Salman Khan Commencement Address to the Graduates

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Video and transcript from the address to the graduating seniors, by Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy.



June 14, 2020

Hi everyone in the Dartmouth community, especially the graduates and the family of the graduates. Sal here, from Khan Academy. Before I even go into my words for you, let me just apologize for my haircut. This was a byproduct of last week. I was so excited about the SpaceX launch and my hair was getting a little bit out of hand. So I got a little bit aggressive with the clipper so I wouldn’t miss the launch and this is what you see. And if I had a little bit of foresight, I would have recognized that I’m going to record a very important video for all of you all. And I probably would have been more presentable, but my apologies.

Let me just start say by saying that the Dartmouth community is one that I hold close to my heart. The first time I visited the campus was in 2012. It was under President Kim; he had invited me over to campus and I had a really great interaction with the students and the faculty. And then when President Hanlon became president, I was, I believe, one of the first conversations he had, probably not the first, but a few months into his presidency, and I was just super impressed by how thoughtful and how innovative and how forward-looking he is. And we formed a great friendship and obviously over my academic career and my professional career and even my personal life, I have many, many friends and colleagues that have been Dartmouth graduates, so I definitely enjoyed telling them that I was getting to do this. Doing this, what was originally going to be an in-person presentation or speech, but now is virtual, but hopefully we’ll get a chance to do the in person, as well.

Let me just start by saying, in normal times, I know, just like when I think back on my own, when I was in your shoes, 21, 22 years old, and you have this, on one level, excitement about your future, and on the other level, you have a little bit of angst and a little bit of worry. You’re like, “Look, I got this life. I have all of this energy, all of this passion, but where do I put it to work?” It looks like there’s barriers here, there’s barriers there. Are people going to recognize what I can do? Where do I get started? Do I pick door A, do I pick door B? And that’s in normal times. And clearly these are not normal times, the very fact that I’m having to give a presentation or a speech like this, and the very fact that I have a haircut like this is a pretty good clue that these are not normal times.

And obviously we have all of the COVID-related things, the social distancing, that has catalyzed really a kind of an about face on the economy. Maybe one of the worst economies that many of us will see for hopefully a long time, but many of us, probably a tough one in a lot of levels for us, in at least our lifetimes. And then obviously, you have all of this energy that was catalyzed by horrible events in the world around policing and racism, and there’s just a lot going on. And my only thought, and I’ve been thinking about this, even beyond this conversation or this speech, I guess if you want to call it that, is how do we as individuals and as a society channel that energy so it moves us forward. Because I think in anything, that angst, that energy, it can lead to just more and more frustration. It could lead to cynicism, or it can lead to putting one foot in front of the other and really making a positive dent in the universe.

And I’ve been reading some literature about young people who come of age during times of hardship, and it seems like it’s kind of a high-variance outcome. I think this is also true if you come from a family where there’s hardship. It could lead to more resilience, it could lead to more grit and then kind of strengthen your character, or it could go the other way. It could lead to being demoralized or losing self confidence. And so I think all of you as Dartmouth grads, wherever you came from, you have that capacity, you have that energy. I hope you have that positivity where you can really direct yourself more to the former, more to the, look, there’s a lot of stuff going on, there’s a lot of stuff for all of us to process, but I, as an individual, need to think about what can I do put one foot in front of the other to make a positive dent.

And sometimes there’s the urgency to change the whole world all at once and then it’s frustrating because how do you change the whole world all at once? Until you realize that actually you can make small steps in your own life, in your own community, and those small things build up. It’s kind of like those snowballs in the cartoons, they start small and, and they get bigger. And I know that I’ve to some degree have this very random life experience where I’ve been living it.

When I was your age, I was always intrigued by education. And I was like, “Well, what am I going to be able to do in it?” And I ended up pursuing a path that I had passion for, but frankly was a more pragmatic path. I went into technology. After business school, I ended up working in finance, I was an analyst at a hedge fund. But I always felt this little anxious, this little urgency, I was like, “Well is this going to be my dent in the universe? Is this how I’m going to make an impact on the world?” And it was really during my wedding, or right after my wedding, back in 2004 that a 12-year-old cousin who’s visiting me from New Orleans, I was in Boston at the time, needed help with math. And I didn’t really think about it in grandiose terms at the time, but I was like, “Well, I could help her.”

And she’s remote 1,200 miles away, or however far away. And maybe I can put together some home-brew technology, find stuff on the web or use a phone, whatever, to tutor her. And obviously that helped my cousin Nadia and then I started tutoring her younger brothers; word spread around my family; free tutoring was going on. I started making little tools for them; I started recording videos for them; one thing led to another. People who are not my cousins were using it. And this thing that, when I started in my 20s was this, I’m just going to do one thing in front of the other. But I was in the back of my mind, I was thinking, well, maybe this could be bigger. Maybe if this is useful for Nadia and Armand and Ali, and those few people who are writing me letters off the internet, maybe it could be useful for millions. Maybe it could be useful for billions of people one day.

And my advice for you, for whatever it’s worth, is you’re all going down whatever path you’re going down, and that’s great. And what I would say is there’s no perfect path, it’s really the energy that you give to that path. I remember my first job, I got a little bit cynical. I was like, “Well, will it matter if I’m at this job or not?” It was at a big tech company. And I remember my manager at the time says, “Well perhaps, maybe, but every day you should just try to come and say, how can I make myself better? And how can I make the people around me better?” And as long as you leave space for your passions, and I was very lucky when I was working at a hedge fund.

I remember my boss at the time, I was ready to work like 80 hours a week and generate that alpha, so to speak. And he told me, “Look Sal, you’ve got to go home, you’ve got to rest and recharge. Our job as investors is not to just make a bunch of decisions and work ourselves silly. Our job is to avoid bad decisions and the best way we can avoid bad decisions is to be rested and to be balanced and to have other interests. We need to see the world the way that the rest of the market isn’t seeing the world.”

And it’s because my boss, frankly, forced me to carve out some space for my passions, my interest, and actually convinced me that it was going to make me a better investor, that I had time to tutor my cousin, in a time of need, that I didn’t dismiss it, I was like, “No, no, Nadia, deal with yourself. I have to go analyze some equities.” But obviously that has now led to me talking to you here and Khan Academy, hopefully turning into an institution for the world that can reach hundreds of millions or billions of people, something that can be a nonprofit, an institution that lasts well beyond my lifespan or any of our lifespans and for generations to come.

And so I’ll just throw out to you the notion that, it’s in times of crisis, times when the world is very uncertain, that there’s also the biggest opportunities for personal growth and for the society as a whole to grow and opportunities for young, energetic, optimistic people who have a bias towards action to make a difference. And I suspect that all of you all are, I said, you can go into the cynical category, the frustrated category, or you can go into the I’m going to make some positive change category.

And as you all go into that category, I think you have a chance of being another greatest generation, the greatest generation; the word greatest generation, and at least in the U.S, refers to the generation that was roughly your age during World War II. And they obviously fought the Nazis, but then they, and others, came home and kind of were the foundation of the prosperity and the innovation and actually a lot of the social progress that we saw in the second half of the 20th century.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they came of age during times of adversity, and you are coming of age during a time of adversity. And so what I will tell you, the next greatest generation, it’s a little framework that I tell myself all the time, and it is a framework that I genuinely use because, we do, as far as we know, have this one life to do what we’re going to do. Imagine yourself in 50 years, you’re near the end of your career, maybe you’re retired. And you’re on the sofa, watching your hologram TV, whatever it is.

And President Kardashian, I’ll let you decide which one, is giving the State of the Union speech. And while you’re watching that, you start reflecting on your life, you start reflecting on all of the good things. You’re like, “Oh, those are great times at Dartmouth, I had a great career, yeah, there were ups and downs, but overall it was awesome. My friends and family, my partner.”

Maybe you have children, you’re like, “Oh, those are great times raising them.” But then you start to have a few regrets. You’re like, “I had a good life, but I wish I told all my friends at Dartmouth and actually my professors at Dartmouth and the community there, just how much they meant to me, how much even today in my 70s, I reminisce about those times, that I miss those times and how much those late night conversations in the dorm room, those cram sessions, whatever, how much they meant to me how much they affected who I am today in, I guess 2070.”

You start reflecting about your career. You’re like, “I had a good career, but I wish I didn’t stress so much about it. In hindsight, all of the things that felt so heavy in the moment, that particular day, that particular week, a month later, two months later, I didn’t even remember what those things are much less, 40 or 50 years later.” So I wish I could tell my younger self, “Hey, it’s going to be better. Don’t waste your energy, stressing, having anxiety about the things that frankly don’t matter.” And instead you tell yourself, hey, I wish I put more of that energy in connections, in relationships, in building myself, pursuing that passion that I always wanted to get better at. I wish I didn’t pass up that opportunity to take that little bit of a risk, and it actually probably wasn’t a risk at all to try something a little bit innovative, do something a little bit different, help out a family member.

I wish I spent more time with my children. I wish when my parents were alive, I told them how much I care about them, how much they meant to me. You regret, oh, maybe I was in my 20s, a little angsty, and I wanted to kind of get out of their orbit. And sometimes they were maybe helicoptering me a little bit too much, but in 2070, you’re like, wow, but they did so much for me. And now in hindsight, I realize no one’s perfect, but how much of what you are is really based on what they’ve provided for you.

And while you’re having these regrets, all of a sudden, a genie pops up and says, “Hey you, I’m a genie. And I’ve been listening to your thoughts. It seems like you’ve had a great life.” And you’re like, yes. You’re a little weirded out by this whole thing going on. And the genie says, “Well but I also have even been eavesdropping on your regrets and you seem like a good person. So if you’re up for it, I’m willing to give you a second chance.” And so you say, OK, I’ll take this second chance, not really knowing what this is all about. And the genie snaps their fingers and, I don’t know, cloud of smoke, whatever else happens, and poof, all of a sudden you’re not in 2070 anymore, you’re in 2020, you’re sitting there watching this guy with a bad haircut because he was in a hurry to watch a SpaceX launch, give you this somewhat strange speech.

And you realize, wait, the genie did what they said they were going to do. I am now 50 years younger. It’s 2020, I’m graduating from Dartmouth, and all of those regrets I can redo. I can live all of my life, that wonderful life that I lived the first time. But now I can optimize. I can hug a little bit harder. I can just take a few more risks. I can tell the people around me how much they mean to me, how much I care about them, how much I love them. I can hug my parents. I could tell them, I can spend more time with them, my family, my friends, and just enjoy the ride that much more. And so for me, your I guess virtual commencement speaker, let me just say how excited I am to see what you would, I believe is going to be the next greatest generation, the Dartmouth Class of 2020, what you’re going to do with your second chance. Thank you.

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