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2011 Speaker - Thomas Friedman

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Thomas Friedman

Thank you so much for honoring me with this degree and for the opportunity to say a few words to the class of 2011. I suspect by now you have heard every Katrina metaphor in the English language, so, don’t worry, I am not going to treat you to any additional ones in my remarks today. I am, though, going to talk to you about a hurricane.

It’s one that I experienced firsthand. It was a political hurricane – a real category five -- and it still has not subsided. The eye of this storm originally made landfall over Tunisia last December, then it plowed through Egypt and now has spawned a series of tornados that are sweeping across Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain as we speak. Of course, you know what I am talking about -- the democracy uprisings across the Arab world, which I had the privilege – and it was a privilege -- to witness firsthand in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Now I know what you’re thinking: "Oh my God, he’s not going to give us some Middle East politics lecture is he? This is my graduation! He’s supposed to give us career advice -- 'Do what you love and all that stuff.'" Well, I’ve given that commencement speech before. As they say, you can Google it.

If you’ll bear with me, though, I actually learned a lot of lessons watching that Egyptian revolution unfold in Tahrir Square – lessons that may also have relevance to your lives.

The first has to do with role of hope and sheer optimism in politics. There is saying that you will often here from political realists and other hard-bitten types and it goes like this: "Hope is not a strategy."

Well, yes, hope ALONE is not a strategy. But hope is the necessary beginning of every strategy for change. People who are inspired by hope, by optimism, says Dov Seidman, the business philosopher, "see the world and the people in it as a huge source of possibilities. Hope is what inspires people to get up out of their chairs and lean into the world against all odds. If you lose hope you detach from the world and simply hunker down."

Those Egyptian kids who first dared to go into Tahrir Square and call for their president’s ouster, their only strategy was hope. They had no idea who would follow, how they would resist the police, how long they might have to stay in the Square and whether they wouldn’t all end up in jail, or worse. But they were propelled by a powerful hope and optimism that trumped every other concern.

One day walking to Tahrir Square I ran into an Egyptian couple and their two young boys, probably around nine and ten years old. The father stopped me on the Nile Bridge and said: "I just want you to know something. I work in Saudi Arabia but I flew here today for just one reason – to take my two sons to Tahrir Square. I want it seared into their minds what freedom feels like, so that they will never let it go." That is what hope looks like in the flesh.

My daughter Natalie graduated college last year and the day before I arrived for commencement, she called me and – knowing that it is my habit to interview people wherever I go -- said, "Dad, whatever you do, do not ask my roommates what they are doing next year. Some of them don’t have jobs."

Sound familiar? Some of you I am sure don’t have jobs either. But don’t let that stop you from leaning into the world. It is true what they say: Pessimists are usually right. Optimists are usually wrong, but all the great change in the world was made by hope-filled optimists. There were no pessimists in Tahrir Square. Seven years ago, I was in Israel at a dinner with the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, which publishes my column in Hebrew. I asked the editor why his newspaper ran my column, and he joked: "Tom, you’re the only optimist we have." An Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, was seated next to me and as we walked to the table, he said: "Tom, I know why you’re an optimist. It’s because you’re short." I said "'Short?' What do you mean?" He said, "You can only see that part of the glass that's half full."

Well, I am not that short, but for me all glasses are indeed half full. I hope that is the perspective you are taking from your time at Tulane. Don’t let anyone tell you that hope is not a strategy.

And whatever you do when you leave here promise me one other thing. It’s lesson two from Tahrir Square. Promise me that you won’t get the word. You see those Egyptians who showed up in Tahrir Square and defended it against the regime’s thugs, well, they just didn’t get the word. They just didn’t get the word that they were supposed to shut up, remain afraid, mind their own business, and not challenge the Pharoah – who kept telling them they were not ready for freedom -- and so they just went out and took his political pyramid down.

Now the reason I raise this is because one of the things I love most about America, and the reason I remain an optimist about this country, is that there is always someone here who just doesn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that new immigrants are supposed to wait their turn, that college dropouts are never supposed to start something called Microsoft or Facebook and that people of color are supposed to go to the back of the bus. Instead, they just do it – whatever "it" is -- without fear. For all our ailments as a country today, our society and economy are still the most open in the world, where individuals with the spark of an idea, the gumption to protest or the passion to succeed can still get up, walk out the door and chase a rainbow, lead a crusade, start a school or open a business. So Rosa Parks just got on that bus and took her seat, so new immigrants just went out and started 25 percent of the new companies in Silicon Valley in the last decade, so college dropouts named Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Marc Zuckerberg just got up and created four of the biggest companies in the world, so Stevie Wonder learned how to play the piano. It was never in the plan, but none of these people got the word. So they just did it.

One my favorite interviews in my life was with a Marine Colonel who, when all seemed lost in the Iraq war, and the U.S. military decided to surge instead of retreat, was explaining to me why they did that – why the surge. Here is what he said: "We were just too dumb to quit."

So promise me that once you leave here you just won’t get the word about what you are not supposed to try, where you are not supposed to travel, what chance you’re not supposed to take, what crazy dream you are not supposed to chase. Be like that Marine. Be like those young people in Tahrir Square – whatever you decide is your passion or purpose just make sure you’re too dumb to quit.

The third lesson is more of an observation. And that is what it is like to see a whole people lose their fear and take ownership of their future all at once. Ownership is so important. It is the key to life. When people own things they behave in totally different ways, almost always for the better.

It was amazing to watch this happen close up in Egypt. As a journalist who has worked in the Arab world for 30 years I am conditioned to asking people whom I have just interviewed only for their first names, because most people are too afraid to give you their last name. Being quoted by a Western reporter can be dangerous. I knew something was up in Cairo when I would take out my notebook in Tahrir Square, interview someone and then say, "Excuse, can I just have your first name?" And that person would answer: "My name is Mohammed Akbar Rashid – that’s Mohammed with three Ms and two As. I live on Talat Harb Street in Cairo, apartment 46 B. And here is my email and my Twitter handle – and make sure Mubarak reads this." They had lost their fear.

And in giving me their home addresses they were reclaiming ownership over their homes and their country at the same time. They were saying I don’t have to be afraid to give my name or address. This is my country now.

I am a huge believer in the truism that in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car. Really. It’s true. In the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car. And no one has ever washed a rented country either. And what happened in Cairo last January was Egyptians moved from renters to owners.

It was scary for the old landlords – the Egyptian Generals who took over for Mubarak. They looked at those Egyptian young people in Tahrir Square like a caged tiger that had just been released after 30 years behind bars. Now there is one thing I can tell you about that Tiger. It is not going back in its cage. And those Egyptian Generals knew that, which is why, in the end, they basically said to the demonstrators: "Nice tiger, Good, tiger. Tiger want constitution, Tiger get constitution. Tiger just don’t eat generals the way tiger just ate President Mubarak." It is still not clear what kind of owners the Egyptian people will turn out to be, but watching them lose their fear and demand the keys was beautiful thing and it leaves me more hopeful than not.

Lesson four has to do with Facebook. Much has been made of the role of social networking technologies in spurring the uprisings in Tahrir Square. And they certainly did play a role in facilitating the communication that brought people out and sustained the uprising. But there is one thing you must know: What brought Hosni Mubarak down was not Facebook and it was not Twitter. It was a million people in the streets, ready to die, for what they believed in. We must not forget that. All the buzz around Facebook and Twitter can lull you into a false sense of activism that will be deadly for our own democracy. I see this all the time in the environmental arena.

Let me be very blunt. There are a whole bunch of Big Oil companies standing in the way of the legislation we need today to really create a green, clean-power economy. Sometimes young people will say to me. "Hey, I blogged about that." To which I say, "Really? You blogged about it? That’s like firing a mortar into the Milky Way Galaxy."

Please remember: The BPs of the world, they’re not on Facebook. They’re just in your face. The big fossil fuel companies? They don’t have a chat room. They’re in the cloakroom of the U.S. Congress with bags of political donations. Your life may be digital, but trust me on this one. Politics is still analogue. It’s still about who can get a million people into Tahrir Square – a million people who will not leave until their demands are met. And if Facebook helps you do that – well then God Bless Facebook. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for human beings out in the streets ready to stand and fight for what they believe in. There is no substitute for real people, not mouse clicks or avatars, going out in large numbers and making politicians see that they are insisting on change and are ready to risk something for it. That is how we got civil rights in this country, that is how we got labor rights and that is how we got women’s rights. It is how we ended the Vietnam war. It is how the Egyptians ended their tyranny. And it is the only way we will get a green economy. So if you want to get something done in the world, never forget – ultimately -- you have to get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face. 

And that leads to the fifth lesson: Where innovation comes from today and why it matters more than ever. It is odd to think that you could learn that in Egypt, but it actually offered a very compelling example of this. I have a friend, Curt Carlson, who runs the innovation factory, Stanford Research Institute, now known as SRI, and Curt has a saying, which I have dubbed Carlson’s Law. Curt says that when the world gets this flat and connected everything that happens from the top down tends to be dumb and slow. Everything that happens from the bottom up tends to be smart, but chaotic. The sweet spot for innovation, though, is moving down – that makes sense, because all of us are smarter than one of us and all of us now have so many more tools to create, connect, communicate and collaborate.

That is exactly what happened in Tahrir Square. Every day Mubarak addressed the crowds there he was dumber and slower than the day before. And every day the people stayed there they got more creative, in a slightly chaotic way.

For instance, I was particularly impressed by how the demonstrators held the square when the regime’s thugs came on camels and horses and tried to drive them out. They were cornered and unarmed, and someone thought to pull up a steel fence from its moorings use it to break up the side walk and create stones – ammunition as it were – and it was with those stones, those broken pieces of sidewalk, that they were able to hold their ground.

It was equally amazing though to watch, how a people, once free immediately unlocked their imaginations. Every day you came to Tahrir square they had invented something new from the day before. In one corner people were writing poetry, in another they organized a mosque and clinic. In another, people were giving lectures or doing art.

What does this have to do with you?  A lot. I believe you are graduating into a world in which, more and more, you will be required to invent your next job rather than find your next job. You’re going to have to dig up your own sidewalk and make your own ammo. Now that may sound daunting and, in a way it is, compared to the kind of workplace which my generation found after college. But here is what is exciting: While it is true that this may be the hardest time to find a job, it is equally true that this is the easiest time in the history of the world to invent a job.

If you have just the spark of a new idea today, you can get a company in Taiwan to design it; you can get Alibaba in China to find you a low-cost Chinese manufacturer to make it; you can get Amazon.com to do your delivery and fulfillment; you can find a bookkeeper on Craigslist to do your accounting and an artist on freelancer.com to do your logo. All you need is that first spark of extra imagination or creativity.

So whatever that spark is that you carry from your time here in Tulane, never lose sight of how easily and cheaply you can now turn it into a flame. I am sure many of you saw the movie The Social Network. My favorite scene in that movie is the one in the office of then Harvard University President Lawrence Summers.  Do you remember what happens? These two Harvard students, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, come to complain to Summers that their fellow student, Mark Zuckerberg, has stolen their idea for something called "Facebook." Summers hears the twins’ tale of woe without a shred of sympathy, then tosses them out with this piece of advice: "Yes, everyone at Harvard is inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding one, so I’ll suggest again that the two of you come up with a new project."

That line is supposed to make Summers look arrogant and clueless. In fact, his point describes perfectly the challenge for every college grad today: How we dig inside ourselves for that something extra that will distinguish us in this increasingly flat, competitive world. It has never been harder for college grads to find a job. And it has never been easier to invent one. It may take a few tries. Don’t let that worry you. Everybody’s got something extra to offer, you just have to discover yours.

Well, class of 2011, those are the headlines from Tahrir Square -- now just one last piece of advice from back home. It is a piece of advice I insist on offering at the close of every commencement speech: "Call your mother." Wherever you go, whatever you do, be sure to call mom.

I learned from the legendary University of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant. Late in his career, shortly after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple — just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough coach’s voice: "Have you called your mama today?"

On the day of the filming, though, Coach Bryant decided to ad-lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said: "Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine." That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences.

My mom died three years ago and until her dying day she was my biggest fan. She used to print out my columns in the nursing home – just in case anyone on the staff might have missed one.

If you take only one thing away from this talk today, take this: Your parents love you more than you’ll ever know and are more proud of you than you will ever know. So when you’re off out there conquering the world: Call your mother – and you father. You will be glad you did. I wish I could call mine.

Tulane class of 2011, Godspeed and good luck.

 

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