Jeffrey Lehman at Commencement 2022
Members of the Class of 2022.
Your four years with us have not gone as you expected. The pandemic limited our ability to move around. It changed what we think about, what we do, and how we do it.
For example, in pre-COVID commencements, I would deliver a long and slow set of remarks at the ceremony. But in this format, I will be more brief and focus on just one way that your NYU Shanghai education can help you to triumph after you graduate.
Modern technology is amazing, but it has made it harder for us to live in peace with others. James Williams, Shoshana Zuboff, and Kai-Fu Lee have all written great books about how today’s information ecosystem is messed up. Other people make money by seizing our attention. The most effective way for them to do that is by making us upset or angry. So, instead of inhabiting an ecosystem that provides continuous respectful exploration of a complex reality, we get trolling, name-calling, unrepresentative cases, and straight-up misinformation. Sometimes the voice is agitated, sometimes it is calm, but either way it keeps telling us that people who are different are dangerous, and people who disagree are evil.
Well, after four years of study at NYU Shanghai, you all have the tools to defeat that nonsense. You have built real friendships with people who are very different from you, and you know they are not dangerous. You have gotten to like people who disagree with you about important issues and you know they are not evil. You have felt the joy of discovering that your old understanding of the world was too simple, and that a more complex combination of perspectives is both more accurate and more beautiful.
So when you hear or read something that makes you feel agitated, remember your time here and ask the key question:
“How might that be not completely right? Might there be another way to look at things?”
In fact, don’t just ask that question when you feel agitated. Ask it when you feel calm. Ask it when you hear something that sounds completely sensible.
“How might that be not completely right? Might there be another way to look at things? Might my former classmate see things differently?”
You see, that question isn’t just a good way to stop doom scrolling and take your attention back from the algorithms. That question is also the key to making disruptive innovations in whatever kind of work you are doing.
Creative breakthroughs happen after you have mastered the conventional wisdom, after you have learned what the experts believe is true. They happen when you push yourself to ask whether what “everybody knows” might not be the entire story.
Of course that search for another perspective, that search for a more complicated understanding, will often not lead you anywhere exciting. You will often end up deciding that you don’t have anything really new to say.
But I promise you, if you commit yourself to the effort, to genuinely looking for ways to combine the traditional view with a different perspective, you will be surprised at how often you do end up feeling you have a deeper, more complete picture of the matter than you did before. And even if you end up with the exactly the same analysis that you started with, you will feel better for having made that analysis authentically yours.
Members of the NYU Shanghai Class of 2022, as you embark on lives of worth and purpose, lives of service to a world that desperately needs you, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:
May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.
May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.
May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.
May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.
May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, or arrogant.
May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.
May you build long and loving relationships with people whom you respect.
May you know enough bad weather that you never take sunshine for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.
May you be able to travel frequently beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, so that your appreciation for the miraculous diversity of life grows ever stronger.
And may your steps lead you often back to Shanghai. Back to Pudong. For you will always be members of the NYU Shanghai family. And even after we move our campus to Qiantan this winter, we will always be happy to welcome you home.
Watch Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman's full speech.