Saturday, May 31, 2014

The NCSSM 2014 commencement address

This morning I had the distinct pleasure of delivering the commencement address at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, my alma mater, where I graduated in 1992. NCSSM is a public residential high school in which students attend their junior and senior years, and of course as the name suggests has an emphasis on science and math curriculum (but it is so much more than that). For some reason, the students and administrators asked me to give the commencement address this year, which is one of the strangest things I've ever had to do -- in part because it felt like yesterday that I graduated from there (yet it was 22 years ago)!

NCSSM is dear to my heart and those two years were a transformative time in my life. I've blogged before about how my time at S&M saved my life -- it is difficult to overstate how important the place was to my formative years. (Actually I think I'm still "forming".)

I wore Google Glass to give the speech, thinking this would be a really cool and unique way to show off my "Google-ness", but actually one of the graduating seniors was wearing Glass as well:


So much for being unique.

The school live-streamed the event and I was surprised to find a video of my speech online soon after it was over. Watch here at your own peril.

Below I'm posting my prepared speech (which is not exactly the same as the one I actually gave).

Students, professors, parents, mom, (hi mom!), it is most humbling to stand before you here today. Indeed, I am terrified. Somehow I think I am being punished for all of the misdeeds I was involved with back during my days as a student here so many years ago. Either that, or the fact that I am here must be proof that there is no such thing as a permanent record -- if they had one on me, well, let’s just say they would have thought twice about inviting me back to give a commencement address. So, those of you who stayed out way too late last night -- there is hope for you yet! 
Before we begin, I want to get one thing out of the way. Some of you may be wondering what this thing is that I’m wearing. This is called Google Glass, and basically, it’s a cell phone that you strap to your head. I am told that in some neighborhoods of San Francisco it either makes you utterly irresistible to the opposite sex, or it gets you beat up. Google Glass has all kinds of amazing features, and this little screen up here is feeding me a constant stream of information about each and every one of you … yes, you in the back there… the one who made a B-minus in history last term… Google Glass is telling me that those tennis shoes you ordered off of Amazon last week will be delivered this afternoon. You’re welcome.
It’s really remarkable to be back here, twenty-two years after I graduated from NCSSM, on this very lawn. Of course, I don’t remember much about the graduation ceremony itself, seeing as how I got absolutely no sleep the night before. You see, I stayed up too late with my friends and staggered back to my room at 5 o’clock in the morning and realized I had not started packing my room. At all. And my parents were arriving in just a few short hours, expecting me to be rested, cheery, but most of all packed and ready to go. So I frantically threw everything I owned into boxes, tore all of the Depeche Mode posters off of the walls, packed away my IBM PC and boxes full of diskettes, and tried to make some order out of chaos. I was only partially successful, but my parents understood, and we loaded everything into the minivan, and away we went. Sorry, mom! You guys were great about it though.
Poof. Just like that, my NCSSM experience was over. They really were two of the best years of my life, in so many ways -- and the experiences I had here utterly changed the course of my life. I am sure most of you feel the same way already, but the ripple effect will be felt for years to come. Look around -- look at your friends, your teachers, your RAs. This place has made a deep and enduring mark on who you are and who you will be.
NCSSM taught me the single most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life, and I want to share it with you.
It’s very simple: Never stop looking. That is, never stop looking for who you are, where you belong, and what you might do with your short time on this planet. Sometimes it takes a really, really big change to figure that out.
Before coming to S&M -- as we called it affectionately in those days -- I grew up in a small town called Wilson, about an hour east of here. I cannot say that I really loved Wilson, and I didn’t fit in well there at all. For one thing, I didn’t have a car, so I could not join the legions of kids who would spend their Friday nights driving in circles around the mall, which was pretty much the only entertainment there. But more than that, with the exception of a few close friends, I never quite felt like I found kindred spirits -- people with the same weird and geeky interests that I had. People who saw the world in the same way.
Fortunately, I was admitted to Science and Math, and I am dead serious when I say that coming here saved my life. Almost as soon as I arrived here, I realized that I had found what I had been looking for all of those years in Wilson, where I was so out of place -- people who cared about the same things that I did. People who were smarter, and weirder, and more interesting than I could ever be. Teachers with an amazing passion and ability to inspire. A cafeteria serving the most amazing food … wait … scratch that … The food was terrible. But at least it was free!
Coming to Science and Math was the first time that I realized that there was a bigger, more incredible, more inspiring world out there than the narrow confines of my experience back in Wilson. I am sure many of you have had the same experiences, over and over again while roaming these halls. Never forget it. It’s the most important thing you can take away from your time here.
This lesson has been reinforced many times in my life. Another time was my first opportunity to travel outside of the developed world. Although I had traveled and lived in Europe during college, it wasn’t until I was a grad student at Berkeley that my wife and I traveled to “difficult” places -- the first such trip being Nepal, where we spent about a month, trekking through the Himalaya. I will never forget the experience of arriving in Kathmandu for the first time, speeding through the night in a taxi, looking out at the eye-popping poverty, the people everywhere, cows and goats and water buffalo roaming in the road, the endless cars and rickshaws and bicycles and motor scooters everywhere -- it might has well have been a different planet. It completely changed my conception of what the world was like, right there, over the course of about ten minutes.
Over the following years, we traveled to many other places as remote as Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Laos -- and every time my mind was blown by how strange and big and varied the world is. If I can leave you all with just one thing from today, it would be to encourage you to travel the world. Especially while you are young. Not enough young people do this, and I think it’s the single most effective way to broaden your horizons in life.
I also learned this lesson when I decided to quit my job as a professor at Harvard to join Google. To many people, being a professor, especially somewhere like Harvard, sounds like a dream job. You get tremendous freedom, the opportunity to work with some of the smartest students and faculty anywhere. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was even one of my students. If you’ve seen the movie “The Social Network”, that scene where Zuck storms out of a Computer Science lecture -- the professor in that scene was supposed to be me -- those were in fact my real PowerPoint slides from class! Of course Mark never stormed out of a lecture -- he wasn’t actually in lecture often enough for that to have happened.
The thing is, being a professor is really, really hard work. You have almost no down time, as there’s always another deadline, another lecture to prepare, another letters to write. It’s grueling. Your teachers here have to work just as hard, so you should really thank them today -- they work their tails off for you.
So after seven years at Harvard, I was ready for a change, and started a sabbatical at Google. And going to Google felt a heck of a lot like what it felt coming to Science and Math for the first time. I mean, nerds everywhere! People wearing socks with sandals! The other day, I went to a meeting, and one of the engineers actually had a live parrot on his shoulder. This is totally normal at Google! And, just like Science and Math, they even have free food! Though you don’t have to work in the cafeteria or rake pine needles. That part’s much better.
I knew almost from the moment I went to Google that that was where I was meant to be -- that I had found my kin. But it took making a big change -- giving up a permanent job, leaving behind my students and colleagues, moving my family across the country -- to figure that out. So it was a big risk, but the reward was huge -- finding out what I really want to be doing with my life, right now. You have to take those risks.
So never stop looking. That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Never stop looking. You never know what you might find.
And with that, I just want to say, congratulations to you all. Today is a big day -- it’s your day. Live it up! Don’t forget it! That is, if you got any sleep last night. If you didn’t, well, you can go back to sleep now because the best part is over.
Thank you very much, and congratulations to the class of 2014!




8 comments:

  1. Dude, this is a really nice speech.

    I'm such a scatterbrain that I missed much of the good stuff on the first listen, probably because I kept getting distracted by your Glass.

    This is such a great message, and I hope the graduates took it to heart. So many of the worlds problems would be easier to solve if we all traveled more and saw the world through each other's eyes.

    Congrats Matt!!

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  2. I'm a 2007 alum--I loved your other post about NCSSM and love this speech as well! Everything you said resonates with me, and I hope this new alum class takes your words to heart!!

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  3. Matt, chemistry faculty at NCSSM, and I was also your "interpreter" yesterday. One of our students had deaf relatives in the audience. Just wanted to say how much fun I had interpreting your talk, and I appreciate that there weren't a lot of "big words" in it. I generally don't really internalize the words I'm interpreting, but I did this one, and came away pretty inspired myself. Good job!

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    1. Bob, thanks a bunch for this. About halfway through the speech I realized I was going off the script a bit and didn't know if you had seen my draft of the speech to prepare in advance, so I was worried you were going to have trouble keeping on top of my ad libbing!

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  4. Thanks all for the kind words!

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  5. Great speech--I'm an alum ('86) and just found a link to it via Facebook. I think S&M changed us in so many ways...the experience literally rewired our brains. A few years ago, as I read this story on teenage brains in National Geographic (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text), I realized that if teenage risk-taking serves the evolutionary purpose of making us capable of leaving the nest, then taking really smart kids and moving them out of the nest two years earlier would certainly leave a mark, neurologically speaking. I've heard many of my NCSSM friends say they'd be dead if they hadn't gone to Durham. I hope NC will always have this intellectual oasis for the weird and geeky teens.

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  6. Great speech, Matt, thanks for sharing here.

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  7. Where's part 3 of the google career part?
    Did google force you to pull it?

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