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Honors Commencement Address, Class of 2001

Steven S. Skiena

May 17, 2001

Thank you very much. I am deeply honored to have this chance to address such a distinguished group of students and scholars.

Let me say up front that I like graduations, and get misty-eyed whenever I hear ``Pomp and Circumstance''.

And I'll admit it - I have always wanted to give a commencement address. You would, too, after attending twenty graduation ceremonies and listening to speakers both good and bad. Over the years I have been privileged to hear Nobel Prize winning scientists, eloquent politicians like Mario Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, media figures, humanitarians, and literary figures of world renown.

But the greatest commencement speech I ever heard was given almost 20 years ago by an anonymous vice-president at Pennsylvania Power and Light. He wore a drab grey suit, spoke with a monotone, but he aroused that crowd like no man I have ever seen.

What did he say? His speech simply cited study after study concerning the correlation between the most successful employees and class rank. Time after time, he said, these studies report that the most successful employees were not those ranking among the top 25% of their graduating classes.

According to the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light, the most successful graduates tend to finish in the second and third quarters of their graduating class.

Now why was this a great speech?

All the average students and their families were thrilled to death to hear of their inevitable future success. Some started doing ``the wave''. I even saw a few flicking lighters at the stage in their appreciation of the speaker.

The students at the very bottom of the class were just as inspired. Most would have cheered anyone who didn't threaten to take back their diplomas. Besides, most of these underachievers could have cracked the top 75% if they had studied or turned in an occasional homework - so this speech meant they could be successful, too.

Now you understand why was the greatest possible speech for a general graduation ceremony. But you are graduates with honors! I bet this message doesn't sound quite as inspiring to you all.

I think I know how you feel. After all, I was ranked in the top quarter of my college class when I heard this speech. Now sure, I was in the bottom half of the top quarter, but what he said still applied to me.

So why do I recall this speech to all the honors graduates and their families? Because it got me thinking about the meaning and value of academic achievement.

I harken back to the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light's words to make two points.

My first point is that there is probably a little truth in what he said. Social skills, street smarts, drive, and charisma can have more to do with success than sheer intellectual horsepower. Never underestimate the power of such skills. When the great Red Auerbach was asked why he was more successful than other basketball coaches, he said ``Well, they ain't got no charisma like me.'' Indeed, I urge you to work at developing your own professional sense of style and flair.

Also, remember that there will always be more people in the middle than on top. By definition, the middle half is twice as large as the top quarter of the class. Thus the random forces of luck are more likely to shine on one of them than one of us. Never underestimate the power of luck in impacting future success - just don't rely on it.

However, my real point is that I didn't believe the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light back then, and I don't believe him now. Especially now. The world has changed greatly in the twenty years since I listened to that graduation speech.

In that vice-president's day, the most effective road to success was to marry the bosses daughter. But that is just not as effective today.

First, at least half of you are a priori not going to be interested in the bosses daughter.

And second, jobs change so fast these days that your bosses daughter probably won't be your bosses daughter by the time you get to know her.

The world is a very complicated place, changing at an unbelievably fast pace. I speak from experience. I am just 13 years removed from getting my Ph.D. in Computer Science. That isn't very long - believe me. And yet my mind boggles with how much the world has changed since then:

In this kind of world, you have to wear your tennis shoes to keep up with the pace of change. Even the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light would agree that success will come to those who best keep up with change.

But my money is on you all as the ones to do it. Perhaps the most important skill that you need in this fast-changing world is the ability to teach yourself.

As much as we have enjoyed having you here at Stony Brook, you will not be able to take a class every time you need to learn something new.

Whenever your interests expand and change, you will have to teach yourself.

As I mentioned before, my research area is now Computational Biology. Indeed, I am now a member of the Genetics faculty here at Stony Brook in addition to my primary position in Computer Science. This is particularly amazing when you realize that I never took a life sciences course in graduate school. Or in college. Or even in high school! My last biology course was taken back at Churchill Junior High School in 9th grade.

So what am I doing teaching biology here at Stony Brook?

Well, over the last several years I became very interested in the Human Genome project, and the massive computational challenges of DNA sequence assembly and analysis. Along the way I've had to teach myself enough biology to understand the real problems and to fake my way through.

You will need to teach yourself to keep up with change. But I know you can do it. Indeed, you have already proven that you can do it.

How? Think back to that course taught by the least competent, least interested, least intelligible professor you had here at Stony Brook. Since you couldn't get anything from lecture, you read the book, hit the Web, asked questions, and figured things out yourself.

As honors students, I know you made the grade even under these difficult conditions.

That crummy professor couldn't teach their subject, but they sure taught you how to teach yourself!

So remember this guy when you have to learn something completely new. And while you are at it, remember all the good professors you had at Stony Brook - the ones who taught you how to think, and grow, and live.

So, yes, I disagree with the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light. My money is on you for having successful and rewarding futures despite all the statistics he dug up.

His problem, I believe, lay in his definition of success. This vice-president measured success by whether you go into management, whether you earn a high salary, or maybe what you report as your level of job satisfaction.

The problem, of course, is that diverse life paths cannot be easily captured in a single summary statistic.

But I think all three of these people were fantastically successful. Certainly they were if you count their Nobel Prize Awards as a measure of success.

As honors graduates, I expect that you will achieve successes that are defined quite differently from those recognized by the vice-president of Pennsylvania Power and Light.

The paths which you will pursue through life will be somewhat wilder, more adventurous, and more innovative than many of your classmates who were not invited to this honors graduation.

But I will be highly disappointed if any of you end up as rank-and-file employees of Pennsylvania Power and Light!

Please let me congratulate all of you on your hard work and achievements. You are best Stony Brook has to offer, and that is pretty damn good in anyone's book. Take on the world, and don't forget where you came from.

Let me congratulate you all, the cream of the Class of 2001! Congratulations!

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Steve Skiena