Winter Commencement 2016 remarks


As prepared for delivery

Kohl Center, Sun. Dec. 18, 2016

Good morning, and welcome to the winter 2016 commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Let’s start with a round of applause for our new graduates.

I would also like to extend a special welcome to family and friends. Please join me in thanking them for everything they have done to make today possible.

I also want to say a special welcome and thank you to astronaut Jim Lovell.  Jim is an American hero who saved lives and set new standards for space travel in his extraordinary final trip to the moon.  His story was captured in the movie Apollo 13.   He may be the first honorary degree recipient ever to also be selected – in a completely separate process, by the senior class officers – to serve as commencement speaker.

He is definitely the only one to have been played by Tom Hanks in a movie.

Jim – thank you for being here.

Today we’ll confer just over 2,000 degrees upon our undergraduate, graduate and professional school students.

And tomorrow, each of you will set off on your own path.  A path to careers … graduate studies … travel … or something else entirely.  Some of you don’t know yet – and that’s OK.

Our December graduates tend to be particularly well-prepared for whatever lies ahead. Many of you took a little extra time to reach this milestone because of an internship, study abroad, or other experience that enriched your education and will open new opportunities as you move forward.

You have worked hard and accomplished much … and some of you have overcome enormous odds to reach this day.

Cesar Gutierrez is a great example. He graduates today with a degree in zoology.

Cesar is the son of immigrants. He grew up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York – a place that doesn’t send many kids to college.  He came to us as part of the Posse Program.

Like many of you, Cesar had moments when he wondered whether this was the right place for him. He doubted himself. He had some negative experiences here at UW. But he reached out for support, and he found it … and he is now on his way to veterinary school.

And then there’s Drew Hasley who has earned his Ph.D. in genetics. Drew plans to focus on improving biology education to create more opportunities for students with disabilities … but he is already making history.

Today, Drew becomes the first legally blind person ever to receive a UW genetics doctorate.

As we celebrate all of your achievements, I suspect many things are going through your mind:

  • What will my colleagues on the new job be like?
  • When am I going to hear back about that interview? And
  • What do I do with that couch if I’m moving to California?

The answers are: Hopefully terrific … I don’t know … and sell it on Craigslist.

We are always focused on hundreds of little (and not-so-little) things. The who-what-where-when-and-how demand answers, but they also distract us from bigger, more important questions.

Like “why make these choices?”

Think back a moment. Do you remember when you first decided you wanted to major in journalism, or return to school for a graduate degree in engineering, or go to law school? When you knew for certain you wanted to work on environmental issues or be a nurse or become a professor?

Why did you make that decision?

You may have a number of answers. But I am guessing there is one that most of you share:

You want to make a difference.

But you’re probably not sure exactly how to do that. Maybe you’re thinking if you work hard enough, there will be a defining moment when you have that big idea or when everything falls into place and you know you’re on the right track. A moment of discovery or insight that changes everything.

But the truth is, change usually doesn’t happen in lightning moments. It’s much more incremental.

Let me tell you a brief story.

In 2010, the British professional cycling team – Team Sky – was looking for a miracle. They wanted to become the first British team in history to win the Tour de France.

They hired a new manager, who had an approach that seemed too simple to work. He said: We’re going to change everything … but only by 1%. And that’s going to add up to something big.

He and the team searched everywhere for places to improve. The weight of the tires … the design of the bike seats … the pillows they slept on …  what they ate and how they washed their hands. Nothing went unnoticed.

They’d hoped this strategy would position them to win the Tour in five years.

They were wrong.

It took just two. They won in 2012 and again in 2013.

With a series of the tiny, almost invisible adjustments, the team pulled off a major upset.

If you look deeply at any successful company, product or program, you will find that its success is typically built upon many small changes, each of which made it a little better. Improvements driven by people a lot like you. Smart, educated, committed to making a difference.

Now, a number of you are already experienced change-makers. You’ve found ways to make something easier or more efficient. You’ve started mentorship programs with just one or two students – programs that will take root and grow. Some of you have developed innovations that hold great promise.

These are things that happen every day at a major research institution dedicated to pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

But beyond the borders of the campus, you may find that change doesn’t come as easily. People like to do things the way they’ve always done them. Let’s face it: That’s a lot less work. Our history is full of stories of innovations dismissed – and innovators derided as quacks.

In 1910, the great minds at Scientific American predicted that, “it’s only a matter of time before any reasonable man realizes that [airplanes] are useless.”

To be a change-maker takes resilience, persistence and the ability to withstand disappointment. There are two other key ingredients, too.  

First curiousity.

Curiosity grows best in those idle moments that neuroscientists call Incubation Time.

But Incubation Time has become scarce, because … why sit around just thinking when you could be binge-watching Gilmore Girls or taking some discreet selfies (I see you out there … it’s actually more discreet without that Selfie Stick).

Last year, psychologists from Harvard had research subjects sit in an empty room for 15 minutes. They were given the option of doing nothing or jolting themselves with an electric shock.

40% chose the shock. I see nods of agreement.

We have come to a place where nearly anything is better than being alone with our thoughts.

So here’s my challenge to you. As you enter this new chapter of your life, give yourself a little time each day as a quiet observer. Analyze, as Team Sky did, every facet of something you want to improve.

The second ingredient is collaboration.

 You don’t do anything alone. You need friends and collaborators.

You are graduating from a university with a deep commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. A commitment that grows directly from our dedication to solving problems in the real world – what we call the Wisconsin Idea.

But solving problems isn’t the only reason to collaborate. It turns out that having colleagues who are engaged, supportive and collaborative is one of the most important attribute of happy workplaces – more important than pay levels.

In fact, pay is #8 out of the top 10 factors affecting job satisfaction, according to a 2013 global survey.

So look for environments where you will be working with people who are committed to working with you. And don’t forget the collaborative and supportive friends, colleagues and mentors you’ve met here. The people who have laughed and cried with you … the ones who always seemed to know when you really needed a burrito bowl with all the toppings.

You aren’t leaving these people behind; many of them will be lifelong friends, who may come back into your life in ways you can’t predict.

You are now part of the family of 400,000 Badgers … people who are making a difference all around the world. They, too, will be your collaborators.  

You are graduating at a time when this nation and the world face enormous challenges. But crisis and uncertainty create opportunities for transformative change.

I hope that you will bring what you learned here at the University of Wisconsin to those challenges, wherever they lead you.

I hope you stay curious, and keep finding ways to collaborate with people who share your commitment to doing something just a little bit better.

And don’t be discouraged when you come upon a roadblock. Remember the words of Booker T. Washington, who said success is best measured “not so much by the position one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome.”

I, for one, can’t wait to see what you do next.

Thank you for all of your work here. Each of you has made this campus a better place.  Congratulations…and On, Wisconsin.