SCGSSM 2023 Commencement Address

I had the honor of being the 2023 commencement speaker for my old high school, the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Math. It was especially good timing, since it's been 30 years since I graduated high school, so my friends and I organized a 30 year reunion at the same time. 

Here's a link to a video of my speech.

Here's a link to my speaking notes. I used a table with alternating colors to make it easier to follow where I was.

I had several students thank me for the speech, especially the parts about handling failure and about not always listening to your parents. Yeah, I know that second one is going to bite me in the future, but now is now and I'll enjoy time with my kids in the meanwhile.


Thank you for the kind introduction.

As you just heard, I'm a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Now, inviting a professor to speak is a dangerous proposition, because as you may know, we professors have been trained to talk about anything for 90 minutes. I promise I won't take that long, and you should count your blessings that they didn’t let me use Powerpoint slides today.

My main area of research is in cybersecurity. If you've ever played a game teaching you about cybersecurity, or if you've ever received a simulated phishing email that, when you click on it says you almost fell for a scam, I helped pioneer those, you can blame me for those.

Perhaps most relevant for today, I'm GSSM class of 1993. That means I'm pretty familiar with all of the joys and the pains you’ve experienced, as well as many of the things you got away with your junior and senior years.

Now, I’d like to think that the GSSM faculty have invited me to speak here because of my good looks, but my wife gently suggested to me that that probably wasn’t the case. Instead, she said that, since I talk to so many undergraduates in my job, I should share the most useful things I tell students. So I’ve organized what I want to say as four things I would tell my 17 year old self if I were graduating today.

For Advice #1 , let me tell you a story. My brother was having lunch with a married couple and their daughter, and the daughter had just finished her first year at college. The wife was recounting an incident that happened recently, where she discovered that her husband had the Tinder dating app on his smartphone. If you don't know, Tinder is the most popular dating app out there. You can see people's profiles and swipe left or right on them to make a match. As you might expect, the wife started yelling at the husband, thinking that he was cheating on her. The husband swore up and down that he didn't install Tinder and didn't know why it was on his phone

After several minutes of this, in a flash of insight, the wife remembered that they had a shared smartphone account, with the same apps automatically installed across all of their phones. So, if the husband didn't install Tinder, and the wife didn't install Tinder...

This was the moment their daughter started turning 14 shades of red, because she just found out that not only did her parents know she was using Tinder, they could also see who she was swiping on.

So Advice #1: Get a separate smartphone account from your parents

For the folks in the back, you can't really see it, but it looks like some of the soon to be graduates are on their smartphones deleting some apps.

The rest of my advice is going to be a bit more serious

For Advice #2  let me start with some statistics. College is a lot harder today than it was in my generation and your parents’ generation. At a lot of colleges, about 30% of students are diagnosed with anxiety, and about that same percentage diagnosed with depression. That number can be even higher at top-ranked schools. There are a lot of causes for this, including feeling lonely on campus, being a minority on campus, and feeling that you’re just falling behind everything and everyone.

I don’t have answers for all of these, but I do talk to a lot of students about that last one, about feeling like you’re falling behind. What do I tell them?

I tell them that Ty Cobb's batting average is 0.366

Now, we have a lot of international students, so I often have to explain what a batting average is. It’s roughly how often a player gets on base every time they are at bat. So Ty Cobb’s batting average means that he was getting on base about 36% of the time. There have been over 20000 people who have played in MLB, and at the very top of career batting averages is Ty Cobb. But think about what this all means. It means that one of the greatest players in baseball history, was only succeeding about one-third of the time.

When I was introduced on stage, they only mentioned my successes. But let me tell you, the number of failures I have would fill volumes. In my senior year at GSSM, I was rejected from most of the colleges I applied to. That hurt a lot. In many PhD programs, you have to take an exam your second year, demonstrating breadth and depth of knowledge in your field. I failed mine the first time I took it. That also hurt a lot. It made me really wonder if I wasn’t good enough. As I neared completion of my PhD, I interviewed for a lot of jobs at universities and at Google. I got zero offers. So I delayed finishing my PhD for a year before doing another round of interviews and finally succeeding.

Now at this point, the GSSM faculty are probably wondering if they made a mistake in inviting me to speak.

But you know what's really interesting? I'm lucky enough to work with some of the best computer scientists, psychologists, and designers on the entire planet, and they all have numerous stories of failure and adversity just like mine.

So what's my advice here?

Failure is going to be a constant companion for the rest of your life. You’re going to get knocked down a lot, and it won’t always feel fair. Be kind to yourself as you get back up, and remember that a lot of success in life comes from just being persistent. And remember Ty Cobb. Only succeeded about 1/3 of the time, still one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived.

Advice #3

You’re going to be meeting some amazing fellow students and professors, and you’re going to be presented with an amazing set of opportunities. Go take that weird and potentially fun class in college. Don’t just go for the easy courses, look up teaching reviews of professors and take that harder class where the professor will really challenge you. Find some independent research opportunities with a professor, partly because it lets you explore things you can’t normally in a class, and partly because it can help you build a lasting connection with a faculty member

And I’m about to say something I know I will likely regret, because my kids are 3 and 8 years old and they will use this against me in the future.

Don’t always listen to your parents. Most parents will steer you towards the safe path, but that’s not necessarily the best path for you.

Advice #3 – search for and embrace your inner geek

Find something you can love so deeply. Find something where you can make a positive difference in people's lives, no matter how big or how small it may seem, whether it is music, organic chemistry, climate change, your local school district, or cybersecurity. I promise you we will still love you even if you become a lawyer

Advice #4

I'd like to tell you about my GSSM roommate. His name was Brantley Stone, and he really loved linguistics. He was constantly trying to get us to learn Esperanto, a language that was invented 140 years ago for int’l communication. I still remember the dirty look he gave me when I commented that there were probably more people in the world that spoke Star Trek Klingon than Esperanto.

You've probably noticed that I'm talking about Brantley in the past tense, and it's because he passed away in 2004 at age 29. And this is actually one of my biggest regrets in life. I always thought that there would be more time, that we could get the old gang back together and keep doing silly things together. But I kept putting it off, I let our friendship drift, and then, one day, it was too late.

Of all the things I wish I could tell my 17 year old self, this is the most important: friends and family are what really matter the most.

The challenge, however, is that things are again much harder for your generation. There’s actually an epidemic of loneliness in developed countries around the world. A recent study out of Harvard found that 61% of young adults feel “serious loneliness.” Multiple other studies have found that people today have far fewer close friends than a few decades ago, with 10-15% of people saying they have zero close friends. This is really problematic because having good friends is the equivalent of quitting smoking. People who have strong relationships live longer, are less likely to get sick, & are less likely to have depression & dementia

Many of these computer technologies you have at your fingertips are a trap. It’s far too easy to just isolate yourself and watch streaming video or play games on your smartphone all day. Social media also doesn’t cut it. For most people, social media just gives you the illusion of a connection. We’ve built apps that give us everything we want, but not necessarily everything we need.

So I have to adjust what I just said: Friends and family are what really matter the most, and you have to make time for it.

And one thing you can do is don’t let your friendships fade. You just spent two years geeking out with a bunch of like-minded folks over physics, chemistry, math, and the best ways of sneaking into places you’re not supposed to be in. Don’t let those friendships fade.

You know, your 10 year reunion is a lot closer than you realize. It might not seem so, but time plays tricks and I promise you it is. One day, perhaps you’ll be shopping, perhaps you’ll be in a self-driving car, you’ll hear a song that reminds you of your senior year. And then, to your horror, you discover that you’re listening to the oldies radio station. It won't be tomorrow, it won't be next year, but it will happen. But when that happens, I hope you’ll remember the friends you made here, and I hope you’ll get back in touch with them.

And while we’re still on the topic of friends, I wanted to make a special shout out to my fellow GSSM class of 93 friends who came from all corners of the United States to heckle me today and to celebrate our 30 year reunion. Adam Chris John Tony, I’m a better person because of all of you. Erika, Charlos, it is so awesome to see you again. Here’s to hoping we’ll have at least another 30.

So in closing, may your lives be filled with joy and passion. May you do great things with your life. Never underestimate how much good you can do in the world. And since I just caused a lot of grief for your parents, be sure to regularly call them when you’re at college and tell them how much you love them. But don’t forget to get a separate smartphone account too.

Congratulations class of 2023, you survived!!


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