John Wood | May 7, 2010

Good morning graduates! Good morning parents! You are one step closer to financial freedom today. That is huge.

I am honored to be here today. When the invitation showed up from the Senior Class Committee, I was incredibly excited. Today I am a little disappointed. The Senior Class Committee promised me I would come in running behind Ralphie. And, I’m not really sure what happened.

In 1986, when I was sitting in the student section at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I had only a vague notion of what I wanted to do with my life. I thought all paths were linear and I would follow a scripted journey. I was very fortunate to have three lucky breaks, besides coming to Boulder:

  • Acceptance to the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, to pursue my MBA was my first lucky break.
  • My second lucky break was getting an offer to join this small, little-known software company in Redmond, Washington at a time when it was on a very steep growth trajectory, and accepting this little-known currency called the stock option, which my professor told me would be completely worthless and I should trade for a higher salary.
  • My third lucky break was meeting a headmaster in Nepal who told me, “we are too poor to afford education, but until we have education we will always be poor.” I think it was the ideals I learned here at Boulder that convinced me not only to be a passionate person, but to be an action oriented person, what I call an action-oriented optimist.

It was not a linear path for me to go from here to there, but I am very very glad I did. During this journey I realized how lucky I was to learn here in Boulder: a globally-minded city, a diverse community, a community that respects and seeks out diversity, not just of people, but also of opinions, and a place that is willing to embrace the world. A place willing to send out peace corps volunteers, a place that produces graduates like Mark Arnauldi, who is doing fantastic work in Nepal. We need more people to do that and that is the subject of my brief remarks this morning.

There is an adage in Africa: “The most dangerous place to stand in Africa is between a hippo and its water supply.” And I’m standing between you and getting your degrees and going back to partying. So I’ll try, I promise, to keep this short.

We are fortunate enough to live in the age in which we’re living. This is an age of unparalleled prosperity. Decade upon decade, century upon century of unprecedented economic growth. This is an age when anybody can make the decision to go out and do great things in the world. There’s less discrimination than there’s ever been. There’s still too much, obviously, but the situation has changed radically over the years and it’s become a much more inclusive world and society. At a time of unparalleled opportunities however, we also have an incredible dearth of leadership. My charge to the graduates and to every one of us in this audience is this: The world needs you to lead us. The world needs everyone in this stadium today to find a way to lead and to create change in some direction. At the same time the world has incredible opportunities and is more connected than ever before, we have crises of confidence, in governance, in organized religion, in the major financial institutions and the way their rules are set.

There are crises of confidence in so many areas, such as the Big Three American automobile producers, who seem to get smaller each and every day. We live in a time when the world needs to have more and better leaders. That is why we need all of you to lead us. And not just YOU the graduates, but everyone in this stadium – grandmothesr, little sisters and brothers, parents and friends. The world is waiting for us to step out and take action.

We know that wide-scale change is possible, because we see it happen each and every day when people like you decide to stand up and lead.

  • Wendy Kopp dared to start Teach for America seventeen years ago as a Princeton senior. The experts told her it could not be done. Who was she? She’d never had a real job. Yet she dared to make it happen. Today, Teach for American is one of the Top Ten employers of new college graduates, with over 25,000 graduates competing for just under 4,000 positions. They have made teaching in the inner city and rural areas from something unattractive to something high status.
  • Paul Farmer of Partners in Health dared to lead, creating a health system throughout Haiti because of his belief that nobody should have to die of diseases that were eradicated in the developed world decades ago, yet in the developing world, this scourge hits us each and every day.
  • Jimmy Carter dared to lead and to re-define what it means to be an ex-President. To go from the golf course, to being out, destroying the guinea worm and fighting cholera, while pushing for free and fair democratic elections around the world, and building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
  • Nelson Mandela dared to lead in many ways. He chose to treat his captors with the dignity, they would not show to him. Nelosn Mandela chose to lead by playing the long game, by waiting, waiting waiting and when his moment came, he pounced! It took a great deal of time. Mandela began fighting the scourge of apartheid as a young man. He spent decades in a terrible prison on Robben Island. It was not until he was an old man that he finally won, and walked into the bright sunshine of a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa. But, even when it was tough, Mandela chose to lead.
  • Martin Luther King, one of my heroes, chose to lead. He dared us to imagine a world in which his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but instead by the content of their character. He unfortunately paid a price for that dream. Leadership often involves paying a price, hopefully not the ultimate price.
  • Finally, Barack Obama’s mother dared to dream. And I salute the mothers in this audience, along with the fathers, but let’s hear a special round, with Mother’s Day upon us… I’ll never forget the line from Obama’s book, where his mother forced him to wake up at five o’clock in the morning to read together before going to school. He complained to his mother being up so early, and she said “This is no picnic for me either, buster. I’m not enjoying this any more than you are.” And as a result, seemingly-insurmountable challenges were overcome, and through a lot of leadership, we saw the election of our first African American President. All I can say is that I hope somewhere in heaven Dr. King was sitting in a comfortable arm chair, smiling at his friends and saying “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are finally free at last!”

We are breaking down barriers at a rapid rate in this world we live in today, but there are a lot more changes to make and a lot more barriers to be broken. My main point here is that leadership does not require a traditional background. There are often not committees or elections that appoint leaders—leadership happens to the strangest of people. Carter – a peanut farmer. Mandela – a political prisoner. Wendy Kopp – a freshly-minted college graduate who’d never held a real job.

So what lesson is inherent in these examples? I think there are three:

  • The first is that leaders are often self-appointed. No one tells them to go out and do it , they simply wake up in the morning and they believe in it and have passion for it and they go out. So I ask each of you to figure out what your passion is. Perhaps it’s the environment. Perhaps it’s teaching poor children to read. Perhaps it’s trying to make sure every child in the developing world is vaccinated and has clean water and has access to the same quality education that kids in the rest of the world have. If you don’t have passion, please find it, because I can assure you of one thing after twenty-three years as an “adult,” there is nothing more boring than spending time with a passionless person. So if you’ve lost it find it, if you don’t have it grab it, if you have it act on it, seize it and do everything in your power.
  • The second key lesson from leadership is that there are critics and cynics who will try to tell us why we can’t change the world. I’ve had a journalist say to me, “there’s a quote that one person cannot change the world,” which I think is the most ridiculous statement ever. That’s the problem of the person making that statement who’s lost their idealism and optimism. In life it’s necessary to ignore the critics and the cynics. When I quit Microsoft in 1999 at the age of thirty-five, I had any number of people tell me why this Room to Read idea would not work. “You don’t have funding, you don’t know what you’re doing, you have no business plan, you have no employees, you have no staff,” etcetera, etcetera. All those things were true. What I did have was a passion, to help kids in the rest of the world have the same opportunities that we take for granted. Because, I think it’s a tragedy in this day and age that any child can be told, “you were born in the wrong place and time, to the wrong parents.” That should be part of human history. Every child deserves the dignity of learning to read. And every girl child deserves the dignity of going to school, each and every day, along with the boys. Because the world will not change until every girl also gets educated. As I look out here, I see a world which is fifty-fifty. Maybe it’s 51-49 or 52-48, last time I checked the women were ahead of the men now in graduation. Which is not a bad thing! I chose not to listen to the critics and I’m proud to say that we’re on track, and by the year 2015 we estimate ten million children in the poorest parts of the world will have access to Room to Read schools and libraries. Ten million children in our first decade and a half! Because my team and I ignored the critics and ignored the cynics. One of my pieces of advice is borrowed from Voltaire, who famously said, “No one ever erected a statue in honor of a critic.” Burn that into your brains graduates; you’ll need that at some point in life.
  • My third and final lesson, comes from these leaders and is very simple. It is John Wood’s first rule of social change: BOLD GOALS ATTRACT BOLD PEOPLE. If you have a bold goal, people will coalesce behind you. Wimpy goals tend to attract wimpy people. If you’re going to have a goal, make it an incredibly bold goal.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.” I think all of us have greatness within us. We should recognize it, we should embrace it, we should seize it, we should go out there and be leaders.

The world is in need of so much more leadership than we have today. I’ll never forget a quote from Bono, at last year’s Clinton Global Initiative. He told of being in Lebanon and talking to a NATO general, who said, “We have millions of dollars of military hardware in the Mediterranean, but we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of the people to Hezbollah, because they are building schools.” There is a lesson in that. We need to go out and exercise not soft power, but smart power. The world needs more engagement from America and smarter engagement from America. And, the world most definitely needs more Boulder. The world could use more Boulder and the ideals that you have learned here.

I’m going to close by hopelessly dating myself and giving you a quote from a 1980′s band. When I was in school 80′s music was not retro, it was the new thing. And there was a band some of you may have seen, The The and a famous song they sang said, “This is the day your life will surely change.” Later they sing, “This is the day when things fall into place.” I hope you get both sides of that equation. Congratulations! Go Buffs!