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The Greatest Compliment One Can Pay Is, "You Made a Difference" – 2013 Commencement Address University of Pittsburgh

I want to thank you for this tremendous honor.

To be recognized by the most precious thing that a university has to offer [an honorary doctoral degree] is really deeply humbling. I also want to thank the trustees of the University of Pittsburgh and the faculty for their role in this remarkable recognition.

Usually when your life passes before you like you just heard in that citation, that's not a good thing. But I think in this case, it's very positive.

So first of all, I'd like to say to the class of 2013: Congratulations. You did it!

You are now going to be welcomed into alumni-hood, with all that it entails. And I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your commencement speaker today.

This is actually a particular treat for me for several reasons. One: coming back to Pittsburgh. This is the city where my mother grew up, where my family was born, where I spent a lot of my childhood. In fact, I spent part of second grade here, met my wife here, developed my preferences in professional sports here. (Please don't tell my friends in D.C. that I just said that!)

It's also great to be back at Pitt. As you will find, this has been a transformative experience, and formative in many ways that you both appreciate now and will appreciate later.

And finally, it's great to be back at Pitt because I actually never attended my own graduation ceremony. So, 22 years late, it's good to be here.

The reason behind that—and some of the grad students here may understand this—has to do with logistics. My wife and I were in a hurry to get married, and I had not yet completed my thesis. So we reached a compromise, which was that we would go ahead and get married in June. In fact, Jim Maher, my thesis advisor, joined us for the wedding. Jim, I think you got me an alarm clock, if I remember correctly, as a wedding gift. Which says something about me, I think.

So we got married in June, but we didn't go on our honeymoon. I couldn't go on my honeymoon until I finished my thesis, which was a pretty powerful motivator. I think the only thing that got me through it was one, knowing I could go on my honeymoon to Hawaii. And two, it was also the time when the Pittsburgh Penguins were doing their first march to the Stanley Cup. So somehow that combination got me through. Hopefully, this is not happening to you—I hope they're not putting this kind of pressure on you to get there.

I wanted to start by recognizing two groups of folks who are basically essential to you being here today. The first is the faculty—the professors whom you've worked with over all these years.

My journey to Pittsburgh, as you heard, was through being a high school science teacher for a year. It was a remarkable experience, because watching your students learn and grow is, in fact, an uneven process. There are days where it's remarkable and other days where you're sure you haven't accomplished anything. And yet at the end, a powerful journey has occurred before your eyes, and young adults have, in fact, blossomed. And I know that the faculty here who share so much passion for their work feel the same way today.

The other group, of course, is your family and friends who are gathered here. Again, I don't think I had this perspective before, but now being a parent, with my oldest son in college and watching him grow up and become independent, brings an entirely new perspective to what I'm sure your parents are feeling today for you. It's both intensely frustrating to let go and let you grow up without our intense help and scrutiny, but it's also incredibly rewarding. And to add a little extra excitement, we do this by watching as we watch our bank accounts trickle down to zero. You'll experience that, too.

So, before we go any further, let me ask you to join me in thanking your parents and teachers. 

I must confess that I've always found the idea of a commencement address to be a little bit baffling, because when I was sitting where you are, I was not really focused on what I was commencing—I was pretty focused on what I was concluding. And I'm sure you'll feel no different. In fact, a colleague of mine in the Department of Commerce recently told me, on the day she found out I was coming here to speak, that commencement addresses were her favorite kind of speech. And the reason was, the audience was completely distracted and deliriously happy, and it didn't matter what you said.

And if I think back, I think one of the reasons I was avoiding thinking about what was coming—and I hope maybe this is not true for you, but it was for me—was that I had no idea what I was going to be doing next.

As I graduated from my undergraduate institution, I honestly had no idea even what direction my career was going to go in. I had a bunch of degrees, and so, of course, I was waiting tables and tending bar while I figured it out. And I ended up, through serendipity, teaching—which actually began to open my eyes—and then similarly, when I left Pitt with my PhD, it was really with the idea of becoming a professor and continuing this focus on teaching.

And so, one of the reasons it's hard to focus on what's coming is that, if you're anything like me, it's highly uncertain.

That, I suppose, is the origin of this tradition of inviting back an elder—I guess I'm now an elder, which is kind of depressing—to come back and share some perspectives with you about what the future might hold. It's hard for me to do that because my career has taken so many unexpected turns. And in fact, the most surprising turn of all was being nominated by the President to serve as director of an agency that I had worked with for 18 years.

And what I thought I would do today is share with you some perspectives I've gained, not about my journey so much, but about what I'm learning in my current position, because I think it might be relevant for you. At least I hope so.

It was a remarkable experience to be part of an agency, to work with some of the most remarkable people you've ever worked with, care passionately about the mission, and then be asked by the President to lead it.

And it's hard to turn down that kind of an offer. Your sense of public service is high, and of course, I was honored to do so.

But the other thing that was happening was the timing. In 2009, the United States had just gone through one of the most dramatic economic downturns in, I think, all of our lifetimes.

At that time, it was still shrouded in uncertainty. It was extremely bad, and it could potentially get even worse. The country was taking unprecedented steps, emergency in nature, to basically stop the bleeding and get our country turned around again towards economic growth.

But in addition to those short-term emergency measures, the President was very clearly trying to build a long-term strategy that would ensure that this country had a pathway to sustainable growth. And his strategy centered around innovation, because our country has prospered by being able to invent and come up with new things. We had to embrace that, if we were going to preserve a quality of life that we cared about. So, the President put innovation as the centerpiece of his long-term economic agenda. It was pretty powerful.

Now this idea that innovation, in fact, is central to our economic health is kind of a new idea. Really, the history of our investments as a country in research and development came out of our experience in World War II, where having strong technology conveyed a strategic advantage. And so, we made major investments as a country, but our investments in research and development were always focused on solving a very specific national challenge: protecting our country, going to the moon, fixing our energy crisis, protecting the health of the country.

And the economic spinoffs were considered spinoffs; it was a spillover effect. But in fact, what we've learned is that since World War II, many economists say that the majority of our economic growth as a country has come from this innovation. And so now, it's become primary.

And it's a fascinating problem. If I think back to when I was at Pitt—I came here in 1986—we had a PC in the lab, as I recall. We had a wonderful IBM XT with a whopping 10-megabit hard drive. The Internet was basically just being formed and was really the purview of the computer scientist alone. So there was no Internet, there was no World Wide Web, there were no browsers. There was no commercial GPS system. We didn't call mobile phones cell phones, they were car phones. And during the Iraq conflict, we watched some military technology that had never been seen before—stealth technology and smart bombs. It was a very interesting time. 

Think now how just those technologies that I've listed, which were just beginning to be seen at the time I was here, have changed our entire lives. They've created new businesses. They've created entirely new classes of careers. They've changed how businesses operate. They've changed how doctors treat patients. They've changed how we communicate with each other. They've changed how we socialize, how we entertain.

And so humans, I believe, are inherent toolmakers; and technology is the latest name for the tools that we make. We make these tools to expand and enhance our capability. But any tool that can do that can also be brought to a negative use. New forms of communication can lead to new forms of privacy loss, or to identity theft, or to cybercrime. New tools that can treat disease can also be used to harm. And new tools designed to defend and protect can be used to attack and terrorize.

So, we live in a time of sort of remarkable and unprecedented technological change. But innovation is not just the realm of the technologist; it actually affects all of us.

Now, one of the great benefits of my current position is that I get to interact with some remarkable people—top business leaders, CEOs, world-famous scientists, entrepreneurs who have started brand-new companies, key government officials. And I've learned some things from them that I wanted to share with you. Here are a few observations.

The first is that while technology enhances and extends our human capabilities, it never replaces them. As we talk about, for example, advanced manufacturing innovation in the United States, one of the most common reactions is that automation and this technology are replacing human workers. Robots are replacing people. Is that right? In fact, the data don't support that premise. This technology is actually creating new opportunities and new growth. The trend has always been that productivity growth with automation always increases employment.

Another interesting fact is that Deloitte recently did a study where CEOs around the world were interviewed. And they were asked, "What do you consider to be most important when you decide where to put your next manufacturing plant?" And I think we were all expecting to hear, "Where's the cheapest labor?" or "Where do you get the most access to capital?" or "Where are the exports the cheapest?"

The absolute number one priority, by a landslide, was access to talent. It was access to people—to engineers, to the scientists, to the innovators. And the reason is that technology places a premium on what is most human: our capacity to learn and have insight, to collaborate, to create, adapt, and even to feel.

Yet another insight I've gotten, is that innovation is a team sport. We tend to idealize, in this country, the rugged individualist, the cowboy ethos of being on your own and solving everything. But the notion of a lone-wolf inventor working long nights in a garage, coming up with the latest product, is actually largely a myth. The way it works today, the language of innovators is exactly the opposite. It's one of collaboration and partnerships and working together. And if any of you ever has the opportunity to visit, for example, Google, you'll see that the entire complex has been designed around getting people to work together. You can't go more than 20 feet without running into a coffee nook or a place to meet and work with your colleagues.

And finally, innovation is about tremendous uncertainty. You're fundamentally dealing with creating the known from the unknown. It's about an enormous amount of risk taking. And as human beings, we need an anchor. We can't live with complete uncertainty. If I look at all of the successful people I've met, there are a couple of common things. They all have a powerful internal compass, and I think you need that to have a driving and centering force to keep you moving forward.

But quite interestingly, that inner compass that I've seen is almost never "I wanted to be this—be in this career or have that position." And it's almost never about personal ambition—"I want to be famous or rich or powerful."

The most common compass I hear all the time is a desire to serve. "I want to make the planet a better place to live." "I want to serve and protect my country." "I want to make my community better." "I want to nurture my family."

And it turns out, those kinds of service goals are the most common and most powerful centering goals you could have.

So as you conclude the Pitt portion of your travels and commence the next leg of your journey, as uncertain as it may be, I have some reflections to offer about your education that you just are completing today.

First of all, what you learned is probably not nearly as important as learning how to learn. Some of the specifics you got in class will matter. In fact, if you end up being my doctor, I hope you were paying close attention. A lot of what you learned, though, is volatile: It will change, it's growing, and you will never stop learning. But you now know how to tackle a new challenge, how to roll up your sleeves and learn very efficiently, and that's an advantage you have over many others—in fact, too many others.

The second observation is that the stuff that was happening outside the classrooms mattered at least as much as everything that was happening inside your classrooms. What you were learning was about communication, about teamwork, about making friends, about trust, about integrity and character, and about making decisions and living with the consequences, good and bad. You can talk to any employer in the country and that person will tell you those matter at least as much as all the other skills.

And finally, if you're worried about having an internal compass—I was—don't worry about it. Because my view is, you wouldn't be here today if you didn't believe in something. Going to the university, getting this degree, is simply too big a challenge, it requires too much perseverance, for you to not have believed in yourself for whatever reason—it could even be a very vague reason.

I think you're here because you do want to make a difference. I think it's already part of the goal you have. If you didn't have it, you wouldn't be here.

I've now spent almost 20 years working for the federal government. When a public servant retires, the highest compliment we can pay is, "You made a difference." And from me to you, I think you made a difference, too, and that's why you're here.

So from one Pitt alumnus to another, I want to be the first to wish you the very best on your journey. I look forward to meeting you along the way, and I want to again thank you for letting me share this special moment with you. Thank you.

Created April 30, 2013, Updated December 29, 2016