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May You Live in Interesting Times

  • Date: 05/10/2008
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.)
  • Today's lesson begins with a kind of linguistic Rorschach test. So instead of showing you ink blots to ask what you see, I am going to give you a phrase and ask you to consider your immediate reaction to it.

    Here is the phrase: "May you live in interesting times."

    Now, do the words "interesting times" intimidate you, or intrigue you?
    And why is your reaction especially important at this time in history?

    Now, I would suggest that "May you live in interesting times" is a neutral statement, and that we imbue it with a positive or a negative connotation depending upon our own attitudes toward change. Further, I think our attitudes in that regard are shaped significantly by popular culture.

    Perhaps you have even heard a pop culture myth that says "May you live in interesting times" is actually an ancient Chinese curse. And though the Yale Book of Quotations, which is renowned for its scholarship, reports that, ". . .no authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found,"1 we are quick to agree with the negative, because it is prevalent in our culture.

    Why is that attitude important, particularly at this point in history?

    Because now, ladies and gentlemen, more than ever before, change is happening at such a rapid pace that survival for the world, its nations and even individuals depends on us moving beyond accepting change and the interesting times that change brings . . . to actually drive change and innovation.

    Imagine the fact that computer technologies and many other technologies having been moving so fast that we sometimes have to invent "artful analogies" just to "comprehend the...speed"2 of change.

    Consider these analogies from the Washington Post some years ago:

    "If the airplane had advanced as far and as fast as the computer (in the last 40 years), today's jumbo jet would carry one hundred thousand passengers, and it would fly them to the moon and back for $12.50 at 23,400 miles per hour."3

    What if the automobile had advanced at the same rate as the computer?

    Well, if that were the case, we could today buy a Rolls Royce for a dollar and drive around the world on a gallon of gas.

    And, here is my favorite of all!

    What if education also had advanced as far and as fast as the computer?

    If that were the case, ". . . a high school or college education-which still takes twelve and four years respectively to complete at an average cost for either of about $60,000-could today be completed in less than 10 minutes for about (a nickel)!"4 That didn't happen in our case, did it?

    Computer technology has evolved so far and so fast in the last 40 years,
    that one observer has suggested that the computer has evolved as far or further than life itself has in its first 2 billion years!5

    What does all of this mean?

    Simply put (and please listen carefully) . . . shift happens. Shift happens.

    Nothing stays the same, and that is a good thing, because change always brings opportunity.

    Imagine what will yet happen in our lifetimes and think of the role that you can play in shaping your world . . . whether it is by teaching and guiding others in our educational enterprises; by applying technology in business and industry or in service to our community; or by designing and building the structures, processes and technologies for the 21st century in such new fields as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and in the fusion between the physical and biological sciences, such as bio-informatics, bio-materials and bio-factories . . .

    Perhaps at this point some of you are thinking, "Yes, that's all well and good if you're an engineer, or a scientist, or a business executive. But in a few moments I'll cross that stage and get my degree in early childhood education or public health or nursing. What does innovation have to do with me?"

    Well, the answer is best stated in the words of a recent report by the Council on Competitiveness, which says, ". . . today we must focus our entire society on innovation."6

    Our economy is growing, and an inescapable aspect of any growing economy is that it adds new jobs at the leading edge just a bit faster than it destroys old jobs at the trailing edge.

    What that means for you, graduates-and for all of you in the audience, actually-is that you must constantly re-create yourselves, not only for your own good but for the good of society. You cannot expect to "rest on your laurels" in a single job for the rest of your life. The chances are strong that whatever job you first hold will be "lost" as our economy grows and new skills are required for just-emerging careers.

    Shift happens.

    That means it will not be uncommon for you, our graduates - during a lifetime that likely will last about 100 years - to change professions even five or more times.

    It also means that you must keep on learning new things and acquiring new skills just to keep pace with the changing demands of an evolving global economy.

    Shift happens . . . and change is good, because we human beings are -
    at very our core - explorers, discoverers, innovators.

    Think of the people who developed America's western frontier, the people who were the first to fly, who were the first to the moon. They embraced the unknown, ignoring fears of unexpected risks and pursuing the promise of yet-undiscovered opportunities. By leading the way, by choosing optimism over caution during "interesting times," they shaped the world in which we now live.

    Ironically, they also gave us here in America such a relatively high standard of living that we seem to have moved away from being inquisitive and, instead, become focused on being as comfortable as possible. It seems in some respects like America has somewhat forgotten that opportunity favors the prepared mind and that inherent in opportunity is risk.

    Indeed most of us seem increasingly afraid and anxious about taking risks. But, we must remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    And 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 or of automobiles. You may not like cigarettes, but you certainly aren't afraid of them.

    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 by 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!

    Now, that's the difference between anxiety and risk.

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

    And there is much, indeed, that each of you will contribute . . .
    . . . especially if you become agents of change, and help to invent the future and to create wealth in the process.

    Now, please notice that I did not say accumulate wealth or "go get rich." I said create wealth. While both are permissible and central to the free enterprise system, they are very different. Accumulating wealth leads only to individual riches. Creating wealth, on the other hand, lets you enrich the community by allowing the economy to expand for the good of the whole, and it won't do you any harm either.

    Business columnist Daniel Akst, puts it this way: "If you have a good education, you shouldn't just consider getting rich. Creating...wealth is a moral obligation.
    Do so and you can take comfort not just in financing public services but in knowing that you are giving people what they need and want..."7

    The primary contributors to wealth creation are innovators, entrepreneurs and other big-risk-takers. But each of you, regardless of career choice, will be called upon to take risks, and the cumulative effect of all your choices will shape your lives and either advance humanity or hobble it.

    Today, the world needs you . . . a new generation of well trained innovators and clear thinkers - people who love to learn, who love to teach what they know, and who not only embrace interesting times and new technology and different ways of thinking . . . but drive change and invent the future.

    And so, graduates,
    May you live in interesting times . . .
    May you thrive in interesting times . . .
    And, may you be the shift that happens!

    ******

    References

    1 Shapiro, Fred (2006). May you live in interesting times. In Yale book of quotations (p. 669). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    2 Drucker, Peter (1994, November). The age of social transformations. Atlantic Monthly. Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/ecbig/soctrans.htm.

    3 Washington Post National Weekly Edition. (1988, May 9-15). p. 6.

    4 Washington Post National Weekly Edition. (1989, Dec. 25-31). p. 24

    5 Hardison, O. B. Jr. (1989), Disappearing Through the Skylight. New York: Viking Penguin.

    6 Council on Competitiveness (2005). Innovate America: National Innovation Initiative summit and report. Washington, DC: Council on Competitiveness.

    7 Akst, Daniel (2004, June 11). Graduates, take heed. The Wall Street Journal. p. A13.

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