December 2017 Commencement Remarks

Good afternoon, everyone. Graduates, how are you feeling? That is the sound of relief. And families, how are you feeling? That is the sound of financial liberation!

I am so proud of each of you in this graduating class and yet I don’t really want to let you go…but this is one of those times that we can’t do what we might want to do, we do what we have to do…and your university must let you go, to leave the college nest, to fly, and I hope to soar. We wouldn’t push you out of the nest if you weren’t ready, any more than a bird parent would push a chick, if we weren’t fully confident in your ability to soar.

But there is one thing that I doubt is fully developed in you and I want you to pledge to continue to develop it wherever you may next go. And that is your full creativity. Let me tell you why.

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a long trip to Malaysia. I went there for you really…for you and for Carolina students who are still in school. I attended a global conference on economic competitiveness where business and university leaders got together to discuss the characteristics of college graduates that help determine competitiveness and success, whether it be a for-profit business, a not-for-profit organization, a region or a nation.

The world around you is full of truth and beauty and unexplained things. Observe the world around you carefully, take the earbuds out, don’t always look down at your smartphone.

This is what we came up with: graduates, of course, need to be technically qualified in their profession — that goes without saying. But every executive there said that this is not enough. They want to employ people who are flexible, strategic, work well with teammates…including persons with different skills and backgrounds; graduates who can manipulate data intelligently; can communicate effectively in oral and written terms; people who will act ethically; and one more thing…people who are creative.

The other attributes I mentioned are pretty well covered in the Carolina Core Curriculum as well as in what you learned outside the classroom. But it got me wondering where and how we helped you develop your personal creativity…all of you, not just the art students.

So I have some advice about how you might do that. This is my graduation present to you. Oh, I know you would prefer loan forgiveness but the trustees said that was a no go!

I picked three of the most historic creative individuals that I could come up with, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, and looked for something they had in common. I found a few things. I think you would agree that they were all extremely creative, and I found that all three shared something fundamental. They always worked with both their artistic AND their scientific sides. They relied on both aesthetics and science as a matter of course. They did not deny either side.

As their biographer — and a frequent visitor to USC — Walter Isaacson, said, Leonardo was a keen observer of nature and fostered advances in anatomy, fossils, birdlife, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology and weaponry. And by the way, he considered himself a painter last. On a job application he touted that he could design bridges, waterways, cannons and public buildings.

Only at the end of the application did the creator of the two most famous paintings in the history of art – The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa – also say, “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.” In his later years, he rabidly pursued something all of us have wondered about at one time or another…he asked, over and over, “Why is the sky blue?” His curiosity was obsessive.  

And did you know that Einstein considered himself to be, equally, a musician and a physicist? Often, when he found his mathematical thoughts blocked, he would sit down at the piano. Concentrating on the piano led to breakthroughs about math and the physical universe.

And Steve Jobs, the creative parent of the world’s most highly valued company, Apple, was no computer geek. He was, actually, obsessed with design … and he was a pretty good behavioral psychologist, too.

He unveiled the iPod on October 23, 2001, at one of his signature product launch events. When it came time to reveal the new product, Jobs did not do his usual trick of walking to a table and pulling a velvet cloth off a new computer. Instead, he reached into his jeans and pulled out the gleaming white iPod, “This amazing little device holds a thousand songs, and it fits right in my pocket.” That was all he said. He slipped it back in his pocket and walked offstage to thunderous applause.

These three people are remembered today, because in my opinion, their creativity was fully developed, which, in turn, fueled their innovative potential. That’s what I want for you, because creativity and innovation are critical to your success personally and to America’s success.

Think of the most successful enterprises today. They are being developed on the back of creativity and innovation. You know:

  • The world’s largest TAXI company doesn’t own a taxi – Uber.
  • The most popular MEDIA owner creates no content – Facebook.
  • The largest ACCOMODATION provider owns no real estate – Airbnb
  • The largest phone companies own no telecommunication equipment - Skype, WeChat.
  • The World’s most valuable retailers have no inventory – Alibaba, Amazon.
  • The world’s fastest growing financial transactor has no money – BitCoin
  • The world’s largest MOVIE HOUSE owns no cinemas – Netflix
  • And the two top SOFTWARE VENDORS don’t write any apps – Apple & Google (Source IBM)

Who in the world thinks these things up! I want you to. I do know that highly creative people do. So what can you do to foster your personal creativity? Well, be like Leonardo, Einstein and Jobs.

First, be a careful observer. The world around you is full of truth and beauty and unexplained things. Observe the world around you carefully, take the earbuds out, don’t always look down at your smartphone, especially when crossing Assembly Street. Observe everything around you, especially in nature. There is inspiration everywhere. For example, Einstein was inspired by just watching water droplets.  

And did you know that Einstein considered himself to be, equally, a musician and a physicist? Often, when he found his mathematical thoughts blocked, he would sit down at the piano. Concentrating on the piano led to breakthroughs about math and the physical universe.

Second, be curious, Ask questions…and not only of Siri. Seek answers through thinking, reading and experimentation. Don’t always be in a rush to get to the answer. I’m no Einstein and it took me five years to do my dissertation research and I had just as many questions about my work at the end as I did at the beginning. But I learned many things along the way, especially about the limits of my abilities, and I satisfied some curiosities.  

And finally, seek inspiration…inspiration is the life blood and driving force that makes us want to keep going, to work hard like you did and will do, to be successful like you have been and will continue to be and, I hope, to help others. Seek it in people and in nature…in your faith, in your failures and in your achievements.

So there you have my wish for you and my graduation gift for you today. Advice that you use your powers of observation, that you be curious and pursue your own answers, and that you seek inspiration in your daily lives…that is how you can develop your personal creativity.  

Please remember that the University of South Carolina will always be your family.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me now as we celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of December 2017.