Build a Life and Not Just a Living. Think Big Anyway!

Thank you so much distinguished faculty, parents, alumni and most importantly scholars! It is a huge honor to congratulate you on earning an advanced degree from this great university. You did it! You earned it! Give yourselves a big hand. A couple of months ago when they called to invite me to speak at this celebration, I went home and told my wife. I said, “Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that this would happen? And she said, “Well, you’re not in my wildest dreams.”

Ladies and gentlemen, there are scholars here from 99 different programs and 20 different countries. And this celebration is being simulcast live around the world. Loved ones in China, India, Ghana, and Brazil and other countries are up in the night watching this broadcast so they can see you walk across this stage in just a moment. And let’s also give a shout out to all the people who supported you along the way to bring you to this proud moment: your advisors, and mentors and colleagues, student loan officers, and baristas at Starbucks, and bartenders at The Graduate, and those sorely under appreciated pizza delivery drivers. Let’s give them all a hand. It takes a village to raise a scholar!

I realize there may be a few of you out there who’ve never heard of me, never read my books or seen me on YouTube – and please don’t all go there at once you’ll crash the site — but I graduated from this university in 1978. I’m sure the stone tablets with my academic record must still be around here somewhere. And I went on to become a futurist and innovation expert advising organizations all over the world. And perhaps because of this work, they’ve asked me to share a few thoughts with you about how to make the most of your future and your innovation journey ahead. So, I want to talk with you about three things; three ingredients for success let’s call them. And they all begin with the letter C: Change; Creativity and Courage. Let’s start with change. In 1440, a man named Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. His invention made it possible for the first time in history to spread ideas and knowledge over vast distances, and it disrupted the existing order of serfs and landowners and kings and queens and everything began to change. Gutenberg’s invention set off a series of revolutions: The Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the birth of our democracy here in America. And you and I are living in a similar period of change, but it’s not just revolutionary, it’s exponential. And at a milestone moment in your life such as this, it’s as important to look back, as it is to look ahead in order to gain wisdom and perspective.

I look at the changes in my own life since leaving this place. I look at the vast changes to this campus since I was last here. My wife, Carolyn and I took a tour of the campus and we hardly recognized the place! Finally, we spotted Clark Kerr Hall and it was so good to see a familiar landmark. Some of you may remember Clark Kerr, he was president of the University of California back in the ’60, and Governor Reagan fired him for not putting down the student unrest at Berkeley and Santa Barbara. And Clark Kerr famously said, “I left the presidency just as I entered, fired with enthusiasm.” Not bad advice for all of us! But you know, back then, despite the turmoil, life seemed simpler. I was able to work my way through school practicing two skills: writing and selling. I wrote for the student newspaper, and I’d jump on my bike and sell advertising to the merchants downtown. And in my senior year, I took a class taught by a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, a wonderful professor named Karl Shapiro. And it altered the course of my life.

Instead of going to law school, I went on a quest, with Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road in my backpack. I wanted to, as Henry David Thoreau put it when he went to live at Walden Pond, “live deep and suck the marrow out of life.” And I and my comrades – several of whom are here today – hitchhiked and hopped freight trains and felt the freedom of the open road. Just imagine riding on a freight car out of the Denver yards headed up the steep Rocky Mountains, the twinkling lights coming on in the city down below and the wind in your hair — this was when I still had hair. And we vowed during those days never to get stuck in a rut, never to sell out, never to live an “unexamined life.” And one day I found myself backpacking in the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming. And I got a little sloppy and it could have cost me dearly. What happened was I wandered away from my tent across a meadow to check out a sunset and when I tried to return to my tent, I encountered an angry moose in that meadow, and by the time he wandered off, I couldn’t find my tent in the dark, and finally I had to huddle up under a pine tree with a forest service map as a makeshift blanket. And after one of the longest nights of my life, dawn finally appeared, and I looked around and there was my tent… 30 feet away. And what I learned in the mountains that night was that conditions change rapidly when you’re not paying attention. And in the course of my work, I see how conditions are changing rapidly and many are unprepared. A disruption might be bearing down on them and they’re in denial. They’re going to ignore it; hope it goes away. But then I see other organizations, other individuals their attitude is decidedly different. No matter what the change coming at them – demographic, social, economic, technological change – they are going to embrace it; give that change a bear hug; they’re going to find a way to turn lemons into lemonade.

Now I’m not suggesting you embrace every change that comes toward you. Far from it. Especially if it violates your values or is a threat to the common good. Here I invoke the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things that I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” You see, the biggest danger is not that you won’t accomplish something big in your life because you already have. The biggest danger is that you will settle for security and the creature comforts — and stop reaching for more, for your highest and truest potential in this life. To do that, you must be willing to change.

Which leads me to the second “C” — Creativity. IBM did a study not long ago where they asked CEOs “what leadership competency do you need more than any other in people today”? And the answer … was creativity. They called creativity the single most important leadership competency in a world that is more volatile, more uncertain, and more complex than ever before.” You in your journey are going to face situations where there are no guidebooks, where GPS is not available, where there are fewer precedents, where you will just need to improvise, trust your instincts and make it up on the spot. But if you’re willing to embrace your creativity, you’re going to be fine. In fact, you’ll be in high demand whatever you do.

In 2006, Nokia was the global leader in cellphones, growing by double digits. They were considered one of the most innovative companies in the world – what could possibly go wrong? And that year, 2006, Nokia invited me to work with a group of their best and brightest, high potential managers, who would be flying in to Palo Alto from all over the world. And I remember posing a question to this group: I asked them: “If I work for you and I have an idea, what do you want me to do with it? And I’ll never forget one of the attendees who spoke up and he said, “I’d just tell you to forget about it. You’re just going to frustrate yourself; there’s so much bureaucracy you’ll never get anywhere with the idea. Why take the risk?” And there were some gasps in the room that day, but I got the sense that this guy was telling the truth as he saw it. And I came away from that session with the thought that “rapid growth sure covers a lot of sins.” But then one year later Apple introduced the iPhone, and Nokia began its spectacular fall from grace.

In retrospect, it was clear that Nokia believed it was in the cell phone business, while Apple, under Steve Jobs, believed it was in the creativity business. And my friends, in today’s world … we are all in the creativity business. Every field of endeavor, no matter how advanced, can still be advanced further. There is always room for improvement; there’s always a better way, there are always assumptions that need assaulting; always new mountains to climb.

So, embrace change. And practice working on your creativity daily.

And the third and final “C” is courage. Yes. It takes courage to explore out there on the frontiers of your field. It takes courage to face your fears and go ahead and do the work you believe in. It takes courage to trust yourself when others doubt you. It takes courage to stand against corruption in all its forms. And above all, it takes courage to create the life that you really want to live. With so many voices yammering at us from the moment we wake up until we close our eyes at night, it takes courage to decide what and how you want your life to be instead of letting circumstances, or Facebook, or someone else decide. Nothing about the future is written in stone. My generation, the Boomers – came of age during the time of Vietnam and Watergate and social unrest. We tried to stop a war and create a better world, and we are not done yet. But now your generation has your chance at bat. Your chance to make a difference. Your chance to change the world.

And that is my encouragement to you – to think big when others are thinking small. To push back against those who say that the best days are behind us, that our problems have grown too big. And please remember this. People with the biggest ideas are always ridiculed by people with the smallest minds. But so what! Think big anyway! And do good not only for yourself, but for others, and for the planet. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow; do good anyway. Build a life, not just a resume.

Graduating scholars, again: congratulations! You have labored, mightily, to enjoy precious moments like this. Moments where the possibility and the passion of the human spirit are unleashed. Moments where you soar on the vision of a better world. We all want to live our best life. We all want someone to love us, and to love in return. We all want to leave the world a better place. We all want to prosper. And we all want to align with that spirit of oneness and possibility that is not selfish but selfless and transcends borders and barriers and brutality.

Moments like this don’t come along every day. So when they do, savor them. Store them in your heart. Because every day you create your destiny. Godspeed to all of you and thank you for this honor of a lifetime.