Commencement Address - Claude M. Steele

Lean In and Let In


Photo by Kelvin Ma, University Photography

I would like to begin by congratulating the graduates of Tufts University. It is your hard work that has brought you to the finish line of your studies here, and to the starting line of your professional careers and the rest of your lives really. I know this is a big day and I know you will enjoy and remember it. I also want to congratulate the parents and families of the graduates. Your support of these students is essential to what they have achieved. So it is your moment, too, to enjoy and remember.

When I learned I would have the great honor of giving the graduation speech today, I did what any serious scientist and scholar would do, I googled “college graduation speeches.” A list of the top 10 popped up immediately—most by luminaries and celebrities like Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, Denzel Washington, J. K. Rowlings, Cory Booker and Bill Clinton and so on. Perhaps unwisely, I looked at all 10 of these speeches. This caused, I confess, a slight degree of intimidation. I had a version of the reaction students sometimes have when they get admitted to a great university like Tufts: “Was I somehow admitted by mistake?” “Maybe they actually intended to invite to invite Michael Steele or Remington Steele, or…? How could I really be as funny as Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane’s graduation a couple of years ago? It was a great speech, but most of all it was hilarious. She made Tulane’s president laugh so hard his mortar board nearly fell off. Then after moving the audience to tears with episodes from her amazing life, she brought them back to hilarity and jubilation with a frolicking dance up and down the aisles of the auditorium. This gave me a moment of self-confrontation: I could never do that. My dancing just doesn’t cause that kind of jubilation.

Then I watched the famous Steve Jobs graduation talk given at Stanford in 2005 when everyone knew he was struggling with pancreatic cancer. It is a riveting speech; I recommend it to you. His personal story embodies the birth and early life of this amazing age of technology that we’re in. His is indeed an epic life; and it was an epic speech. I had another moment of self-confrontation: I really can’t do that either. I mean I’m not complaining about my life, but it just isn’t so historically central and indispensable as to enable me to give a talk of quite that nature.    

Fortunately, a strategy for a speech finally did occur to me, one that seemed to suit my more, shall I say, academic identity. I have a message that I would like to convey to you today, one that comes from an insight that I’ve stumbled on several times in my life, and that I’ve actually lived to see borne out in my own research.

And what I’ve seen in the top 10 graduation speeches is that most of them dealt with the life journeys of these amazing people, and their ideas of how to live that journey, ideas that surprisingly were in high agreement with each other. So beginning my speech with some of those wisdoms seemed like a good idea. It would help show the relevance of my message, the one I want to get to eventually, to the whole enterprise of pursuing life’s journey. So I took that strategy. First, some broad wisdoms about life’s journey, and then a specific wisdom from my own experience.

So to begin, what did these really cool people say about life’s journey?

Interestingly, explicitly or implicitly, they all begin with what might be called the fundamental problem of life. It’s this: we want to realize our dreams, be happy, successful, have the respect of others, but we can’t know for sure exactly how to do this. We can’t know the future, and the world is constantly changing, being disrupted. So what exactly does one do to realize one’s dreams? When you get your diploma today, as impressive as it is, there won’t be inside of it a life journey’s instruction manual.

Against this problem, almost all of the top 10 graduation speakers put one thing ahead of everything else: Doing what you really, really, really want to do, and value doing, finding your passion in life. Nearly all of them said this. They said you should pay attention to how much you like the work, how much it excites you, gives you a sense of mission, of meaning and destiny—this even more than how much you think you should do the work. Don’t ignore the “shoulds” of life. They have their place. But in setting your life course, put the “wants” of life ahead of the shoulds of life.

Sometime these wants are broad and altruistic, like Cory Booker’s great “want” to be a public servant, to help bring together the discordant parts of this great society—even when doing that requires the stoic self sacrifice of, for example, living in an inner-city housing project. His appeal to you is to show up in life, to show up for what you value and think is important. And sometimes these wants are more focused, like the movie producer Jerry Zucker’s intense mission to make movies. Broad or focused, a passion is at the center of these speakers’ lives.

Steve Jobs was especially adamant about this. “Your time is limited,” he said, “don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” 

Most of them quickly added that you should do this even when others disagreed. Jobs again: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Only you can answer the passion question; it’s your personal struggle.

And moreover, follow your passion with a cold eye to failure. Not one of these speeches is a failure-free story. To the contrary, the movie producer Jerry Zucker barely graduated from college, Denzel Washington flunked out of college, Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was later fired as CEO of Apple, the very company he started. Ellen DeGeneres never went to college, and failed at so many jobs that she eventually collapsed on her floor in her apartment and wrote a letter to God seeking advice, even though she was an atheist.

Just think, as of today, you guys, the Class of 2013 have a leg up on all of these people. It’s as if each speech tells the story about two separate people—one the abject, absolutely unpromising failure, who endured an unending string of failures, and the other the brilliant, high-achieving success. And each story ends with the same revelation: the failed person and the successful person are the same person.

If these people shared a talent it’s this: they could live with a certain kind of faith—a faith that allowed them to throw themselves into what they loved even when others disapproved, even when they experienced near-endless failure and hardship, and even when they had no assurance that what they were doing would pay off. In the face of all this, they still went all out—to learn their craft, to take the next step toward making a movie, to make a computer with inside circuitry as beautiful as the outside design, to help the most distressed community in the city get reliable health care, to become the best standup comic in Los Angeles.

And that’s when the magic started to happen for them. That’s when opportunity appeared. Other people were drawn to their energy. Other people began to join them, to invest in them, to support them, and to ask them do things that because of the long work and apprenticeship they’d done, they were ready to deliver on. 

It’s important to stress that it wasn’t shrewd planning that brought them the opportunities that ultimately changed their lives; it was this stubborn faith. Some might say strength of character.

And it wasn’t long after that that they reached the heights that made them the kind of people you’d ask to give a graduation speech.

So that’s it, that’s what I extracted from the top 10 graduation speeches. Begin the journey of life, above all, trusting what you care about and like. Think hard, always think hard, but don’t worry too much about figuring out a precise strategy, a step-by-step plan. Instead, cultivate a faith, a specific faith that, by and large, doing the best you possibly can at what you value doing will bring you the chances, the opportunities you need.

What these 10 speakers know that people looking at them now, don’t know, is the long, long road they traveled to get where they are—and the role of this kind of faith in traveling that road.

It’s a faith that you’ve heard about. The Rolling Stones put it this way: “You might not always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.” A big part of the art of life is keeping that faith.

But to this package of advice, if I might, I will add something, something that comes from my own experience, and as I said, eventually even from my own research. I will tell you about it in three stories.

The first story shows the principle in everyday life. It’s a story, I have to concede, that is all too typical of we men: the resistance to asking for directions when we’re lost. I can’t believe how stubborn I used to be about this. I’d push things to the point of panic before stopping—usually prompted by my wife—to ask someone for directions. This rigidity went on for a shamefully long time. Then suddenly, well into midlife, I made a discovery: that virtually every time I was lost and asked for directions, the advice I got led to a revelation, a deeper understanding of the situation I was in; sometimes it even explained things beyond the situation I was in; sometimes it even brought me a new friend. It was amazing how much I got from asking questions. I was so reinforced that I adopted the practice as a new rule to live by.

Now you’re probably thinking I turned myself into a real public nuisance, and now, on your graduation day, I have the nerve to advise you to do the same thing. This rule can make you a nuisance sometimes, I concede.

But I stand by it: when you’re lost, ask for directions. This goes for the journey of life as much as when you are actually physically lost. You don’t have to obey the advice you get. But invariably, you will learn what you never knew you didn’t know. It teaches you a mindset: that life is a learning opportunity, not just a performance of being smart, or always knowing your way. And it’s available to you as soon as the next time you get lost.

A second story. This came from the experience of gradually learning how to work with my graduate students and colleagues in doing science. At a certain point in my career I’d worked very hard and developed a scientific psychological theory. And I had done some of the early research needed to establish it as a position in the field. Then I began to notice, after working so long on the theory, that my thinking was in a rut; everything I saw or thought about turned into just another instance of the phenomenon of the theory that I was working with.

A famous social psychologist once told me about a recurring experience he had that illustrated my problem. He said he’d go to bed, and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a fever of excitement over what he thought was the greatest, most brilliant research idea he’d ever had. He said he’d jump from bed and dash over to his desk and write down the brilliant idea—only to find, in the cold morning light that yet again he’d written down the idea for his master’s thesis.

That’s what was happening to me.

Then, perhaps because I was so boring myself, I started not just directing my graduate students, but talking to them, seeing who they were, what they thought, how they reacted to things. It was kind of like asking for directions. I opened up. I let them in. And interestingly, even when I knew a huge amount about a research problem, much more than they did, every single student saw or understood something about the problem better than I did. And some of the most interesting research I did came from those kinds of conversations.

In the 1950s the highest impact scientific papers were written by single authors—scientists working either alone or by directing a lab of more or less obedient minions. In recent decades the highest impact science articles are written by collaborative teams of scientists. Asking directions, collaborative conversations, these are acts of letting things in. They change the knowledge base of your thinking, your decisions and your entire life.

And, as the economist Jacob Viner used to tell his students, “There is no limit to the amount on nonsense you can think, if you think too long alone.”

A last story. This comes from my research. As some of you may know, I’ve done research on how negative stereotypes about an identity we have—our age, our gender, our race—can affect us—how it can downgrade our performance on tasks where we could confirm the stereotype, how it can make us uncomfortable in situations where we could be seen in terms of the stereotype, or how, as a persistent threat in some careers, it could even lead us to avoid a career we would otherwise like.

At one point, a then graduate student of mine, Philip Goff, and I decided to look at how this threat might affect relationships—in particular, relationships between people from different groups, groups that might be seen as capable of negatively stereotyping each other, as for example, the relationship between white and black Americans when the topic of race comes up. In a conversation like that, members of each group could feel some threat, some risk, of being negatively stereotyped by the other group. This could put tension between them. And if the parties involved were, say, a student and teacher, a doctor and patient, a lawyer and client, or even just colleagues, this tension can have unfortunate consequences. 

Our first experiment was just to see if we could find a situation that created these tensions in the laboratory. Now I know this sounds perverse, but if we could produce this tension in the laboratory, we could then study it, take it apart and figure out how to reduce it—that’s the promise of science. 

So we set up a situation in which white male college students expected to have an interracial conversation that might cause tension, they had to talk about racial profiling that put them at the risk of being seen as racist by black conversation partners. Or, they expected a conversation that would not cause this tension by not having the conversation being with African Americans or not on a topic related to race.

And then we measured how closely they sat to their conversation partners. And sure enough, when they feared this tension, when they feared being stereotyped in the conversation, they distanced themselves from their black conversation partners. They put their chairs farther away, and other measures told us why. They were understandably worried about being stereotyped and moved their chairs farther away to avoid being seen that way. This form of white stereotype threat, the pressure not to be seen as racist, is powerful in American life, especially in interracial interactions, and especially around racial topics. It can sustain a real distance between us.

Is there something that can reduce it, something that would allow white participants for example to move their chairs in close for a difficult conversation with two fellow black students?

Here is where I return to my central theme—to the mindset of asking questions, of letting in, of treating life as a learning opportunity. Could this mindset I’ve been telling you about in other contexts—asking questions when lost, collaboration in science—actually help white participants in this experiment move their chairs in close for a tough interracial conversation? We put the question to test.

We did the experiment over. Except this time we told the white participants facing a stereotype threatening conversation with two black students to treat it as a learning experience. We said nobody knows exactly how to talk about these kind of difficult topics. We said that they shouldn’t try to perform not being racist. They should relax, they should ask questions, ask questions, ask questions; treat the conversation as a chance to learn how other people see a challenging issue.

It worked. With that mindset, the white participants expecting this tense conversation sat nearly as close to their conversation partners as to touch each other. The tension was gone. The mindset freed them. Once the conversation was a learning opportunity, and not a performance, they could relax, they could lean in, they could let in whatever they might hear.

It is essentially the same mindset that allowed me to stop being a know-it-all and ask for directions when I got lost.

It’s the same mindset that, as a graduate advisor, enabled me to drop the pose of always being authoritative let in more of what my students thought.

So there is my advice in three stories, the same principle: When you feel under social threat, like the threat of judgment, try to avoid defensiveness, tempting as it is; rather, lean in and let in, try to let in what you don’t know you don’t know. Make learning your go-to mindset under threat; it can set you free, allow you to never feel lost, to never feel non authoritative; and to be a great citizen of the world with a rich, exploring social range and sense of empathy and connection. It can make your entire life a far more informed, full-of-opportunity, enriched and expansive journey. As Einstein said, “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.”

So to the package of life journey advice that comes from the top 10 graduation speeches—putting your passion at the center of your life, having resolve against others’ opinions of what you should do, being tough as nails about failure, and doing something that dedicates you to the good—from my own life and work, I would add one more principle: don’t forget to ask for directions.

Now, if I was Ellen DeGeneres I would throw my hat in the sky, get a good back beat going, and dance up and down the aisles of this great space. But as I said, that’s not quite me. So let me end by just congratulating you for all that you have achieved and all that you will achieve—this mighty Class of 2013. Look to your left, look to your right and take a second to think about all the great friends you have made here. Make a vow to keep them with you, to stay in touch. That too will help you more than you know in your journey.

You are awesome. It has been an honor to address you and your families on this special day.

Thank you for that honor and the best of luck. 


Read Steele's honorary degree citation and biography »