Founder of Khan Academy, a free online education platform
C ommencement Address at MIT, 2012
"Vain, inertia, pride or fear should never be the reason why you close your mind to opportunity. "
It is truly a deep honor to be here at MIT. Not only did I spend some of the best years of my life here, but it has proven to continue to define my life in countless ways.
Many of you may not remember, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many corporations and universities were exploring how they could profit or protect themselves from online education. Then MIT stepped in the mix and launched MIT OpenCourseWare. As powerful as the offering had the potential to be, MIT's rationale for it was even more powerful. MIT was implicitly saying that some things are more important than profit or any strategic concerns. Even if it would cost the Institute potential revenues, MIT had the moral clarity to realize that if it could give access to knowledge to people around the world for free, it should and would.
I was busy working at a startup in San Francisco when the announcement came out in 2001. I had no idea then that my own life-adventure would be so closely linked, but when MIT had announced OpenCourseWare, I never felt prouder or more inspired by where I had gone to school. When others were exploring what was profitable or how to defend their existing offerings or just watched from the sidelines, MIT had the moral clarity and boldness to just do what it thought was right.
Many universities aspire to teach their students ethics; but nothing is more powerful than when they lead by example. This in no small way inspired what has now become the Khan Academy. And now, MIT has once again put principle over profit by spearheading edX with Harvard. For this and many, many other reasons, I am honored to come here and thank the institution that I love so much for reminding me through its actions what is most important.
But MIT has also affected me on a more personal level. Many of my very closest friends are alumni. My wife went to MIT. The president of Khan Academy was my freshman year roommate in Next House (Room 343). His wife went to MIT. One of our board members went to MIT. His wife went to MIT.
Of our many close friends from MIT, 90 percent are married to each other.
Now, I think this many friendships and marriages coming out of one place, as romantic as the Infinite Corridor may be, begs some introspection.
In fact, so extreme is the coupling that I have observed here that I have sometimes suspected that this whole place is just a front for a DARPA-funded human breeding project.
However, there are simpler explanations for all of this MIT-MIT love. The most likely of which is that the admissions office here has a somewhat unhealthy habit of only accepting incredibly attractive people.
But I think it also goes still deeper than that.
I always tell people that MIT is the closest thing to being Hogwarts — Harry Potter’s wizarding school — in real life.
The science and innovation that occurs here looks no different than pure magic to most of the world. The faculty here are the real-world McGonagalls — that’s you President Hockfield — and Dumbledores. There are secret tunnels and passages with strange wonders and creatures around every corner — some of whom may just finish their thesis this decade. The names of history’s great wizards surround us here in Killian Court — from Aristotle to Galileo, Newton to Darwin. They remind us that we have inherited an ancient art. One that, despite being vilified or suppressed by forces of ignorance throughout history, is the prime cause of human progress and well-being.
Also like Hogwarts, MIT brings young people from around the country and world who are a little bit off-the-charts in their potential for this “magic.” Some come from environments and communities that celebrated their gifts. Others had to actively hide their abilities and passions for fear of being ostracized and ridiculed. Students come to MIT from every religion, every ethnicity. Some from educated, affluent families, others from ones that live at or near poverty. But they — you, we — shared a common passion. Something that made us feel a little different. We sensed that MIT might be a place where there were others like us. Where we could challenge ourselves and develop our craft.
More than, I believe, any institution, MIT attracts and admits this type of creative raw potential, these young people with unusual gifts, with the desire to and ability to push all of humanity forward.
And more than any other institution, MIT pushes these incredible young people to realize what they are capable of.
This is a place where students with perfect SAT scores and genius level IQs can and will fail exams. A place where students who may have been the brightest student in their school, state or country often feel mediocre and stressed. A place where sleep regularly takes a back seat to the intellectual intensity of the curriculum.
But this intensity is what forges deep bonds, honesty and compassion. You have laughed together, comforted each other, procrastinated together and cried together. You have been with each other at your best and worst moments. Like soldiers who have fought alongside each other, you have shared experiences that the rest of the world may not understand or even comprehend.
Because of this, whenever you see another MIT graduate the rest of your life, you know that you have a past in common. That you both have secret powers that you often keep hidden from regular view. Regardless of how different your pre-MIT backgrounds may have been, you will feel deeply connected — like people meeting from a long lost village or family or galaxy. You will actively seek other MIT people out. When others talk about an intellectually challenging experience they had or complain about how hard they had to work, you will glance at the other MIT grad in the room and share a quick smirk.
And if you are the preferred gender for each other, then you also might just realize that they have a certain twinkle in the eye. A certain beauty to the tilt of their head when they are deep in thought. Their competence and expertise makes you wonder what type of civilization you could create together. In short, you discover that you find them irresistibly attractive.
So coming here, I really feel like I have come to my roots. That I am surrounded by an incredibly good-looking family that I am deeply connected to and that I care deeply about.
Many of you will soon enter the outside world and be somewhat taken aback. It will be far less efficient, far less fair, far less productive, and far more political than what you may have imagined it to be. There will be pessimism and cynicism everywhere. It is easy to succumb to this, to become cynical or negative yourself. If you do, you with the potential that you have, it would be a loss for yourself and for humanity.
To fight these forces of negativity, to increase the net positivity in the world, to optimize the happiness of yourself and the people you love, here are some tips and tools that I like to return to. I am not too much older than most of you, so take all of this with a large grain of salt.
Start every morning with a smile — even a forced one — it will make you happier. Replace the words “I have to” with “I get to” in your vocabulary. Smile with your mouth, your eyes, your ears, your face, your body at every living thing you see. Be a source of energy and optimism. Surround yourself with people that make you better. Realize or even rationalize that the grass is truly greener on your side of the fence. Just the belief that it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
View stressful, political interactions as nothing more than a deeply immersive strategy game. One that can be won if you stay focused on what matters most and your emotions and ego are not tied to your argument.
If you find yourself arguing with someone whom you respect and love, try to surrender your own ego to the shared identity you have with that person. In the heat of an argument, do the opposite of what your pride tells you to do. If you have the self-control, stop talking and give your opponent a random, intense minute-long hug.
Make people feel that you care about them. And here’s, a well, a little secret, the best way to do this is to actually care about them.
Make people feel that you are listening to them. Another little secret, the best way to do this is to actually listen.
When you gain or lose material things, remember how silly they really are. How little they mean relative to your health and relationships.
When you feel stressed, look up at the night sky and ponder the distance to the next star and the age of the universe. Think of all the other stressed sentient creatures from other star systems and galaxies looking out in the vastness of space in wonder and awe and take comfort in your shared experience.
When you feel overwhelmed, walk alone through the woods and forget your name, your title, your education and view yourself for what you really are — another mammal wondering why it is here but appreciating the fact that your civilization has not as yet been evaporated by a supernova.
Try to build true empathy. Regardless of your actual spiritual beliefs, it is sometimes helpful to imagine that time is not linear; that in past or future, or I guess parallel life, you literally are, have been or will be every person. That after this life, you will go back in time and be reincarnated as the person you are arguing with, or passing judgment on (and will then have to put up with the current version of you).
Remember that real success is maximizing your internally derived happiness. It will not come from external status or money or praise. It will come from a feeling of contribution. A feeling that you are using your gifts in the best way possible.
Also remember that whom you choose as a life partner is a far more important decision than what career you choose to pursue. If you are lucky enough to have a true equal, someone who fills you with joy and emotional contentment, with whom you have deep shared values, who respects you and loves you for your innate you-ness; no superficial, external failure or conflict can faze you.
But keep in mind that if you care about someone, but not enough to commit to them, the most selfish thing you can do is not let them move on.
Money is important for the basic necessities, and even luxuries, of life. All of you will be able to buy expensive fruit and go to Sea World whenever you want to. Beyond that, and many of you will go far beyond that, money is a command over resources — including people — and should be viewed as a serious responsibility.
Like money, status can be a powerful tool. But they can both distort your reality away from true internal groundedness.
One of my roommates when I was two years out of college, who had formerly been a bit of a track star at MIT, and I had finished watching Chariots of Fire one night at 2 a.m. I told him that it made me feel like running. He simply told me “Don’t waste inspiration.” I reminded him that it is 2 a.m. He said “so what; don’t waste inspiration.” I looked at him for a few seconds and realized that he was dead serious. I jumped off the couch, threw on my running shoes and took to the streets.
If you ever feel inspired, take action with it. Don’t let anyone tell you why you shouldn’t; at least lace up and give it a try.
On a similar vain, inertia, pride or fear should never be the reason why you close your mind to opportunity.
Most of my own life, I thought I had to choose between a safe route and the adventurous. When I was your age, I was a bit skeptical of speeches like this. I thought, sure, the guy at the podium can talk about changing the world, but what about my student loans, what about my family that has worked so hard to get me here. What about all the people who pursued their dreams and failed? Wouldn’t it be selfish of me to give up the secure path for the long shot at the audacious?
I can’t say this to any group of young people, but for those of you graduating today, I believe that you can have both: security and adventure. Bread on the table while taking your shots at the moon.
We’re at a unique point in history. Where what once required many people spending many years and many millions can now be done by a small group of inspired people from a dorm room, or in my case, a bedroom closet. Ideas can be proven before they need to be committed to. The revolutions of our generation — in business, education, social structure and even politics — are not being catalyzed by generals or politicians, but by highly empowered individuals like yourselves — the wizards of our time so speak — who can see with clarity how the assumptions of previous generations no longer apply. And the revolutions often grow out of nothing more than an intense hobby, an inspired attempt of seeing if things can be rethought a little better.
So go forth with your careers, but leave space for your passions. Remember that you are much, much more than a title or a bank account. You are dancers and poets, inventors and athletes, musicians and innovators. If you give your passions room to breathe, you might find that is all they need to help you move the dial forward for everyone.
And this isn’t just a commencement speaker trying to make you feel good or take weight off your shoulders. This is another member of your species who knows how badly the world needs you. Who knows that MIT graduates, like a tall person who learns to slouch to not stand out, sometimes undersell who they are, even to themselves. I am, in fact, putting weight on your shoulders because I know how scarce and important a resource you are.
So with all that said, let me leave you with a thought experiment I use to help keep my priorities in check.
Imagine yourself in 50 years. You’re in your early 70s, near the end of your career. You’re sitting on your couch, having just watched the State of the Union holographic address by President Kardashian.
You begin to ponder your life. The career successes, how you’ve been able to provide for your family. You’ll think of all the great moments with your family and friends. But then you start to think about all of the things you wished you had done just a little differently, your regrets. I can guess at what they might be.
Sitting in 2062, you wish that you had spent more time with your children. That you had told your spouse how much you loved them more frequently. That you could have even one more chance to hug your parents and tell them how much you appreciate them before they passed. That you could have smiled more, laughed more, danced more and created more. That you better used the gifts you were given to empower others and make the world better.
Just as you’re thinking this, a genie appears from nowhere and says, “I have been eavesdropping on your regrets. They are valid ones. I can tell you are a good person so I am willing to give you a second chance if you really want one.” You say “Sure” and the genie snaps his fingers.
All of a sudden you find yourself right where you are sitting today. It is June 8, 2012, at Killian Court. You are in your shockingly fit and pain-free 20-something body and begin to realize that it has really happened. You really do have the chance to do it over again. To have the same career successes and deep relationships. But, now you can optimize. You can laugh more, dance more and love more. Your parents are here again so it is your chance to love them like you wished you had done the first time. You can be the source of positivity that you wished you had been the first time around.
So now I stand here, once again deeply honored to be here. Excited by what you, the MIT class of 2012 — both undergrads and graduate students — the young wizards of our time — a time like no other in human history — will do with your second chance.
Posted on: 07.05.2012