It's graduation season.
Last month (May, 2017) I was fortunate to be asked to give the commencement address at the University of Maryland's Information School. As you might know, I hang out there from time to time talking about information-y things, and it was a real honor to be asked to impart some wisdom to the graduating class as they head out the door to the start of their post-graduate life.
This is what I said to those students. I thought you, my fellow SRSers, might enjoy reading this.
May 22, 2017 * U. Maryland, I-school Commencement Address
"You want to do what?"
I've been thinking a great deal about the genre of commencement speeches over the past month. And I did what anyone from Google would do… I went to YouTube and did a search for:
[great commencement speeches]
over the past couple of years.
I then sat down to watch about 50 or so.
I recommend you never do this. And I mean it: Do NOT do this.
Basically, they’re an unending series of platitudes and tropes that are either blindingly obvious, or something your parents have already told you. You’re heard them before.
They say things like:
Don’t give up.
You become strong through adversity.
Be the best you that you can be.
Follow your dreams.
Listen to your inner voice.
Be true to yourself.
Your future is limitless.
Those are all fine things to say, but they’re all very yadda yadda yadda...
And by the tenth video, you’re thinking that these people have to find something new to say. I got it already. I suspect that these kinds of maxims just wash over the new graduates leaving few dents in their nearly graduated skulls.
Of course, commencement speeches are like toasts at weddings—you never hear them back-to-back. They’re occasional speeches never intended to be heard in a row.
However, I DID learn something. I found a pattern to all of these speeches. Here it is. Each speech has 5 movements:
1. Give thanks to the wonderful people who brought you here.
2. Tell a touching personal story about how you rose from adversity to be the kind of person who gives commencement speeches.
3. Mention the name of the university sports mascot and gain instant acclaim.
4. Draw a high moral lesson from your experience that you really never thought about… until you had to give a commencement speech.
5. Close with stirring words intended to bring a tear to the eye and elicit a standing ovation.
Got it? That’s the pattern. You may now sleep through the next 100 commencement addresses.
Except for this one.
Because I was thinking… What value can *I* bring to you based on my background?
Let me follow the pattern and first tell you MY touching personal story….
I grew up as the son of a poor family in Southern California. That meant many meals of white bread and catsup sandwiches because you could feed a family of four for a dollar.
It was a family that had no academic background at all. I was the first to go to university from my family, and the first to get a graduate degree and a PhD.
Words like “matriculation” and “registrar” meant a trip to the dictionary. My parents were curious people with a desire to know more. They passed that gift to me… along with a used dictionary from a second-hand bookstore. Did you know that previously used, out-of-date edition dictionaries are quite inexpensive? They’re awfully handy when you want to figure out what “matriculation” really means.
But I was also lucky enough to grow up in Los Angeles where your parents could take you to the free museum of science and technology, and you could boost an old radio or TV from the trash (for a little disassembly and practical electronics). With the help of some fantastically inspired schoolteachers, a poor kid could pick up enough background knowledge about science and tech to get into the University of California.
So when I graduated with my degree in Information and Computer Science, I had to explain what that was. Back then I spent all my time talking about computer science because that was the easy to understand part of my degree.
Only years later, I realized that the information part was the important bit. Sure the computer science-y algorithmic thinking is important, but that class on archaic Token Ring networking protocols… not so much.
What WAS important was learning how to learn—be it word definitions or how to reconstruct a radio from junked parts.
Mulling over my story made me realize the moral lessons that hadn’t occurred to me… until I had the chance to give a commencement speech.
Here are a few insights about the world just ahead of you.
1. The world you’re graduating into is different than what’s gone before.
Yeah, students have always said this “You just don’t understand… the world is different now.” Well, you’re right. In one sense, that’s trivial.. things change. But I mean it seriously.
Roughly half of all the jobs you students will have in 10 years are not yet defined. Another big fraction of the jobs you think you’re aiming for just won’t be there in any recognizable form.
You’re going to have to be flexible because single-track lifelong employment is rapidly going the way of the Hollerith punch card.
When I was a lad I dreamed of running a punch card sorter. The moment I learned how was the moment that they became obsolete. Punch card machine operator: Talk about a useless skill for today… Moral: Stay flexible.
2. Your future will be determined not by what you know, but what you can learn between now and then.
Your ability to LEARN – to be an autodidact (go ahead.. whip out your phone and look it up) will be a major, major key to your success in the future.
We all know what the information explosion of the past few years has meant. Yeah, there’s a lot out there—but you need to not just throw up your hands and complain about information overload. Look, we’ve ALWAYS had information overload. People have been complaining about this since the dawn of writing. A big part of what makes you special is that you’ve got some understanding about how the information world is put together, and what to do with all that knowledge. In other words,
3. The I-school has uniquely prepared you to fit into this strange new information world.
You are an INFORM-ATARION. Your I-schooling has given you the concepts and tools to understand how information is organized, how it works, who owns it, and how to find the information you need to be a better employee, a better person, a better citizen.
You’ve learned what a database schema is, and you can use one in hand-to-hand combat. You know to avoid clickbait and how to critically read through fake news.
But to the outsiders—the NON-INFORMATION-ATARIANS… The term “information science / management or technology” can be a bit squishy and fuzzy around the edges.
Yet we know that I-technologies-and-sciences are at the heart of the revolution that is powering many of the economic and social changes worldwide.
So what does it mean to get a degree in “information science” and why do you want one?
As my parents asked me: You want to do WHAT?
You’ve chosen to be an INFORMATION-ATARIAN… At the very core, that means that you understand what information is, how it’s created, interpreted, transformed, used, and lost or damaged.
However, it also means you understand not just the scientific and technological basis, but also deeply understand the humans at the center of it all.
It turns out that this squishy stuff—INFORMATION—is what drives companies like Amazon, Facebook, Lyft, Disney, NASA, the CDC, and Google. It’s what drives social networks to have billions of active daily users—it’s what allows YouTube to serve over 1 billion hours of video each day. Sure some of it is funny cat videos, but a LOT of that traffic is educational content that’s bringing knowledge to the world.
And for someone with your degree, you have the kind of knowledge of how information works… and just as importantly, how HUMANS understand, use, abuse, and misunderstand information.
Following my commencement talk pattern, I’m going to close with two pieces of advice. One practical, and one intended to bring a tear to your eye.
FIRST comes the emotionally important part… this is the eye tearing, emotionally connecting part…
Let me ask this question again—You want to do what?? This isn’t just about what’s next for your job… but what are you going to do with your life?
I know, I know… I sound like your parents… and like all of those other commencement addresses.
But seriously-- what is worth your time and attention? I mean this broadly.
4. THIS is that big moral teaching that is part 4 of the commencement speech pattern.
Later today, when you find yourself staring into the bottom of a red plastic Solo cup, puzzling out the next steps in your life, think about this: YOU have the remarkable power to design your life… with all of your individual choices about what to focus on and what to ignore. And you have to do this every hour, week, year, for the next several decades. How will you choose to spend your time? How will you choose to spend your precious attention?
In a world of even more information, and ever more ways to distract you, the only really limited resource is your personal, human attention.
In those choices you make about what to attend … you are designing the landscape of your life.
And you have to be careful
about what you do
with the best parts of each day…
I want you to think about where you put the Heart of Your Day.
There are only so many hours in each day when you can be fully present, fully engaged, fully woke.
If you’re working in a full-time job … it’s really only about 4 hours. Where do you want to place your bets with your time?
Probably not on clickbait and fake news or all of the attractive widgets that intend to steal your attention.
Think of it this way: What are the clickbaits in your life? Is it college basketball? Celebrity news? Fashion? Twitch gaming?
Here’s an important Life Hack I’m going to hand down to you:
Every so often (say, every week or so) you want to interrupt yourself from the terribly important things you’re doing—washing the dishes, playing your two-thousandth game of Angry Birds, League of Legends, or Candy Crush. Stop and ask yourself—Is this the best way to be spending my time? Is this where I want my attention to go? Reflect on each week with care. It’s the only week you’ve got—live it with attention.
My advice: Design your life as though it was your greatest piece of art. Because it is. Be conscious of how you spend your attention and where your heart goes… because that’s going to determine what the art of your life actually becomes.
BUT SECOND comes an important big of incredibly pragmatic advice. Here it is.
Nothing makes you lose status in the information world—among your fellow INFORM-ATARIANS like having a massive loss of personal data. It tells us that you learned nothing in the I-school.
So make me proud, make your I-school faculty proud, … and let me give you perhaps the most important piece of advice you might ever get from the I-school:
Don’t suffer a data loss.
Back up your files.