I am proud to begin by congratulating our students for earning—not just getting—but earning your degree. So, on behalf of everyone gathered here, congratulations, Class of 2012.
I am standing before an impressive group. Today we graduate 3,325 students, coming from 41 states, three Armed Forces postal codes, one territory, and 84 countries around the world. 54 percent have earned undergraduate degrees, and 46 percent have earned graduate, medical, professional, or post-graduate degrees.
We salute you all.
We also salute the many people who helped get you here today: from your parents to your professors, loved ones and others who supported, nurtured, and encouraged you—and, dare I say, at times put up with you—to help you arrive at this point. It is a fact: none of us got here alone.
I’ve been in your seat, so I know you’re asking yourselves on this important day: how long is he going to speak?
Not very long.
Ernest Hemingway authored what is probably the shortest short story.
It’s only six words long.
It reads: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”
Clearly he wasn’t being paid by the word.
During this high season for commencement addresses, I got to thinking, what is the shortest commencement address?
And in this age of Twitter, I crafted one myself… Ready: “Go forth! Prosper! Make us proud!”
I know … it’s not very profound. But it does get to the heart of the matter in fewer than 140 characters.
And while I could indeed stop my remarks right there, it would not do justice to your accomplishments or reflect the significance of what today represents.
So let me elaborate by sharing something remarkable. On the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is a small exhibit on innovation.
It’s a collection of 32 models, side by side, mechanical inventions, many with tiny beautifully crafted working parts. From 1790 to 1880, all patent applications had to be accompanied by a working model.
Each innovative model is an example of creative thinking and craftsmanship applied to problems in everyday life.
. . . a paper bag cutting machine.
. . . an artificial leg.
. . . an electro-magnetic engine.
. . . and, yes, even a better mousetrap.
It’s a modest exhibit, but the breadth of ingenuity is amazing.
In that room are the ideas that helped transform the United States from a rural society to an industrial giant … the ideas that fueled the American Industrial Revolution, one of the most fertile and boom chapters in the history of humanity.
Seeing those models makes one wonder. Where did the ideas come from? How exactly did they spread so rapidly—long before the Internet, before radio, and television, and the telephone?
Where did the creativity come from?
The answer is that none of those innovators worked entirely by themselves. They shared and improved each other’s ideas.
Journals and periodicals published articles and information about new technologies.
The government organized tours for engineers, scientists, and inventors to travel and meet with others who were doing groundbreaking work.
Members of philosophical societies got together to talk, surprise and challenge one another, and spark new ideas.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Nobody, but nobody, does it alone.
Today it’s fashionable to study innovation and the habitats that sustain and encourage it—whether it be the differentiation and diversity that emerges on a coral reef … or the rapidly changing ecosystem of the Internet.
Science writer Steven Johnson, joining a growing consensus, found that intellectual breakthroughs do not spring from the mind of a thinker who sits in solitary contemplation, until a light bulb goes off in her head, and the thinker cries, “Eureka!”
The image of some artistic genius holed up in his or her study, creating a brand new paradigm from scratch, is a romantic fantasy.
The opposite is true: Concentration and hard work are involved, but good ideas are far more likely to emerge gradually, over time, as part of a slow accumulative process. And that process most often takes place in environments that promote collaboration.
As it turns out, the most effective structure for generating good ideas may be a group of human beings, talking, in what Steven Johnson calls “spaces of innovation.”
Spaces of innovation.
That would be anywhere that people come together to connect, share ideas, agree on some things, argue about others, hash it out, and ultimately—innovate. It could be the cafeteria. A Facebook page. Anywhere at a university, where we celebrate the life of the mind.
When you work alone, in an office or laboratory, staring at a computer screen or some other apparatus, you can get stuck in yourself.
As Johnson says: “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Over the course of human history, one of the greatest drivers of innovation has been the steady increase in human connectivity.
From the rise of the modern city… to the British coffee houses of the 18th century … to today’s social media platforms, each development has intensified interconnectivity among human beings.
There’s a saying about ideas. If you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange them, we each have two ideas.
As you prepare for the next stage of your lives, the lesson is clear.
Regardless of your academic discipline and professional aspirations, to succeed in a complex, rapidly changing economy, you must cultivate an interconnected mentality. The faculty and I hope we have helped you do just that.
Graduates, you know that all around us is so much important work to be done. We need a cleaner environment … a low-carbon energy source … a smarter health care system … business models that can keep pace with economic and social change … digital systems that are more connected and more secure … cures for diseases. The list is challenging and formidable.
But working the checklist is possible and essential within your lifetime. Take a page from today’s three honorary degree recipients, who have significantly advanced the fields of technology, globalization, and health care. All are innovators.
In the near future, we may even reach a point known as singularity when we have created intelligence that is smarter than human beings. Then the Siri’s of tomorrow will be able to help us take on these challenges … plus, I trust, continue to tell us places in the neighborhood we can grab a bite to eat and connect.
Siri is only a year old. The iPad? Just two years old. And Angry Birds, the consistently most downloaded app on the web, it’s just 3.
The fast-forward speed of transformations is extraordinary and often disorienting.
Yet you, Class of 2012, are prepared.
Around this time of year, there appear what I would call typical “anti-college” articles. Unfortunately, there always will be skeptics who question the value of higher education, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Today I congratulate you on making a terrific investment in yourself. A college degree and an advanced degree are the single greatest financial investments you can make. And let’s not forget those non-financial returns on your investment, those about being happier, healthier, more in synch with society’s responsibilities—and you’ll live longer.
Forgive me, now I am going to mention two four-letter words that may be circulating around your homes these days: JOBS and DEBT.
Well, in reference to the latter, you may have heard the expression: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
It’s true—the unemployment rate for college graduates is 6.4 percent — yet the lowest since 2008. But keep in mind that it’s many times higher and harder for those who have only a high school diploma. Their unemployment rate is nearly 19 percent.
Even more striking is the college wage premium, which is at an all-time high. According to a new report, over a 40-year career, the holder of a bachelor’s degree earns about twice as much as the average worker with a high school diploma.
And for those graduating today with advanced degrees, the financial multiplier increases and the unemployment rate decreases.
Plus here at NYIT, you are the beneficiaries of American higher education, prized the world over. A style of education that promotes experimentation, accepts failure, rewards creativity, and breeds innovation.
For students and faculty at NYIT, every day and everywhere, connection and interdependent learning happens—in the classroom, in hallways, labs, student meetings, symposia, and in online discussion boards.
Here’s one example among many:
In the School of Architecture and Design, the Environmental Site Planning course taught this year brought together students from engineering, architecture, design, and business to address a real-world problem.
Consider the plastic water bottles found everywhere in the world. They take many hundreds of years to disintegrate. Could there be a way to put those bottles to good use?
Yes. The students designed a roofing system with a plastic interface that holds the bottles in a sloping grid, creating a surface that’s quick and easy to erect … it’s sturdy and rainproof.
It can be built in any area struck by natural disaster—after a flood, tornado, or earthquake—anywhere there’s a need for quick, low-cost shelter. In fact, the design will be showcased at our annual Energy Conference in
a few weeks—another event where NYIT shows innovation leadership.
In every field today, demand is increasing for a new class of designers, engineers, technicians, physicians, health care providers—for people who can perform specialized tasks, yes. But also—and more importantly—for people who can synthesize ideas and create solutions to address real-world challenges.
And that, graduates, is your opportunity.
In addition to what you know, you will be rewarded for your ability to think, to leverage technology, and to apply your ideas.
And so I urge you today to follow my Tweet—“Go forth! Prosper! Make us proud!”
Critique, clash, conflict, collaborate, connect, and create spaces of innovation where you can openly share your ideas for the betterment of all.