Matt Goldman, '83, M.B.A. '84
Recipient, honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree
Thank you, President Angel, for those lovely, lovely remarks and thank you to the entire Clark community for having me here and for your warm welcome. As a Clark graduate, I am truly awed and humbled and moved to speak with you on this most special occasion.
David Angel in the world of presidents of universities is a rock star!
Thirty-one years ago exactly, I sat in these chairs, and Isaac Asimov, a Boston University professor and one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, gave the Clark commencement speech at our graduation. And he was incredible! He spoke of science and technology, of technology that would either lead to human extinction or human utopia. He was inspiring and thought provoking. He basically predicted smart phones and electric cars and when they were going to happen. And I was shaking with excitement during and after his speech. Now I want to manage your expectations. My talk today is not going to be anywhere near as good as Asimov's. I mean, the guy was brilliant, wrote over 500 books and 90,000 letters (who writes 90,000 letters?!); I don't stand a chance to match up to Isaac Asimov. I'm sorry!
However, 36 years ago today, I sat in similar chairs at my high school graduation in New York City and our commencement speaker was to be Livingston Taylor, singer/songwriter and younger brother to the more famous James Taylor, who wrote "Fire and Rain," "You've Got a Friend." Well, James Taylor's younger brother Livingston was a No-Show at my graduation. So while I have no misconceptions about not meeting the Isaac Asimov commencement speech standard, I am certainly hoping to top Livingston Taylor, the No-Show.
Also, for full disclosure, you are not my only commencement speech. Last year at about this time, I gave the first ever commencement speech at Blue School, an elementary school I co-founded. The first 5th grade graduates got the best I had to give. I just hope I don't start crying uncontrollably here, too. It was not a pretty sight.
In addition to co-founding Blue School nine years ago, I also co-founded a theatrical experience called Blue Man Group. Some of you may have heard of us, but for those who haven't, we are three bald and blue characters with no ears, who don't speak, and take a romp through the pop cultural landscape in the hopes of having us look at ourselves and others through fresh eyes: cultural anthropologists, if you will. We use humor and music as the two truly international languages. Next week, Blue Man Group will celebrate its 28th-year anniversary.
And for most of my time at Blue Man and Blue School, I have gone by one simple motto:
"I would rather regret the things that I have done than the things that I haven't done."
I had no idea who this quote was attributed to until just last week, while putting together this talk. It is either coincidental or ironic that it was Lucille Ball, a ground breaking performer/comedian and the first woman to run a major TV studio, which is particularly significant to me, because I have long considered myself a human being trapped in a male's body.
I want to say that I believe that my Clark experience has been vital and crucial to putting me on my life path. I feel that all of us here are incredibly lucky to have had this Clark experience and to be part of this extraordinary community. So I asked myself: What can I offer you from my experiences that would be useful to you? And who are you other than Clarkies as you go out into the world? Well, you are also actually the cohort of people known as Gen Zers, according to Alexandra Levit:
- As Gen Zers, you tend to be independent, and eager to be cut loose.
- You don't wait for your parents to teach you things or tell you how to make decisions.
- You are already out in the world—curious, driven, and participating in the real world even before you finish college.
- You have been schooled in emotional intelligence and you enjoy social connection.
- Thanks to social media, you are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world, which makes you well prepared for a global world.
Wow, if Clark hasn't been the perfect environment to foster Gen Zers, I don't know what is!
Well, one of the questions I get asked most often is, "When you started Blue Man, did you ever expect to have shows all over the world?" Let me tell you, if the first time you got bald and blue, if you look into the mirror and say to yourself, "I am going to make a living at this," they would probably throw you in a padded room. I mean seriously! AND, if the first time you got bald and blue you said, "I am going to make a living at this AND Blue Man Group is going to:
- Play for 24 years in NYC and 60,000 shows on five continents and New Jersey
- Collaborate with artists like Moby, Dave Matthews, the Kodo Drummers
- Perform in Lincoln Center AND Football Stadiums
If the first time you get bald and blue, you think to yourself I will:
- Be nominated for a Grammy award and perform at the Grammys on the same bill with Madonna, U2, Eminem and Elton John
- If you'd thought you would be bald and blue in the nation's capitol, lobbying senators and congressmen to put music and arts funding back in public schools
- If you thought this is how I would meet my wife and life partner and we would start an elementary and middle school together
- And I would sit on a panel discussing creativity in education with 2 Nobel laureates, a British knight, and the Dalai Lama himself, AND be giving the Clark commencement speech…
- If you had said all that the first time you got bald and blue…then they would have put you in a padded room and thrown away the key.
But that is what happened. There is a direct line from Clark to that.
That's what happened, even when lots of people, smart people, good-willed people, loved ones, said, "It's crazy, it's not reasonable, it's weird, people won't get it, it's too smart, it's too childish, it's too strange, not enough humor, too much humor, too long, too short…" You get the picture.
My favorite one of all is, "Oh, come on, be reasonable." Well, I don't want to be reasonable! In fact, I recommend being really unreasonable.
You see, we didn't set out to do all those things the first time we got bald and blue. We actually had one thing in mind: we wanted to lead creative lives. We couldn't paint, couldn't draw, couldn't sculpt, weren't good enough musicians to play in the Philharmonic. By most definitions, we were NOT artists, perhaps not even creative.
There was also a complete vacuum of an accessible art or music scene in NYC in the late 80s. It was all about trickle down economics and the commodification of art. We wanted to start Blue Man as a response to the culture around us.
So how did all this happen? How did this happen to a person with no acting experience, marginal musical talent, no dreams or aspirations of being a performer or being in the entertainment business? A below average student and an undiagnosed dyslexic? We figured out a very handy and effective trick: MAKE STUFF UP!
Now, I'm not suggesting these next ideas are the things YOU should make up, but I do believe that you have to be able to "think it to make it happen." I am also suggesting that there can be incredible power in making stuff up and one needs to use courageous, bold and innovative thinking to fulfill one's dreams. Here are a few examples of what worked for me:
I felt like a very ordinary person, with ordinary skills and ordinary talents, an ordinary 20-something Clark graduate, yet I wanted to jump-start a movement in creativity. But how could an ordinary person dare to have such lofty goals, let alone make them happen? So I made this little thing up: "Ordinary people collaborating to achieve extraordinary results." Not bad, right? I'm an ordinary person, I can work with you, you might be feeling ordinary, but together we can collaborate to achieve extraordinary results. BAM! Problem solved. Let's start a movement! And you know what's crazy? We would make stuff like this up and it resonated for people! And what's even crazier is that it really works!
I'll give you another example of making stuff up: Musical instruments. Violins? I can't play them, no frets. Guitars? I can't play them, too many strings. Now, if you invent your own musical instruments, and there are just three of you that play them, then you are automatically one of the three best musicians in the world…at that instrument! So we invented our own instruments out of PVC pipes (I played the bass notes, cause they're the easiest).
And we made up our own tricks, because one of the attributes of the Blue Man is to be a trickster, which to us means knowing the rules and knowing when to break the rules. This is where we believe true innovation comes from.
And then we learned one of the most valuable tricks of all; create a mission statement and values.
I also decided to create a personal mission statement to clearly outline what I was passionate about and give my life purpose, which is: Make Ideas Happen.
But then the next trick I needed to learn was…how? How does one make ideas happen? Well, I was inspired by an exciting, simple thought from Brancusi, the artist who created my favorite sculpture "Bird in Space." Brancusi said: "Being creative is not being hit by a lightening bolt from God. It's having clear intent and passion." Wow. Direct, powerful, doable: clear intent and passion! I also knew that for me, nothing came without hard work and perseverance. So, I put it all together to get "ordinary people collaborating to make extraordinary ideas happen through clear intent, passion and hard work." Bam! Better than Livingston Taylor, the No-Show? Don't answer! Don't answer!
In the case of Blue Man, our very first mission statement was:
- Inspire creativity in ourselves and our audiences
- Do a little bit of social good
- And have a good time doing it
Our values revolve around community, compassion, empathy, integrity, collaboration and Joseph Campbell's concept to "Follow your bliss."
Then we realized: Wow, these are not just "tricks." These are really powerful life tools! We were building something bigger than any one of us, something that could have real impact. And then a decade and a half later, when we started having kids, we asked: Are the very attributes that made Blue Man Group so embraced, replicable? Can creativity be developed in children? Can innovation, collaboration, self and social intelligence be cultivated in childhood and throughout one's life?
And not only that, don't these attributes matter in the work place and live along side academic achievement? Well the answer for us was a resounding YES!
The great news emerging from the neuroscience world was that creativity, innovation, collaboration, and self and social intelligence can be developed in the right environment. So we decided to start a school with a focus on these things and we wanted to expand on exactly what is being measured. Because we believe kids and adults should not be defined solely by their grades and test scores. Personally, what I want for my children and myself is to maximize life satisfaction and the quality and quantity of personal output. Test scores do not equate to life satisfaction and happiness. I have a hunch, if I asked any of the parents here what you want for your children, it would be that they are happy and satisfied in life. So at Blue School we decided to up the ante.
Blue School's vision is to cultivate these young learners to use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world. Because we know the world is neither harmonious nor sustainable right now, and we either have this amount of time or this amount of time to change course. So the way we felt we could make the biggest impact the fastest was to re-imagine education for a changing world and to amplify this approach to educating children. An approach that addresses the whole child, balances creative thinking, academic mastery and self and social intelligence, and where risk-taking is encouraged and failures are celebrated.
The profound importance of taking risks and the concept of failure was captured so beautifully by Frank Bruni in a recent New York Times article:
I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn't failed so intensely before. There's a beauty to failure because it allows you to find the strength within.
People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates. For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they had not expected to play, in a theater they had not envisioned. Life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from those setbacks. And there is no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.
I believe that we have a collective imperative to take risks in an effort to leave the world a better place. I invite you to consider, no matter what you spend your time doing, give it all you've got, successes and failures, and that we all contribute to leaving the world a better place.
No one person can do this alone. We need to collaborate. I'm not suggesting we all work toward the same goal, in the same way to make the world better off. I'm suggesting that whatever you decide to make your personal mission and life path, and regardless of different points of view, we can effort ourselves to integrate all of our experiences. I'm referring to a definition of integration by my friend and Blue School advisor Dr. Dan Siegel, who defines integration as embracing differences and promoting linkages. Heavy, heavy.
Let me share a story that changed everything for me, about how different people process and integrate experiences. Two families with very similar socio-economic backgrounds, living in two nearly identical homes on top of the same mountain in southern California. A giant rainstorm came and both houses were completely destroyed in a mudslide. The first man is interviewed on local TV and cries, "This is terrible, a disaster. We've lost everything." The second man comes on TV and says calmly: "We feel so lucky. No one was hurt, we can dig out the photos and, anyway, we always wanted to add a third bedroom."
Same exact circumstances, two completely different perspectives. The question for me has always been, are those reactions hardwired or can we choose how we see the world, how we think about it, how we integrate our experiences. Again, the good news from neuroscience is that the vast majority of us do have the ability to choose.
All this translates to: I believe you can be enormously successful while leaving the world a better place. Virtually any industry, any field, any pursuit can be an exciting, world-improving area. The point is, anything and everything we do to make the world better, big or small, will make a difference. And it really comes down to what we make up, how we choose to integrate reality, and how we define success.
At the time, I can't say that I chose Clark because of its great mission and values. And while its history was interesting, that wasn't the big factor for me either. I chose Clark because of the "vibe." The feel of the people, their warmth. They were nice without being obsequious. A kind of natural cool.
For me, choosing Clark was what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a Blink Response, a gut feeling, pre-intellectual, pre-emotional, immediate and unequivocal.
However, in retrospect, I am absolutely sure it was the Clark mission and values that resonated for me so clearly back then and guided me on such a fulfilling journey going forward.
We need to ask ourselves: who are we as the Clark Community? What do we stand for? I know from speaking with graduates, faculty, and from my own experience, the collective thinking is that the Clark community has a deep sense of responsibility to make the world a better place. We are fiercely independent thinkers. Let's face it, Clarkies are just plain fierce! We are eager to challenge convention, because only when we challenge convention can we make meaningful change happen. We value compassion, empathy and collaboration. We have been taught that we can make our world and career consistent with our own personal values and that we don't have to trade off being incredibly successful with leaving the planet a better place.
But really, at the end of the day, you'll need to answer who are you and what do you stand for? What choices will you make and how do you interpret the world? What is your own personal mission statement and what do you value?
I'm going to make something up here and now. I'm going to suggest: Let's be unreasonable together. What if all of us integrate all that we've learned and experienced at Clark, embark on our individual journeys and just decide that no matter what, we are going to leave this planet just a little better off than when we arrived? Why don't we take a big risk and make up here and now that we are going to aim, through hard work, clear intent and passion to maximize our life satisfaction, and the by-product will be that the world is a better place.
And through the richness and diversity of all your own individual missions and individual values, we will create meaningful and dramatic change will occur on this planet. And why don't we just make up that, in 30 years, articles will be written and documentaries will be made, about this little University in central Massachusetts producing an incredibly disproportionate number of graduates that profoundly changed the world for the better, transforming Isaac Asimov's human utopian science fiction into reality. And what if we just decide that we're going to have a whole lot of fun doing all of this. I truly believe that you have to think it to make it happen, and that if we all decide it, it will happen.
To finish, I just want to leave you with my favorite quote by George Bernard Shaw that has been a driving force on my journey:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
Congratulations, Clark graduates 2015.