Commencement Address at the University at Albany: May 21, 2000

President Hitchcock, Provost Genshaft, Vice Presidents and Deans, faculty, staff, graduates, family and friends, and to my wife Susan, and my son Jonathan, both of whom are the loves of my life, ... it's a privilege to be here. As a representative of the faculty of this university, I begin this brief Address by first offering my heartiest congratulations to you, the graduates. (I direct your attention to the screens where graphics will be displayed during this Address.)

Individuals, institutions, and nations find themselves today at 'Yet Another Crossroads' where decisions are needed. All are attempting to understand their roles, responsibilities, and opportunities in the post-Cold War era. In charting a path into the future, it's important to clearly identify our values and our strengths. While facing challenges of the current magnitude is not easy, and success is not assured, it's important to be optimistic, and to be guided by values and examples provided by those who have come before us and who are remembered by their having successfully met their own great challenges. In the next few minutes, I'll briefly discuss the simple values that I personally have found helpful.

These simple values are familiar to all of us. They are: (1) Humility, (2) Honesty, (3) Humor, (4) Persistence, (5) Leadership.

I offer the following idea: In facing crossroads in life, draw strength and guidance from values that are fundamentally strong and simple; for it is they that endure, when elaborate, artificial, or contrived notions either fail or are forgotten.

1. HUMILITY: I wanted to be a scientist ever since I was 8 years old, and it has been my great fortune to have become one. I've not always appreciated the importance of humility, but have come with age and experience to better understand its value. Nature has often reminded me that I have a limited software package between the ears. Indeed, research teaches most scientists that most of what we initially guess, think, or imagine might be true when we begin our work is ultimately found to be wrong. It is science's ability to test ideas, and to discard the majority, which are flawed, that allows us to identify and celebrate those few ideas that actually work. It's in this process that hard-won knowledge is acquired and progress is made.

In science then, where it's routinely possible to find out what ideas are broadly correct and which ones aren't, we commonly find that most of our initial ideas are wrong, and even our best ideas will always be incomplete. This fact highlights humanity's intrinsic limitations and should be remembered when we face challenging issues in life that are not as easily verifiable as Nature is by science.

Therefore, beware of over-confidence in yourself and in others that you depend on. As Bertrand Russell wrote: "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves,...."

As a former Dean of the Harvard Medical School said when speaking to a graduating class of physicians: "Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations. However, be aware of the following: Half of what you have been taught is probably wrong. The problem is that we don't yet know which half."

2. HONESTY: A friend of mine, Dr. Gregory Stevens, the Assistant Dean of Academic Programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, once told me of a favorite saying: "Always tell the truth. It's easier to remember under pressure." Crossroads are times of pressure.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Who you are, speaks so loudly that I can't hear what you're saying".

Here is an anonymous story that I recently found on the Internet to illustrate this:
A father was taking his two little boys to play miniature golf on a Saturday afternoon. He walked up to the ticket counter and asked the person inside, "How much is it to get in?" The person in the ticket counter replied, "$3.00 for you, and $3.00 for any kid who is older than six. We let them in free if they are six or younger. ... How old are they?", asked the person in the ticket counter gesturing to the two boys. The father replied, "This one is three and this one is seven, so I guess I owe you $6.00". The person in the ticket counter said, "Hey, Mister, did you just win the Lottery or something? You could have told me that the older one was six, and I wouldn't have known the difference". "Yes", replied the father as his two young boys listened intently, "that may be true, but the kids would have known the difference ."

3. HUMOR: Delight in laughter. View life from a variety of perspectives, including those ways that will make you, and others, smile and laugh. Norman Cousins said: "Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors." Humor provides stamina for the spirit when facing important choices and decisions at those crossroads.

For example, here are some questions to ponder that are not original to me:

  • If the police were to arrest a mime, would they tell him that he had the right to remain silent?
  • Why is the word 'abbreviation' so long?

Here is some CAT HUMOR: (

  • If Dogs have Owners, then Cats have Staff.
  • Thousands of years ago, Cats were worshipped as gods. They haven't forgotten that.

Here is some HUSBAND HUMOR: (

  • A wife was once asked how she kept her husband from reading her emails on their home computer. The wife replied, "I renamed the mail folder Instruction Manuals."

Here is some MATH HUMOR: (

  • There are 3 kinds of people: those that can count; ... and those that can't.

Here are some FAMOUS LAST WORDS: (

  • It's pretty much grounded.
  • Don't worry. Just open the email attachment.
  • Clip the red wire first.
  • It's supposed to make that noise.

4. PERSISTENCE President Calvin Coolidge from the State of Vermont wrote:

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. TALENT will not, since nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. GENIUS will not, since unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

According to a Middle Eastern proverb: "Humanity is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move."

People belonging to the latter category have a big advantage at all crossroads when intellect, initiative, and imagination are needed. Don't shrink from those challenges. Rather, consider the following idea from Life's Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

"Don't say that you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to ... Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Madame Curie, and Albert Einstein."

5. COURAGEOUS LEADERSHIP: We can all benefit from knowing about, and imitating, those individuals who have shown courageous leadership. This quality is essential at times of great challenge.

Sir Winston Churchill wrote: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last."

Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote: "Nothing would be done at all if a person waited until something could be done so well that no one could find fault with it."

President John F. Kennedy, while himself at a crossroads in his Administration during a grim period of the Cold War, spoke before Congress on September 12, 1962 laying out the goal of sending American astronauts to the Moon before the end of the decade. President Kennedy said: "Why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask,... why climb the highest mountain? ... We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon ... in this decade NOT because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because THAT GOAL will serve to organize and measure the BEST of our energies and skills. Because THAT challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one that we intend to win!"

The footprints left on the Moon by the 12 American astronauts, which are expected to last for at least 100 million years, will bear silent testimony for the next one million centuries to a generation who upon arriving at Yet Another Crossroads boldly and successfully charted a path of historic dimension.


Today we celebrate your accomplishments. As a representative of the faculty of this university, I congratulate each of you again. I also congratulate those who have been sources of support, encouragement, and inspiration in your lives.

In facing crossroads in your life, I have suggested that you can draw strength and guidance from a few simple values. Those values are: (1) Humility, (2) Honesty, (3) Humor, (4) Persistence, and (5) courageous Leadership.

Those values will endure when elaborate, artificial, or contrived notions either fail or are forgotten.

In closing, I leave you with an anonymous quotation. It's prominently displayed on my office door and is also carried in my wallet.

Excellence can be attained if you ...

Care more than others think is wise.
Risk more than others think is safe.
Dream more than others think is practical.
Expect more than others think is possible.

Live long and prosper. (Vulcan sign)

Thank you.

University at Albany