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Tralance Addy '69

Audio Transcript

President Chopp, Board of Managers, members of faculty and staff,  student representatives and all of you who probably got me confused with somebody else and thought I am worthy of this honor, thank you for the privilege of standing before you. I know that it sounds clichéd to say that I am humbled, but really, had I dreamed that this was even a vague possibility when I was here I would have worked a lot harder.

Class 2013, I applaud you!

Families, especially the parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends of the class, you can now breathe with relief and with excitement as well, as your students leave this environment that is so superb for thought and intellectual development and step onto new paths that hold great promise for not only thought but vigorous action. I think I've heard that phrase about action a couple of times today so, and we didn't compare notes before this.

I arrived at Swarthmore from Ghana more than four decades ago, as part of a scholarship program for Africans run by a consortium of highly selective American universities, that used a model that I realized has just been adopted by the popular TV show, The Voice. And the way it worked then is that a group of us applied to the program,  a scholarship program, but  we did not apply to any particular colleges or universities.  Each of the universities in the program then looked at our records and interview results and then would select a student or student that they wanted.  It was then the student's obligation or turn to accept or deny the scholarship.

I have to say I was somewhat dismayed when I got the acceptance letter from Swarthmore College because, frankly, I had never heard of it. Uncomfortable with the choice I had to make I approached my house master at the secondary school and voiced my concern. He was an American and, apparently very annoyed that I did not seem elated at having won the scholarship in stiff competition from a prestigious institution in the U.S. He scolded me for worrying about it at all and added, for emphasis, that Swarthmore was so tough to get into that his application had been rejected. And he said this in a way that made me understand he was still sore about it. So I eventually got myself enthusiastic about coming to school in the U.S. and to this college that none of my friends knew about.

I arrived on campus with dreams of studying chemical engineering, and I was disappointed to learn that Swarthmore did not have a chemical engineering program and my choices were to do chemistry or mechanical engineering. I asked to be transferred to a well-known school, a technology-oriented school in New England.  An advisor for the program very calmly said to me you would be making the biggest mistake of your life. Why is that? It's because they believed that I was interested in much more than engineering and Swarthmore was therefore the perfect place for me. So I stayed and I did not realize until two decades later how important that advice and that choice had been for my professional development, and more importantly, for the thing that I had been engaged with from the time that I left Swarthmore.

I would like to share with you some of the things that I learned along the path whose seeds, without my realization at the time, had been sown while I was here.

One source of my early challenges in engineering classes was my conclusion that too often I was presented with homework and test assignments that didn't have enough information to solve the problem. I'm sure that's never happened to you. So after complaining to Professor Betz Morrill, an extraordinary teacher and sympathetic person who later became a mentor, he simply told me that all I had to do in those situations was to make my own assumptions and go on with confidence to solve the problem. Well, that sounded easy enough, straight forward. But, I don't think he fully appreciated the intimidation and sometimes terror that I felt, making assumptions on subjects that were very foreign to me - I didn't know very much about - and the fear, the terror of being thought I was ignorant or worse - well, ignorance is the worst - but also unrealistic.  But I took the lesson. And I would say for instance, how was I to know that it was OK to envisage the earth as an infinite sink, so that we could solve all of our heat transfer problems by just assuming that anything we dumped into it didn't make a difference? But I learned that, too. I've learned since then that you're not supposed to actually do that.  

I cannot say that by the time I left Swarthmore I had mastered the art or science of making consequential assumptions but what I realized is that I had developed something that is even more important. I question all assumptions, including my own,and I had developed this very bad habit of asking myself questions that I had no answers to. It didn't help that I had gone to companies when I left school and joined the industrial world. I had gone to a number of companies that did a lot of training of people and they would say - this is the wisdom of the day - for instance:

"Stick to your knitting and do what you do best." That makes sense. And then around the same time somebody else or the same people would say,  "Innovate or die," "think out of the box." So which is which? What should we do?

Should we heed, "Set realistic and achievable goals" to build credibility or should we set as they were saying then, "Big hairy, audacious goals"?

Do we go with our gut or are we supposed to be objective?

Should we be humble or should we believe that we can change the world?

I know you can continue this list for a long time but this is not the place.

I eventually recognized that if I introduced either a time or context shift or both, I could make myself comfortable with most of the apparent contradictions, much in the same way that paradoxes are usually resolved. So with those tools in hand I have felt freer to make my own assumptions about how the world works or should work, and act on them without concern about being regarded as ignorant or unrealistic!

Through my experience in tackling issues that I believe to be important, and recruiting the right people to work with me, two issues have been recurring. They are the issues of  "arrogance" and "balance." 

As for arrogance, apart from the overbearing aspect of the usual description, I think it is unjustly maligned.  It appears that we often celebrate the outcomes of the actions of people who can be fairly described as arrogant. Perhaps we like the results but don't want the actors to display their feelings.  As a friend of mine has reminded me from time to time, almost every creative act is an attempt to change existing assumptions. Samantha Powers, in a commencement address here several years ago, in a different context, cited George Bernard Shaw's statement that, "A reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Now, you may or may not agree with Shaw, but I submit that there is more than a little arrogance in our assumptions that we can go out and change the world in which seven billion people live.  There has to be. I also assume and assert, with confidence, that without the humility that it takes to acknowledge the need for the support or actions of others to advance our causes, we would not get very far. So arrogance and humility exist side by side, if not in the same person, at least in the same organization or community.

The question of balance is a particularly difficult one for me.  And so let me declare at the outset that I do not qualify as a balanced person, and until I gave up trying to be one I had spent enormous effort in training programs that seem to want to blend us all into perfect well-balanced people. I eventually gave up the effort - after I asked myself the question of whether I would still be me if I achieved that success to be balanced. And by the way, it wasn't satisfying or fun to keep trying. So I re-started with new sets of assumptions that make it OK for me, and others like me, to be unbalanced. I convinced myself that in looking at the lives of people who have made important contributions to help build a better world, "balance" is hardly the first word that comes to mind. I think that perhaps instead of focusing on the balanced individual, we should place greater emphasis on the balance of the whole. In any case, it  seems to me to be an inherently more difficult task to try to build the perfect society with perfect people. Obviously the most beautiful music is not produced by having all the instruments look and sound the same but that each brings its distinctiveness to the creation of a harmony that can be resonant in a unique way.

After many years working on complex projects with people reflecting a broad range of personal and political views and so on, I am now convinced that each of us in our inbalance has our own personal pathology, and there's that thing that perhaps we treat like an imperfection or disease that needs a cure. I submit that this "pathology" is the inherent attribute that often distinguishes us from others and propels us to think and act in unusual ways that can be of value in building a balanced whole. As Sir Francis Bacon put it, "There is no excellent beauty without some strangeness in proportion." I now try to be in touch with my personal pathology, my strangeness in proportion, and celebrate it. And I can tell you from experience that there is no higher exhilaration than assembling a group of people who think of themselves as misfits to come together in a way and in harmony to accomplish a great goal.

I am reminded by many, including my son, class of 2004, and one of my daughters who considered Swarthmore, that especially in this place it should not be that hard to find "strangeness in proportion." So as you leave here to try to help create a better world, in spite of the strong temptations to conform, I hope that you will celebrate your pathology and "strangeness in proportion," and find others with their own unique pathologies with whom you can make beautiful music.

Listen: President Chopp's Charge to Tralance Addy '69

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