The speaker was Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, so my expectations were not very high. I knew he’d be dishing out the standard Silicon Valley tripe about technology as the salvation of humanity, and on that count he did not disappoint. But what struck me was how easily he slipped into our greatest cultural lie, the idea that possibilities are boundless and failure is impossible if you only work hard enough and risk big enough.
“There’s an old Italian phrase I like,” Schmidt said. “It’s used to describe especially daring circus performers. They do the salto mortale. It means they do a somersault, on a tightrope, without a net. Graduates, go do this. Be brave. Work without a net. I promise you, you will land on your feet.”
Let’s do a little etymology here. What salto mortale actually means is “deadly jump,” and what makes it so enthralling is the “deadly” part—the fact that there isn’t a guarantee you’ll land on your feet. In fact, a very cursory Google search reveals that in the last few years, several acrobats working without nets have, in fact, landed on their heads. But given the fact that few if any BU grads will go on to become dead acrobats, one might argue that Schmidt is employing poetic license in the service of a greater truth. Don’t we need to take risks? Isn’t all great success predicated on boldness and bravery?[gn_pullquote align=”right”]The only reason we believe that everyone can land on their feet is that we only pay attention to those who have. We don’t invite the dead acrobats to give commencement speeches.[/gn_pullquote]
Ah, that’s why the lie has such traction. Of course we need to take risks, and of course great success requires boldness and bravery. But the only reason we believe that everyone can land on their feet is that we only pay attention to those who have. We don’t invite the dead acrobats to give commencement speeches—or the acrobats who had to quit because of nagging injuries, or the ones who had to take regular jobs to feed their families, or the ones who just didn’t quite have the talent to make it. Survey the landscape of commencement speakers any given May, and you will find society’s clearest winners exhorting millions of kids to win just like they did—not because they might win, against tall odds, but because it is their birthright to win. I promise you, you will land on your feet.
The irony here is thick. If BU could have gotten Oprah or Bono or Michael Jordan to give their 2012 commencement address, do you think they’d have chosen Schmidt? No, of course not. But there’s a reason any of those people would have been such big scores, and Schmidt is but an acceptable consolation: they are rare, and their level of success is extraordinary. Just as Schmidt himself stands on the shoulders of countless tech world drudges, for every Michael Jordan, there are ten million washed up athletes nursing their stillborn dreams. Plenty of them worked without a net, and now might only wish to have another shot at the college education they back-burnered for a remote shot at greatness. Salto mortale.
Perhaps the fact that Schmidt failed to dispense actual wisdom reflects his lack of faith in wisdom itself. “In the past, it’s always the older generations, standing up on high, trying to teach the next generation the ways of the world—trying to make sure they follow in their footsteps. Well, graduates, I think it’s different today. You’re, quite simply, teaching us.” You’re teaching us by the way you use smartphones and Facebook and Twitter, he said. You’re teaching us how to live in a brave new world. But Facebook does not teach a 22-year-old about life; it only teaches him about Facebook. To understand life you first have to live, and that’s why it is the job of older generations to impart actual wisdom—to help guide the young through the thickets of life, which is all too often difficult and confounding. It is the mature adult’s job to teach the fledgling adult that sometimes life rewards risk and sometimes it does not, and it never reveals in advance which will be the case, and that’s why risk is actually risky, and not just a prelude to inevitable success.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]To say “You are all extraordinary men and women, in total control of your destinies” is an abdication of responsibility, a failure of the highest order.[/gn_pullquote]
To say this instead–“You are all extraordinary men and women, in total control of your destinies”—is an abdication of responsibility, a failure of the highest order. No one is in total control of his destiny; it’s impossible to be in total control of your destiny in a complex and interconnected world like ours, in which it can be hard to discern the smart risk from the dumb one, in which privilege and luck have much more to do with success than perhaps anything else—and certainly more than most graduation speakers would dare acknowledge.
But not all of them. Princeton’s commencement speaker that same May was Michael Lewis, whose string of powerhouse books is the envy of nonfiction writers everywhere. Lewis is a rare talent, and his bio includes the kind of inspired risk-taking that would fit right in on Eric Schmidt’s netless tightrope. But here’s what he had to say to his audience, after reflecting on the role that luck had played in his own life: “You are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.” That is wisdom worth getting a sunburn for—a reminder that while you may yet win your game, whatever it is, plenty more will lose it, by no fault of their own.
“Above all,” Lewis said, “recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”
Schmidt’s speech at BU: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZRIMQxje7k
Lewis’s speech at Princeton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiQ_T5C3hIM