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.
I’m told there’s even a Trump University. I have no earthly idea what they teach there. But whatever you do, just keep listening. Even to people you don’t agree with at all. I love what President Obama said at Howard University’s commencement last month: he said, “Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100% right.”
I heard that and thought: here is a man who has been happily married for a long time. Not that the First Lady has ever been wrong about anything. Just like my wife. Never wrong. Not even when she decided last month that in a family with four kids, what was missing in our lives was a third rescue dog. That was an outstanding decision, honey. And I love you.
The third and last thought I want to leave you with is that not every problem has a high-tech solution. Now if anybody has a right to think we can pretty much tech support the world’s problems into submission, it’s you. Think of the innovations that got their start at MIT or by MIT alums: the World Wide Web; Nuclear fission; Condensed soup. That’s is true, you should be proud of that.
But the truth is, we can’t science the you know what out of every problem. There is not always an app for that. I mean take water again as an example. People are always looking at some scientific quick fix for the problem of dirty and disease-ridden water. A “pill you put in the glass,” a filter, et cetera. But there’s no magic bullet. The problem’s just too complex.
Yes, there is definitely, absolutely a role for science. There’s incredible advances being made in clean water technology. Companies and universities are getting in on the game. And I’m glad to know that professors like Susan Mercott at D-Lab are focusing on water and sanitation. But as I’m sure she’d agree, science alone can’t solve this problem. We need to be just as innovative in public policy, just as innovative in our financial models. And that’s the idea behind an approach we have at Water.org called WaterCredit.
It’s is based on Gary’s insight that poor people were already paying for their water and they, no less than the rest of us, want to participate in their own solutions. So WaterCredit helps connect the poor with microfinance organizations, which enables them to build water connections and toilets in their homes and communities. And this approach is really working, helping 4 million people so far and it’s only the start.
Our loans are paying back at 99% and above which is a hell of a better deal than those bankers I was talking about earlier. And I agree it’s still not sexy but it is without a doubt the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
So thanks – so let me ask you this in closing: What are you going to be a part of? What is the problem that you’ll try to solve? Whatever your answer, it’s not going to be easy. Sometimes your work will hit a dead-end. Sometimes your work will be measured in half-steps. Sometimes your work will make you wear a white sequined military uniform and make love to Michael Douglas. All right, maybe that’s just my work.
But for all of you here, your work starts today. And seriously, how lucky are you? I mean, what are the odds that you’re the ones who are here today? In the Earth’s 4.5 billion year run, with 100 billion people who have lived and died, and the 7 billion of us here now, here you are. Yes, here you are, alive at a time of potential extinction-level events, a time when fewer and fewer people can cause more and more damage, a time when science and technology may not hold all the answers, but are indispensable to any solution.
What are the odds that you get to be you, right now, The MIT Class of 2016, with so much on the line? There are potentially trillions of human beings who will someday exist or not, whose fate, in large part, depends on the choices you make, on your ideas, on your grit and persistence and willingness to engage.
If this were a movie I was trying to pitch, I’d be laughed out of every office in Hollywood. Joseph Campbell himself would tell me to throttle down and lower the stakes. But I can’t. Because this is a fact, this is not fiction. This improbable thing is actually happening. There’s more at stake today than in any story ever told. And how lucky you are that you’re here, and you’re you. And how lucky we are that you are here and you are you.