Bill and Melinda Gates jointly gave a commencement address at Stanford University earlier this month on June 15, 2014. The full transcript is here, but I wanted to highlight a few notable passages:
Melinda and I have described some devastating scenes. But we want to make the strongest case we can for the power of optimism. Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.
And that brings me to what I see as a paradox.
The world of science and technology is driving phenomenal innovations – and Stanford stands at the center of that, creating new companies, prize-winning professors, ingenious software, miracle drugs, and amazing graduates. We’re on the verge of mind-blowing breakthroughs in what human beings can do for each other. And people here are really excited about the future.
At the same time, if you ask people across the United States, “Is the future going to be better than the past?” most people will say: “No. My kids will be worse off than I am.” They think innovation won’t make the world better for them or for their children.
So who’s right?
The people who say innovation will create new possibilities and make the world better?
The people who see a trend toward inequality and a decline in opportunity and don’t think innovation will change that?
The pessimists are wrong in my view, but they’re not crazy. If technology is purely market-driven and we don’t focus innovation on the big inequities, then we could have amazing inventions that leave the world even more divided.
The key driver to make notable change is building empathy:
If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy. If empathy channeled our optimism, we would see the poverty and the disease and the poor schools, we would answer with our innovations, and we would surprise the pessimists.
The question is: how do we build and develop empathy in others?
I like how Melinda closes the address, saying that young graduates shouldn’t be in a rush to change the world:
You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now.
But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart.
When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it.
That is the moment when change is born.