design. There’s no statistical exam for creativity. We myopically focus on testing you to prove what you can do, which will soon be automated.
Let’s look at this from a different perspective, here’s a continuum between social emotional intelligence and cognitive intelligence. That’s sort of your ability to answer things and then your ability to feel and make sense of things. And then a spectrum between convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is finding the right answer to a structured unknown problem. And divergent thinking is problem finding and framing, asking questions, questioning the question. Kindergarten and Montessori school are out here. We are encouraged to explore your ideas or process your emotions. We invite asking how and why. In high school and too many of our higher education institutions are down here in this quadrant which is what I call the “will it be on the test” mentality. And from my research, all the workforce development skills gaps are here—in the middle. Certainly, we need foundational knowledge and fundamental literacies, STEM majors are important, but we also need people who can explore, who can be propositional thinkers, folks who can question the question. You have resisted the pull into the what and staked your exploration in the why and the how and that will make all the difference for your careers and for us as a society.
I also know this; critiques have prepared you for the challenges ahead. You’ve had the courage and bravery to propose new ideas and the humility and the vulnerability to submit yourself to feedback from your faculty and fellow students. You then incorporated that feedback in an iterative development—in the messy process of creation. When Thomas Edison was on his pursuit of developing the light bulb, he was frequently criticized about his messy process. He retorted with this, “I’ve not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” And that made all the difference.
Now, to jump into the conceptual realm for a minute, according to Jonathan MacDonald, CMO at Minima, the slowest rate of change for the rest of your life is today. And since MacDonald said it in 2012 that’s been true for a decade as the velocity of change has continued to accelerate. We are now in the greatest velocity of change in human history. Then enter the pandemic. And that change rate accelerated by two, three, four, five times as fast. What does that mean? We need new modes of thinking. We need new mental models. We need people who can explore, who can navigate in the VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. This is the world for which you have been trained to explore.
Now let us contemplate how our brains work to understand this a little bit differently. Our brains work in two modes, exploration and exploitation. All animals cognate or think this way. They explore to find a source of food like the good berries are in the bush over there. Exploration is full of uncertainty and risk, taking more energy. As a result, they will exploit that source of food until all the berries are depleted. Exploitation takes a lower level of energy and has much less uncertainty and, as a result, it is the preferred mode of cognition. Turns out that’s the way business, and in fact much of the world work as well. We explore to find a new business model, solution, idea, or need. We translate that need into a piece of value. And we scale that unit of value while trying to reduce the risk until it’s been replaced by a better solution.
But here’s the thing, those S curves used to be much longer. The time between the start of exploration and the end of exploitation used to be much, much longer. For example, when President Molla and I were growing up, because he’s about my age, the Walkman was the cool tech toy. It took 40 years for the Walkman to reach 400 million units. The iPod did that in 13 years and the iPhone did it in three. What does that mean? It means we need new products, new services, new business models, new ideas at a faster and faster clip. We need more folks who can work in exploration.
Simon Wardley, a British strategist I met in Australia when I was giving a talk, explained to me that there are three types of thinkers. I find they line up well with the three phases. There are explorers, settlers, and town planners. In most of our systems of education and our structures of work are designed to create and reward town planners. You folks are explorers. That’s what’s going to make you much more valuable in the world.
And this brings me to a quote from President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was addressing Congress in 1862. It was December, 1862, a month before he signed the emancipation proclamation that freed the slaves. The country was torn apart by Civil War, and he said this,
“The dogmas of the quiet pass are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.”
Lincoln was always very specific in his words. He did not say rise to the occasion because when you rise to the occasion, you’re rising to a structured and known problem to address it. When you arise with the equation, you’re formulating the and framing the question to search for the answer at the same time. That is where we stand today on so many issues.
This is what you folks are uniquely equipped to do and that’s what we need at this moment in time because we have some VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) challenges ahead of us. We have the pandemic, which historians will look back and refer to as a plague. Plagues reorder society. The 1918 flu gave us the roaring ’20s. The bubonic plague gave us the Renaissance. I think we stand at a very interesting opportunity to reorder not only where work takes place but where work fits in our lives. Additionally, we have a climate crisis. We have geopolitical instability and a growing refugee crisis. We have rising income inequality. We have the velocity of technology change, for which we’re struggling to adapt. We have a labor shortage that shows no sign of abating. And we have extreme political polarization in this country. Each one of these is a daunting task. I am a belligerent optimist and as a result I see in each of these very interesting opportunities for creativity and innovation. This are unique opportunities for your generation to pick up the mantle when too many other generations kicked the can down the road.
When I look specifically at your majors, I see tremendous opportunity. For example, in animation and game art not only can make games and various forms of media, but you can also create education and training that helps people really understand the changing world in unparalleled ways. For example, could be designing the metaverse, the world that Zuckerberg thinks we will all live in. In illustration you manifest storytelling and communications and help us comprehend perspectives other than our own. The tragic death of George Floyd would not have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement without that video. That video made the inequities no longer something we could deny, and it changed the world. That video propelled the BLM into the largest sustained political protest in history. That is the power of photography and video. In fine arts, you provide context for things that we can’t put into words and neurologists now think you change our cognition. You alter our comprehension and recording of objects and concepts around us. Graphic design helps us navigate online and in real life. When I graduated graphic design was logos and brochures and it was just starting to be digital. Now that we live in an immersive digital world, graphic design becomes an essential way that we navigate with an entirely new language. Soon you will have graduates in live and experience design that will be designing the interactions and experiences we have in both the virtual and physical world. To sum this up, we need your creativity and your bravery to build us all a better future.
Now for the emotional perspectives, while I have just made a plea for you folks to change the world for us what I have really constructed is a vision of how you make your living. Now I want to talk to you about how you think about yourselves; how you define yourselves in a broader sense. How you make your life.
There are three questions I hate. What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your major? What do you do? These are absurd questions. You are asking children that what they want to be when they grow up when the world is changing so fast around them that likely anything they pick won’t be there or will look entirely different. Most people don’t work in the field of their undergraduate major. And when you ask folks what they do, you pigeonhole them into how they apply their skills and knowledge in the moment and time that is today. Prior remarks told you that you’ll probably have 16 or 17 different jobs across five different industries. Resist the temptation to be defined by a single occupation.
If actuaries are right, you folks will live somewhere between 80 and 100 years. That means, if I’m guessing your age correctly, you got about 65 years ahead of you. Most of us recognize that our lives fall into chapters, which means I’m estimating you have 10 more chapters ahead of you. Thoughtfully prepare and draft those chapters. It’s entirely up to you.
A few years ago, I was inspired by a TED Talk by David Brooks that talked about the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. And it’s kind of odd to talk about a eulogy at a graduation, but that is how you sum up a life. Eulogies are simply how you sum up what accomplishments or impacts or meaning you had on the world especially to others. When you live with a resume mindset, you focus on your living. You focus on how things work. You focus on external success. You focus on acquisition of money, attention, possessions, and stuff. When you focus on the eulogy perspective you question, “Why are we even here to begin with? What internal intrinsic value do I have? Who do I love? Where do I give back? Where and how do I create community?”
And this is where I’m encouraged by your generation because prior generations did this, they looked at their graduation and they said, Okay. I got a job. And that job is in Lancaster, PA. If you have a loved one or a partner with whom you may start a life together, you likely need to look for that second job. And then you must figure out where you are going to live. Are we going to rent? Are we going to buy? Are we going to have children? Do we need to think about school systems? And then where are those places that we belong?” It could be houses of worship. It could be bars, restaurants, dog parks, gyms, country clubs, or whatever you’re into. And then out of that, your community accidentally forms.
If we’ve learned anything over the last 785 days, which is how long it’s been since the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, some of you folks are putting community first. A lot of folks are resisting by declaring that you want your life to be as important as how you make your living. You prioritize community. And maybe that will be Lancaster. Maybe it will be in Pennsylvania. Maybe it will be in New England or maybe it will be further out in the world. And here they begin by contemplating where they want to live. What kind of climate do you want to live in? Do you want to live in an urban or rural area? Where are those places that you want to belong? And then how does your job fit into that? I think that’s the reordering that is starting to take place today.
As I close my remarks, I want to sum up the advice I sought to impart today with three quotes. First, I encourage you to embrace failure. You know that from the critique method and how you’ve been trained, and in the immortal words of Nelson Mandela,
“There’s no passion found in playing small or settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
Second, we do need you to build that better future. In the words of Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon,
“To design is to devise a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
We can all agree, I inventoried a few situations we could elevate to preferred ones. And then emotionally speaking, in the words of Mary Oliver,
“Tell me what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
You’ve got 10 chapters ahead of you and I encourage you to put your life ahead of your living. Congratulations to the class of 2022. We are all rooting for you because your success is all of ours. Thank you very much.