FRIENDS, FAMILY, DISTINGUISHED GUESTS, WELCOME. As a former teacher, I learned that graduation is not an individual accomplishment, but rather the fruit of many sacrifices. I believe I speak for us all when I say thank you for not only coming today but giving us the opportunity to be here.
Parents and grandparents, you must be justifiably proud. I’m not talking about having a child or grandchild graduate from Harvard. Because between you & me, it’s really hard to flunk out of here. No, I salute you for simply raising such wonderful kids I have been fortunate to call classmates. You see, my wife and I became parents 10 months ago. My daughter is a source of great joy but her entry into this world was a tumultuous affair. Indeed from the very beginning her birth made me see our Harvard Community in a whole new way. It is with this story that I would like to begin today.
I spent last July in San Francisco as part of my summer internship. My wife, eight months pregnant and unable to travel, remained here in Boston. We spoke often so it was no surprise that she was calling me at work around noon one Thursday. But this call was different. I could tell immediately by the sound of my wife’s quivering voice that all was not well. She said: “You need to get on a plane. Something is wrong with the baby and they’ve scheduled an emergency c-section for this evening.”
I froze. My heart dropped. My mind went blank. I hung up the phone, stood up from my desk, walked to the elevator, took it down the lobby, and got in a cab headed for the airport.
The last plane that would get me to Boston that day took off in a little over an hour. Upon arriving to the airport, I ran straight to the front desk, skipping head of the line by uttering words like wife, pregnancy, emergency c-section. Breathless, I manage a few words to the lady behind the counter, but she seemed annoyed by my intrusion. After some back & forth, she responded in a firm voice: “I’m sorry sir that flight is sold out. The standby list is already too long. There is no way you can get on that plane.” Thinking on my feet, I reply: “If I buy a ticket for tomorrow can I get through security?” Now, in the post 9/11 world we live in highly agitated people with no luggage, demanding one way tickets, and asking how to get through security are not necessarily greeted with compassion. However, after invaluable minutes of pleading I was issued a ticket for the next day’s flight which somehow got me through security – I still don’t understand how.
I sprinted to the gate and was disheartened to learn the boarding process was halfway complete. I started approaching groups of passengers and told my two-sentence story offering them my ticket on the next day’s flight. I received sympathy, best wishes, but no one was willing to switch. At this point, one group remained – lucky zone number 7. I stood in front of the small group and made my last plea. Silence. The game was up. I consider my self a manly man but tears welled up in my eyes. I turned my back and started to walk away. Then, one man, an older gentleman near the back of the pack, raised his hand. He spoke deliberately. “I’ll give you my seat.”
After expressions of profound gratitude, I walked with this gentleman to the gate counter. We struck up a conversation. After a minute or two, I had a moment of recognition. This man was Tom Piper, legendary Finance & Accounting professor at the Harvard Business School. My daughter’s birth ended up going smoothly and because of Professor Piper I made it home that evening. Harvard Business School has a mission to create leaders who make a difference in the world. Professor Piper, I assure you, you made a difference in my mine.
The birth of my daughter gave me a whole new appreciation for our Harvard Business School community. In fact over the next ten months, my experiences as a new parent and a proud member of this community began to merge. I have learned much watching my daughter grow and explore the world around her. Today I wish to share these lessons with you – as I believe they illuminate our HBS experience. Three lessons:
1) Resist The Impulse to Label
2) Remember It’s Okay to Be Carried
3) Embrace Your Sense of Wonder
The First Lesson: Resist The Impulse to Label
At only ten months old my daughter already has a full-fledged love affair with shoes. She appreciates how they keep her warm and protect her tiny feet from nicks & cuts. But above all, she loves to stick them in her mouth. As far as I can fathom, rubber is perfect antidote to her teething misery.
Now as adults we know that shoes are made for walking. They have a distinctive purpose, a label. To my daughter such one dimensionality is absurd. Why we would reduce each fascinating object to a singular purpose. In my daughters world food is both sustenance and face paint. I marvel at the sheer liberation she must enjoy at approaching each thing that comes across her path as a rich and multi-faceted gift.
This lesson, of not simplifying something, not reducing it to a label, resonates deeply with my section experience here at HBS. As you probably know we take all of our first-year classes with the same 90 other students. These people become like family. But on the first day that I walked into Alrich 110, I hate to admit it but I thought it labels. There was the no-nonsense investment banker, the intense navy seal, the poised ballerina, the earnest inner city school teacher, the “dude, I’ll be swimming in cash” private equity investor.
I found this diversity inspiring but incredibly intimidating. But as time went on, these labels were washed away. The private equity investor left us spellbound with a presentation on his home country that almost no one had visited. We discovered the Navy Seal, and this is true, loved to knit and make mix tapes of 80s music. For sharing this with you, there is a very good chance that I will be beaten up after this speech.
HBS has shown me how rich and multi-faceted people can be. And how our tendency to label limits our relationship. In sum, as we go forward into our companies, firms, and non-profit enterprises let us remember what we’ve learned here and approach each person like an infant coming across a common household object – full of enthusiasm, resisting the urge to label, and seeking the many ways they can enrich our lives.
Lesson Two: Remember Its Okay to Be Carried
I consider my daughter the sweetest, happiest, most stationary baby that you’ll ever meet. The girl simply has no desire to move. You take the kid to a park and see the other things children taking tentative steps, pulling themselves up, crawling across the floor. My daughter just sits there, smiles and waits patiently to be picked up & carried.
You see, as a business student who has stumbled into parenthood, one could find this lack of progress frustrating. Shouldn’t we have benchmarks in mind – smiling at three months, solid foods at six months, crawling at nine months, the list goes on & on. This child should be doing things by herself, asserting her own independence. After all, look at all the other kids.
This tendency to want to do things ourselves, to benchmark our own progress against those around us is pernicious. As Harvard Alumni there will always be a classmate in the Wall Street Journal. There will always be someone who is making more money. But we must remember that most competitions in life are like the Annual HBS Twinkie Eating Contest – sure, there’s prestige in winning but that dude had to eat 40 Twinkies.
I think back on my most cherished memories at HBS. They are not ones of individual accomplishment but of a community carrying each other through challenges. Former investment bankers helped us non-profit folk during the dark days of derivatives in Finance II. And in one section, students rallying behind a classmate who would eventually beat back cancer into remission. I wo
uld argue these are our finest moments, moments when we leaned on each other, when we reached out for hand and found 90 palms open. Tougher times are ahead so let us make sure we continue this tradition as alumni. It is okay to be carried. In fact, as my daughter knows, it sure gets you where you want to go a lot quicker than walking on your own.
The Third & Final Lesson: Embrace Your Sense of Wonder
My daughter is captivated by the world around her. Viewing the world through her eyes, you see things in a whole new way. Take water running out of a facet – it looks like a solid column but you can magically put your hand through it. Or that adorable baby who lives in the mirror – how does she know to mimic our every move. Seeing what makes my daughter laugh you realize some things are just inherently funny. Like zippers or beards. But above all, you realize that to wonder is an innately human reflex like to eat or to breathe.
This sense of wonder thrives here at HBS, usually in the guise of its academic stunt double “intellectual curiosity”. It is meticulously cultivated by world renowned professors who elicit our best thinking. This sense of wonder is reinforced by the case method pushes us to become the protagonists. It is unlocked by our classmates who enable us to question our own assumptions. Here at HBS, learning is not a passive act of transfer but an active process of creation.
As we head out into the real world, we should infuse our workplace with this sense of wonder. Not only does curiosity elicit our own best thinking but recall how it energizes a room and revitalizes a team.
My daughter has shown me how fortunate we are to be members of this Harvard Business School Community. If I may, I believe I speak for the entire class of 2008, when I say thank you to tremendously talent professors. Thank you to a dedicated staff who do everything from recruiting potential employers to cleaning our chalkboards. Thank you to husbands, wives, & kids who lent us your loved one for these last two years. But most of all, thank you to our classmates for bringing out the best in each other.
So off we go into the world to do well and to do good. But let’s keep in touch, for while tomorrow our formal schooling ends, our collective education is just beginning.