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My high school alma mater was kind enough to invite me to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of 2014. This speech is a version of what I ultimately delivered. (Doesn't include Apple ad-libbing and may also include some typos that were fixed between writing and delivery.)
Thank you for having me here today. I've given a number of talks and presentations over the years, but none of them are as important to me as being here now. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Sixteen years ago, I sat where the five of you are sitting, wrapping up my time as a Demon at Des Moines High School. On one hand, it seems like ancient history, but on the other, it seems like not too long ago. One of the things your older friends and family will tell you is that the more you live your life, the faster it seems to go by. It's been sixteen years since my graduation, but to me it feels like much less - maybe only eight years or so.
Time is a funny thing in that it's the only resource that you get in life that you will never be able to replenish and it's probably the only thing in life where everyone starts out on the same footing, regardless of innate talent, culture, or social standing. In some respects, time will be your most valuable treasure, and your toughest opponent. In the last sixteen years, how to make the most of the time we have has been by far the most valuable lesson that I've learned and the most important thing that I felt compelled to share with you tonight.
However, I'm not going to talk about time directly - what else can I say that you don't already know or have already heard? Instead, I'm speaking about how to make the most of it and every point I'm going to make tonight always comes back to a very simple concept: Agency.
I'm always thinking about Agency myself, but when I was talking to friends and family about it, many of them were not familiar with the term. You often hear people talk about Agency indirectly, but I wanted to be clear about the core concept, so let me give you my basic definition:
Agency is the capacity of a person to act with intention in the world.
Let's unpack four of those words in the definition.
By "person", the definition is referring to an individual, like yourself, with your own goals, values, and experiences that are distinct and entirely your own. Each of you are unique people in the world. There are no others that share your internal thoughts, your aspirations, and your specific set of values. As a "person", you make choices, you act, and you bear the risks and win the rewards for your choices and actions.
By "act", the definition refers to your ability to take action and do something in the world. Acting is your ability to change the world in some way, from the smallest tweak to larger actions that reshape your community, culture, and environment. Our actions are the evidence of our existence in this world, for better or worse.
"Intention" ties acts to people. It is the "why" that gives meaning to our actions. We often think about actions without intention as being "unconscious" or "on auto-pilot" . Actions that carry intention, we call "proactive" or "purposeful". Actions informed by personal intent are the outcome of someone exercising their Agency. These actions move the person closer to a goal. There is a point to these actions and a purpose that they serve. You will never have a problem getting a good answer for "why" someone is doing something when they are acting with Agency.
Finally, the last key term of the definition of Agency is "the world". This may sound obvious, but it's worth being explicit that "the world" is everything outside of "the person". This is an important distinction to make because the world consists of the organizations and environment within which a person may find themselves, and these structures often have a way of exercising agency of their own. Anyone who has dealt with a large business or government agency has seen a structure exercising its own Agency. That's not to say that personal agency can't overlap with structural agency - only that while the actions may be the same, the intentions can be completely different. It's the difference between "I'm just following orders" and "I'm doing this because it helps me get closer to accomplishing something".
Before I go on, here's the definition of Agency again:
Agency is the capacity of a person to act with intention in the world.
So, why do we care about agency? I can give a very good reason.
As newly minted adults who need to go out and make a place for yourselves in the world, you are entering an environment unlike any seen in history. Trends like globalization and automation have reshaped the world drastically in the last twenty years. When the generation before mine graduated, the world was a much smaller place. Folks found employment in their local communities and could make a good life for themselves being the best person in their area providing a particular good or service. When my generation graduated, globalization was well underway, and to succeed, we didn't just need to be better at something in our local area, we had to be among the best in the world or working in one of the few trades that couldn't be exported effectively. For those of us working in an exportable trade, we weren't just competing against people in our local area, we had to worry about competitors around the world who now could deliver a similar work product using modern telecommunications and logistics. We won some of these fights, in creative fields such as entertainment and developing new technologies. We lost the fight in some in other areas, such as manufacturing and customer support. We may have even been good at these jobs - just not at the price or speed that the market demanded.
Your generation faces an even tougher challenge: dealing with automation and non-human workers. Traditionally, when we think of automation, we think of factories where the human workers have been replaced by robots that can build cars faster and cheaper than the workers on the assembly line. We equated the jobs most likely to be automated as those requiring the least amount of skill and took some comfort in thinking we'd be safe as long as we pursued more skilled work.
That thinking was dead wrong.
In my own career, I've seen professions like legal research, radiology, and logistical planning drastically changed as the skills needed in those jobs were successfully translated into algorithms and implemented by mechanical intelligences. We now live in an age where the best chess players are software and circuits and a clever statistical program beats humans regularly at games like Jeopardy. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm part of the trend - my main job at the University is finding ways to mechanize tasks central to the mental health profession, a trade that easily bill as much as $200 per hour and requires many years of training and schooling. We're doing this so that we can deploy mental health care to places like Africa and South America, where paying a therapist a boatload of money while a patient sits on a couch isn't a workable approach. We're doing it to raise the standard of care around the world, but we'd be fools if we didn't think that as we perfect these technologies overseas, that the domestic mental health industry would remain untouched in the long run.
In addition to competing against the robot and the algorithm, your generation will also be competing against teams of people and machines that outperform people and machines acting on their own. While computer algorithms routinely beat the best human players in head-to-head match-ups, the best chess games are played by teams of humans working in concert with machines where each member plays to their strengths. The machine plays the low-level brute-force tactical game while the human provides the higher-level strategic direction. The best teams are those that evolved together as the humans customize and adapt technology for the task at hand, and in turn modifies their own behavior to work well with the machine. Using technology as a labor-multiplier is nothing new - the big change is that physical constraints no longer matter as much in information-rich environments. In my own industry, we've seen this play out with programmers that are ten times more productive than their typical coworkers. In the law field, legal legal assistants routinely carry out tasks that traditionally required teams. In finance, the algorithmic trading firms make up 2% of the companies in that industry, but account for more than half of the activity on the market. The future doesn't belong to the humans or machines alone, but some symbiotic combination of the two.
Let's say that you choose a trade that will be difficult to mechanize or automate. That's a good strategy by itself until you find yourself with new competition from others displaced by automation.
The key questions that you you should be able to answer are:
What competitive edge do I bring to this job?
Am I better, faster, or cheaper than my competition?
Am I doing something no one else can do?
A person acting without agency will have a hard time providing answers or understanding why these questions are important in the first place. A person acting with agency will have no problem answering these questions because they are always evaluating and improving their position with respect to the rest of the world.
I apologize if I've painted a bleak picture so far. One of the most important lessons I've learned since I sat where you are, is the value of looking at the world as it is and not as you wish it to be. I would be doing you a disservice if I misled you and let you think that you were not entering one of the most challenging economic environments any of us have ever seen.
That's the bad news.
Here's the good news.
Where there's challenge, there is always opportunity. When things are up in the air and the world's shaking itself out, you will find tremendous opportunities for innovation, initiative, and changing the world to work for you instead of the world changing you to work for it. And as new graduates of Des Moines High School, you have something very special that you've probably taken for granted that will help you excel in the years ahead. And that thing is that you've been living in a challenging environment all along. All of us gathered here are evidence that you've met those challenges.
Furthermore, you've been steeped in an environment that cultivates agency, even if you probably didn't realize it. Shortly after I graduated, I left this area for a job at Los Alamos. After that, I spent my college years with an extraordinary variety of people in Princeton. Between semesters, I spent a good amount of time overseas in Eastern Europe and Central America. After graduation, I became a resident of Chicago where I've been fortunate to get to know people across the social spectrum. I've met a lot of people from a lot of places, and I have yet to hear of a better environment that cultivates such a strong spirit of initiative, entrepreneurship, and agency. Personally, I feel very fortunate to have grown up here. This area doesn't have the massive industries and employers that often insulate communities and drain individuals' motivations to act with personal intention. When nature, the economy, or anything else throws a curveball around here, folks adapt and deal with it on their own, because no one else is going to step in and solve the problem for you. Here, you learn that you have to stand on your own two feet.
So, after this ceremony is over and in the years ahead as you continue with your life, don't forget where you come from and don't forget what you left here with. Take your agency and cultivate it. That's the first tip that I'll give you.
The second tip I'll give you is to not find a job, but find a craft. What I mean by that is adopt an intentional perspective that you will take to your endeavors in the future. If you approach your career as someone just doing a job, you're letting your employer hold the power. You do what they tell you to do, as they want, and you get paid. As long as they control the process and procedure by which you deliver results, you're at their whim and your position is vulnerable as soon as they can find someone else to deliver the same results cheaper or faster. Your competition may be the fellow across the street, a worker on the other side of the world, or a program running on a server somewhere you've never heard of.
However, if you approach your efforts as a craft, you assume the primary responsibility for delivering the results. Your goal isn't getting better at something someone else tells you to do, it's getting better at delivering what your clients need. You cease being a cog in someone else's machine, and you become a partner in helping them achieve their goals while they help you achieve yours. That's a much better place to be.
The third tip I'll give you is to make the commitment to become better at what you do every day. If you're delivering the same quality of work day-after-day, people will appreciate your consistency, but you're a sitting duck for anyone looking to take your place or a technologist like me looking to mechanize it. Albert Einstein has a wonderful quote about money that goes:
Compound interest is the Eighth Wonder of the World.
What's true for money in this case is also true for your craft. If you make the modest commitment to try and find a way to improve your skills 1% every day, you won't be twice as good at your craft in 100 days, you'll be twice as good in about 80 days, and three times better within 120 days of making that commitment. The more you fulfill your personal commitment to improve, the faster that improvement will happen. Sometimes you may decide to improve vertically by getting better at a task that's already part of your toolbox. Other times, you may decide to improve horizontally by expanding your toolbox to include new skills and abilities. The better craftsman you become will improve your value to the rest of the world and this will better secure a place for you than any job would by itself. When I started my consulting business as the economy was collapsing in late 2008, the one thing that I learned from that experience is that no matter how bad the economic outlooks were, the people who were masters in their craft always had high demand for their services regardless of the poor economic climate. Many saw even more demand, as the weak economy eliminated their weaker competitors.
The fourth tip I'd like you to take with you is the importance of understanding the systems and organizations in which you find yourself. In the definition of agency, I highlighted the distinction between "the person" and "the world". You will find yourself embedded in a variety of worldly structures as you live your life and far too many people never take the time to understand how the systems around them work and why. They do what they're told, collect their paycheck, and don't take the extra step of understanding how their contributions fit in the larger picture. If you remain aware of the person/world distinction and seek to understand the incentives driving the world and what leads to particular structures, you'll be much better equipped to weather changes in the outside world and within your own organizations. As "a person" in the agency sense, you'll be better able to predict what's coming up and how to make the most of it.
The fifth tip I'd like to share is a simple way to make the worldly structures work for you. As human beings, we are social creatures and whether we like it or not, we assimilate the culture, values, and practices of groups that we belong to. Use this to your advantage by intentionally becoming the metaphorical small fish in a big pond. In my own college education, the thing that helped me the most in my career wasn't the quality of the professors or the classes that they taught. The most beneficial thing was the group of peers I spent my time with. Moving beyond high school, you'll soon have the opportunity to reconfigure your social circles in college or wherever else you end up. In your new life, find the people pursuing ambitious and creative goals and join them. You may not start out at their level of ability, but there will always be ways to contribute and learn. You will grow in your abilities pretty much automatically. Hanging out with someone who is good at something is a great way to improve without expending a large amount of conscious effort. On the flip side, if you're good at something, become a willing mentor. The connections and relationships that you form will be one of the most valuable investments in your professional and personal life.
The final tip that I would like to share is to expect, embrace, and invite failure. What I mean by this isn't that you should intentionally try to be poor at what you do, but to instead take intentional risks in order to push forward. The trick to doing this is to know how to evaluate failure. Don't take it personally and write off the entire experience as soon as you see that it's doomed. Look at what happened and understand what failed so that you don't make the same mistake again. Learn to extract what worked and build on that. In my own professional life, some of my more notable failures have become part of later successes, such as the time I tried to launch a smarthome business. The original business plan was doomed as soon as larger players like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T entered the market, but I was able to use the technology created for that failed business to give me an advantage in my current job, as I've repurposed the work in a different context. Remember that while failure may be the result of poor planning and execution, it may also have simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens more often than you probably think.
If you follow startup activity and entrepreneurs, you'll notice that Americans have a cultural tolerance for letting people fail, dust themselves off, and try again. This may be the largest reason that this nation remains the world's innovator while other nations and cultures try and fail to replicate environments like Silicon Valley. They attach a cultural stigma to failure that we do not.
There's an old cliche that goes:
You'll never succeed if you never try.
I'd like to add one more saying to the collection.
Never fail the same way twice.
These six tips are the most valuable things that I've learned from the time since I sat in those chairs to speaking with you tonight. These are not an exhaustive list of things you need to make your way in the world, but they are the ones that have served me very well so far. Keep an open mind and an open heart, and in sixteen years, one of you may find yourself up here sharing what you've learned with the next generation.
So, to wrap this up, let's review one more time the definition of Agency:
Agency is the capacity of a person to act with intention in the world.
After you pick up your diploma and make your way out into the challenging world, remember these tips:
Remember where you come from and how you've already learned to exercise your agency. Cultivate and expand your existing ability to act with intention and purpose in the world.
Don't look for a job, find yourself a craft.
Make the commitment to improve your craft every day.
Make a purposeful effort to understand the world in which you find yourself. Understand the overall incentives driving these structures and organizations and find ways to put them to work for you. The book that you found on your chair will be very helpful with this.
Find a pond big enough that you're the small fish. If you have the opportunity, become someone else's big fish.
Fail smartly. Embrace failures and the lessons that they teach.
I apologize that I haven't had the opportunity to get to know each of you better, but I have absolutely no worries that each of you have the ability and know-how to go out and make the most of the years ahead. A sufficient number of Des Moines graduates have already proven that point. While each of you has the necessary tools, it's your responsibility to exercise your Agency to intentionally shape the world so that it's meeting you on your terms and not the other way around.
Thank you for listening.
Credit is due to all of the folks who helped me proofread this and offered suggestions for improvements: Justin, Kodi, Gerard, Heidi, Winter, Michelle & Barbara. Thanks all!comments powered by Disqus