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Choices and Ambiguity

  • Date: 05/16/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 1999, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of business, fine and applied arts, and polymer science and polymer engineering.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, you have learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and new technologies, and, along the way, you have discovered that learning is a continuous process.

    But why?

    . . . because, throughout life, you will be continuously confronted by choices -- some relatively simple, others more serious and complex.

    And the choices you make -- and how you make them -- will determine the course and the quality of your life.

    Ironically, the prospect of choices, of change, and of going after opportunities always seems to raise a sense of excitement and, simultaneously, a sense of risk.

    For some, risk becomes anxiety.

    And quite often, anxiety leads to "analysis paralysis" . . .

    . . . a condition whereby a problem or opportunity is analyzed incessantly without action, or is simply ignored so that an opportunity is missed.

    But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    A simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150-thousand Americans each year, and automobiles on our highways kill more than 50-thousand people per year.

    But, nobody seems to be afraid of cigarettes, nor of automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year. The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few.

    (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.)

    The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States.

    But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" -- everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    That's the difference between anxiety and risk.

    Each of us feels this way about various things and some activities in our society.

    Some of you may have even felt this way about some aspects of your education here at the university.

    How nice it would be if we could put risk and anxiety into their proper perspective, and move to better distinguish the "sharks" in our lives.

    Indeed, where reason and calm prevail, there is always optimism, and much that can be accomplished for the common good.

    It is education that provides the framework for productive societal discourse -- for rational argument based upon facts and information.

    It is education that enables us to weigh the risks inherent in opportunity.

    And that ability is critical -- because today, while some people see a time of great opportunity, others are wondering if they will ever be able to achieve the American dream.

    Indeed, in the knowledge-based global economy of the new millennium, those who cannot think critically and creatively -- those who cannot adapt -- will be left behind.

    Your education can make all the difference . . . but you must know how to embrace change and uncertainty -- you must continue your education.

    In his recent book, "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci," Michael Gelb talks about seven principles that characterized da Vinci as an extraordinary person of vision and ability.

    One of those principles, which he calls "Sfumato" translates literally as "Going up in smoke" and refers to a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

    And, while this notion may seem at odds with logic and the scientific method, it actually addresses some outcomes of the process of inquiry and discovery. Indeed, da Vinci's constant questioning and exploring led him to many insights -- and to confront the unknown . . .

    . . . because he knew that his efforts would ultimately make the unknown knowable.

    As odd as the principle may sound when abstracted from da Vinci's Renaissance life, Sfumato has a modern counterpart in the subdiscipline of economics known as Game Theory.

    Game Theory is a rigorous discipline, with wide applicability, and one for which three individuals -- Selten in Germany, Harsanyi at Berkley, and Nash at Princeton -- received the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics.

    Let me give you a brief sense of how Game Theory and Sfumato are related.

    To elucidate the implications of Game Theory for our society, Michael Mandel had this to say in Time magazine:

    "Conventional economics, focused mainly on buying and selling in the marketplace, virtually ignores the possibility of social and economic change.

    "But game theory . . . goes far beyond markets and into the realm of power, bargaining, cooperation, and trust.

    "What game theory does is analyze the interactions between economic 'actors' such as individuals, corporations, and governments, accounting for their entire range of possible options.

    "Rather than simply accepting the status quo, the ultimate goal of game theory is to understand why existing economic and social arrangements are stable, and what the alternatives might be."

    As it happens, a central lesson from these analyses is that "almost every economic and social scenerio turns out to have not just one stable outcome, but many."

    In other words, in complex situations, there is usually more than one acceptable solution and our hope of just the "right" solution goes up in smoke, sfumato.

    But, "the pervasiveness of multiple stable outcomes has broader implications for policy.

    "What game theory teaches us is that the range of possibilities is enormous, and it may be possible to shift from one economic (or social) activity -- however stable -- to a better one." And to do so without fear of regression, chaos, or major social disruption.

    "The idea that there are alternatives to existing economic or social institutions can be threatening to (some) people". "But it also can be profoundly inspiring".

    And to me, that is exhilarating!

    Particularly if you recognize that this rigorous form of human achievement, game theory, may ultimately explain why we have so often said that life offers so many alternatives.

    Indeed, why the whole purpose of education, and of life-long learning, is to increase viable alternatives and options.

    Through your university experiences, you have opened your mind to new perspectives, new ideas. You have acquired knowledge and skills. You have changed your mind . . . and you have changed your life.

    In so doing, you have increased your opportunities.

    So, as you now go forward from this, the University of Akron, and -- as the opportunity for change inevitably comes your way --

    Remember that while the sharks may lurk,

    Reason alone prevails.

    May you be comfortable with change and ambiguity -- and confident in your university acquired abilities.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Spring 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

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