Commencement 2020 Address

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As prepared by Dean Nitin Nohria, May 28, 2020

Class of 2020, friends and family, and members of the Harvard Business School community: In the nearly 400-year history of Harvard, this is our first virtual commencement. Let’s pray it will also be our last.

This is also the tenth and last time I will have the honor of speaking to a graduating class as Dean of this School as I plan to step down at the end of this year.

This is certainly not how any of us had hoped to celebrate this occasion. But let’s set aside any disappointments we might be experiencing. Let’s focus instead on one of the positive emotions I hope we are all also feeling.

Connect with some of the gratitude you feel today and center your mind and heart on it.

When my daughters, who are now in their 20s, were children, I used to ask them each night at bedtime to recount at least three things for which they were grateful that day. I enjoyed this exercise so much that, even though they have outgrown this ritual, I still practice it daily.

Social scientists have found that regularly expressing gratitude can markedly increase one’s happiness, peace of mind, quality of relationships, and life satisfaction. So, consider adding this simple ritual to your day. It may bring you as many benefits as other life-enhancing habits like regular meditation or exercise.

To get you started, let us engage in this exercise now, and count the things for which we can all be grateful.

Let’s be grateful that we are alive! People who are young tend to take this for granted, but amid the horrific losses so many families are experiencing right now, let's remember that life itself is a blessing.

Let’s be grateful that, despite the most unexpected interruption, we did finish the year. You have earned your diploma. From now on, you will forever be graduates of Harvard Business School. During your time at the School, you read and dissected nearly 500 case studies; you survived cold calls (including on Zoom); you completed papers and exams—and you also succeeded in the teamwork required by FIELD and other courses. You have indeed mastered the art and science of business administration and prepared yourself for leadership.

Let’s be grateful for the friendships and sense of partnership that have characterized this class since it first arrived. Relationships drive happiness in life far more than the achievements we put on our resumes. I hope the relationships you’ve cultivated—with each other and with the School—will continue to nurture you, and that you will continue to nurture them.

Beyond these shared experiences, I am sure each of you also has a list of personal experiences at the School for which you are especially grateful. Take a moment today to share them with your loved ones. Better yet, reach out to someone you feel grateful to and let them know. Trust me; it will be more meaningful to you and to them than you might imagine.

As this is my last commencement, I hope you don't mind if I share some of the things I feel especially grateful for.

I have always seen my life as a series of happy accidents—an improbable journey that brought an engineering student who grew up in India, and who had never traveled abroad (or seen snow), to study and eventually teach leadership.

I am that small technical school down the river called MIT for giving me the only scholarship I received, which enabled me to start my journey in this country and get an excellent education.

I am grateful…for the chance Harvard Business School took (on a graduate of that other school down the river), and for changing the arc of my life—giving me more opportunities than I could have ever imagined, including becoming dean.

I am grateful…for the opportunity to live the American Dream at a time when others are finding it so much more elusive.

I am grateful…for all the people who have supported me during my journey—my parents, my family and friends, my teachers, and my mentors (some of whom are taking advantage of this virtual event to join in). I love you all.

I’m grateful...that I had the sixth sense to single-mindedly pursue my wife Monica from the first day I met her. She has been my most steadfast supporter since.

I am grateful...for my daughters Reva and Ambika, who bring me immense pride and joy.

Most of all, I will be forever be grateful to the faculty, staff, alumni, and students who work each day to fulfill the mission of Harvard Business School. Working with all of you has been a truly extraordinary privilege—one that I will cherish all my life.

Before becoming Dean, I spent my career studying leaders and thinking about the qualities that allow them to excel. Occasionally, one finds leaders who experienced an extended period of deep sadness and depression—Lincoln and Churchill are examples of that. But what even they share with most other great leaders is a spirit of pragmatic optimism. Optimism doesn’t mean that leaders look for every silver lining. But they do tend to limit the time they spend feeling sadness or self-pity. Instead, they attack problems with the confidence that things will break their way.

I hope the two years you have spent at Harvard Business School have imbued you with this sensibility.

Indeed, as I count my reasons for gratitude, I am grateful to you, the Class of 2020. There are more than 900 of you who are about to take on new leadership roles and attack big problems at a time when society desperately needs leaders.

Seventy-three years ago, at Harvard’s Commencement ceremony, General George Marshall announced a plan to rebuild the European economy after the devastation wrought by World War II—what became known as the Marshall Plan.

Today we face a global economy that has to be rebuilt, companies that need to be restarted, revitalized, and restructured, supply chains that need to be redesigned, and markets that need to be reinvented. We need something that is equivalent to a new Marshall Plan. The world is counting on people like you to do this vital work.

This work will take imagination and innovation. As much change as I have had the good fortune to witness this last decade at HBS and in the world beyond, the next decade will require us to be yet more creative, more resourceful, more resilient, more adaptive. We will need to come up with ideas that will save our planet, create more opportunities for those who see none, foster unity instead of discord, rebuild society’s trust in capitalism, and increase prosperity and the quality of life for people all across the world.

The generation that met the challenge of World War II and the Marshall Plan came to be known as the Greatest Generation. You, the Class of 2020, are as prepared as anyone to meet the challenges the world is facing now. Go get it done and become our next greatest generation!

There is a story I have told many times during my time as Dean. It is a story about my father who has been an inspiration for me in so many ways. He was born in India in the 1930s. He grew up in a village without electricity, in a region where summer temperatures often reached 110 degrees. He learned to read by candlelight, yet somehow found a way to get a college education and even study and work abroad. He went on to become the chief executive of a company that worked on electrifying India—bringing fans, air conditioning, electric lights, and other modern conveniences to villages just like the one he grew up in. That gave him great meaning from his work, as did the fact that his work created jobs for thousands of people. Growing up and watching him lead his company, I became convinced that when good executives run good businesses, there is no greater force for societal good.

As you move toward leadership roles, be grateful that you were drawn to business as your calling. There are few better ways to do well and do good. I urge each of you to do what you can to lead in ways that not only advance your own aspirations, but always make a positive contribution to society.

And I hope that each evening, no matter how dire the circumstances you faced during your workday, you take an intentional moment and reflect upon what you can be grateful for that day.

Before we say goodbye, I’d like to give you a chance to express some gratitude directly.

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, sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who’ve nurtured you, encouraged you, and believed in you.

Graduates of the Class of 2020, please take this moment to reach out to your family and friends—whether it is a hug, or an elbow touch, a virtual kiss, or a text message. If they are sitting with you now, 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 will be rooting for you to become leaders who will make a difference in the world.