Thank you very much, Mark. It’s a treat and an honor to be back with you here nine months later for this very important moment in your University’s life, in your life.
I gave a lot of thought about what to say today because this is a really serious time for our country and the world you’ll be stepping into, and I would like to have a serious conversation. As I thought about you, the Washington University Class of 2004, it occurred to me that your time here has been powerfully shaped by two dates, two momentous dates, 11-9 and 9-11.
A few months ago someone in Europe pointed out to me that the Berlin wall fell on November 9th, 1989. That’s 11-9, 1989, just as you were all starting elementary school. And, of course, the Twin Towers were brought down on 9-11, 2001, just as you were beginning your sophomore years here. As I thought about those two dates, it struck me that they each represent a powerful form of imagination at work in the world today. 11-9, the fall of the Berlin Wall, was brought about by people daring to imagine a different and more open world, one where every human being would be free to realize his or her full potential and then summoning the courage to act on that imagination. Do you remember how it happened?
It was really so simple.
In July, 1989, hundreds of East Germans sought refuge at the West German Embassy in Hungary. A month later, Hungary decided to remove its border restrictions with Austria. That meant that any East German who got into Hungary could pass through to Austria and the free world. Pressure built up on the East German government, and when it suddenly announced plans to ease travel restrictions, tens of thousands of East Germans immediately went to the Wall where, on 11-9, 1989, border guards just opened the gates.
Someone there in Hungary’s leadership must have said to himself or herself, “Imagine. Imagine what might happen if we grant these visas to all these East Germans? Imagine if the East German government doesn’t know how to respond. Imagine if people just come streaming out. Imagine — imagine — if East German citizens, young and old, men and women, are emboldened by seeing their neighbors flee to the West, and then one day they just swarm that Berlin Wall and tear it down brick by brick?” Some people probably had that exact conversation, and because they did, the fall of the Berlin Wall on 11-9 opened the world up like a burst dam. It was a great era in which to be an American. We were the only superpower, and the world was your oyster.
As you entered this magnificent university, you could think about traveling, for a semester or a summer, to more countries than any class in the 150-year history of Washington University; and, I suspect, you could look around at your classmates here and see people from more different countries than any Washington U. class before as well.
9-11 changed all of that. It showed us the power of a very different kind of imagination. It showed us the power of a group of hateful people who spent several years imagining how to kill as many innocent people as they could to advance their warped vision. At some point they literally must have looked at one another, those boys of 9-11, and said, “Imagine. Imagine if we pull this off. Imagine if we actually can hit both towers of the World Trade Center. And imagine — imagine — if each tower were to come crashing down like a house of cards?” Yes, I am sorry to say, some people actually had that conversation, too.
The imagination of 9-11, of course, is a pessimistic imagination, one that seeks to divide people, one that seeks to erect walls and borders, one that seeks to make the world into a danger zone and America into a ghetto. As a result of it, the world that was your oyster seemed to close up a bit like an oyster’s shell.
But, don’t worry. I have not come here today to depress you on such an important day in you and your families’ lives. I am still an optimist. I am an optimist because I have two kids, two girls, not much younger than you, and I want them to grow up in a world shaped by the imaginative spirit of 11-9, not by the imagination of 9-11. But I need your help, and that is what I have come here to say today. You see, optimism cannot just be an attitude. It has to be a strategy, and you all need to bring strategic optimism to three areas in particular — your personal lives, your country’s future, and your world. Let me explain.
When I say bring the spirit of 11-9 to your own lives and careers, I mean a couple of things. First, understand that in this age of terrorism, there is no such thing as perfect security. Rational precaution should be taken, but once you’ve done that, you basically have to decide, “Am I going to sit home in the basement forever and be imprisoned by those who are actually imagining another 9-11, or am I going to get on with my life and try to pull off my own 11-9?”
My advice: Get on with your lives.
I had a friend in Beirut who always used to joke that, for safety’s sake, every time she flew on an airplane she carried a bomb in her suitcase because the odds of two people carrying a bomb on the same plane was so much higher. Baby, whatever it takes, but get out that door. We must not let the spirit of 9-11 choke our lives.
My daughter was a senior in high school a year ago, and she was in the traveling high school orchestra. All year they prepared for a March 2003 national high school orchestra competition in New Orleans, but because this happened to coincide with the start of the Iraq war, the Montgomery County School Board, where we live, in a panic decided to cancel the trip out of a fear of terrorism. My daughter was really disappointed, but I was livid. I thought this was outrageous. They weren’t going top erform near Baghdad. They were going to perform near Baton Rouge. At some point you have to ask whether Osama bin Laden and his sidekick, Ayman Zawahiri, are actually sitting around in a cave in Afghanistan, and Ayman says to Osama, “Hey, Osama, remember that high school orchestra competition in New Orleans? Well, it’s coming up again next week. Let’s really make a splash and go after it.” No, I don’t think so. Let’s leave the cave-dwelling to bin Laden.
I promise you it’s never as scary out there as the newspapers make out, but you are entitled to ask, what exactly am I saying? Am I saying just launch out into the world as though 9-11 never happened and the minds that inspired it are no longer out there?
No, I’m not saying that. I know this is not your parents’ world anymore. As individuals and as a country, we have to take seriously the reality of these new dangers, taking the smartest precautions we can, and then go on with our lives, trying to be as smart about security as we can.
My own spiritual guide, Rabbi Zvi Marx, taught me that there is a concept in the Talmud called “Kabdehu and Khashdehu,” dating from an ancient time when travel across borders or having the stranger show up at your doorstep was both common and dangerous. It means: “Honor him and suspect him.”
It is this new balance between security and openness that we must strike as an open society. I want to be safe, but I also don’t want to suspect the wrong people. You must not allow a suspicion to become a paralyzing paranoia, nor optimism a self-blinding recklessness. The worst thing that an open society can do is to deny real threats, because then you would be putting at risk every citizen; but an open society will never realize or maintain the benefits of its openness if all we do is go around suspecting every new visitor. That means we constantly need to develop systems that are smarter and smarter about detecting those who want to do America ill, while letting through the vast majority of students, professors, business people who want to be and are inspired by the American Dream and just want a slice of it. Absolute security would mean keeping everyone out. Absolute insecurity would be letting everyone in. The challenge before us is finding the golden mean between these two, and that’s what I mean by smart security.
But you also need to bring imagination, the imagination of 11-9, to your careers for one very simple reason. The job world you are entering is an increasingly flat world. That’s right. I know that this great scientific university taught you that the world was round. I am here to tell you that the world is flat, or at least in the process of being flattened. That is actually the title of my next book, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century.” By that I mean the competitive playing field is being leveled. You are entering a world where more people have PCs. More people have Internet connections and the bandwidth to communicate. More people have good educations, and more people have the enabling softwares, like Google, Microsoft Net Meeting or Instant Messaging, to gain knowledge, to innovate and to spread new ideas.
Just a few months ago I was in Bangalore, India, doing a documentary on outsourcing for the Discovery-Times Channel. We filmed the young Indian engineers, just a little older than you all, coming to work at Infosys, the IBM of India. As we were filming, the Infosys spokeswoman mentioned to me, as if it were nothing, that Infosys last year got one million applications for 9,000 engineering and tech jobs.
In this increasingly flat world, the most important attributes you can have are adaptabilty and a creative imagination, the ability to be the first on your block to figure out how all these enabling tools, which are now available to so many more people, can be put together in new and exciting profits and, hopefully, also, peace.
In our documentary we were profiling a young group of Indians who wanted to go into the video gaming business. It was their life-long dream, but to break in they had to prove themselves to American gaming companies. So they decided they would make up their own video game designed for the American market. They sent it off to see if anyone there would bite. The game turned out to be a great success. It was called “Saloon,” and it was based on a Wild West theme, but here is what I love about their story. None of these kids had ever been to America. They used Google, e-mail and several off-the-shelf graphics design programs to come up with their game.
The world is flat. I can’t give you advice on how to learn creative thinking. Some things can’t be taught. But I can give you a hint: Do what you love, first, because in the world of 11-9 you have so much more power to do what you love; and second, because if you do what you love, you will always love what you do, and a hundred percent of people who love what they do end up thriving, either emotionally or financially. People who love what they do are always more adaptable and creative.
Personally, I followed my heart, and I did what I love without ever planning what came next or even thinking about how much I might make. And because I did what I loved, I always loved what I did, and that’s what propelled me forward. My parents took me to Israel when I was in tenth grade, and in that moment on I fell in love with the Middle East and spent all three summers of high school working on an Israeli collective farm, or kibbutz. I didn’t quite know what career I wanted, but I sure knew what I loved: I loved journalism, and I loved the Middle East. Now, growing up in Minnesota at that time in a middle-class family, I never thought about going away to college. Like all my friends, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but unlike my friends I decided to major in Arabic. There were not a lot of kids at the University of Minnesota studying Arabic back then. Norwegian, yes; Swedish, yes; Arabic, no. But I loved it. My parents didn’t mind. They could see I enjoyed it. But if I had a dime for every time one of my parents’ friends said to me, “Say, Tom, your dad tells me you’re studying Arabic. What in the world are you going to do with that?” Well, frankly, it beat the heck out of me, but this was what I loved, and it just seemed that that was what college was for. Somehow it ended up 25 years later with me as a columnist for the “The New York Times.”
It doesn’t mean I love every minute of every day of my job. I have my frustrating moments, but I always want to come back the next day, and that is the real test. So whatever you plan to do, whether you plan to travel the world next year, go to graduate school, join the work force or take some time off to think, don’t just listen to your head. Listen to your heart. Sometimes your heart knows you better than your head. Sometimes your heart is better at imagining than your brain. Listen to it, and if you don’t know quite yet what it’s telling you, keep searching, because if you find it, you’ll be good at it, and as a result, you’re sure to be well paid, either emotionally or financially.
Let me end this point with a version of a poem written by the poet Taylor Mali. A friend sent it to my wife one day. She’s a schoolteacher. It’s called, “What Teachers Make,” and it goes like this. The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued this way:
What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decides his best option in life was to become a teacher? You now, it’s true what they say about teachers. Those who can do, do, and those who can’t do, teach.” To corroborate his statement he said to another guest, ‘Hey, Susan, you’re a teacher. Be honest. What do you make?’
Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness, replied, “You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could, and I can make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. I can make a ‘C-plus’ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor and an ‘A’ feel like a slap in the face if the student didn’t do his or her very best.” Susan continued, “I can make parents tremble when I call home or feel almost like they won the lottery when I tell them how well that their child is progressing.” Gaining speed, she went on: “You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write, and I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.” And Susan then stopped and cleared her throat. “I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention.”
Susan then paused. “You know what I make?” She said, “I make a difference. What about you?”
That leads to my closing point. Your country also needs your abilities to imagine and to imagine you can make a difference. In fact, it really needs it more than ever.
Two months ago I was sitting around one evening speaking to a friend of mine, Middle East analyst Steve Cohen, shortly after the Madrid railroad bombings of a couple of months ago, and we were lamenting the fact that it seemed like the only people with imagination in the world today were the bad guys. Steve then remarked that this seemed to be “the characteristic of our time — all the imagination is in the hands of the evil-doers.”
Steve’s point really struck a nerve with me.
So I went downstairs and I said to my wife, “You know, Ann, I am so hungry for a positive surprise. I am so starved to hear a politician, a statesman, a business leader, surprise me in a good way. It has been so long. It’s been over ten years since Yitzhak Rabin and Yassar Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Yes, I know it didn’t last. The bottom fell out, but for a brief shining moment you got to see leaders step out of themselves and imagine a different world. It’s been a long time.”
So my wife and I started to just spontaneously play “Imagine.” My wife said, “Imagine if President Bush decided to offer a real alternative to the stalled Kyoto treaty to reduce global warning. I’d like to wake up and read that in the morning.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I want to wake up and read that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited Ariel Sharon to his home in Riyadh to personally hand him the Abdullah peace plan, and Mr. Sharon responded by freezing all Israeli settlements.
Then Ann said, “I want to wake up and hear that General Motors announced that it will no longer make gas-guzzling Hummers, and that President Bush has decided to replace his limousine with an armor-plated Toyota Prius,” a hybrid car that gets over 40 miles to the gallon.
And then I said, “I want to wake up and read that Dick Cheney has apologized to the U.N. and all our allies for being wrong about Iraq, but then appeal to our allies to join the U.S. in an even more important project of helping Iraqis build some kind of decent Democratic framework.
I want to wake up and read that Congress has decided to call for a tax hike on the rich in order to save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation and to finance all our under-funded education programs.
“But finally,” I said, “I want to wake up and read that John Kerry has asked a Republican to be his vice-president, because if Mr. Kerry wins, he intends not to waste his four years avoiding America’s hardest problems — health care, deficits, energy, education — but to tackle them, and that can only be done with a bipartisan spirit and a bipartisan team.”
I wrote a column to that effect, and I got more reader response than any column I have written in a long, long time. And what that told me was how hungry people are, how starved they are for leaders with imagination.
So I hope when you leave here today that every once in a while you’ll sit in your kitchen and do what my wife and I did. Imagine the America you want to wake up to and try to do something about it. Get mad and get moving. We have so dummied down our politics. We have so narrowed our aspirations. We have so limited the horizons of our imaginations by all these political advisors telling our politicians, “You can’t say this. You dare not say that. You can only do that in your second term.” Well, you know what I say? Let’s have the second term now. Let’s have the last hundred days first. I just turned 50 this year, and I don’t have time to wait anymore.
Our country needs your imagination in another very important way as well. We are the most powerful country on earth, and we could do a lot better for ourselves if every once in a while we actually imagined what it was like not to be an American, to be the other man or woman. People who have power often don’t think about it. People who don’t have power think about it every day. If we want to have the world with us in the war against terrorists of 9-11, we must become better listeners.
There was a headline that grabbed me in the “Times” a few months back. It said, “Cheney Lashes Out at Critics of Policy on Iraq.” “Wow,” I thought, “that must have been a fascinating encounter. Then I read the fine print. Mr. Cheney was speaking to 200 invited guests at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and even they were not allowed to ask any questions. That is not a way to be a listener.
If I have learned one thing in 25 years of journalism, it is that listening is the key to life. First of all, listening is important on a practical basis because you can’t possibly have a monopoloy of all good ideas. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “It’s amazing what you can see by just listening.” But listening is also a sign of respect. It is a strategy for creating credibility with another person by taking him or her seriously. That, in turn, invites respect back for the things you want to say to them.
Again, my teacher, Zvi Marx, taught me that there is a rabbinic tradition that says, “Who is worthy of honor? He who gives honor to others.” It is amazing how much people will allow you to say to them, by way of criticism, if you just bother to listen to them first. In the age of the Internet now we only have to listen to the converted and preach to the converted. You could find your own little community on the Internet and just read its newspapers or magazines or commentators. That is why all of this improvement in telecommunications in the world has not been paralleled by an improvement in understanding. In the world of the Internet and narrowcasting, where you can get your news only from the blogger or newspaper that agrees with you, where you can create your own little chat room to chat only with those who are like-minded, it is just so much easier to talk to yourself and hear only what you want to hear.
I heard Richard H. Brodhead, Dean of Yale College, give some very smart advice along these lines to incoming freshman at Yale this year. “Above all,” Dean Brodhead told the students, “don’t limit your associations to people who agree with you.”
I read that American political parties are concluding that the old electoral strategy of first playing to the core adherents and true believers, and then reaching out to the independent or unpersuaded, might now be passe’, and that parties will succeed best by continuing to appeal to the party base. This may be good politics, but I doubt it’s good for the quality of thought that will result from politics.
Who do we suppose will be able to deal more constructively with the challenges of our time: People who have only ever experienced preaching to the converted, or people who tested their understanding against the countervailing understandings of others?
Maybe if we are better at listening, we will be better at imagining. Every other word out of America’s leaders and media since 9-11 have been “terror” or “terrorism.” We have stopped exporting hope, the most important commodity America has. We now only export fear, and as a result, we are importing everyone else’s fears right back.
I don’t want to clean up Abu Ghraib prison. I don’t want to just have kinder and gentler interrogations. If you ask me, we should announce tomorrow that we are letting free everyone inside, or transferring the real bad guys elsewhere, and then turning the place into either the Abu Ghraib Medical Center, with all the equipment donated from the U.S, or the Abu Ghraib Technical College for Computer Training, with all the computers donated by Dell, HP and Microsoft. That’s how you export hope, not fear.
People love to make fun of American optimism and naievete, this crazy idea that we Americans have that every problem has a solution and that the future can bury the past. Yes, people around the world often snicker at us for that, but deep down, they envy American optimism. They look for it. American optimism helps make the world go round, and when we get away from that, the whole world becomes a sadder place.
Well, I’ve gone on long enough. So let me end by saying the following: While this is your graduation year, this was also a big transition year for me. You see, last September I dropped my own daughter off at college at the beginning of her freshman year, and I have to tell you it was one of the saddest days of my life. And it wasn’t just the dad thing dropping his elder daughter off at college.
No, something else bothered me. It was the sense I had that I was dropping my daughter off into a world that was so much more dangerous than the world she was born into. I felt like I could still promise my daughter her bedroom back, but I could not promise her the world, not in the carefree way that I had explored it when I was her age. That really bothered me.
And that brings me back to where I started. I simply will not settle for such a world. I have known so much better, and I believe we can have better, and I will forever use my column to advance those sentiments. But I cannot succeed alone. None of us can.
And that’s where you all come in. Here at Washington University you will be forever known as the Class of 2004, but your world and your country needs you and your generation to be forever the class of 11-9, the generation of strategic optimists, the generation that would not settle for pessimism, the generation that wakes up in the morning and not only imagines that things can be better, but acts on that imagination every day.
Thank you very much. Good luck.