May 18, 2009, Grinnell College
Thank you very much, and congratulations to the class of 2009. I'm honored to be here. I was speaking to Dean Smith on the way in and she said that you had a Baccalaureate meeting yesterday. And one of the students was making the point to her that, "I know I learned something here that's going to be really important in the job market. I just don't quite know what it is." And what I'd like to speak about this morning is what I think it is.
I'm going to give a practical speech this morning. It is really two speeches. It is about the America you're going into, and why the liberal arts education you got here, I think, is really relevant. I hope they'll come together as one speech. Every time I try to do this, I'm reminded of a story when they were digging the tunnel under the English Channel to connect Great Britain and Europe. They put it out to bid. They got bids of a billion dollars, a billion two, a billion three. They got one bid for 100,000 pounds from the firm of Goldberg and Cohen in the north end of London, and for fiduciary reasons they had to check out the bid. They sent a team out there, rang on the door. Cohen answered; Goldberg was on the road. They said, "Mr. Cohen, how can you possibly dig a tunnel under the English Channel for 100,000 pounds?" He said, "What's the problem? Cohen will start on one side. Goldberg will start on the other. We'll each have a shovel. We'll dig until we meet." "Well, what if you don't meet?" "So, you'll have two tunnels." So you may have one commencement speech, you may have two. I hope they'll come together.
Let me start by sharing with you a picture I saw just the other day. My wife is a senior board member of the SEED school in Washington, D.C. It's a charter college-prep boarding school that aspires to help African Americans from Washington's most depressed neighborhoods get the education they need to enter four-year colleges. It's a wonderful institution, and the other day President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama paid a visit to the school and met with the students. Several days later I got to see the pictures that were taken of the first lady and the president's visit, and there was one that just stuck in my mind. It was a picture taken of Michelle Obama from the back. She was going down a receiving line of young girls at the SEED school, probably seventh graders, and all you see in this picture is the first lady's back and two little black arms wrapped around her waist, hugging her tight. It was one of the SEED girls who obviously did this spontaneously. When I saw that picture, I thought to myself how amazing it must be for a young African American girl to have a role model today as first lady like Michelle Obama, graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School. Who can know what such a role model will inspire in so many others her age? But those two little arms, hugging the first lady around the waist told me it's a lot more than I'll ever know.
I tell you this story, class of 2009, because you are entitled to be upset and frustrated that your graduation happens to coincide with the greatest economic downturn in America since the Great Depression. And you are equally entitled to say to yourselves, "What a lousy time to be walking out these doors with a liberal arts education." Yes, it is a lousy economic time, but it is an amazing political time. It is one of those rare moments when America reminds itself and the world how crazy-radical we can be sometimes. Radical enough to take a chance on an inspiring young African American junior senator from Illinois, and his wife, to lead us out of this economic mess we're in. That tells me, and I hope it tells you, that our country still has the ability to change course, to start afresh, to begin anew. And what I would like to do here this morning is make the case for why that America, the one capable of infinite renewal and reinvention, is the one you should think of yourselves as entering, because in that America, there are some big jobs ready and waiting for you, or at least for your generation. Yes, your country needs you now. Help wanted.
You see, my parents' generation, your grandparents' generation, were the Greatest Generation. They earned that title because they built a world of freedom for us abroad by defeating the Nazis and winning the Cold War, and because they also helped to build a world of more freedom at home, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. My generation, the Baby Boomers, well, we've been the Grasshopper Generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts. Oh, we've had our moments to be proud of, but I'm afraid that we took many of those freedoms that our parents sacrificed to create for us and we used them to go to excess. The subprime mortgage mess is, alas, a monument to that all. But that is why we need you, you the class of 2009, to be the Re-Generation. Yes, we need to go from the Greatest Generation, to the Grasshopper Generation, to the Re-Generation. That is your job, with our help of course, to regenerate, renew, and refresh America. And you may not believe it, but the liberal arts education you received here has prepared you for this task in more ways than you might think. Let me explain.
We got into this financial mess because we got disconnected from some of the most fundamental values that made us a wealthy country. We got disconnected from the basic connection between hard work, delayed gratification, achievement, and success in life. I blame many things for that, but most of all I actually blame the end of the Cold War. One thing that made our parents' generation the Greatest Generation was that they had to stay very focused to win World War II and face down the Soviets. Those were hard enemies, people you had to be serious about, and the consequences of failure were devastating. I would argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which meant the collapse of our biggest strategic competitor, made us sloppy and lazy. We took on an attitude of, "Dumb as we wanna be." "Dumb as we wanna be," and "We'll get to it when we get to it." Hey, what's the rush? Social Security reform, health care, energy policy, environment, or immigration? "We'll get to it when we get to it." Indulging the moment became job one: over-consuming, overbuilding, over-borrowing, over-lending, and overeating all became the new normal during our post-Cold War America. Kurt Anderson described it best in a recent Time Magazine essay on the age of excess. Starting in the 1980s, he said, "It was if we had decided that Mardi Gras and Christmas are so much fun, we ought to make them year-round ways of life." And we started living large, literally as well as figuratively. From the beginning to the end of the long boom, the size of the average new house in America increased by half. Meanwhile the average American gained about a pound a year, so that an adult of a given age is now at least 20 pounds heavier than someone the same age back then. In the late 70s, 15 percent of Americans were obese. Now a third are. "Delayed gratification," said Kurt, "came to seem quaint and unnecessary."
I was visiting my hometown of Minneapolis a few weeks ago and was talking about this problem of runaway consumption with a childhood friend, Ken Greer, when he said to me, "There is something I have to show you, Tom." We drove out to a strip mall off 494 and Route 169. "Okay, look at this," Ken said, as we drove in. It was hard to miss. On both sides of the entrance to this mall were Caribou Coffee shops, the Minnesota version of Starbucks. How could one strip mall need two Caribou Coffees? So we went into the one on the right, I ordered my skim latte, and asked the barista, "Explain something to me. You're Caribou Coffee, and there's another one right over there. I can see it from here. Why are there two Caribou Coffees less than 100 yards apart?" "Well," she explained, "it was very simple. There were long lines here in the morning, so we needed another one." "I see," I said to myself, "because people had to wait in line a little longer at rush hour in the morning for their coffee, they couldn't just add another coffee machine, they had to build a whole carbon-copy coffee shop." Hey, why not? Money was cheap; resources were available. Why not have two of the same coffee shop in the same mall?
None of this manifested the breakdown of values more, though, than the subprime mortgage fiasco. At the height of the subprime craze, one Los Angeles mortgage broker told me mortgages were being given out by banks to anyone who could "fog up a knife." People with no credit rating and some without even a steady job were being given "liar loans," -- liar loans -- to buy houses they could no way manage to keep. The whole system was built on two principles -- IBG and YBG: I'll Be Gone, or You'll Be Gone when things go bad. The mortgage brokers who first sold the mortgage and then passed it off to a bigger financial institution, like Citibank, knew that if the buyer defaulted, IBG. I'll Be Gone. Or he told the buyer that You'll Be Gone if there's a problem, because the housing market would always go up, so you could always make the payments by just flipping the house. The rating agencies whose fees and incomes depended on how many of these bonds they got to rate had a great incentive to give them high ratings, and if they blew up, no problem. IBG. I'll be gone. And the investment banks who sold them all over the world had an enormous incentive to push them out to hundreds of countries. Who cared? IBG. When they blow up, I'll be gone. In other words, the whole system depended upon a decline in basic values, ethics, risk management, and accountability between borrowers, brokers, lenders, and investors. We didn't need to study hard and build a solid educational foundation to enjoy a new home. We didn't need to save and build a record of credit. The bank around the corner online would borrow the money from China and lend it to us. But you can only do that for so long. My friend, Rob Watson, who invented LEED buildings, always likes to say, "You know, if you jump off the top floor of an 80-story building, you can actually feel like you're flying for 79 stories. It's the sudden stop at the end that gets you."
Friends, we just had our sudden stop at the end, and that's why the first task for the Re-Generation -- all of us together, though -- is to restore some of these basic values of hard work and accountability that got us to where we were as a country once. So whatever ethics you learned in Philosophy 101; whatever uncompromising idealism was formed in you by a professor you so admired; whatever unbending convictions about what is right and wrong, black and white; which you stuck to in student government debates, even when your cause seemed lost; whatever principled behavior you demanded from the administration here, or from fellow students supporting the same cause, whatever you do -- whatever you do -- do not leave it here. There is nothing our country needs more right now.
But we also need the Re-Generation, not to help us only in restoring basic values, but also in creating real things of value. You see, we can't borrow our way out of this economic crisis. We can't stimulate our way out of this economic crisis with more deficit spending. We can't get out of this crisis by just adding another Caribou Coffee to every mall. We cannot get out of this crisis by just flipping each other more hamburgers and houses. We have to invent and innovate our way out of this crisis. We have to get away from just financial engineering, designing more and more exotic ways to make money from money, and get back to real engineering of stuff, stuff and services that people need to make their lives more productive, more healthy, more environmentally sound, and more enjoyable. The only way a society advances is by inventing things that satisfy people's wants and needs, like a computer or a new form of energy, or creating things that satisfy needs you never knew you had, like the need to Google, or listen to music on an iPod, and then selling them to others. Yes, we need good engineers to design those things, but we also need liberal arts grads to imagine those things.
And that's, again, where you come in. I'm a big believer that imagination -- imagination -- is the single most important competitive advantage you can have today. You can go online and hire anyone to do the programming. You can go to Amazon.com and hire them to do your shipping and handling. You can go to Freelancer.com to get someone to draw up your logo. But imagining the idea of a new product, or project, or movement, or NGO -- that's where the magic is, and a liberal arts education is the best fountain I know of for imagination. After all, where does imagination come from? Mark Tucker, who heads the National Center on Education and the Economy, once said this to me, "One thing I know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other." Intuitively, you know this to be true. Leonardo daVinci was a great artist, scientist, and inventor, and each specialty nourished the other. "He was a great lateral thinker," said Tucker. But if you spend your whole life in one silo, you will never have either the knowledge or the mental agility to do the synthesis, connect the dots, which is where the next great breakthrough is found.
So I don't know how many art, music, literature, and science courses you have been able to take while you've been here, but I hope it was the full buffet. Because the imaginative spark that gives birth to great ideas, products, designs, and intellectual breakthroughs often happens when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields, use the framework in one to think afresh about the other, and enmesh them together into something that no one else has thought of.
The geek, the geek who can teach you that best, is actually Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs. In his own graduation address at Stanford several years ago, Steve told the following story of how he went to Reed College, a radical liberal arts college in Oregon. He dropped out, though, after one semester -- was totally bored. Here's what he said. "The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you an example," he said. "Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the world. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer was beautifully hand-calligraphied. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying amounts of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life," said Steve. "But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces, or proportionally-spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them." He had to get that in. "If I had never dropped out," concluded Steve, "I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have had the wonderful typography they do today."
So if you're leaving this school with your imagination enriched and sharpened, you are leaving here with a lot more job-relevant skills than you may think. In fact, you're leaving here with the most important skill you can have. Because when the world is this flat, and it is, we have this many distributed tools of innovation and connectivity, what you imagine is going to matter so much more, because you can now act on your imagination as an individual, so much farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever before. And not just to invent a new product of value, it can also be to launch a new movement of value. I was in India a few weeks ago, and recently profiled two young Yale environmental engineering and environmental grads who organized a solar caravan across India. They got an Indian electric car company to both donate the cars and retrofit them with solar panels on the roofs to power the batteries so the cars could run 10 percent of the time on pure solar energy. They went out and raised the money from local business groups themselves, drove from village to village, picking up people and bands and singers and performers along the way, in what they called a "climate caravan." Posting on YouTube home-grown solutions for energy efficiency being developed by Indian companies, communities, and innovators, hoping to inspire others to take action. I was blown away by their gumption. They knew that the only reason such a caravan wasn't being done was because they weren't doing it. So they did it, and they did it simply because they imagined it.
I actually got my start in journalism here in Iowa. I was a graduate student in London at the time, 1975, and my then girlfriend, now wife, the daughter of the Bucksbaum music and theatre [Carolyn Swartz Bucksbaum '51], were walking down the street in London, and Jimmy Carter was running at the time against Gerald Ford. And the Evening Standard, the afternoon newspaper in London, had a blaring headline on the newsstand. It said, "Carter to Jews: 'If elected, I promise to fire Dr. K.'" And I turned to my then girlfriend, now wife, and said, "Isn't that funny? Jimmy Carter is running for president. He's trying to win Jewish votes. And to do it, he's promising to fire the first-ever Jewish secretary of state." So I went back to my dorm room. I had no idea what possessed me to do this, and I wrote an op-ed piece about it. And my then girlfriend, now wife, took it home to Des Moines on spring vacation. She gave it to Gil Cranberg, the editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register. He liked it. He printed it with an Auth cartoon, and he paid me $50. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I was walking down the street, I had an idea -- I just imagined something -- I wrote it up, and someone paid me $50. I've been hooked ever since.
I was talking to a lawyer friend the other day, and he was telling me how his law firm was cutting back and letting people go. But the people who were holding onto their jobs, he said, were sometimes very surprising. Lawyers who were just used to showing up and having work handed to them were dropping like flies, he said, because with the explosion of the credit bubble the flow of work just wasn't there anymore. But those who had the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities, new niches, and new ways to recruit work, no matter how old or young they were, they were staying, and now rising more quickly than ever.
And that, class of 2009, is the world you are entering, a world where more things than ever are possible, and fewer things than ever are guaranteed. You're entering a world where more things than ever are possible, and fewer things than ever are guaranteed. And for all those reasons, I hope by now I've persuaded you, or at least your parents, that your degree from here really is relevant. Your country needs you to bring the values you learned here, the imagination you've sharpened here, the activism you nurtured here, to be the Re-Generation. To add values and to create products and services and social movements of value. Some company, some organization somewhere will pay you for those things, and if they won't, well baby, roll your own. It's a flat world, and there's nothing stopping you now. I repeat, if it's not happening, it's because you're not doing it.
So that's about it from me. I just have one final word. It's a piece of advice I tack on to every commencement address. While you're out there tackling the world, slaying the dragons, and imagining a new future, please don't forget one thing: call your mother. You will always be glad you did. When you were just in elementary school, there was a legendary football coach at the University of Alabama named Bear Bryant, and late in his career, and after his mother had just died, Bell South telephone company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together from the news reports, the commercial was supposed to be very simple, just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough, gravelly coach's voice, "Have you called your mama today?" On the day of the filming though, when it came time for Coach Bryant to recite his simple line, he decided to ad lib something because his own mother had recently died. He looked into the camera and said, "Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine." And that was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences. I know what Coach Bryant meant, my own mother died last year, just shy of 90 years old. I miss here dearly. She was the only reader of the New York Times who agreed with every word I wrote. I wish I could call her, too.
So class of 2009, go forth and be the Re-Generation. Bring along the values and imagination you learned here, but whether you stay near or go far, also bring along some extra minutes on your cell phone to call Mom and Dad. You'll always be glad that you did. Godspeed, and good luck.