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Commencement Address by Professor Holden Thorp ’86

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Graduating students, parents, families, distinguished guests, Mr. Chancellor – Mr. Worthy, Mr. Ford, Mr. Jordan. Welcome to the one day when we give you a place to park. I know it’s way out here in S-11, but enjoy it while you can – and don’t expect this kind of special treatment ever, ever again!

As you just heard, 20 years ago I sat where you’re sitting now. Actually, I didn’t: on my graduation day, I was off in Birmingham playing with my band. I guess that shows where my priorities were. But I did get a degree from this great university, and I congratulate you on getting yours. Way to go!

I’m honored by the invitation to be here, humbled by the opportunity to say something you can understand without a calculator. I also feel nervous. Though I missed my own ceremony, I’ve heard a lot of these talks since becoming a college professor. When I have to give one myself, I tryto remember the good ones, but it’s hard to avoid thinking about the many true stinkers.

My high school valedictorian gave one of my favorite such speeches. He concocted an amazing mixed metaphor. “Fellow students,” he said, “the time has come for us to leave the nest and swim against the stream.”

Since he hailed from North Carolina, I guess he wanted to include both hunting and fishing.

Along with studying past speeches, I’ve . gotten much advice. One wise colleague from English told me she made a successful graduation speech by quoting from her students’ papers. I considered this approach, but decided you wouldn’t be very inspired by answers from chemistry tests. So relax: Today’s speech will not make it into the Norton Anthology of Great Orations Concerning Magnesium.

Most Graduation Speeches provide lists. To-do’s for meaning and happiness. So I’ll give one, too, but you’ll have to wait till the end to see how it comes together.

You’re smart

My first point is this: You’re smart. To your families who have come here today to support you, this may come as a huge shock. But now, you have a completed transcript to show them, and who knows, in a few weeks we may even mail you a diploma.

But smart is not enough. Knowledge that sits on a bookshelf or stays unused in your head doesn’t transform the world. Knowledge is nothing until it becomes an idea, and an idea is nothing until it finds some momentum 90 until it gets legs.

Google has legs. Facebook has legs. Bill Gates didn’t invent DOS, he bought it for $50,000. But Microsoft stillsorta has legs. And legs are important. I know about this. I see lots of great ideas from brilliant people that never go anywhere. Since you’re smart, you might actually have a great idea sometime soon. Don’t look so surprised that I’m saying this. If you have a great idea, I encourage you to do something with it.

Since I’m a musician, when I need an example of an idea with legs, I go right to the Beatles. Now for the students in the audience, the Beatles were a moderately successful rock group in the 1960s. Their music was distributed on gigantic plastic disks. You probably have a lot of these at home that – for some unexplainable reason – your dad refuses to throw out.

What could be easier or more fun than being a Beatle? What does a Beatle do all day? Play rock and roll. Grow hair. And run away from screaming female admirers – or not.

Well, I’ve got a news flash for you: The Beatles worked their tails off. When they were honing their sound in Hamburg, they lived on stage for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The first two years of Beatlemania, those darn mopheads made two feature films, recorded over 50 original songs and appeared on the radio over 50 times. Even Ringo worked!

After their first No. 1 hit, they sold the publishing rights to their existing songs. And even at that point, there were 58 other Lennon-McCartney originals already written.

The Beatles finished 59 songs to get their first hit. They knew what two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling would later say: “The way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” It’s impressive that in working-class England, they managed to heed the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

So, though you’re smart, you’ll still have to struggle – and daily – to get your dream up on its wobbly little legs. To help with that, I wish you many a hard day’s night. May you joyfully spend them working like a dog.

Get from ‘like’ to ‘love’

People who write 59 songs while working 12 hours-a-day don’t just like writing songs. They love writing songs; they’re passionate in their need to write songs. Ideas need people with passion, and that passion cannot be faked.

It’s tough to find even one authentic passion. It might not exist yet, you might have more than one, or it might change after you find it. Count on much trial and error. Since it’s your passion, you can’t learn it from another person – not your parents, your spouse, your little brother, your dog – not even Jon Stewart. Believe it or not, you probably can’t find it on the Internet. You have to discover it.

I’m a scientist, so I enjoy discovering things. Motivational writer Jim Collins says “You can’t manufacture passion or ‘motivate’ people to be passionate; you can only discover your passion and the passions of those around you.” According to Collins, passion takes people and organizations that are good already, then makes them great.

Now, you’re probably not too surprised to hear your graduation speaker talking about passion, but I’ll go a step further and say that you can’t go from good to great without getting from ‘like’ to ‘love.’ Build a life of love – you’re too good for ‘like.’ When someone asks you in a few years about your new life, please don’t say, “Oh, I like it.” It’s you’re life, love it! We will not allow you to settle for ‘like.’ Love is always your objective.

Thanks to the generosity of your families and the state of North Carolina, you just spent the last few years learning from people who love knowledge. Professors at research universities love knowledge so much, we work like dogs to make sure there’s always more on the way. Learning from people who create knowledge helped many of you discover your love. But if you haven’t found it yet, you’re right on schedule. Do whatever it takes to get from ‘like’ to ‘love.’ If it’s a while in coming, don’t worry: Love is patient. Not only that, but I’ve heard it’s all you need.

Learn from your failures

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel performed the famous marshmallow test. Four-year-olds sat alone in a room with a marshmallow and were told they could eat it, or – if they could wait 15 minutes by themselves without gobbling it – they could have two. When they got to high school, the children who waited for the second marshmallow performed better in a variety of objective and subjective measures, including 210 points better on the SAT.

Although I wasn’t part of this test, I can guess from my own SAT score that I would have devoured the first marshmallow. Thankfully, psychology shows that we can learn what Dr. Mischel called “goal-directed self-imposed delay of gratification.” So good news, graduates: You can start delaying gratification at any time. Perhaps tomorrow would be a good time to begin!

Because even if you work hard and chase a dream you love, you probably won’t find success on the first try. If you do, your dream may be too easy. Professor Gary Pielak, a colleague of mine in the chemistry department, understands this concept. This fall, the National Institutes of Health gave him its biggest and most coveted prize, The Pioneer Award, which provides almost $4 million dollars for his research. Gary is the first UNC faculty member to win.

Gary’s plan could give us new insight into degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Sounds good now, but prior to this fall, Gary sent the NIH 10 grant proposals in a row for the same project and they were all rejected. Ten times, he opened a rejection notice; 10 times, he absorbed the criticisms; and 10 times, he resubmitted 25 new single-spaced pages of 11-point type with 200 footnotes. I’m sure glad he sent in No. 11.

People like Gary Pielak are not just persistent, they also know how to learn from their failures. Some people dream big and prepare for inevitable catastrophe: ambition and humility. Or as Porras, Emery and Thompson have described – audacity without arrogance.

Be brave enough to hang on for that second marshmallow. In the words of Carolina soccer great Mia Hamm: “Failure happens all the time . what makes you better is how you react to it.”

So even though that crackerjack plan of yours might eventually strut around on its sturdy, adolescent legs, it will trip and fall – frequently. But if you love that dream enough, you won’t mind one bit picking it up when it’s down. And with a love like that, you’ll know you should be glad.

Let’s see. Number one: You’re smart. Number two: Get from ‘like’ to ‘love.’ Number three: Learn from your failures. I’m afraid my graduation-day list is not very original: brains, heart and courage. The good news is that as of today, you’re at least a third of the way there.

I can’t wait till you get them all, because with your trio of yellow-brick skills, you can imagine education that’s more than standardized tests. Imagine enough food to feed 7 billion people. Imagine cures for diseases that strike the uninsured. Imagine clean energy and a return to the Earth’s normal temperature.

“Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

You have my permission to be a dreamer. I can assure you that you’re not the only one.

Truth is: We need you. We need your brains. We need your heart. We need your courage. And we need you to remember there’s no place like this big, pine-treed backyard that you call home.

I’ll close with my own mixed metaphor and say that out there in there in that parking lot waits the train to future. And when you leave here, you’re gonna have a ticket to ride.

Class of 2006, you can change the world. You will.

Congratulations and peace to all of you.


 

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