Utah’s colleges and universities will graduate approximately 41,000 Utahns this year. Adorned in their regalia, the graduates will walk the stage, collect their diplomas and listen to carefully crafted commencement speeches. Among the many words of wisdom shared, I hope human kindness will make a big showing.
Steve Jobs delivered a famous graduation speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement. The speech admonished graduates to do what they love and follow their heart. Jobs lived this advice and in the process revolutionized six industries — digital publishing, personal computing, music, animated movies, phones and tablet computing. His phenomenal talent has made all of our lives more convenient and enjoyable. And yet, I can still remember the pit in my stomach when I read Jobs’ authorized biography by Walter Isaacson. It documented that Jobs didn’t treat people very well. He was both amazing and unkind. He could have been amazing and kind.
Another tech giant, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and current owner of The Washington Post, delivered the 2010 Princeton commencement speech. In it he quotes his grandfather sharing sage advice about proper living. After a young Bezos had done something particularly clever, but not very nice, his grandfather pulled him aside and said, “One day you will understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” He went on to say that the ability to be clever is a gift, but kindness is a choice.
Clever is using your brains to solve a math problem or write a persuasive essay. Kindness is choosing to use these talents to help someone in need.
Clever is a quick wit. Kindness is the choice to use this brain capacity to open a door for someone, both literally and figuratively.
Clever can be coy. Kindness is always clear. When someone extends a hand or says a kind word, you know exactly how it feels.
During his public service, Gov. Mike Leavitt taught me a thing or two about kindness. A theme of his leadership was that ideas are important but people are equally important. He used to say, “It’s more important to be kind than right” and then would go about the process of governing by putting people first. Those who had the privilege of working for him know exactly what I mean.
In a speech last year to the YWCA of Utah, Anita Hill shared her riveting story. She described the loneliness she felt in 1991 after speaking truth to power. After her Senate testimony she returned to Oklahoma and was feeling the weight of the moment when she received a call from a colleague. He told her she needed to look in the campus newspaper. Anita rushed down the hallway to the newspaper rack, opened the paper and found a full-page ad taken out by 110 Utahns she had never met. The ad simply thanked her for her courage and reminded her that she had friends in Utah, a state she had never visited and had no semblance of connection. Anita explained that this simple act of kindness helped her realize she was not alone. The kindness of strangers had done its work.
George Bernhard Shaw writes in "Pygmalion" about the way we treat each other. He writes, “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any particular sort of manners, but having the same manners for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another."
Kindness is a choice. When combined with intelligence it can be a remarkable force for good. I encourage this year’s graduates to take all the knowledge you’ve gained and do extraordinary things in the world. Build companies, cure diseases and support civil society. And as you do so, make human kindness a centerpiece of your life. It’s another form of higher education the world really needs.
Natalie Gochnour is an Associate Dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and Chief Economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.