College and the Art of Life

David Salesin, Convocation Address, 28 September 2003

I want to thank Provost Thorud, President Huntsman, the Regents, the faculty, and especially the class of 2007 — and their parents! — for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to be with you here today. It's a special privilege to be able to welcome you to one of the great universities of the world, the University of Washington. Founded in 1861 — 28 years before the state of Washington itself — the “U-Dub” now draws a total of 43,000 students from all 50 states and 99 countries. Its faculty and alumni include 8 Nobel Laureates, 9 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 13 MacArthur “Genius” Award winners. You're joining quite a crowd here at UW — and you've earned it!

It's no doubt a huge change for you coming to a large university like this. And this brings me to the subject I would like to speak with you about today: change, and how it's likely to affect your life, for better and for worse. And how you can use your few years here to best prepare yourself for the dramatic changes you will surely witness in your lifetimes.

We already live in a time of breathtaking change. In centuries past, children could expect to live out their lives in much the same way as their parents. Not so today.

A couple of years ago, I heard National Medal of Technology winner Ray Kurzweil speak about change, and he pointed out how many of the changes we witness today are really examples of exponential growth. Exponential growth starts out slowly — if you plotted it on a curve, it would stay nearly flat for a very long time. And then suddenly, as the exponential ramps up, a new trend seems to come out of nowhere.

How many people in this audience have ever heard of the Internet? How many of you had heard of it 10 years ago, in 1993? How about 20 years ago, in 1983? (Ok, maybe that's not a fair question for some of you!) The Internet is a perfect example of exponential growth. In fact, the Internet has been around for quite a long time — since 1969, actually, when the original backbone of four computers was hooked up. But very few people were aware of it until the exponential took off.

All kinds of other technologies are still in the ramping up stage, but they'll be in your lives soon. Nanotechnology is one example. We've got scientists here at UW, like Electical Engineering Professor Karl Bohringer, who are making ever smaller electromechanical devices. It is estimated that such devices are literally shrinking in size by a factor of 5 in each linear dimension every decade — another exponential. Genome sequencing is another such area. When the 15-year human genome project was first announced back in 1990, critics charged that it would take 10,000 years to sequence the whole human genome! But they were forgetting about exponential growth. In the end, the project came in 2 years ahead of schedule.

So what are the implications of all this exponential growth in so many areas of technology? I think they are huge! Unimaginably huge! In the next 20-25 years, we will see a whole century of progress at today's rate. But that's just the beginning. Because the very rate of progress is itself an example of exponential growth. By the end of the century, we'll see 20,000 years of progress at today's rate. That corresponds to a thousand times more change than the last century — which was already pretty dramatic!

Human longevity, by the way, is also increasing exponentially. For most of human existence, life expectancy ranged from 20 to 30 years. In the 18th century, we added a few days every year. By 1840, Swedish women held the world record for life extension: 45 years. Over the 19th century, life expectancy started increasing by a few weeks each year. Today, in industrialized countries, life expectancy is around 80 — and growing by four months a year. You can see where this is going. By some estimates, within a decade we'll be adding more than one year per year to the human life span! So — hang in there!

Most of you Freshman especially are likely to live for a very long time. And in that time, you will witness — and experience — some truly dramatic changes. Take computers. Right now, a computer is basically a brittle thing that you have on your desk or cart around with you. This is sure to change. Computers will essentially disappear. They'll become embedded in the environment, woven into your clothing, and quite possibly even implanted into your body and mind. This is not just science fiction. For instance, UW Professor Tom Furness has developed a retinal display that uses a low-powered laser to draw an image right onto your retina. I've tried it myself (though it was a little scary, I have to admit!). In my own department, Professor Chris Diorio is collaborating with Zoology Professor Tom Daniel — one of those MacArthur Award winners — to implant microcomputers into the brains of live marine mollusks. Elsewhere, experimenters are already implanting chips into human brains, restoring limited hearing and sight to people who were once deaf or blind.

What will life be like when humans have memory and intelligence augmented by computers — computers that have greater computational power and memory capacity than their human hosts — and possibly even more power and capacity than the whole human race combined? Exciting, yes? But scary too!

These are the kinds of challenges you will face in your lifetimes.

And these are not the only challenges you will face. You have only to look at the state of the world today to get a sense of what may lie ahead.

Take this past year, which has been marked by frequent and very graphic reminders of the effects of environmental disruption. In May and June, India and Pakistan were hit with a 125-degree heat wave that killed 1200 people in a single week. Just last month, record-breaking temperatures all over Europe killed nearly 15,000 people in France alone! This sounds like science fiction — something happening in some strange dystopian future, but it's happening already, today.

Closer to home, average winter temperatures in Alaska have warmed by eight degrees over the last three decades. Polar ice volume has already decreased 42% in that time, and scientists are warning that the summer Arctic ice cap could disappear entirely by mid-century. Just this week, the New York Times reported that the largest Arctic ice shelf, a 3000-year old, 100-foot thick layer of ice, has recently disintegrated, releasing a huge layer of accumulated fresh water into the sea.

Where will this lead? What does all this matter? UW Professor William H. Calvin has one theory. By examining the fossil record, he's discovered that the earth is prone to sudden, dramatic reversals in temperature. And he believes that, paradoxically, our current warming trend could trigger just such a change, sending us back to ice-age temperatures within the span of a single decade. How could this happen? It's a long story, but basically, he has predicted that the melting polar caps could release sudden large quantities of fresh water into the ocean — as this week's news confirms — which could in turn shut down the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream, as you may know, is the warm current flowing north from the tropics that keeps Europe about 15 degrees warmer than similar latitudes on Earth. Without the Gulf Stream, Calvin estimates that Europe's climate would support only 5% of its current population, and he predicts that the sudden loss of resources and resulting population crash could easily lead to global war. All this, triggered by a climate change that could take place within the course of a single decade.

These are the kinds of challenges you will face in your lifetimes.

Dramatic climate change would affect everyone on earth directly. But, living in the U.S., we are largely insulated from other problems that confront much of the world today. I recently heard Bill Gates give a lecture at Microsoft where he imagined what would happen if you randomly reshuffled the world — so that rich people lived right next door to poor people. Suppose you did this, and that there were 100 people on your street. Nearly half your neighbors would suffer from malnutrition. About 13 of the people would be chronically hungry. One in 12 of the children on your street would die of some mostly preventable disease by the age of 5: from measles, malaria, or diarrhea. One in 12. If we came face to face with these inequities every day, I believe we would already be doing something more about them.

Let's take the example just a little bit further. On your street of 100 people, there would be a total of 8 or 9 cars. Of course, the 5 people on your street from the U.S. — let's call it a family of 5, for argument's sake — would own 2 of those cars. The same family of 5 would also possess 60% of the wealth of the whole street. Finally, of all the people on the entire street, you — and you alone — would be the one person with the benefit of a college education.

It really is a special privilege to be at a university such as this.

How are you going to make the most of this opportunity? How will you use your college education to prepare yourself not just for your first job after college, but for the enormous challenges you and the world will face? This is the question I would like to turn to now.

As I've said, most of you will live for a very long time. You will see many changes and confront many challenges. The art of life is learning to cope with those changes and challenges, to adapt to and influence them, to seek the value in them, and, ultimately, hopefully, to embrace them.

If you let it, college can prepare you for the art of life. Think of your learning as practice. Given the expanding rate of change, you cannot possibly know now even what it is that you will need to know in a few decades' time. So you're practicing when you learn something here. And all your life you'll be practicing.

I should probably just end the talk here, but, being a computer scientist, I am never satisfied just to stick to high-level principles, like “learn how to think,” or “learn how to learn” — however important they may be. Personally, I want to know how to reduce principles like these into practice — how to implement them in some way in my daily life. So, I've come up with 11 suggestions, or “exhortations,” if you will — 11 concrete things you can do, as you begin your college years here tomorrow, to prepare yourselves for the kinds of challenges you will face in your lifetimes.

Here we go....

#1: Become an expert in something!

It's not the expertise itself that's so important, at least at this stage in your career. What's important is learning to become an expert in something, anything — how to go beyond the introductory material in a field and attain a level of depth that allows you to at least read the primary literature and perhaps even contribute to the field's body of knowledge yourself. If you learn how to become an expert in one thing, those skills will be surprisingly easy to transfer to another, whenever you need to, later in your career and life.

#2: Branch out!

You need to become an expert in something. But don't stop there: Study diverse subjects as well! Take a writing class! Take up a musical instrument! Learn a new language! Take a studio art class — or a class in art history! Or, if you're an Art major, take an introductory programming class! You'll never be in an environment like this again, where so much is so readily available to you, with top departments and faculty in virtually every field imaginable. Take advantage of it! Above all — you engineers especially! — don't neglect the humanities. History, philosophy, literature: these subjects will help develop your awareness of the world as well as your own self-awareness, preparing you for the many moral and ethical challenges you will face in your professional careers.

#3: Find a community!

The UW is a big place. If you haven't noticed this already, you certainly will tomorrow, when the rest of the 43,000 student body shows up! How do you cope with that? Here's one suggestion: Find yourself a community within the university. It could be your academic department. Or it could be a community built around an extra-curricular activity, like an athletic team, a political action group, or any of the fine charitable organizations on campus. Choose a community that shares your values and provides a supportive environment.

#4: Find a mentor!

You may not realize this, but as an undergraduate at UW, there are all kinds of opportunities for working one-on-one with faculty on individual study projects or research. Take advantage of them! Ask around; use the Internet. Find out who's doing exciting work, and who's working with undergrads. The mentors I was fortunate enough to find were perhaps the most vital part of my entire undergraduate experience — and, what's more, these mentorships have evolved into close friendships that continue to this day.

#5: Collaborate!

Professors are not the only people you can learn from here. Your peers are an amazing resource: You can learn a lot from them too! I'm not only talking about the students in your own field. You will learn even more from people in totally different disciplines, whose talents, skills, and working styles may be nothing like your own. You can meet all kinds of people from all over the world here at UW. Take this opportunity to expand your horizons!

#6: Take risks (except, of course, with your health!), be experimental, challenge yourself!

Get used to operating outside your comfort zone. This is how you will truly learn, and grow. Don't shy away from challenges just because they seem too difficult. Acknowledge that fear — it's a very legitimate sensation — and then take the plunge! How else are you going to stretch yourself and discover your potential? And what safer place to do it than in your four years of college? Don't be afraid to take a chance!

#7: Remain open to opportunities!

In college — as in the rest of your life — you will undoubtedly be faced with many disappointments. Perhaps that class you really wanted to take is full up, or is no longer being offered. Or perhaps you weren't able to fully achieve that ambitious goal you set for yourself. Don't despair! As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity”! Or, as the great Bob Marley put it, “When one door is closed, when one door is closed, many more is open.”

Two examples, a little one and a big one:

Little one first. I love to run. But last week, at a group retreat on the Washington coast, I couldn't because I had injured my foot. Rather than giving up on exercise altogether, I brought my bicycle down — and discovered a beautiful new cycling trail weaving through the dunes that I would have never noticed if my foot had been well.

Big one. A great tragedy befell my wife when she was an undergrad in college. She lost her only brother in a car accident. To be closer to her parents she transferred schools — and there discovered a love for a whole new academic discipline, Chinese literature, which is now her career.

So, a loss — be it minor or huge — can often lead to new possibilities. Get really good at discovering what those possibilities — those opportunities — are! (And the more you take my advice to challenge yourself and take risks, the more you will be able to practice this!)

#8: Maintain balance so you won't burn out!

College is such an amazing time of freedom. For many of you, this is the first time in your life when it's completely up to you, and you alone, to decide what you study, what activities you engage in, and how you structure your day. One idea I came up with as an undergrad was to try to maintain balance by making sure I engaged in four different types of activities every single day. These were:

Actually, this simple rule served me so well in college that I still try to follow it today. It means, of course, that I don't always get as much done as I would like in a day. (It means too that I have boatloads of email messages I still haven't responded to!) But I'm in it for the long haul — as I hope you all are too — and I strongly believe that living with balance is what keeps me going day after day, and what keeps me sane.

#9: Make your own path, or, as the late Joseph Campbell so famously instructed, “Follow your bliss!”

Following your bliss is actually very easy — in some sense it's the easiest thing in the world to do. And yet it can lead to profound and unexpected results. The late Nobel Prize winning physicist Dick Feynman was feeling burned out at one point in his career. So he resolved to get back to what he really enjoyed doing — playing with physics, without worrying about whether it was useful or not. One day, he saw someone throw a plate in the air, and he was curious about its wobbling motion. Just for the fun of it, he derived some equations to describe that motion — and soon he was applying those same equations to the study of electron orbits. As Feynman described it, “the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

You'll find a lot of people here at UW who can give you a lot of good advice. But learn to think for yourself too. Analyze that advice, internalize what makes sense to you, and put the rest aside. Develop your own internal compass. Trust yourself, and let your common sense guide you.

#10: Keep a beginner's mind!

Tomorrow, you will begin your college career. You are a Freshman — just starting out! What a great place to be! A lot of us — and I think I speak for everyone else in the room here today — would gladly trade places with you if we could!

And for good reason too. At this point, you have, almost by definition, what they call in Zen practice a “beginner's mind.” A beginner's mind is an empty mind, a ready mind. As the great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.”

So keep your beginner's mind! Not just through college, but throughout your life. If you can do this — if you can bring a beginner's mind — an open mind, a ready mind — to every class you take, to every book you read, and, yes, to every speech you hear — if you can bring that beginner's mind to your experience of every moment of every day, then I believe you will indeed be able to overcome any challenge that the coming century has in store for you.

Final exhortation, #11:

Actually, this one is yours. It belongs to you; it is for you to decide. Think of it as your first homework assignment at UW! I won't give it a due date, so you are free to edit it as much as you like — or discard it entirely, along with any of the others I've given you here today — and invent a new one, or new ones, as you see fit. . . .

You are starting anew. You are now on your own.

Welcome to the University of Washington!