Carpe Annum, 2.0

I had prepared a speech earlier this summer when I found out I was giving this talk, but it seemed so irrelevant in the wake of recent events. So I rewrote it this morning and, well, here goes. I want to talk about 3 things:

I'll start with me. Why am I here?

But things didn't go according to the plan! First, I (finally) found out that there were smarter people than me in the universe (literally – I graduated 0.003 behind number 1 – hated him! but it taught me that grades are not nearly as precise a measure of achievement as we think they are!). Got one B in college – hated him too. I can still hear him saying, after I went to talk to him about a final that I knew I did not do well on, "Mr. Stehlik, I have to grade on performance, not potential." Ouch! In that moment, I was devastated – no more 4.0! But in retrospect, it was incredibly freeing! I didn't have to worry about that stupid number anymore! I'm OK with all of this now, well mostly, and you will need to be too. Because when I arrived here as a Ph.D. student, there was a guy who could solve the problem set we got in class before I understood what the first question was asking! So thinking that you are the smartest person in the universe is actually a pretty stupid thing!

Two years into my Ph.D. student career, my advisor leaves for Bell Labs (think Google of the 1980's), I am not happy with my research, not going to class, not happy with life. What about The Plan? Ahh, The Plan. I am reminded of the character Junior in "Storks". How do I know "Storks", you may ask? Well, I have a 4-year old grandson, Gabriel, and we (along with my wife and daughter) just drove to Nashville to watch the eclipse. When you spend 8 hours 1-way in a car with a 4-year old, you become way too familiar with a particular genre of movie: "Zootopia", "Secret Life of Pets", "Frozen", "Nut Job", "Storks", I know them all. Back to Junior. His mantra was: Make a plan; Stick to the plan; Always deliver! But life is more like: Make a plan; Oh shit, there goes the plan!; What can I deliver?

So two years in, there's a mutual parting of the ways and no Ph.D. So what can I deliver? I knew I could teach, so I took a part-time teaching gig here and, well, almost 40 years later (pains me to say that!), I think things turned out OK. I grew to really appreciate Pittsburgh as a great place to live and I am currently the only faculty member out of 256 in the School of Computer Science without a graduate degree. You could look it up!

Which leads me to why are you here? Because it's the expected thing to do after high school. That was true for me as I was the first in my family to go to college. Maybe it's because Wendy's wasn't hiring (although I think the White House will be hiring for quite a while). Maybe it's because faculty wear these really cool kilts to class every day? (New provost, new dress code!) Hopefully it is because you are excited about being at a world-class educational institution. But let's think about what that means...

How many of you think you will graduate in the top half of your class? Really? But that's exactly what you should be thinking right now. You should, and we want you, to aspire to graduate in the top half of your class. But we also know what the reality is (that half of you won't). The reality is that you will likely see an exam score that is less than your age some time during your career here (OK for me, because I'd still be close to passing, but for you...). So let me be the first to tell you that grades aren't the be-all and end-all.

You will graduate with two pieces of paper when you leave here. One, your degree from Carnegie Mellon (which is a pretty cool thing to have), says that you finished the race; the other, your transcript, gives some evidence as to how that race was run. No one has asked me for my transcript for decades! Now this is not to say that you shouldn't try to get good grades, but understand that, in SCS at least, we graduate about a handful of 4.0's every year. That's out of 160 students! So if your measure of success is a 4.0, the vast majority of you (and your parents) will be disappointed.

Which leads me to what we hope for you to get out of your Carnegie Mellon education? First, it's about learning, not grades; about heart, not intellect; about collaboration, not separation; about teamwork, not showing off how smart you are! Figure out what you're good at and, more importantly, what you're not good at and find someone who's good at what you're not and vice-versa. Smart got you in here. What gets you out is how hard you are willing to work, what you do when faced with a challenge, what unique thing can you deliver and how can you leverage what others can deliver?

Realize that you don't have to know everything! The hardest thing for a smart person to realize is that they don't know something. The second hardest thing is, after you figured that out, is to ask for help. Because you never had to. Many of you probably didn't do homework in high school and still aced exams. That's going to change! I encourage you to get past having it be all about you. Your friends, classmates, RA's, TA's, professors, advisors, Student Affairs, the Counseling Center, are all here to help when things get tough. Ask for help/offer help! That's the Carnegie Mellon way, and that's what will get you through this place.

And things will get tough – you can't be at a place that's world class and not have to work hard. That's the (other) price you pay to be here. Anyone who has played an instrument, or participated in a sport, know this – talent gets you on the stage or the field, but practice and persistence keeps you there! And the higher you go, the harder you need to work!

Lastly, we want you to find, and amplify, your own voice but also hear, and be empathetic to, the voices of others. Today, you are sitting with people in your major, in your college. Next week you will be in classes outside your major with students from all across the university. Leverage those learning experiences to grow in understanding those other voices. Don't stay silent. I grew up in New York (as you heard) and learned at a very young age that good and bad comes in all classes, races, ethnicities, and religions. In a world where intellectuals are often mocked and someone writes that "women are biologically predisposed to not be successful in technical fields" you need to be able to discern the truth from the bullshit. Ideas, unlike people, are not all created equal. And you need to be able to use discerning eyes to figure that out. You cannot be taught diversity; you have to experience it first-hand.

In closing, I'd like to offer some words of advice from some other people:

First, from Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel Prize winning physicist,
"The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees."

Second, from St. Francis of Assisi,
"Start by doing what's necessary (read as 'go to class');
Then do what's possible;
And suddenly you are doing the impossible."

And last, a modification of an old Latin phrase:

Carpe Annum!
Seize the Year!

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