Donald Katz / Commencement Address 2014

I think that that one of the most compelling ways to think about the American experience in contrast to other nations is to recall that this country was formed to pursue a big-time idea – a vision of the possible that was forged in counterpoint to places built upon sameness of religion or race.  The big idea behind America embraced freedom and equality of opportunity, a purposeful diversity, and the virtues of hard work and perseverance and sacrifice. 

There isn’t another university or another graduating class in this country I can think of that better represents those ideals.  I can’t think of another group of people I could be more honored to address today, and I really think each graduate should be standing up here telling his or her story instead of me.

So congratulations to all graduates – you are the superstars of this day.

But here I am nonetheless, all robed-out and hoping to say something that avoids coming off like some old white guy regurgitating a pile of clichés. 

And if I wasn’t already intimidated by the challenge, a few days ago a young reporter for Newsweek wrote an article entitled First, We Ban All the Commencement Speakers, which I took to be a nod to a character from Shakespeare who says, “First we kill all the lawyers.”  The article mocked commencement speakers and openings like “As you begin your journey … or “As you embark on life.” 

I’ve tried to consider my own life as a source of some practical tips or tools or ways to think about moving a life forward to share with you this morning. 

Like you, I had the gift of an all-urban university education, and it launched me into the world with a lot of questions and a love of ideas.  During my days as a journalist I got to know presidents and prime ministers, soldiers, revolutionaries and terrorists. In Africa, in the undergrounds of Europe and Northern Ireland during the intensity of the 1970s, I was able to ask people what it’s like to be willing to die – and to kill – for a cause.  I got to write books that will exist beyond me, and after a crazy idea that came to me in the early 1990s – that people would someday walk around holding little digital devices crammed full of stories and learning – I got to help invent a company that I think holds to my long belief that companies can have hearts and souls and missions that can transcend financial success. 

I got to work with iconic innovators in the realm of technology whose efforts have changed the cadence and character of everyday life – people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos.  And I now know some of the very richest people in the history of the world … and with this I have gotten to see up close how hollow some lives can be if the purpose of a life is the pursuit of wealth alone. 

As I tried to find some actionable tips and specific things to say to you this morning, I realized that when I have been at my best, when I’ve achieved my best outcomes (and believe me, I have wasted a whole lot of time on stupid mistakes along the way) it’s been when I worked backwards from a vision of the possible. 

My best books came from ideas I could actually describe in writing before I started, and I worked backwards to make the books real from there.  The Audible.com business plan I wrote up back in 1994 is a pretty accurate description of what Audible has become 20 years later, and it is still a viable roadmap of what Audible can become in the future as we continue to work to change peoples’ lives through listening. 

At Audible and Amazon, for every big idea and every new business we want to start or any new product we may want to create, we require that you start with a press release and work backwards to identify steps to make the press release real.  Press releases reflect what you wish a newspaper reporter or blogger will write when you have completed your work.  The thinking at Audible and Amazon is that if a reporter can’t understand what you’ve spent in many cases years building, a customer will never understand it either.

An example of a working backwards process that’s near and dear for me – and for your amazing new Rutgers Newark chancellor, Nancy Cantor, and for Mayor Elect Baraka and other allies – stars Newark, New Jersey.  The dream is that Newark can fully emerge from 70 years of economic deprivation to erase the irony of being a city marked by joblessness and poverty despite being the largest city in one of the richest states in the world.  

But the dream of helping Newark feels more actionable if you write a working backwards press release with a headline that says, “Newark has Replaced Brooklyn as the Hot New Mecca for Technology Start-ups and Young Artists.” 

Some 50,000 new tech start-up related jobs have been created in New York City since Audible moved to Newark in 2007.  Engineers and artists are banding together in farthest Brooklyn instead of Newark to create the kinds of companies many of you will surely start, and with this new company creation forgotten neighborhoods have bloomed, while hip bars and cool shops provide service level employment.  Beyond dreaming about Newark’s turnaround, people in Newark are working right now to create tech incubators, to provide capacious Wi-Fi and wired bandwidth, to provide venture financing for entrepreneurs and perhaps to subsidize some of the 3,000 apartments and hip loft spaces that will become available in Newark over the next three to five years … so actors, musicians, filmmakers, poets, painters  – and engineers – can come join us here in the great American comeback of this city.    

Newark has been a renowned seedbed for technological and scientific innovations that changed everyday life.  This is where the young Thomas Edison set up shop and began to invent.  Commercial plastic, commercial radio, patent leather, air conditioning, the fax machine, flexible photographic film that democratized the act of taking pictures, and some of the best beer made in America … all of it was invented right here.

If recasting Newark as an innovation hub is the goal, then you work backwards from that goal by defining the numerical measurements of success.  We must count the number of new young companies that are growing, the number of new jobs created, and the amount of new taxable revenue available to reinvest in social services and more economic growth. 

With the working backwards press release written and the key success metrics proclaimed before you start, you can carve an actionable path forward – you may see that more non-profits may not be the right investment of time and money given the goal.  Putting up a new building per se is not a win in pursuit of the vision, but a building full of companies growing jobs is.

Working backwards gets your head out of the weeds – before an investment is made, before a line of code is written, or before you begin the hard work of a life dedicated to art or service to others.  Making a lot of money is not a big-time working backwards vision worthy of a press release – but it can be an outcome of taking meaningful steps along the way.

Once you have described where you want to end up and asked yourself how you will measure success, the next big step is to take a fearless inventory of your own ability to achieve the goal.  Nobody can do everything; nobody’s good at everything; and everyone needs help.  Since I was a journalist before I started Audible and journalists need to be dead-honest about what they don’t know in pursuit of truth, I knew that Audible didn’t have a chance unless I supplemented the many things I just can’t do well or do at all.  And a long list of brilliant technologists and former English majors filled in my many gaps over time, and they built the company as much as I did.  The great American writer who so affected my life, Ralph Ellison, was there to tell me how to become a writer long ago, because I asked him … because I didn’t know how to do it on my own.

After figuring out who you need to help you get where you want to go, the next thing I’d recommend is to go way deep on research.  Read deeply about anything related to your working backwards vision of the possible.  The Web is a remarkable resource, especially if you use it to go deep and learn while others are skimming for tweet-able one-liners. The good thing about adding the constant pursuit of knowledge to your working backwards navigation tools is that it allows you to constantly adjust the plan.

From the process of memorializing your vision of the possible, devising success measures, and thinking about who has to help – and then doing the research – the specific steps on the stairway are easier to discern.  The more specific the smaller steps are, the more readily you can bounce off the setbacks that are sure to block the way.  Nothing I’ve ever done personally or professionally has gone smoothly.  I am still traumatized by having to lay off 40% of my colleagues during one of Audible’s many near-death experiences in the early days.  Nothing can prepare you for the traumatic pain of taking away someone’s job. 

But I learned that just getting to the next step can get you through hard times, and as importantly, I learned you have to relish those baby steps and allow the smallest victories and insights to be a cause of pride and even celebration.  The writer who creates one of those sentences that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck; the teacher who can glean a smile of understanding from just one child on one day; the activist or social services professional working backwards from a vision of a just society who helps one life move forward and can celebrate this despite so much social dysfunction that persists … all of them win because the small steps really matter.  In the end, you are as defined by the quality of the steps you take in the direction of your working backwards goal as you are by whether you get all the way there. 

So whatever your vision of the possible, consider the idea of working backwards from there to get where you want to go. The documentation doesn’t need to be The Declaration of Independence or The Constitution, but even thinking about it will help.  I used to think that working backwards was methodology best suited to business projects, but a few years ago I came across a quote by Henri Matisse.  “A painting is like a card game,” the great painter proclaimed. “You should know from the beginning what you want to achieve at the end. Everything should be worked backwards so that you have finished before you have begun.”

At the risk of sounding like a speaker that Newsweek writer thinks we should ban, I do want to add one more thing I’ve learned – and it comes from the heart.  Allow yourself to feel your life, feel all of it deeply.  Feel others with empathy of course, but also feel deeply for yourself and allow yourself to draw close to others by being brave enough to share feelings and a sense of who you are. 

Aspirational folks – and I know there are thousands of go-getters here at the Rock today – are often pretty tough and tough-skinned, but everything I’ve learned about work and love and life indicates the quality of any experience is better if you let people in. 

So dream away graduates, work backwards from that dream – do keep an eye on Newark’s comeback and join in if you can – and most importantly, celebrate the victory of being the stars you surely are on this momentous day.

 

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