Commencement 2008: Creative Thought, Black Swans, and Your Future Self
Members of the Skidmore Class of 2008 and honored guests:
It is fitting that we gather on this day of celebration, a time when we mark the achievements of our graduates and also a moment when we pause to reflect on this significant transition in the life of an individual and a family. On behalf of Skidmore College, I extend my welcome to everyone in attendance at our College’s 97th Commencement Exercises—most especially to the members of the graduating class.
As you graduates may already have noticed, commencements bring out a nearly uncontrollable urge in your elders to offer sage advice to guide you on the remainder of your journey through life—no doubt because we all have done such a terrific job running the world that you are preparing to inherit. Be that as it may, you are going to hear a lot of advice this morning. There’s nothing you can do about it, so just deal with it.
For my part, I shall try to resist the desire to advise you and, instead, express one hope, ask you one question, and then make just one parting request.
My hope for each of you is that, as you charted your own path through Skidmore’s curricular and cocurricular offerings, you found that we kept our promise inherent in the phrase “creative thought matters.” That is, I sincerely hope we inspired, challenged, and supported you in developing your own creative abilities.
In his 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, author Daniel Pink makes a strong case that a set of capacities—which he calls design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning—will be key to your success in the economy of the twenty-first century. These capacities do not replace but rather complement the traditional, left-brain skills of linear, analytical thinking that long have held pride of place in the college curriculum. Just to suggest the flavor of what he is recommending, consider one of them: symphony, which Pink defines as
the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair. (P. 130.)
Pink argues that symphony and the other abilities he highlights are related to forms of work that are difficult—if not impossible—to automate and that are equally difficult to outsource or export. In short, he is arguing that creative thought matters very much in economic terms, and I believe it is easy to understand how such thinking is likely involved in virtually any new discovery or solution to a problem, in virtually any field of endeavor.
In a more recent book, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb emphasizes the importance of what he calls “outlier events”—that is, certain events that are so rare as to be outside our normal experience, that have “extreme” effects, and that are explainable but only in retrospect. Taleb argues that most if not all of the significant events of human history might well quality as Black Swans—from the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, to the success of the American Revolution, to the discovery of penicillin, to the fall of the Soviet Union, to meeting that one-in-a-million person and falling in love. Take your pick.
To the extent that Taleb is correct, and I believe there is much to be said for his position, the value of creative thought increases even further. For the more our lives are influenced by highly improbable events that perforce are not envisioned by standard ways of looking at the world, the more important it becomes to be able to see the world through fresh eyes, to develop the capacity to expect the unexpected, and then to devise new ways to respond when the unexpected occurs. Yes, creative thought really does matter. So, to recast my earlier statement, I most sincerely hope that we have helped you develop these skills, for now more than ever you will need them.
Now for the question: Who tells you who you are? Who tells you who you are? A simple question, but one that also goes to the heart of what you have been up to for the past four years, a question that is at the center of liberal education. The British psychologist Teri Apter wrote that
One of the main tasks of adolescence it so achieve an identity—not necessarily a knowledge of who we are, but a clarification of the range of what we might become, a set of self-references by which we can make sense of our responses, and justify our decisions and goals.
Your Skidmore career should have confronted you at every turn with possibilities for what you might become, and it should also have provided you with a set of references—not just self-references but reference points related to the thoughts and experiences of others—that you now can use as you make the decisions that will continue to create the you that you will become over the course of your life.
The truth is that none of these reference points can tell you who you are. Only you can answer that question—and you will answer it, first of all, through what you do but also in reflecting upon what you have done and still might do.
Today’s Commencement Exercises mark one point along a transformative journey that has led to the person you are today and that sets the stage for the person you will become tomorrow. I would wager that, four years ago, it would have been difficult if not impossible for anyone to have predicted just where you would be today, and it may still be difficult for you to say where you are headed. That is all right. You do not need to know just where you are going or even who you are today. But do I hope you realize that it is you who now are in charge of this itinerary. We have tried to provide you some of the reference points I mentioned a moment ago. But it is you who now must decide how to read them.
Finally, my parting request for you, as you begin this next phase of your life’s travels, is to realize that Skidmore College is not just a place where you have gone to school for four years. Rather, Skidmore itself is now part of who you are. You most likely will understand what I have just said more clearly over time. But please do believe me when I say that we will continue to care about you. We want to know what choices you are making and how those choices are working out. Above all, we want to know the person you will become five, ten, twenty, and fifty years from now. So stay connected with us, and let us continue, every now and then, to provide another reference point and, above all, to remind you that creative thought continues to matter.