The Best Advice From 2016 Commencement Speeches

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Graduation season is a wonderful time for celebration. Teachers applaud students, and parents praise their children. All eyes focus on the graduates, and rightfully so. After all, for many college graduates, commencement is well, just that: a beginning. And like most beginnings, graduation ceremonies are filled with a contagious optimism and energy.

I love graduations and am a commencement speech junkie. As a parent and educator, I am keenly interested in how best to advise young people. I also find the ceremonies inspiring, energizing, and renewing. So each spring I get my fix by reading or listening to dozens of commencement speeches.

We can all learn from the nuggets of wisdom shared during the proceedings. Here are five of the most valuable tidbits I’ve taken from some of the best addresses delivered to the class of 2016:

1. Get in the Way
Speaking at Washington University in St. Louis, legendary Georgia congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis urged seniors to be proactive—even if it means ruffling feathers. Noting inspiration from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Lewis said, “I got in the way…I got in trouble…Good trouble, necessary trouble.” This lesson is as important today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. As Lewis continued, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.” The advice Lewis offers is as valid for working professionals as it is for ambitious and idealistic graduates. Convention and inertia are often impediments to progress. Get in the way to force change. The world may be better off because of it.


“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.”


 

2. Cherish “Uh-Oh” Moments
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recounted to University of Rhode Island students an embarrassing story in which she choked during one of her first job interviews. These “‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments,” she said. “Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise.” The logic of learning from failure is not new, but Sotomayor’s reminder to embrace the “uh-oh” moments is refreshing in an era in which every corner of life has grown competitive and perfection is a ubiquitous expectation. When navigating the crosscurrents of global economic uncertainties, failure is almost certain at some point. Reframing setbacks as wisdom acquisition will empower and energize— precisely at the point when a boost is most needed.


Reframing setbacks as wisdom acquisition will empower and energize— precisely at the point when a boost is most needed.


 

3. Beware of Filters
Few have thought more about the dynamics of storytelling than Lin-Manuel Miranda. Addressing the graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, the creator of the smash-hit musical Hamilton reminded students of the high stakes of his craft. “Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative,” he said. Miranda went on: “This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.” The author’s guidance highlights the vital need to notice the filters embedded in virtually everything we do. Every narrative is incomplete, so be open to perspectives other than your own.


Every narrative is incomplete, so be open to perspectives other than your own.


4. Seize the Day 

In a moving reflection on loss and resilience, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandbergshared with UC Berkeley seniors the wisdom she had gained from losing her husband last year. Her advice built on insights from psychologist Martin Seligman’s research on how individuals successfully bounce back from tragedies. She noted the need to not blame ourselves or believe the sadness will last forever. Acknowledging the inherent impermanence of life, Sandberg urged students to treat each day as if they only had a few remaining. “Live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is,” she noted.  The speech reminded me of the hit country-western song by Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying,” which I have long felt carried a useful, powerful, and inspiring message.


Acknowledging the inherent impermanence of life, Sandberg urged students to treat each day as if they only had a few remaining.


 

5. Don’t Squander Ignorance
Complementing Sandberg’s message about finitude, venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s speech to the graduating class of Hamilton College focused on the boundless possibilities of the future. The PayPal co-founder urged his audience to embrace uncertainty. Thiel emphasized that not knowing what you can and can’t do is a valuable asset. As he put it: “At this moment in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos and fewer fears than you will ever in the future. So do not squander your ignorance. Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done—and what they never thought of doing.” The message reminds me of Ken Robinson’s much-watched TED Talk on the negative impact schools have on creativity. Approaching the future with unbiased eyes is great advice for navigating uncertainty in a complex world.


Approaching the future with unbiased eyes is great advice for navigating uncertainty in a complex world.


Lest we think these tidbits are only useful to this year's graduates, think again. We can all take these lessons to help us in our careers and our relationships. So as we celebrate the promising potential of the Class of 2016, let’s take a moment to celebrate our own possibilities as well.

Fear is Trumping Greed

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It may surprise you to learn that one of the world’s best indicators of overconfidence is the performance of a single stock: Sotheby’s.  As I’ve previously written, peaks in the auction house’s stock price have historically coincided with financial and economic exuberance. So what's it telling us today? Sotheby’s stock is currently down 48% from its December 2013 peak, even after rising from its February lows. Bottom line: the art markets are pointing to very muted confidence. Greed is no longer the flavor of the day.

But has greed given way to outright fear? It’s unclear, but in the battle between these two domineering emotions, fear is gaining ground. Take a look at gold. As an indicator, it’s flashing bright yellow. The precious metal recently had its best quarter in three decades, and since the start of the year, an index of 14 major gold mining stocks has doubled.  Just as a fall in Sotheby’s shares signals greed is receding, a spike in gold prices points to a rise in fear. As Warren Buffet put it, “What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow.”

The number of fearful investors is indeed growing. Hedge fund manager Paul Singer wrote in an April letter that the current gold price spike “could represent something closer to the beginning of such [an upward] move than to the end.” Another hedge fund manager, Stanley Druckenmiller, noted gold is his “largest currency allocation.” And George Soros recently bought 1.7% of the world’s biggest gold producer.  Singer, Druckenmiller, and Soros are among the world’s most successful investors; each has an enviable track record that has produced billions of dollars of gains for clients. And they’re worried.

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A primary concern is general economic uncertainty. Specifically, fear that central banks have exhausted their monetary tools has generated the current gold rush. As Bloomberg’s Liam Denning pointed out, gold spiked as expectations of a Fed rate hike collapsed—a sign of economic pessimism. Declining interest rate expectations also drove the dollar lower, making gold more expensive in dollar terms. Fear is clearly gaining ground on greed.

It’s not just the dollar that drives gold prices. Remember China’s devaluation of the yuan last August? Investors remain concerned that countries will devalue their currencies to boost their economic competitiveness. As Jim Rickards has argued, precariously low growth rates in major economies are driving currency wars. Gold is a safe haven, immune to the supply manipulations so common among fiat currencies. As a currency that can’t be printed, gold appeals to many as a hedge against debasement.

Investors are also nervous about financial conditions. Monetary policies encouraging low—even negative—interest rates have inflated asset prices and reduced expected future returns. On top of that, negative interest rates make sovereign bonds less attractive as a “stable, low-risk asset.” As Raoul Pal has pointed out, today’s market is behaving like it did in 2000—ominously, right before inflated stock prices collapsed. No wonder investors are fearful.


Gold is a safe haven, immune to the supply manipulations so common among fiat currencies. 


Financial and economic uncertainties are not the only fears festering in investor minds. Many are also worried about political risks. Venezuela is imploding. Brazilian political chaos is intensifying as the Olympics approaches. In Europe, fear of a Brexit looms large, and in the United States, election uncertainties are dominating the news. And as I wrote recently, Saudi Arabia is on the brink. Bottom line: the probability of really, really bad  outcomes for the world is increasing, providing strong support to fear. Greed is in retreat.

In a world of rising economic and political uncertainty in which investors are increasingly unsure of the future and what it holds, gold acts as a kind of “unsurance policy,” as Grant Williams called it.  And for those not actively managing portfolios, the price movement of the metal is still a useful gauge of global economic and political sentiment.

In a complex, chaotic world, considering disparate indicators—like gold, art markets, and skyscrapers—can help us prepare for risks and spot opportunities. Connecting seemingly irrelevant dots may help us understand where we stand on the greed-fear spectrum, and, more importantly, where we're headed. Indeed, considering a broad set of indicators is the surest way to secure “unsurance” against radical uncertainty.

Weathering Global Chaos

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wildfire rages, displacing tens of thousands. Droughts ravage crops, leaving tens of millions hungry. An African nation sells off some of its famous wildlife. Bleaching maims stretches of the Great Barrier Reef. What the heck is going on? El Niño.

Extraordinarily dry conditions fueled the wildfire that recently tore through the western Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray. Residents evacuated as flames halted the production of 1 million barrels of oil per day and destroyed 10% of the city. The blaze burned through an area of 1,610 square kilometers, roughly the size of London or Houston. Officials expect the fire could be the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, with a bigger relative financial impact on the country than Hurricane Katrina had on the US.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Vietnam is suffering from its worst drought in almost a century. Bad weather has claimed a quarter-million acres of coffee, reducing this year’s production by an estimated 30%. The price of robusta coffee beans—of which Vietnam is the world’s biggest producer—has increased 17% since February. Coffee growers are facing similar problems from Indonesia to Brazil. The sleep-deprived should take notice: morning caffeine hits may soon jolt your wallet.

And in Africa, droughts are exacerbating food insecurity for millions. In Zimbabwe, for example, the bad weather has forced millions of people to seek food aid and even prompted the government to sell off wildlife in a quest to raise funds and safeguard the animals. In the worst-hit country, Ethiopia, more than 10 million people have faced food shortages—many of them children.

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The link between the Vietnamese drought, the Canadian wildfire, and African hunger is El Niño, a condition in which parts of the Pacific Ocean’s surface warm. The climate pattern has global reach and affects everything from commodity prices to tourism. Scientists have said the current El Niño, which began in 2015, is one of the worst on record. According to the United Nations, it is responsible for extending food insecurity to 60 million people across the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Eight countries—including Guatemala, Honduras, and Zimbabwe—have declared states of emergency.

In addition to food shortfalls, El Niño is causing ecological damage that threatens to hurt tourism. For example, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has recently suffered bleaching—likely due to El Niño—that may kill off significant stretches of coral. Losing the attraction would be a huge economic blow. According to CNN, the natural wonder brings in $3.9 billion per year in tourist spending and employs 70,000 residents.

Similarly, the Pacific island nation of Palau is feeling El Niño’s wrath. Jellyfish Lake, where tourists once swam with millions of non-stinging jellyfish, is experiencing the mass death of the ecosystem’s primary resident. By some estimates, the jellyfish population has plunged from 8 million to 300,000. Tourism is the largest part of Palau’s economy, but with little left to see, groups are cancelling tours, and scientists blame El Niño.

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El Niño likely isn’t the only culprit in these events. Scientists believe that climate change could also be playing a role. For one, some studies suggest that global warming might increase the strength of El Niño itself. And on top of that, climate change may exacerbate its effects.

Scientists expect El Niño to die out over the next few months, but it will have lasting consequences in the form of higher commodity prices. Some believe rice prices could double. Corn futures are up 9% and soybean futures 13% in the past month. Overall, food prices have ticked up three months in a row after years of declines, and hedge funds are betting on further increases.

In addition to their obvious human costs, food shortages have important geopolitical consequences. Specifically, rising food prices generate social unrest. The Arab Spring, for example, erupted as food prices spiked.  In Syria, a historic drought created food shortages and drove populations from their homes, generating political unrest that ultimately led to a civil war, providing fertile ground for the rise of ISIS.


Rising food prices generate social unrest.


Fortunately, food prices are not at a level researchers claim make unrest more likely. But forecasters think there is a 50% chance that La Niña—El Niño’s “cooler” sister—could emerge later this year. According to the Wall Street Journal, the last time El Niño switched to La Niña, in 2010, “wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade rallied around 21% and soybeans rose around 39%, while the benchmark sugar contract traded in New York surged 67%.”

El Niño is an important reminder that seemingly disparate headlines—from the Canadian wildfire to coffee shortfalls—can be linked in surprising ways. Keeping our eyes peeled for such connections is crucial for navigating uncertainty in a complex world. In this case, watching weather might just prepare us for the next storm of revolutions.

Vikram Discusses the China Bubble and More on Real Vision TV

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Vikram sat down with Real Vision TV to discuss global economics, geopolitics, and higher education.

Brazil: Opportunity in Crisis

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Brazil is suffering from a toxic cocktail of economic, political, and public health crises. Once hailed as a beacon of emerging market growth, the country now wallows in pessimism.

Brazil’s growth rate fell from 7.5 percent in 2010 to -3.8 percent in 2015; a worsecontraction is expected this year. Inflation is at a 12 year high, unemployment is approaching 10%, and the country’s currency fell by a third in 2015. A bloated public sector, large entitlements, and over-regulation continue to hamper the economy. Leaders have failed to implement meaningful reforms amidst these headwinds, instead opting for populist policies.  And commodity prices, which once supported the resource-rich economy, have been clobbered by the bursting of China’s credit-fueled investment bubble.

Meanwhile, a political crisis has rocked the country. The lower house of Brazil’s National Congress recently voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. She has been accused, as noted in the New York Times, of employing "budgetary ticks to conceal a looming deficit." Investigators claim she borrowed billions from state-owned banks during the 2014 elections to fund popularity-enhancing social programs.

The president’s defenders have asked whether her actions are actually impeachment-worthy, with several supporters calling recent events an attempted coupOthers suggest the proceedings are more of a cover-up than a coup, noting political theatrics are distracting popular attention from lingering investigationsof prominent business and political leaders. Tensions are running high as former allies and supporters have taken to the streets.

As if political and economic chaos was not enough, Brazil was also struck by a Zika virus epidemic last year that continues to affect the population. Given the link between the virus and brain development disorders in fetuses, the public health community is rightfully alarmed. The number of likely cases in Brazil is approaching 100,000, with more than a third coming from the southeast, which contains Rio de Janeiro.

Rio is also hosting the Olympics this summer, and the public health community has been warning pregnant women not to travel to the country. Further, recent evidence suggests Zika can also be sexually transmitted, meaning future fathers may also stay away.

The impact of the epidemic on attendance at the games is still unclear. Ticket sales have been slower than expected, but officials are optimistic they will pick up. Meanwhile, a range of other operational challenges seem likely to hamper the games, including construction delays on a key subway line linking stadiums to the rest of Rio.

Despite the political, economic, and public health crises hanging over the country, there are still reasons for cautious long-term optimism.

As the eighth-largest economy in the world, Brazil remains a huge market that global corporations want to access. The IMF recently pointed out that foreign direct investment in the country has grown despite the widespread economic and political challenges. Moreover, with inflation expectations and labor costs starting to fall, there are preliminary signs that the economy may be bottoming out. And the weak Brazilian real should help exporters.


There are still reasons for cautious long-term optimism.


Further, while it’s too early to tell, there’s the possibility of another commodity boom around the corner. Under its One Belt, One Road initiative, China has already announced a massive program to rebuild the Silk Road. The construction of railroads, ports, power plants, and other infrastructure across Eurasia will drive demand for commodities like iron ore that helped Brazil to boom in recent years.

As the global middle class balloons in the coming years, demand for food will skyrocket, and Brazil is well positioned to benefit enormously from this trend. Why’s that? Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse. Despite the recession, the country’s agricultural sector grew last year, and the government expects record or near-record crops of soybeans, corn, coffee, and sugar this year. Record beef, chicken, and pork exports are also highly likely.   As noted by the Wall Street Journal, soy was Brazil’s most valuable export last year, exceeding iron ore, the previous title-holder. The country supplies half of the world’s sugar exports and 40% of arabica coffee exports.

The risk of another commodity boom is that it provides Brazilian leaders wiggle room to postpone or permanently shelve much-needed reforms. The World Bank’s “Doing Business” report lists Brazil at number 116 of 189. Regulations can and should be streamlined to make the country more business-friendly. According to the rankings, it’s currently easier to do business in Ghana, Swaziland, Uzbekistan, or Mongolia. The 2016 Index of Economic Freedom lists Brazil as “mostly unfree” at a rank of 122 out of 178 countries.

While these comparative metrics may depress Brazil bulls, they also highlight a huge opportunity. Specifically, leaders should strengthen the rule of law and support market-oriented reforms. The state’s involvement in industries ranging from oil and gas to electricity remains high and should be lowered.


Leaders should strengthen the rule of law and support market-oriented reforms.


Brazilian leaders and citizens should recall the wisdom of Winston Churchill who said “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

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