Commencement 2015 Address

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Remarks as prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, 28 May 2015

Class of 2015, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community. Good afternoon and welcome.

Every graduating class has some quality or experience that distinguishes it, a marker by which we will remember you. The HBS Class of 2015 will forever be remembered as the class that survived the worst winter in Boston’s recorded history.

You need no reminder, I’m sure, of the 110 inches of snow that fell on our campus this winter, and the disruptions that followed. This February we cancelled three full days of classes—more than any other time, including the famous blizzard of 1978. So you should consider yourselves record-holders—and I sincerely hope it is a record that no future class comes close to equaling.

Now that the snow has finally melted and the sun has reappeared, we hope you graduate with memories that provide warmth and comfort in all seasons—from cold-calls you nailed, to cases you cracked, to FIELD experiences you enjoyed, to friends you laughed (or cried) with. Today, as you leave our campus, I would like to offer a last set of thoughts that I hope you will remember as well.

You’ve heard about the School’s “5i” priorities and know how attached I am to alliteration, so today I am going to talk with you about 3 Ps: Purpose, Perseverance, and Perspective.

As you begin the next stage in your professional careers, it’s useful to think about the role that Purpose has as you choose how to spend your working lives. Let me be clear: It’s possible to work and succeed in—and even enjoy—a job that gives you no deeper sense of meaning. But in my experience, it’s easier to sustain energy and enthusiasm in your work if you are animated by a deeper belief in the good you are doing, and by the knowledge that your work has a greater Purpose.

I learned this lesson as a young child in India, watching my father at his work. My father grew up in a village with no electricity. He had to read by candlelight—and with no fans or air conditioning, his home often reached temperatures of 110 degrees in the summer. As an adult, he ran a company that electrified India, and while he certainly took a keen interest in profits and losses and creating jobs, he was driven by the sense that his company was making his customers’ lives better. After all, he knew what it was like to live without electricity, and he knew how life-changing it was to be able to flick a switch to turn on a light or a fan.

As a teacher and now as dean of this institution, I too have been fortunate to find Purpose in my professional life. Our school’s mission is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, and that’s a Purpose I find deeply meaningful. I believe there’s a desperate need for good leadership in the world—that business can be a powerful force for good in society, and that force can be leveraged and magnified if organizations are led by well-trained and thoughtful leaders. Indeed, the Purpose of Harvard Business School is to prepare graduates like you for a life of leadership and impact.

So as you begin the next phase of your professional lives, I hope you keep in mind the role that Purpose can play in increasing the fulfillment you get from your careers and from your life.

The second P I ask you to reflect on today is Perseverance. This a virtue all of you have already shown in compiling the achievements necessary to gain admission to Harvard Business School, and in completing the studies that have brought you to this day and this ceremony.

But it can be especially important for people who’ve experienced nearly continuous success in life, as you have, to remember the importance of Perseverance, because success and progress will not always come easily—they often require long and patient work to overcome both legitimate hurdles and systemic injustices.

When I think about Perseverance, I recall the evening I spent at a student vigil last fall. It took place during the period of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of an African American teenager by a police officer. When I walked into Burden, I saw posters where students described painful stories of discrimination they had faced at various points in their lives. Three students spoke to the group and brought these vignettes to life. I found the experience deeply moving and I was struck by the courage and perseverance these students had shown in overcoming mind-numbing indignities—from having a gun pulled on them while waiting for their mother after school, to being viewed with constant suspicion and fear. In a year in which issues of race and oppression have continued to reappear, it’s an evening I recall frequently.

It is one thing to persevere in the face of a challenging test or professional obstacle. But there are even deeper, more profound societal forces that will require every ounce of your Perseverance to try to overcome.

It’s tempting to think of Harvard Business School as a place that creates pathways to privilege and prosperity, and to a certain extent that is true. Yet when I talk with even our most celebrated and successful alumni, I’m continually struck by how their paths were never a straight line to success. Many of them were fired, or launched a business that failed. Some of them faced discrimination. Most of them speak of the Perseverance that was required to overcome the challenges that came along the way.

It can be tempting to avoid Perseverance when you hit a road-block, to rationalize, to tell yourself you’re just going to find another way. But people who make a sharp turn whenever they face failure often spend their lives turning left and right, and risk never really reaching anywhere. So remember it’s important to keep in mind the virtue of Perseverance when confronting failure, challenge, or especially injustice, and to patiently and persistently move forward.

The third P I wanted to speak about today is Perspective. When I think of Perspective, I think back to an event that happened on our campus last month. Terry Virts, a graduate of the General Management Program in Executive Education, addressed one of our classes. He is probably the only speaker I’ve seen who, while answering a question, suddenly stopped, floated up into the air and did a somersault. Without skipping a beat, he told the class “zero gravity never gets old.” You see, he was speaking to us live from the International Space Station. Only at Harvard Business School can you have a class guest from outer space!

Commander Virts had interesting things to say about leadership and the future of space travel. But what stuck with me was one of his comments that dealt with Perspective. He described a nightly ritual where he unwinds by listening to music and looking out at the earth. The thunderstorms over central Africa, he noted, were often so bright that they lit up the Space Station modules. Yet what struck him was that other significant disturbances—political conflicts, famine, disease, and the like—weren’t at all discernible. Without visible national boundaries, everything and everyone appeared connected. It made him wonder why people had such a hard time coming to grips with their shared fate.

Today it’s become quite common to see photos of places from high above. We’ve all had the experience of using Google Earth to look at photos of our homes from a high altitude. But those photos of Earth that Terry saw from space helped him see humanity from an entirely new Perspective, and there’s an important lesson in that.

You always learn something by standing in another place and getting another view. This is true in life, but it’s especially important to keep in mind in the age of the selfie. I saw many of you taking selfies as you reached your seats this afternoon, and I hope you were able to capture some great memories. But even though I have no formal training in the arts, I am sure that the best photography happens at a distance longer than the length of your arm.

What’s true in photography is also true in life: Often the only way to get Perspective is to change locations and inhabit a new spot—a place from which you can see yourself and your actions, not as you wish to see yourself, but as others see you. Perspective sometimes also requires putting yourself in another person’s position, to see the world how they might, and to have the empathy that is so vital for productive relationships. While very few of us may be able to obtain a firsthand view of life on Earth from outer space, the point remains: It’s important to change your Perspective from time to time, especially when facing important decisions.

Oftentimes, as you witnessed in our case discussions or FIELD exercises, other people can help us gain Perspective. Very often it’s the people who’ve known us the longest and seen the arc of our lives who can be most helpful in this regard.

It’s important, therefore, to recognize the people who may be best equipped to help you gain Perspective on yourself and your life, now and in the years ahead. They are your parents, your siblings, your significant others, your family, your closest friends.

While I hope you will continue to look to this important group of people to help you gain Perspective, on a day like today, it’s equally important to offer them your thanks, for helping you to get here and to make it through the last two years.

As much as today is a celebration of you and what you’ve accomplished, none of it would be possible without the strong support you’ve received from others—the husbands, wives and partners; the parents, sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who’ve nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you.

So members of the Class of 2015, stand up and turn around to face your family and guests. Please join me in giving them a hand.

The faculty and I join your families in congratulating you on all you have accomplished during your time with us. We celebrate you, and we wish you good fortune as you begin your next adventures. We encourage you to continue to pursue work with a Purpose, to draw on Perseverance in the face of challenges, and to seek Perspective when making and reflecting on the decisions that lie ahead. Be assured that the faculty will be rooting for you to become leaders who will make a difference in the world and in the lives of all you touch. As you begin this exciting journey, I wish you Godspeed.