She had just come from school. And I knew the reason that she was able to go to school at all is clean water. Namely, the fact that it was available nearby, so she didn’t have to walk miles back and forth all day to get water for her family, like so many girls and women do around the world.
So I asked her if she wanted to stay in her village when she grew up. And she smiled and said, “No, no, I want to go to Lusaka and become a nurse!” So clean water — something as basic as that — had given this child the chance to dream.
And as I learned more about water and sanitation, I was floored by the extent to which it undergirds all these problems of extreme poverty. The fate of entire communities, economies, countries is caught up in that glass of water, something the rest of us get to take for granted.
People at ONE told me that water is the least sexy and cool aspect of the effort to fight extreme poverty. And water goes hand-in-hand with sanitation. So if you think water isn’t sexy, you should try to get into the shit business.
But I was hooked already. The enormity of it, and the complexity of the issue, it just hooked me. And getting out in the world and meeting people like this little girl is what put me on the path to starting Water.org, with a brilliant civil engineer named Gary White.
For Gary and me both, seeing the world and its problems, its possibilities heightened our disbelief that so many people, millions, 660 million in fact, can’t get a safe, clean drink of water or a clean, private place to go to the bathroom. There are more people with a cell phone than access to a toilet on our planet. And this heightened our determination to do something about it.
Now you see some tough things out there. But you also see life-changing joy. And it all changes you. There was a refugee crisis back in ’09 that I read about in an amazing article in the New York Times. People were streaming across the border of Zimbabwe to a little town in northern South Africa called Messina. Well, I was working in South Africa at the time, so I went up to Messina to see for myself what was going on.
I spent a day speaking with women who had made this perilous journey across the Limpopo River, dodging bandits on one side, crocodiles in the river, and bandits on the other. Every woman that I spoke to that day had been raped. Every single one. On one side of the river or both.
And at the end of my time there I met a woman who was so positive, she was so joyful. She had just been given her papers, so she had been granted political asylum in South Africa. And in the midst of this joyful conversation, I mustered up my courage and I said, “Ma’am, do you mind my asking: were you assaulted on your journey to South Africa?”
And she replied, still smiling, “Oh, yes, I was raped. But I have my papers now. And those bastards didn’t get my dignity.”
Human beings will take your breath away. They will teach you so much but you have to engage. I only had that experience because I went there myself. It was difficult in many ways, but of course that’s the point.
There’s a lot of trouble out there, MIT. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. And I hope you see both.
But again, the point is not to become some kind of well-rounded, high-minded voyeur. The point is to eliminate your blind spots — the things that keep us from grasping the bigger picture. And look, even though I grew up in this neighborhood — in this incredible, multicultural neighborhood that was a little rough at that time — I find myself here before you as a middle aged American, white, male movie star. I don’t have a clue where my blind spots begin and end.
But looking at the world as it is, and engaging with it, is the first step towards identifying our blind spots. And that’s when we can really start to understand ourselves better and begin to solve some problems.
And with that as your goal, there’s a few more things I hope you’ll keep in mind.
First, you’re going to fail sometimes, and that’s a good thing. For all the amazing successes I’ve been lucky to share in, few things have shaped me more than the auditions that Ben and I used to do as young actors, where we would get on a bus, we show up in New York, we’d wait for our turn, we’d cry our hearts out for a scene, and then be told, “OK, thanks.” Meaning: game over. We used to call it “being OK thanksed.” Those experiences became our armor.
All right. Now you’re thinking, great, thanks Matt. Failure is good. Thanks a ton. Tell me something I didn’t hear at my high school graduation. To which I say: OK, I will.
You know the real danger for MIT graduates? It’s not getting “OK thanksed.” The real danger is all that smoke that’s been blown up your … graduation gowns about how freaking smart you are. Well, you are that smart! But don’t believe the hype that’s thrown at you. You don’t have all the answers. And you shouldn’t. And that’s fine. You’re going to have your share of bad ideas. For me, one was playing a character named “Edgar Pudwhacker.” I wish I could tell you I’m making that up.
But as the great philosopher, Benjamin Affleck, once said: “Judge me by how good my good ideas are, not by how bad my bad ideas are.” You’ve got to suit up in your armor, you’ve got to get ready to sound like a total fool. Not having an answer isn’t embarrassing. It’s an opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know so much less the second time I’m fake graduating than the first time.
The second thing I want to leave you with is that you’ve got to keep listening. The world wants to hear your ideas — good and bad. But today’s not the day you switch from “receive” to “transmit.” Once you do that, your education is over. And your education should never be over. Even outside of your work, there are ways to keep challenging yourself. Listen to online lectures. I just retook a philosophy course that I took at Harvard when I was nineteen. You go to MIT OpenCourseWare. Go to Waitbutwhy.com, go to TED.com.