May 12, 2017

Purdue president to graduates: ‘Stay humble’

Purdue President Mitch Daniels made these statements during May 12-14, 2017, commencement ceremonies on the university campus.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The intimidating challenge for every commencement speaker is to say something even remotely interesting or original. The sobering reality is that, even if you do, no one will remember it for very long.

But there are some words that, however overused, are appropriate and even essential on these occasions. Phrases like, “Is this hat on straight?,” and “Say cheese!” And one more that is probably the most common of all: “We’re so proud of you.”

You’ll be hearing those words all day long, and rightly so.

In a few minutes, you will be a recipient of one of the proudest emblems of achievement possible at this stage of your life: a degree from Purdue University. In a way not all college degrees connote, the world will know you earned it. As you know, here we aren’t into “participation trophies.” Year in, year out, good grades are hard to earn at Purdue. Year in, year out, our graduates surpass those of other institutions in the eyes of employers, graduate schools, and their future colleagues in life.

So a Purdue commencement, this day of great pride, may seem an odd place to talk about humility. But that’s the word that kept coming to mind as I reflected ahead to this event; because if there is a single quality that one associates with your university and one quality that will assist you in earning other emblems of achievement later in life, it is the inverse of pride. It’s the trait we call humility.

I know I’m not the first person to bring this to your attention. You may have first heard it at church. Almost all the religious traditions admonish their adherents to guard against excessive pride.  The Proverbs are full of warnings about it: “Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Confucius taught: “A wise man has dignity without pride; a fool has pride without dignity.”  The Buddha cautioned against letting praise affect “the poise of the mind. Follow the calmness, the absence of pride.”

The ancients came to similar conclusions. In mythology, one of the most powerful images is that of Icarus, whose pride led him, fatally, to believe he could fly near the sun. Marcus Aurelius wrote “Short-lived are both the praiser and the praised.”

These days, advice like that is out of fashion. Everywhere one looks, it’s a showboat, look-at-me, dance-in-the-end-zone world.  The age of the pseudo-celebrity, where people of no apparent talent or character, famous only for being famous, people who never could have passed English 106 or Math 153, let alone a course in thermodynamics or microbiology, preen and strut and spout off on subjects they know little or nothing about. So maybe all those ancient admonitions just don’t apply anymore.

Or maybe they apply more than ever. Maybe humility, the awareness that one’s own ideas, values and attitudes may just not be superior or perfect, is the quality that makes a person wiser and more effective, a better learner in an era of unending education, a better teammate in a project team world.

Drafting history’s first constitution restricting a government to the consent of its people, Ben Franklin suggested to his fellow delegates that they all resolve to doubt just a little their own infallibility. The modern world is full of self-styled experts, not nearly as smart as Old Ben, for whom a little self-doubt might have come in handy. 

On the first Earth Day, confident scholars from places like Harvard and Stanford predicted worldwide famine and starvation, a universal need for gas masks in urban areas, the complete exhaustion of crude oil and a host of other raw materials, and the coming of a new Ice Age, all well before now. Your first years of life were filled with predictions of collapsed electric grids, planes falling from the sky and revolutions worldwide, from the failure of software programs to handle the change of centuries. The economic forecasters of our federal government just completed what one could call a perfect season. Eight years out of eight, they predicted substantially faster economic growth than the nation experienced. 

You’d think that the election year just past would have boosted the National Humility Index a little. We discovered that most “talking heads” were talking nonsense. Highly paid pundits wrote reams of what turned out to be rubbish. An entire industry, public opinion surveying, is in crisis after its readings turned out to be grossly inaccurate and based more on flawed assumptions than statistically valid methodology.

There are worse forms of hubris than overconfident forecasting. History is replete with the cruel arrogance of those who believed they had the genius to reorder society and the lives of their fellow humans. In their most benign and well-intentioned form, they produced short-lived failures like the New Harmony colony here in Indiana. But this same proud presumption also gave rise to the worst monsters of history, the totalitarians of the last century who murdered millions in the unshakeable belief that it was their right to tell others how to live, even to reshape human nature itself.

I bother you with all this because life will soon invite you to overindulge the pride you justifiably feel today. Few, if any of you, were raised to see yourselves as an aristocrat, but in a real sense that is what you now are. Today’s aristocracy is of a new and very different type. It’s based not on title or land or inherited wealth, but on intellect and learning. The kind that claims almost all the best jobs in our economy; the kind that, in fact, puts less-educated folks out of work. The kind that made a handful of kids at Snapchat richer in their 20s than George Eastman was when Eastman Kodak dominated the photographic world and employed a quarter-million workers.   

Some of you will invent the next round of productive tools that will eliminate somebody’s jobs. That’s progress, and it’s inevitable. But will others of you create new businesses with new opportunities for those displaced? Or new ways of learning that enable them to find new work, and with it the dignity that comes only from earning one’s own success?

Just as important, will you recognize that your degree doesn’t mean that you know what’s best for those without one? Or that, even if you did, it’s not your right to make the decisions of life for them? A lot of damage has been done by people who, in their well-educated superiority, saw those around them not as creatures of dignity but as objects of therapy. 

Too much pride may annoy those around you, but what’s worse is the growth it can prevent within you. When you’re too self-assured to accept the greater wisdom of others, you deny yourself a lot of continuing education. Lord Maynard Keynes’ economic theories haven’t worked out too well, but I’ve always admired his rule: “When I find I’m wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?”

The stubborn refusal to admit a mistake and absorb its lessons can be the biggest mistake of all. I have never found “Oops” a difficult word to say, and what follows saying it is often a great learning opportunity.

At one especially low moment, when I felt I had let down a cause and in fact a President of the United States, then Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige snapped me out of it with some simple but sage advice: “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”  Don’t be too proud to face up to your goofs and improve your future judgment.    

Starting when you leave campus today, it will become all too natural for you to slip into your new status in the knowledge elite and to drift away from the millions of your contemporaries who didn’t make it to Purdue or some place of comparable opportunity. You’ll likely work with people much like yourself; socialize with them; one day probably marry someone similarly well-educated.  Without meaning to or even thinking about it, you may find yourself living in a social class apart from far too many of your fellow citizens. That will disserve them and limit you. Try not to let it happen.

There’s one good reason I doubt that you will. It’s because you attended this particular university. Because, just as high achievement is a Purdue hallmark, so is humility. Maybe it’s in the DNA so many Boilermakers arrive with, from families that taught them all this years ago. Or maybe, as our biologists might say, it’s epigenetic, a trait their time at Purdue helped embed in their characters.

All I know is that, over and over, your greatest predecessors have been as authentically humble as they were accomplished. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, awash in adulation for his piloting skills that saved 155 lives, subject of a movie bearing his name, has yet to utter a conceited word.  Neil Armstrong, in an elevator with an oblivious, starstruck matron who was telling everyone around her that the famous astronaut was staying in their hotel, got off without ever identifying himself.  The father of Purdue computer science, Dr. Alan Perlis, famous for his “Perlisisms,” used to say, “In programming, as in everything else, to be in error is to be reborn.”

It’s not just the old-timers. The ethic of humility is alive today. Akshay Kothari, who created the news scan company Pulse and sold it to LinkedIn for $90 million, now runs LinkedIn’s 750-person affiliate in India, at the ripe old age of 30. When asked by our Indian alumni newsletter for one piece of advice for today’s students, he said – can you guess? – “Stay humble.” Maybe I should have just quoted Akshay and sat down.

Class of 2017, I’ve been waiting for you and this day. You were the first class I welcomed to campus after taking up my official duties at Purdue. I hope you don’t mind that I think of you as my classmates. I just know you are bound for exciting places, great achievements, thrilling moments.  And that, when those moments come, you will meet them with the quiet grace the world has come to associate with the word “Boilermaker.”

Oh, in case I forgot to mention it:  We’re so very, very proud of you.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.

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