Commencement 2012 Address
Remarks as prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 24 May 2012
The HBS Class of 2012, friends and family, and members of the HBS community. Good afternoon, and welcome.
Class of 2012! You are the first group of MBA students to complete its entire course of study during my time as Dean. Every teacher remembers his or her first class, and while I’ve been fortunate to teach many wonderful classes over the years, I’ve been especially looking forward to sharing this moment with you.
My colleague Clay Christensen recently gave a talk in which he asked “How Will You Measure Your Life?” This question seems especially apt today, when Nate Bihlmaier’s death has reminded how us fragile life truly is. I want to welcome Nate’s parents, wife, brother, and their extended family and friends. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed that “when a sadness looms before you, a bigger sadness than you have seen; when an anxiety like light and the shadows of clouds, goes over...everything you do, you must reflect that something is happening to you, that Life has not forgotten you, that it is holding you in its hand; it will not let you fall....” Although Nate is no longer with us in person, let us celebrate his life and remember how fortunate we are that he was a part of our lives and our community.
Moments like this also measure who we are as people and as an institution. All I can say is that the goodness we have experienced among our students, our faculty, our staff, and indeed in our entire community that came together to deal with this most difficult tragedy makes me feel truly proud of being a part of Harvard Business School. I want to thank you all for the amazing ways in which you have cared for each other and for the family and friends of Nate Bihlmaier.
Let us ensure, though, that the memory of this week will encourage us to more consistently ask: What is the measure of our lives?
As much as my colleagues and I are rooting for you to succeed in your careers, we also want you to achieve something that can sometimes be more elusive: to build not only a meaningful career, but to do so in a way that leads to a happy and meaningful life.
Today I’d like to offer some ideas for creating a meaningful life in the context of our School’s mission, which is to become leaders who will make a difference in the world. And I’d like to do it through three personal stories that emphasize some ways of living your lives that hopefully will enable you to make a difference in the world. You all know how much I love alliterations such as the 5Is—innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and integration—the priorities we have collectively identified for the school. Today, let me talk to you about 3Gs: Generosity, Grace, and Gratitude.
The first story I’d like to share involves my grandfather, who was born at the beginning of the 20th century in India. My grandfather was an engineer who designed steel mills, and spent most of his career as a self-employed consultant. Though he was very good at engineering, my grandfather wasn’t very good as a businessman, particularly when it came to collecting the fees he was owed by his clients. To put it simply, people often didn’t pay him. This really upset my grandmother, who criticized him for being overly generous and letting people take advantage of him. He always smiled and responded that although his clients were richer as a result, they were probably slept less well because they had cheated him.
Even at home, we’d see daily examples of my grandfather’s generosity. He used to invite friends over to play an Indian card game much like poker, and he always felt that since he was the host, the polite thing to do would be to lose. I’d watch him making deliberately bad bluffs, losing game after game, and I’d watch the pile of money in front of him shrink and shrink. Strangely, this would make my grandfather happy.
When my grandmother would criticize my grandfather for excessive generosity, he would point out that they had all that they needed, and that more money was unlikely to make them happier. My grandfather’s happiness, I’ve concluded, stemmed largely from living his life in a mode of permanent generosity.
After I came to America to attend graduate school at that other place down the river called MIT, I received a terrible phone call: my grandfather had died, and I needed to return to India for the funeral. In India it’s traditional for families to host guests at their home to celebrate the person’s life, much like a Christian wake or sitting shiva in the Jewish tradition. So we emptied all the furniture out of the main living room for our guests, ordered food, and made arrangements. We figured about 100 people would show up. At the appointed hour, people began coming in. And they just kept coming and coming. It’s hard to say how many people eventually came to my grandfather’s funeral, but my best guess is that more than 1000 people showed up that day. My family didn’t recognize 80% of them-- they were people my grandfather had touched or helped during the course of his career with his generosity.
Now I’m not suggesting that the secret to life is intentionally losing card games. Rather, I’d suggest that you step back from time to time, and to measure your success by a different yardstick. Ask yourself: Am I living life generously? Am I leading generously?
The second story stems from a conversation I had while on vacation in the Caribbean over Spring Break—where I half expected to run into some of you, to be honest. Over the course of a few days I struck up a friendship with the food and beverage manager of the hotel I was staying at. He also happened to be an Indian who had just transferred to this job after spending many years working at the Taj hotels, which are owned by the Tata Group. I asked him if he knew Ratan Tata, the head of the company, who is a graduate of our Advanced Management Program and a generous benefactor of HBS. He immediately started telling me stories about Mr. Tata—how he was once traveling on an Indian highway and his car had a flat tire. While the other executives went to a nearby rest stop, Mr. Tata stayed back and to his driver’s great surprise rolled up his sleeves and began helping him replace the tire.
What’s interesting to me about this second-hand account of Mr. Tata’s behavior isn’t the particulars of this incident, but the way it provides another data point to what I know about this wonderful business leader I have been privileged to know for many years. As I travel and meet people, I continually hear other people telling stories about him, and those stories invariably portray him as behaving graciously, of lacking the presumptuousness or self-regard people expect to find in billionaire businessmen. Over the years, these secondhand stories have had nearly as much to do with why I admire him as my own dealings with him directly.
There are many ways to measure leadership, and I’ve often felt that one overlooked measure of a leader is the stories that less powerful people tell about him or her. Ratan Tata has lived a life of extraordinary accomplishment and achievement. But everywhere he goes, he impresses people by behaving graciously.
So when I think about how you should measure your accomplishments in the years ahead, I’d suggest that you think about the stories other people will tell about you. Are you acting entitled? Are you using power in a way that benefits those who have less of it? Or, rather, are you conducting yourself with the kind of grace that will leave the people you encounter so impressed that they will continue to tell wonderful stories about you years after an encounter?
Finally, I’d like to tell you a third story that has to do with my own children. I have two daughters, who are now ages 17 and 15. Unfortunately, at this age they no longer let me read them bedtime stories or tuck them into bed at night. But for many years, before they became too cool for that, this was a daily ritual I enjoyed very much. When my daughters were very small, a family friend told me about a small tradition they used in his family, and I liked it so much that I quickly incorporated it into mine: each evening, just before his children went to sleep, he’d ask them to describe their Three Thank Yous. The Three Thank Yous meant that each child had to name the three things he or she was grateful for that day.
For about four years, I did this most nights with my daughters. It was interesting to hear what they’d say. Often they’d start with obvious answers: “I’m grateful for my dad reading me a book tonight,” or “I’m grateful for my family.” But by the time they got to the third Thank You, they’d start straining to think of something, and those third Thank Yous could be revealing. Which teachers were they thankful for? Which friendships did they truly value? How often did they mention aspects of the privileged life they enjoyed?
Years ago when I began doing this exercise with my daughters, I also began doing it for myself, and even though my daughters have outgrown it, I still do it every night. Just before I go to sleep, I think about three specific things that I’m grateful for. Now I’m pretty lucky, and I have a lot of very good days. But even at the end of a bad day, I’m usually struck by the abundance of things I have to choose from when selecting my Three Thank Yous.
I suspect many of you will find yourselves in the same situation. The vast majority of you will go on to lead lives in which it should be very easy to find many reasons for gratitude. I believe having a daily ritual that forces you to recognize this makes life easier. I really deeply believe that people who are grateful tend to have more to be grateful for—it’s a virtuous cycle.
When I look back at my grandfather, it’s clear to me that he was grateful for all that he had, and that enabled him to live a life that put generosity as his most important value. Based on what I know directly of Ratan Tata, and from hearing a hotel employee talk about him, it’s clear to me that the gratitude he feels for all that he has is what enables him to live a life of grace. And it’s clear to me that in my own life, maintaining a daily focus on gratitude has helped me live a richer and happier life, and to behave more generously and with more grace.
There are many metrics one can use to measure achievement, whether you’re measuring performance in a place like HBS or the achievements that lie ahead of you in your career. Today, as we celebrate your recent achievements and look ahead to what’s to come, I’d urge you to keep in mind Generosity, Grace, and Gratitude --yardsticks that are worth pulling out from time to time, if not more often.
I imagine many of you are especially aware of gratitude on a day like this one, and it’s appropriate for all of us to make a formal expression of the thanks we owe to those who’ve helped you make it through the last two years. So members of the Class of 2012, stand up and turn around. As much as today is a celebration of you and what you’ve accomplished, none of it would be possible without the support you’ve received from others—the husbands, wives and partners, the parents, the sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who’ve nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you. Please join me in giving them a hand.
I know the faculty and I join your families in taking great pride in what you’ve accomplished here the last two years, in celebrating your accomplishments, and in wishing you good fortunes as you begin your next adventures. We are rooting for you to become leaders who will make a difference in the world and in the lives of all you touch. The world desperately needs good leadership and you can provide it. As Nate would remind us, “Make No Small Plans.” As you begin this exciting journey, I wish you Godspeed.