Commencement Speech by
William R. Brody, JHU President
Thursday, May 23, 2002
[Prepared text; not checked against delivery.]
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I bring greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
Offering these brief remarks is always the highlight of the academic year for me. It's a chance to tell our graduates how much we value their achievements. And it's an opportunity to say to the families of the graduates what an accomplished and impressive group this graduating class represents.
This morning, I feel special affinity for the families of our graduates, particularly the parents who are watching their sons and daughters graduate and begin a new chapter in their lives. The day after tomorrow, my wife Wendy and I will be in your place, as we sit in an audience very much like this one and watch our youngest, John, graduate from Amherst.
Throughout the nearly six years I've been president of Hopkins, my own children have been in college, so I have always had this dual perspective as I've heard from them-- occasionally--about their experiences at school.
Last night was no exception. John called me on the phone to tell me about some classmates of his at Amherst who were hoping to be doctors, but got into a little trouble with their organic chemistry requirement. They were doing so well on all the quizzes, midterms and labs, that each had an "A" so far for the semester. They were so confident, that the weekend before finals they decided to go over the mountains to Williams College to see some friends and find new ways to try to hector the students there.
They had a great time, but spent a little too much of it at parties. They slept all day Sunday and didn't make it back to Amherst until early Monday morning.
Rather than taking the test then, they decided to go to their professor after the final and explain to him that they had gone to Williams for the weekend with the plan to come back in time to study, but, unfortunately, they had a flat tire on the way back, didn't have a spare, and couldn't get help for a long time. As a result of that flat tire, they said, they missed the final.
The professor thought it over for a moment and then agreed they could make up the test the following day. The students were elated and relieved. They studied all night, and went in the next morning to see the professor. He placed them in separate rooms and handed each of them a test booklet, and told them to begin.
The first problem was worth five points. It was something simple, about free radical formation. "Great!," they thought at the same time, each one in his separate room, "this is going to be easy." Each of them quickly finished the problem and then turned the page.
On the second page was written: (For 95 points): Which tire?
I tell this story by way of reminding our parents in the audience that some things never change.
I also offer it to our graduates as a cautionary tale of the danger of believing too readily in your own ability to control the future. One of the consequences of graduating from a top-flight university like Johns Hopkins has to do with expectations. You will find that the expectations surrounding your future professional and personal lives are very high. These are the expectations not just of your family and friends, but no less so the expectations you have created for yourselves.
How many of you sitting here this morning, I wonder, have a map in mind of where you'll be going after you've been handed your diploma and take leave of Johns Hopkins? I would hazard to guess most of you. And for many, the map looks very similar: additional advanced training in the form of graduate or doctoral studies, or perhaps fellowships or residency. Then some number of years spent toiling in your chosen profession, during which time you eventually work your way to a recognized position of leadership--and perhaps fame--in your field.
Now the last thing I want to suggest is that this is not a worthy goal, and for many of you, an obtainable goal. For a century and a quarter, Johns Hopkins graduates have been leaders in their fields. The list of discoveries and inventions and innovations pioneered by members of the Hopkins community is a long one, of which we are justifiably proud.
But I want to remind you this morning that plans and aspirations and the mental map of your career to come oftentimes will have little bearing on the future you will actually encounter. This is particularly true in regards to the most elusive of those desires, the quest for fame, which Adam Smith once described as "the goal of half the labours of human life."
Most of us would blush to admit we dream of fame--or at least we feel we should blush, even if we don't. But is such modesty necessary? After all, we live in a culture of celebrity, in which fame is often the most cherished coin of the realm. Some people are famous for their great deeds or profound thoughts or noble accomplishments. But many more are no less famous simply for being rich, or singing pop ballads, or being the last one left on an island. In the culture of celebrity, the famous are often admired not for what they have done, merely for how they're seen.
Andy Warhol once commented that in the future, everyone in America will be famous for 15 minutes. It is the very ubiquity of contemporary fame that seems to have made this prophesy come true. Fame, in modern America, seems to be everywhere. ABC News reported recently that in the United States, there are over 3,000 Halls of Fame--including thirty halls of fame devoted exclusively to bowling and famous bowlers.
Yet for all the apparent abundance of fame--or more likely, because of it--research suggests that most of us greatly overestimate the likelihood of becoming famous ourselves. The sociologist Frank Westie conducted a survey of his own profession to try to gauge his colleagues' attitudes toward fame. He asked a wide sample of 200 sociologists how much future influence they expected to wield, and how much professional fame they expected to achieve.
Almost half of those polled--about 100 individuals-- responded that they expected to be one of the top ten people in their field. More than half expected that their writings would be read and discussed years after their careers were over, even though they themselves were unfamiliar with some of the writings of past presidents of the American Sociological Society.
In other words, most expected their work to bring not just personal satisfaction, or professional achievement, but fame.
Whether or not your chances of becoming famous are large or small, my message today is the same. The quest for fame alone is unlikely to lead to happiness. For those who fail to obtain the gold ring, however they define it, there is only the inevitable discontent of a promise unfulfilled. Yet for those who do succeed in obtaining fame, the consequences may be even more dire.
Adam Smith, who spent some time considering the issue of fame, said: "To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even the hope, of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay." Like a rush of cocaine, fame produces a wonderful sense of euphoria that also passes nearly as quickly, often leaving a profound sense of emptiness in its wake. This is precisely the feeling many of the famous encounter when their stars begin to dim. For fame is often fleeting, an unhappy reality I can avouch from painful personal experience.
I recall giving a lecture in 1980 at a medical convention. My particular paper had propelled me to some prominence. The session at which I presented my talk on digital radiography was standing-room-only, to an audience numbering close to 500.
Next door, another physician-scientist was presenting a paper on magnetic resonance imaging. Though the room was the same size as the one in which I was speaking, the audience numbered about fifteen. There was little interest in what, at that time, was an obscure new imaging technology that seemed to hold little promise for clinical use. For a short time, I was a hero.
But if I was smug, I was soon humbled, when the same juxtaposition occurred at a subsequent medical meeting three years later. Only this time, the MRI lecture was standing room only, and my session on digital radiography could have been held in a phone booth, with room to spare.
Fame is not only fleeting, it is often downright fickle. There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists whose work is highly deserving of the coveted Nobel prize. Yet only a few will ever receive the trip to Stockholm to be greeted by the King and feted by the media. With apologies to our honorary degree recipient and Nobel Laureate Professor Mundell, one of the unsolved philosophical questions of fame is why one exceptional person is chosen for outstanding recognition like the Nobel, while another equally exceptional individual is passed over. That the unchosen feel remorse, sadness or anger at not being selected is understandable: in some perverse way, those who do not win are labeled by our society as 'losers.'
What may not be appreciated by new graduates aspiring to fame and fortune is that being singled out above all others --especially if it comes during the most productive years of your career--carries a particularly heavy burden. There is the legendary curse of the great prize, which brings with it fame and recognition but so often destroys the careers and even the lives of those recognized. In the 1970s we became aware of the man-on-the-moon syndrome, in which Apollo astronauts who had stood on the surface of the moon and looked back at the face of the earth, came home and soon found themselves asking, 'How do I top that?'
If you are a top-notch scientist who wins the Nobel, or a writer who wins a Pulitzer, what do you do for an encore? Few of us are smart enough and lucky enough to have multiple major discoveries or create multiple masterpieces in the course of a career. Having won the gold ring, the expectations of society--and more importantly, the expectations of the prize winner--are now higher than ever. So high, in fact, as to be virtually unattainable.
Michael Jordan, probably the greatest (and certainly the most famous) basketball player of modern times, found it difficult to return to the NBA and not play at the level he once did. Hopkins scientist Hamilton Smith, whose co-discovery of restriction enzymes revolutionized biology and all of medicine, observed that all the international attention at such a young age in his career left him with tremendous doubts about his worth as a scientist. "Gee, I got this thing," he remarked to his wife upon being told he'd won the Nobel Prize, "I have to earn it now."
If there is a way around the fame trap it is probably not to venture into it in the first place. And so my advice to our graduates today: focus on fulfillment, not fame. By all means, write the great novel, master Chopin's Etudes, build a better computer or make that discovery that will transform our understanding of the cosmos. But do it primarily, I urge you, for the beauty and satisfaction of the act itself, for the fulfillment that comes from a thing well done. Even if your heart yearns for fame, set your mind to discover where it can find innermost satisfaction, and steer a course in that direction.
In my experience, the most lasting rewards come from helping others, from giving back through service what others before have given to us, through the small simple deeds that go largely unnoticed and are entirely unheralded by others. Those papers on digital radiography, which seemed so important to me at the time of their publication--and which, by the way, helped to convince an otherwise august promotions committee that I was worthy of the title of Professor--are now relegated to the back shelves of the library, gathering dust in academic obscurity, possibly never to be looked at by another soul again. Like the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, they died and were buried along with their name.
As it turns out, the indelible memories of my career are not centered on scientific discoveries, publications or awards. Rather, it is the successful careers of the many medical students, residents, engineering graduate students and fellows who worked under my tutelage that give me untold satisfaction. This basic conflict between the wish to be recognized for significant achievements, and the normal human desire to be celebrated just for being ourselves, is perhaps the root of the historical ambivalence western society has expressed toward fame.
Leo Braudy, in his book, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, argues that our conflicted response to fame--both desiring it and desiring to be above it--comes from the classical and Roman ideals of public service, civic virtue and national glory on the one hand, and the Judeo- Christian ideals of humbleness, modesty, spirituality and private virtue on the other. Perhaps Mark Twain caught the essence of this conflict best when he said, "The last thing I want to be is conspicuous, but I do want to be noticed."
Today, of course, is a day for you to be noticed. You have entered here in grand ceremonial procession, resplendent in formal academic regalia signifying noted achievement at a prestigious and world-renowned university. You will be congratulated by friends, embraced by family members, and perhaps even applauded by the multitudes as you walk across stage to receive your diploma. There is a palpable expectation that this event represents not a culmination, and a completion, but a beginning and the first step to even greater accomplishments. Indeed, by tradition, the role of the commencement speech is to cheer you on to achieve your own personal vision of fame in whatever field of endeavor you choose.
I will not refrain from making this very exhortation to you today. As the co-founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, once advised, "Don't be encumbered by history. Go out and do something wonderful." But at the same time, I will remind you of the young woman facing a similar transition in her life, this one from high school to college. On her application to Stanford University, she came to the essay part of the application that instructed her to 'write a paragraph describing your most important attribute.' She responded with a one-word paragraph: humility.
This morning, as I cheer all our graduates on to even greater accomplishments and higher flights of renown, I nonetheless urge you not to forget this flip side of fame's coin. Much of what you have achieved comes to you by way of hard work, focus, discipline and talent. You have truly earned and well deserve the accolades you receive today. But even in these moments of glory, some part of your success lies elsewhere: with the good fortune of your birth, the sacrifice of your parents, the unacclaimed contributions of teachers and counselors and mentors who gave you much by demanding much from you.
This, as you leave here today, is what I ask you to remember. Your fame measures not just what you have done; it measures to an equal degree what opportunities have been placed before you. So it is today, and so it will be in every succeeding day of your lives, even if you should, at some magical hour in the future, find yourself thanking the Nobel committee -- for their great wisdom and perspicacity.
Congratulations graduates. The best is yet to come. Thank you, and godspeed.
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