Commencement speeches are a beautiful source for wisdom, and I am sure many of you drew some insights and guidance from Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford or Steven Spielberg’s at Harvard or others that you might have watched.
Last Friday I experienced some very touching moments watching Angela Merkel speak at this year’s Harvard commencement ceremony. The German chancellor is not a very charismatic speaker, at times even dry, and yet her speech touched some deep longings and convictions and I salute her for her wisdom and courage.
She shares 6 main lessons and suggestions for the graduates:
- Change is possible and she tells her story as a scientist is the German Democratic Republic, the Eastern part of Germany which was rather a dictatorship than a democracy
- Tear down the walls of ignorance and she refers to both the physical walls and those in our minds
- Don’t forget that freedom can’t be taken for granted
- Act together and join forces in the interests of a multilateral global world with huge challenges to be addressed
- In relation to technology she asks us to reflect if we are doing things because they are right or because they are possible
- Surprise yourself for what is possible; note that openness comes with risk, as you step into the new you need to leave things behind without knowing exactly what will come
Many members in the audience seemed to relate Angela Merkel’s comments as criticism towards US president Trump. Of course, I ignore her intentions, but my sense was that this speech went well beyond Trump. It was an illustration of her world view, born in a dictatorship, facing the Berlin wall everyday, and living the freedom and benefits of a united Europe. While Europe is far from being perfect, its diversity, tolerance, collaboration are critical in the face of today’s challenges.
Chancellor Merkel is sharing simple truths and she does it in a calm yet firm way; no bells and whistles, just core beliefs and the founding principles of a better word.
At first I was puzzled that she spoke in German and that the translation doubled the duration of the speech. Then thinking about it, it feels like a smart move in celebration of diversity and identity.
Maybe the most powerful part of her speech is about walls.
- What are walls that you have allowed yourself to grow in your mind?
- What are physical walls that you are attached to?
- What would it take tearing these walls down?
- What are the risks? and the potential benefits?
- How can we help other people tear down the walls of ignorance?