A graduation speech

Written by David Mimno

Since Cornell is such a big place, departments have individual graduation ceremonies where we can give students more individual recognition. I was recently invited by the Information Science students to give the faculty address for our department. Here’s a lightly edited transcript.

Thank you all for the invitation to speak. I view this honor as, in some way, karmic retribution for all of the graduation speeches that I have ignored or forgotten or slept through. I can recall almost none of them. The odds, it would seem, are not in my favor.

One of the few that stuck with me was by Don Shimamoto, a mathematics professor at Swarthmore College. He said that some of us, when we opened our diplomas, would find a blank page. We had in fact been participating in an experiment, and that some of us were in the control group and had received… a placebo education.

It was funny, which helps memory of course, but this idea of a “placebo education” also captured the emotion I had as a graduate. You may feel at this moment not that different than you did yesterday, or even four years ago. And that’s ok. However much you learned, your education is not over and will continue — no matter where you are or what you are doing. (This does not apply to our PhD graduates. You are done.)

But, like I said before, most graduation speeches I cannot recall a word of. So how do I go about writing my own? As many of you know, I try to make decisions informed by data, and text mining happens to be my specialty.

So I tried collecting a corpus of representative speeches. Perhaps, I thought, I might find evidence of the ideal balance between folksy anecdotes, stern admonitions, and blue-skies optimism.

What I found was a few top ten lists, and a couple of archives with about 100 speeches each, from the last 20 to 30 years. Considering that there are around 3000 four-year colleges in the US alone, all of which presumably hold something like a graduation ceremony every year, and considering the proportion of these that anyone has decided are memorable, the odds, again, are decidedly not in my favor.

Perhaps this is related to what psychologists tell us — that although we are rarely aware of it, and even less often willing to admit it, we as humans are wrong about most things just about all of the time. The exact estimate varies, but it seems reasonable to assume that about 80% of our ideas are bad. This is not to say that your idea for a drone that makes guacamole will not work. It is just that the odds are not in your favor.

But I take this optimistically. Because if most people are wrong 80% of the time, then to be terrifically effective and influential, we need only be wrong, say, 70-75% of the time.

So how do we do that? Well, again, thinking statistically, if most of our ideas individually are bad, then it’s likely that the majority of good ideas will come from other people.

The saying goes that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. There is in fact a wonderful little book by Austin Kleon called “Steal Like an Artist” that expands on this idea. I highly recommend it. According to Kleon, there are a few keys to stealing creatively. Steal from many sources, not just one. Transform your sources, don’t just repeat them. And engage deeply and meaningfully, don’t just reference. The Roman poet Vergil steals from essentially every previous Greek and Latin poet. Tolkein raided the vaults of medieval culture. George Lucas stole from just about everything. George R.R. Martin combines the aesthetics of both Sir Walter Scott and New Jersey dockworkers.

So this brings me to your major, Information Science. I am pleased to be speaking on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the founding of IS at Cornell.

The world was a very different place in 2005. Drones were a kind of bee. Phones had buttons on them and were used to speak, out loud, to other humans. Facebook was just for college kids, and was considered cool. And this university perceived a need for a new field that studies the way new technologies affect how we live.

So how did they do it? They identified ideas and people from a range of disciplines that had not previously been combined: communications, law, economics, computer science, operations research, statistics, design. The growth of this department embodies the idea of stealing like an artist: many sources, transformation, serious engagement. Synthesis.

But enough about us. Let’s talk about you. Parents, friends, family — thank you for sharing these young people with us.

They are incredibly difficult to teach. [This was greeted with loud applause from one side of the audience.]

It’s not because they are on YikYak all the time. They are, but that’s not why.

It’s not because they know everything, although they know a lot, and I learn something from them every day.

It’s not even because we are training them to go out into a world and we don’t know what that world will look like. It’s worse than that.

You see, we don’t just expect that the world in 10 years will be as different from 2015 as 2015 is from 2005. We expect that these graduates will be the ones who cause that change. We are trying to train people to operate in a world that we fully expect they themselves will create.

What we do know is how to model the way we think you will work. The truly influential people will not be the ones who do one specific thing. The truly influential people will be the ones who connect to many different perspectives — deeply, seriously — and use those perspectives transformationally to create things that no one has thought of before.

Now I admit that I am conflicted. You see, in a very concrete sense, what I have just described is the fact that my former students will be the ones creating the compelling, life-changing systems that will distract my future students.

So I make one small request. When you make something awesome — and I know you will because I’ve seen your work — please block requests coming from the vicinity of Cornell University between the hours of 11:15 to 12:05 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. [ie, my large lecture class]

So as you leave to go out into the world, remember a few things. Be humble. You will say “I wish I had thought of that” many more times than you will say “I’m glad I thought of that”. Use it as a strength. Be curious. Search out that new perspective, follow it through, and make it part of you. And, to quote the other graduation speech I still remember, by Robert Kuttner: be a teacher. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can still learn, and you can be, in some way, a teacher. I did not take his advice literally for many years, but doing so has been the hardest, most fun, and most rewarding thing I have ever done.

Thank you.