Replay: Daniel W. Rasmus 2010 Bellevue College Commencement Speech
Graduates, parents, friends, faulty, staff, distinguished guests, and President Floten, I want to thank you for this honor.
I start with a shout out to the band. For several years I played the flute in the Harbor Junior College community band. I played Pomp and Circumstance for hours. I appreciate all of your preparation for today. If anybody in the flute section has a shot embouchure, let me know. I’ve got you covered.
Some people call me a futurist, but I actually consider myself an anti-futurist. I don’t predict the future so much as help organizations navigate through the shifting tides of change. And in Washington, the weather is something that always changes. I am thankful we are holding this event indoors, although today most of us anticipated the rain and choose to wear these cool umbrella hats.
When presenting, it is always best to come toward the end of a program or, in this case, a season, as you can reflect on those who have come before. It has been an interesting year for commencement speakers. I will not, however, berate those of you who use the iPhone or the iPad and suggest that your online habits are a threat to democracy as President Obama did. I will not recognize a long list of graduates who never actually attended Bellevue College (as Anne Curry did at her alma matter). I will not complain about the smell of cabs in the summer with Glenn Beck, nor be ironic with Ben Bernanke and say that “money is not enough.” I promise not to be just, OK, like Alec Baldwin at NYU. I will, however, side with John Grisham and suggest you read a book a month (however and on whatever you want to read them).
Preparing for this presentation has been a personal learning experience. I wondered if I should show up or just type a series of tweets we could crawl on the scoreboard. But I decided to come and talk about gates. Not Bill or Melinda, or William or Robert, but the gates set before us as we learn. My daughter Alyssa passed through a gate earlier in the week. She graduated from Eastlake High School and will be attending the University of Oregon in the fall. Our lives have been very different. In high school, I shared my nerdy interests in science fiction and literature with members of the drama club and the science fiction club (many shared members, by-the-way). My information sources were limited to my parent’s Funk and Wagnall encyclopedia purchased at the grocery store, the Daily Breeze newspaper of California’s South Bay, Walter Cronkite on television, and Vin Scully on my AM radio, telling me how my Dodger’s were doing.
Nerdiness is inheritable. Alyssa is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. I remember several years ago when she came down to dinner and proudly announced she celebrated Sarah Michelle Gellar’s birthday. I asked her how she managed that, given she was in her room “doing homework” all day. Well, she informed me that she had friends on the Internet in Sau Paulo, Amsterdam, and Capetown. They exchanged photos, movie reviews, URLs, and other important bits of information. The group from Sau Paulo baked a cake, posted it on YouTube, and taught them all how to sing Happy Birthday in Portuguese.
She passed through very different gates than I did.
In the fall, my wife and I will be empty nesters, and that is another sort of gate. As I look back on my life though, I realize it isn’t the gates, but the jumbled up, haphazard, chaotic confluence of life and experiences that define me. I am the product of a hundred challenges to do things I had never done before, never learned before, never experienced – all of which I stepped into, around or over. In the early days of the computer industry, I wasn’t just doing things I hadn’t done, I was doing things others hadn’t done, like creating artificial intelligence programs to run printed circuit board assembly lines. I was coding HTML in 1994 as the Web was being born. Co-created experiences defined me, not points along a path defined by others.
I love sharing this book, the Outline of Man’s Knowledge by Clement Wood, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1930. This book states that the outmost planet in our solar system is Neptune. This matches the recently revised view that Pluto in not a planet. In 1930, however, Neptune was the furthest most planet because Pluto was yet to be discovered.
We have learned much since this book was written. We have learned much since I started this speech. Perhaps some of you not paying attention have read a tweet that announced some subtle or profound new discovery. I know my daughter Rachel has probably texted several people and her phone is buzzing in her pocket. I hope she is looking for the subtle and the profound.
Now, I am not against celebrating gates. My wife will tell you that we celebrate my birthday for an entire month each year (that would be October), going from restaurant to restaurant for singing and free Sundaes. So I am honored to be standing before you as part of your celebration of this important moment in your life. But I encourage you not to think of this as a gate, but an experience. Do not consider yourself complete in your learning, but take what you have learned as a way of seeing the world through a more sophisticated lens, as a point along a path to deeper questions, as permission to continuously imbibe knowledge, to teach others and as a basis for challenging the presumed wisdom which arrives too often wanting to just be absorbed, not interacted with.
The most important learning you can achieve, and there is no gate for this, is learning how to learn. We present no degrees in curiosity, we offer no certificates in tenacity, we confer no scholarships for innovative thinking. Yet if we are not curious, if we are not tenacious, if we are not innovative, we may end up stalled alongside gates created by others.
At birth, you were the recipient of the most flexible and adaptive tool anyone can ask for, the human brain. Unlike a shovel that only digs or a multi-function printer, that can fax, scan, copy and print, your brain can write poetry, calculate the trajectory of a spacecraft, create synthetic life, transform sunlight into electricity, comfort the bereaved, heal the sick, compose music, declare war, negotiate for peace, make people laugh and write computer programs — just to name a few of its terrible and wondrous talents.
The true benefit of education cannot be determined at the end of a class, the completion of a semester, or even at the passage of a gate, because you have not been confronted with the true test of your learning. You have not yet used what you have learned in a new situation, to see if you know how to reshape the sinew of learning, to fashion a new response from rote facts and learned processes.
What I just described is innovation. Innovation does not take place when something works, but when conditions change and what we once thought adequate no longer serves to inform, inspire or even make due. The pearl is not secreted by a oyster when it is comfortable, but when it is irritated.
Each of us has our own tolerance for change, our own threshold of irritability, our own slant on what needs to be improved. So change takes place in uneven fits and starts. It has no pattern until we apply one. The pattern is itself an invention.
If that is true, the only thing we can do to prepare is to learn how to learn. To read and doodle, to rearrange Post-it Notes on a refrigerator door, to build mind maps and take notes on the back of envelops, to drag string from one thought to another to create a visceral connection between ideas. We must embrace change. We must become an avatar and wonder through Second Life. We must download apps, we must write on the walls of our friends. We must post pictures that record history, inspire us or just capture our humanity. We must blog about what we learned today, even if nobody reads it. The very act of composing a blog makes us focus our thoughts, reinforce what we have learned. We must also document the questions we need to ask tomorrow.
Remember that the right answers are contextual. In the 1920s, a test on the planets in the solar system stopped at Neptune. It was not wrong, test writers just didn’t know about Pluto. In 90 years we may well teach a physics where Einstein is a footnote. Or we may find his legacy reinforced by the shape of a grand unified theory he pursued his entire life. In a world of science, “facts” change regularly. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould often said that if we rewound history and played it back again, the world would be a very different place. The future is full of contingent moments that don’t have right answers. Those moments will rely on courage in light of incomplete data, false perceptions and faulty reasoning — but we will need to move forward nonetheless. Learning how to learn is the only preparation for change.
As I said at the beginning, I am an anti-futurist. But being anti- or not, this is a particularly important year for futurists. Not because there is anything special about what is happening, but because most organizations look out 10 years. So this is the year of 2020 vision, and everyone wants to be cute.
So let me leave you with some images of the Bellevue College graduation my 2020 vision.
Many learning experiences look like games
Many of the students who are graduating won’t be in this facility, they will be scattered all over the world, but we will see each of them receive their degree, digitally rendered in realtime Most graduates will speak a foreign language, and not necessarily one they learned in school
You will no longer have to worry about how to pay for school because as a nation, we will have set our priorities straight
Most of you will drive home in a car powered by natural gas
Rather than sell your books back, you will either delete them or transfer ownership to an authorized sibling, as there will be no market, and no model, for used electronic books.
Most of your reading and entertainment will be delivered through glasses. No more laptops. No more TVs.
This will be the first class that Learning How to Learn will be incorporated into graduation requirements
We will have transitioned to a knowledge economy and most jobs focus on the transfer of knowledge. In fact, in your first job, you might just get paid to learn.
We will stop saying academic years as it makes no sense in a continuous learning environment.
The graduates will all whisper to each other at how lame it is that their parent’s are still texting each other
As an anti-futurist, I can’t guarantee you that this is how it will really be, but hopefully by presenting these images, you will think about your future learning in a different way. College is, after all, a co-created phenomenon. It comes from the minds, and the hearts, of every person who crosses on to this campus. The only gate that really matters is the gate that opens you to learning in the first place.
Every one of you has your very own, marvelously complex, intuitive, rational, emotional, stubborn human brain. From this point on don’t let a manager or a professor or a parent decide what is important to learn or how best you learn it. Feel free to ask for advice, but the decisions belong to you. You own your learning. You own the choice of learning alone or with a community. You own the choice of taking or giving back. You own the choice of stopping or moving forward. You build your own gates, define your own successes.
I have but one gate left in this speech. I want to wish you my congratulations on your accomplishments. May your hard work and tenacity serve you well in the future. May you challenge all of us to co-create the positive future we hope for, but don’t always know how to achieve. It is truly an honor to be one of those asked to co-create the future with you, and I look forward to learning from all of you in the years ahead.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.