Tim Wolf, May 2012

Collaboration and the Art of Learning

 Congratulations, University of Colorado Class of 2012 !

What a great day to celebrate your graduation!  I applaud your persistence, commitment and hard work.  I’m sure there were moments when the avalanche of exams, papers, projects, labs, seemed never ending.  But you met each challenge and you’re here today.  So Bravo. Well done. Give yourself a hand!

 For undergraduates, you’re now among the 28% of Americans who’ve earned a 4-year degree, an achievement that has grown from 1940, when before the GI Bill, only 6% of adults had a college degree.  And though some provocative voices challenge its value —saying jobs are hard to find or student loans are tough—I prefer our odds with more of us having this degree than not;  because ignorance has never solved a problem and, I believe, never will. Ignorance didn’t put us in space or create the internet or build this wonderful stadium.  In fact, our communities, our country need the most engaged, collaborative people we can educate, so we can better confront our challenges and pursue our opportunities.  It’s not cool to be ignorant; and it’s not arrogant to aspire to learn more.  The fact is that we need you, newly armed with your hard-earned degrees, and we all need to keep learning, whether you’re just over 20 years old, or way over 20.  We need your powerful insights, skills, and energy to meet our biggest challenges. For example:  H0w do we improve the quality and affordability of education?  How do we ensure quality and availability of healthcare?  How do we strengthen and ensure fairness in our economy, while living within our means? And, How do we act as responsible stewards of our environment?  Armed with your experience at CU, I know, I expect, that many of you here today will help find answers to some of our most complex but ultimately solvable problems.

 To solve these challenges, I’d like to have a brief conversation with you about the important and powerful art of collaboration, because that’s where answers to those challenges will be found.  Knowledge is core, but when partnered with collaboration, real answers and progress are possible.  I believe that collaboration is all about finding common ground, coming together, laboring together, and taking action together, even when we may start in opposition.  Collaboration is what propels good ideas to become great realities. This wonderful University, our Country, are here because of effective collaboration.  

Many of you may have seen the movie, The King’s Speech.  It tells the story of George the sixth’s battle to overcome his stuttering, so he can provide a strong, confident voice in his first wartime radio broadcast in 1939.  At one level, the film shows one man’s will to overcome challenge and find his voice so he can better serve others.  But I’d suggest it was more about the power of collaboration and mutual respect directed toward an important goal, which was nothing less than the voice of a nation in peril.    George’s first encounter with his speech coach shows how those in collaboration initially can be adversaries.  Each one is sure that the other is arrogant or incompetent, or a bit of both.  Ultimately, each realizes the talents of the other; the speech is a success; student and teacher become effective, friendly collaborators.  

In some of my work, to help merge companies, the idea was that together we could achieve more than we could on our own.  Teammates’ esteem, incomes, families and communities faced change and uncertainty, so collaboration here was essential. Without it we’d stalemate and wither.  Doing nothing was not an option.  You can’t leave anyone in limbo. The right thing is to get something done, move forward and make it better than you found it, much as I know you’ve done while here at CU.  I’ve seen this first hand in many of your extraordinary student team presentations. Really impressive work.  Collaboration helped build you from being a collection of smart classmates, to an effective team of problem solvers.

 Importantly, collaboration is not weakness, it’s not retreat.  Rather, collaboration is high integrity energy that seeks clarity, teamwork and forward progress. Really, it’s the way to build greatness.  Collaboration is about the candor that acknowledges the weaknesses in your view, and the strengths in an opposing one.  It provides an amazing path to innovation that we might not take if we tried to go it alone. Nor does collaboration dilute personal accountability or self-initiative.  In fact, truly great leaders are great collaborators, because they know that failing to make progress causes problems to fester, making solutions more difficult if postponed to an uncertain future.  Kicking the can down the road only diminishes the ground we stand on today.  And good leaders also listen more than they talk, so they can hear where common ground might be found. They spend less time searching for fault lines that splinter or divide, and more time looking for bridges that bond.  Anybody can criticize, but not everyone can build. My hope for you is that you collaborate and you build.  

As I talk to people in non-profits, on boards, in government, in companies, my read is that there’s a hunger to bring more of us together to solve our pressing issues, and actually make progress.  Approval of our Congress is low because it’s failing to collaborate and address the kind of challenges I mentioned before. It’s not moving us forward.  I deeply respect this truly great institution, but they need to collaborate better and make our Nation better than they found it.  

You’re here because in large measure, you understand that collaboration is truly powerful. It’s magical in how it helps us achieve together what we could not have achieved alone.  And, really, how many of us are here today because we’ve done everything on our own?  Maybe some of you here today did do it alone; but I’d guess that most of us had some help or collaboration from our families, friends, fellow students, professors, coaches, advisors, and certainly those who came before us.  For sure you did the heavy lifting—you took the exams and wrote the papers. But consider where in your life you collaborated with others, and they with you.  Maybe today, as you celebrate your hard-earned degree, you let those folks know that you appreciate their help in turning the idea of your college or graduate career, into something concrete and solid.  

For all our challenges, I also see extraordinary examples of collaboration and social synergy, right here in our town.  This makes me optimistic that meaningful progress is possible, locally and nationally.  Maybe some of you’ve heard of E-Town, the creation of Nick and Helen Forster, who’ve strengthened Boulder, and our country, for 21 years. This amazing organization collaborates to promotes ideas, community and social good, through wonderful live music, broadcast to 300 radio stations throughout the US and Globally each week.  

I see it in the amazing work of Jamie Van Leeuwen, who is a key advisor to our Governor. Jamie champions countless partnerships and collaborative projects with local and national foundations to improve education, literacy and health, throughout Colorado; and  I’m awed by the selflessness of Susan Kiely, who is founder of the Women with a Cause Foundation. Susan’s collaborative outreach helps women locally who are victims of abuse or challenged by teen pregnancy, while also empowering  impoverished women in India through micro-financing.  And I know we all have many other friends and colleagues with stout hearts and collaborative spirits who are making our world better every day.   

I’m also optimistic because the Denver Broncos now have Peyton Manning at quarterback.  

Finally, I hope you’ll ask:  “How do I advance this spirit of collaboration, as I graduate here today?” “How do I become an even better collaborator?”  For me, fostering collaboration is about constantly stretching an open mind and heart.  Doing this means embracing diversity of individuals and thought; challenging our tolerance and resilience; never getting too comfortable or smug, and trying hard to not judge.  The folks in the examples I just shared, are role models for this way of living.  Simply said, I believe that collaboration flourishes when we joyfully go after those things that keep us learning and discovering.  So here are four ideas that I hope might help you be an even better collaborator. They’ve certainly helped me, knowing well that I still have much to learn:

 First, read.  Read voraciously, widely, constantly. Go to the source.  Don’t let others tell you what’s true and what’s not, or allow sloppy thinking and opinion to masquerade as fact.  Read even what you may not agree with, because it may challenge your previously held view and make you think.  And thinking will make you a better collaborator.   

Second, travel.  Travel places you’ve never been, places where cultures and histories are varied and complex; also travel within our own amazing country, because our brief history is etched in every small town, valley, forest and city in our country.  

Third, build networks constantly. Develop and expand your networks and communities, so you constantly come in contact with new people with varying interests and aspirations. This is important because you can’t collaborate with yourself.  By constantly seeking wider spheres of people with diverse backgrounds and interests, you’ll always be learning, you’ll be less likely to become dull; your future spouse and friends will thank you.  

Fourth, give; and give with a loving heart.  No matter how challenging your life might be, and a spare moment may be hard to find, give.  Give your time, your knowledge, and your energy to others who need help.  You’ll probably never learn more than when you’re giving, teaching or extending yourself to someone else. And giving is always the right thing to do.  Yes, you’ve worked hard for what you’re about to be awarded, but always, always pay it forward.  

The more varied your experiences, the more varied the challenges to your mind and heart, the better collaborator you’ll be. You’ll become more adept at turning ideas into something tangible, something that lasts.  Others will want you on their teams because they’ll know that you have something valuable and textured to offer, whatever the opportunity, whatever the challenge.  So Class of 2012, here’s my challenge and my hope for you.  You’re very smart and very able to understand the problems that our country and our world face.  But to really find solutions, and leave your mark, take your great ideas and collaborate with others. Seek out those whose views are different than yours.  And keep yourself coached up as a great collaborator: read, travel, build networks and give.  

As your paths unfold from here today, how well you collaborate may help you find your voice and empower the stories you want to tell.   I wish you the very best for whatever your next chapters hold, chapters whose prose will be richer still, as you bring others together.   Good luck. Onward!