The words Charles Dickens used to describe 18th-century London are eerily apt: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”
We live in a world of both sobering challenges and awesome opportunities. As you leave this serene campus, our nation is engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We are mired in debt and recovering at a painfully slow pace from the deepest recession in 80 years. Our political system at times seems incapable of action and our political rhetoric seems largely devoid of civility. There is a gross mismatch between the skills we need to build a 21st-century economy and the product our public education system is producing.
Yes, we have problems. But we also have great opportunities. Despite the tremendous challenges you face, I implore you to embrace them. The truth is, the world needs you as perhaps never before. We need your passion, creativity and drive. We need the spirit of exploration and the thirst for knowledge that you embraced here. We’re finding that some of our old assumptions and ideas don’t work anymore, and we can use people who are willing to ask, “Why do we do it that way?” and “how can we do it differently and better?”
Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. I would encourage all of you to follow the example of MIT and embrace change and learning willingly and with a sense of excitement and wonder. The only thing I can predict about your lives with any certainty is that change will be a constant in your lives as well. Back in 1980 when I sat where you are sitting today, there were no cell phones. The Internet, let alone the iPad, was not even the stuff of dreams. Chinese capitalism and the fall of the Soviet Union were unimaginable. Kabul and Islamabad conjured up only the vaguest recognition of places in some distant corner of the world. Genetics was in its infancy. Even as recently as a few years ago, the thought of a global economic meltdown was beyond comprehension.
I can’t pretend to know how your world will change, but I know it will and at a pace that will continue to increase exponentially. You can’t stop it. In many ways, you are the cause of it. Learn to love it. Make it your ally.
You should also have fun. Enjoy life. Choose a career that gives you pleasure and fulfillment. Surround yourselves with people who make you laugh. People you love and people who are good. I know that people are more likely to be successful if they have a passion for what they do. If down the road, you find that your career, your life, is not fun, revert to my first piece of advice — change!
Change, but be true to yourself in the process. Your family … MIT … your church or synagogue or mosque or mountaintop … have given you a set of core values — a moral compass. Hang on to it. Your life’s journey will include some turbulent waters. You will face difficult choices. You will be challenged and tested. The values you have developed through family and MIT will hold you in good stead. They are your roots, but you have also been given wings — the ability to dare to dream the impossible and then make that dream a reality.
Set your sights on changing the world, in leaving this planet a little better than you found it. That need not be as grandiose as it sounds. It can take the form of getting involved with one of the big ideas of our time … or working for an organization that creates decent jobs for its workers … or raising a family that will carry good values into the future. Believe in something larger than yourself. Make a difference. Live your life so that at the end of your journey, you will know that your time here was well spent, that you left behind more than you took away.
Allow yourself to bask in the glory of what you’ve accomplished. And pledge to yourself that you will cherish what you have learned here — and use it as a foundation to build a wonderful life. Most of the chapters of your life are still to be written. Most of the pages are blank. In that sense, too, these are “the best of times.”
My congratulations to all of you. You’ve worked long and hard to arrive at this weekend. And my congratulations also to all the parents, grandparents, spouses, family members and faculty that helped push you across the finish line. I wish you all the very best. May all your dreams come true.
The above is an edited excerpt of the text prepared for the address by Ursula M. Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corp., at MIT’s 145th Commencement on June 3, 2011.