Speaking Words of Wisdom

Innovators Aren't the Smartest People, and Other Lessons From Graduation Day


Steve Jobs, right, walks with Stanford University President John Hennessy before Jobs spoke at graduation ceremonies in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 12, 2005

Photograph by Jack Arent/Palo Alto Daily News via AP Photo

Steve Jobs, right, walks with Stanford University President John Hennessy before Jobs spoke at graduation ceremonies in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 12, 2005

Thanks to YouTube (GOOG) and camera phones, just about every commencement speech from cap-and-gown season is recorded and published online for posterity. Many of them are dead dull, full of platitudes and jokes that fall flat. But a rare few—such as David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech—are worth viewing and reviewing for inspiration. With the last of the commencement speeches behind us, we look at the ones this year that may just inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and the big take-away messages they pack.

“Smarts do not matter”: Walter Isaacson, biographer, CEO of Aspen Institute, at Pomona College, May 19

After Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water,” perhaps the greatest of all commencement speeches was delivered by Steve Jobs in 2005 at Stanford University, a speech that’s generated more than 17 million YouTube views. Isaacson, Jobs’s biographer, knew this full well, cribbing some general themes from that epic address for his own, delivered this past weekend to Pomona College graduates. Isaacson went one better than Jobs: He also incorporated life lessons from Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, two other Isaacson biography subjects, about how great minds stand apart and make huge societal impacts. Like the Jobs speech from 2005, Isaacson’s Pomona College commencement speech is worth a watch for anybody with the daring to think differently and the passion to build the next big thing.

Take-away: If you look at the impact Jobs, Einstein, and Franklin have had on society, it is this—smarts do not matter; creativity matters.

Quote: “If you are passionate about making a profit, sometimes you cut corners. But if you are passionate about making a product or service, or are passionate about what you are doing, eventually the profits will follow because you will make things of value.”

“Innovation is not dead”: Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman, at Bard College, May 18

Bernanke isn’t known for his rousing public addresses. But the central bank chief made a big impression over the weekend, delivering a poignant vision of how we must harness technological ingenuity and scientific development to build sustainable economic growth. In the speech, Bernanke took aim at critics who say innovation is dead.

Take-away: There were no veiled comments about the challenges of economic recovery here. Instead, Bernanke spoke more about science than economics, saying we are still in the early days of the IT revolution and that we shouldn’t underestimate the longer-term potential of new technologies and innovations.

Quote: “Innovation, almost by definition, involves ideas that no one has yet had, which means that forecasts of future technological change can be, and often are, wildly wrong. A safe prediction, I think, is that human innovation and creativity will continue; it is part of our very nature. Another prediction, just as safe, is that people will nevertheless continue to forecast the end of innovation. The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes observed as much in the midst of the Great Depression more than 80 years ago. He wrote then, ‘We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterized the 19th century is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down.’ Sound familiar?”

“Small creatures in a complex universe”: Nate Silver, statistician, at Ripon College, May 12

You’d probably expect a bit more certainty in a speech from Silver. While the data savant gives the graduates plenty of forward-looking statistics to chew on (i.e., demand for statistician jobs is outperforming most specialist sectors, increasing 43 percent in the past decade), he also warns that we are still far from effectively crunching data to better make sense of our world. It’s a bit of a comedown compared with Bernanke’s speech, but it serves as an important reminder that we have much to learn about forecasting success and failure.

Take-away: To better understand failure and plot future successes, humility and accountability are values required of today’s visionaries.

Quote: “We are all small creatures in an incredibly large and complex universe. When the signs suggest that our best-laid plans are failing, it’s much more likely the fault lies with us, with our assumptions.”

“America has lost its exploratory compass”: Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, at Rice University, May 11

President John F. Kennedy went to Rice University in 1962 to deliver his famous “we choose to go to the moon” pledge. A little over 50 years later, deGrasse Tyson returned to the same campus to give a more grounding, ominous message that might just be remembered as well for its warning that “America has lost its exploratory compass.” DeGrasse Tyson warns that the 1960s gave us a decade of human achievement we have yet to match.

Take-away: Of all the commencement speeches of 2013, deGrasse Tyson’s stands out as the most uncomfortable of all to hear. It’s a reminder to visionaries and entrepreneurs that they haven’t delivered an actual moonshot in decades.

Quote: “There is no solution to a problem that does not embrace all that we have created as a species. I can tell you that the original seeds of the space program were planted right here on this campus and I can tell you that in the years since we landed on the moon America has lost its exploratory compass.”

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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