Read the keynote address given to the MSx Class of 2021 on December 10, 2021 by MSx Alum, Noosheen Hashemi
Thank you Dean Levin, faculty, family members and friends,
And hello MSx Class of 2021!!
It is a true honor to be celebrating this important milestone with each of you.
Today marks the end of your time as a GSB student and the beginning of your journey as a proud GSB Alum.
Not only will you feel deeply connected to this venerable, uniquely entrepreneurial and impact-focused institution for decades to come, but you will also cherish the enduring friendships that you have nurtured during your time here — I know these things to be true from personal experience.
While every class is special in its own way, this class experienced something truly extraordinary — a global pandemic that upended our world and shut down even places of worship which had remained open during two world wars.
Consequently, the fate of this class convening on this magical campus was up in the air for a long time. Eventually, four cohorts — rather than the usual three — were admitted and the year kicked into gear, first virtually and then in person – and here’s the kicker, with no MBAs to be seen! As members of this preeminent school of leadership, your class ideated, advocated and negotiated the amazing Super Summer – the most coveted MBA electives taught just for you! Demonstrating their characteristic generosity and care, the administration and faculty obliged and showed up during summer. After all, so much of leadership is about showing up.
You had eleven electives, Wow! When I was a student here, we only had two. However, I must say that those two proved life altering: In Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power and Politics, among many cognitions, I learned that whistleblowers, who risk everything to do the right thing, are often feared and not trusted.
Small Business with Jim Collins planted the seeds of entrepreneurship, warned of people who go back and forth too many times when negotiating a job offer, and gave us lasting concepts like Big Hairy Audacious Goals and Having the Right People in the Right Seats on the Bus.
You seem to have enjoyed classes like New Ventures, Touchy Feely, Strategic Communications, Paths to Power and Managing Growing Organizations with your beloved Dave Dodson! Moments of adversity present our greatest opportunities, and what may have started as a challenging year for the MSx Class of 2021, ended as one that was truly remarkable.
Now, on to the future.
This pandemic won’t be the last world-changing event that you will witness in your lifetime, in reality, it is only one of the first.
The rate of change is accelerating, but no longer in a singular direction.
Historically, we have experienced one major revolution at a time. Our species became anatomically modern about 300,000 years ago in East Africa.
Around 50 thousand years ago, we became behaviorally modern, gaining the ability for symbolic thought. Around 12 thousand years ago, we have evidence of early agriculture, and the first stationary settlements. Around five thousand years ago, writing.
A mere 250 years ago, the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism.
During the lifetimes of many present here today, in the mid 1990s, the information age.
More recently, the lives of almost everyone here have included the mass adoption of the internet and the mobile revolution. You don’t need to be a statistician to see a trend. As our collective knowledge and coordination capabilities have exponentially increased, the time between each revolution has exponentially decreased.
Today, the speed has become so rapid that we are in the midst of multiple revolutions concurrently, and they are not all pointing towards the same future. Furthermore, not only are these revolutions happening at the same time, they are also interacting with and altering each other, resulting in highly unpredictable outcomes.
You are all aware of big technological phenomena like the metaverse, genomics and gene editing, 3D and 4D printing and manufacturing, 5G, autonomous vehicles, natural language processing, voice interfaces and chatbots, cloud and edge computing, blockchains and NFTs, cobots and robotic process automation, which will affect every single industry.
What about smart devices? “Smart” used to just mean connected, but now it generally means powered by machine learning algorithms.
Smartphones use AI to improve the quality of our pictures. A smart car will use facial recognition to see if we’re paying attention to the road and alert us if we’re getting tired.
Soon, smart toilets will use computer vision to analyze our stool samples and inform us of gastrointestinal issues. With IoT, universities, hospitals and museums, whole cities in fact, can become intelligent, providing easy access, environmental comfort and security.
Remotely or autonomously piloted drones and unmanned aerial vehicles have changed the face of military operations. We will see them transform search and rescue missions, firefighting, law enforcement, and transportation. Drone taxis anyone?
On the life sciences side, mRNA technology, of COVID vaccine fame, can be deployed to address a range of infectious diseases and even cancer.
We have been wearing continuous heart rate monitors for a couple of decades now, but more and more, these smart watches are becoming health devices.
Healthy people are wearing continuous glucose monitors and not too long from now we’ll see continuous ketone and lactate monitors. I am personally counting down the years to continuous insulin and, the ultimate sensor, cortisol monitors. Cortisol informs of chronic stress which triggers immune and inflammatory responses increasing susceptibility to diseases like autoimmune, cardiometabolic and mental diseases, as well as cancer.
Multi-omics integration — where we combine wearables data with data from the exposome, epigenome, microbiome, metabolome, proteome, transcriptome, genome, screenome and other ‘omes — will deliver whole person, precision health, where, at scale, we can predict just about anything about a person’s health.
On the horizon, we are seeing nuclear fusion, which, if we can bring into reality, will provide inexpensive, unlimited zero-emissions electricity.
Cellular agriculture which produces animal products from cells rather than entire animals, can change the way we produce foods like fats and proteins.
Our increasing ability to understand materials and control matter on a tiny or nano scale is giving rise to exciting new materials and products, such as bendable displays; and inconceivably fast computers capable of solving seemingly intractable problems – will make our current state-of-the-art technology seem archaic. The combinations and permutations of these revolutions are endless, and their outcomes unprecedented and mostly unimaginable.
Underlying and overlying every single one of these revolutions is AI, itself the most transformative force of all. Machines will learn and act intelligently and remodel and reshape humans and our planet in unforeseen ways. But, is this all for the better? Well, has Facebook connected or divided us? Robots handling mundane tasks are good, how about robot police officers handling mobs? Brain Computer Interfaces can help disabled people move their prosthetics, but they could also help militaries take over the minds of human soldiers.
AI scientists believe that we’ll get to ASI, artificial super intelligence, where machines become self-aware and surpass the capacity of human intelligence and ability, by around 2050. Hopefully, as a civilization we take our time with AI and develop it responsibly and safely, increasing the chances of ending up with a friendly ASI that solves every problem on earth including poverty, climate and aging.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility though that governments, militaries and rogue actors rush towards AI in a way that leads to a not so friendly ASI, hastening the end of our species. If this sounds over the top, consider the fact that ASI can come about in ways that we can’t even imagine; our brains are not even capable of predicting the things that can happen.
What else is happening around 2050? Unless water use is drastically reduced, severe water shortages will grip the planet. The World Bank warns we might have more than 200 million climate refugees — just think about it, one million refugees destabilized Europe and split the UK. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources says that if current trends in overfishing, ocean warming and pollution continue, we’ll run out of seafood by 2050. Without a doubt, these trends and, importantly, the tech accelerated rich-poor gap, is likely to lead to massive social unrest.
So what will be the source of calm? The beacon of stability? The gospel truth? Who will light our path to peace and happiness? As the 13th century philosopher and poet, Rumi, said: “The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you already are.” I believe that you can find your essence if you look at the data from your own life, objectively.
This requires taking a meta look at yourself and zooming out of your job, your family, your network, your company, even your country. If you look for meaning in a specific destination — only if I had this title at that company, only if I started my own business, only if I bought that home or became a member of that club — you risk setting yourself up for failure. In a volatile world, those destinations may change overnight as many of them did with Covid, so defining your success too narrowly can lead to disillusionment. Instead of aiming for a destination, seek out a direction.
Let’s call that your North Star: the nexus of what you’re good at, what you love, and what the world needs. It will set you up for success and continuously provide meaning, no matter what turn the world takes.
The first thing to understand is what you are good at. Your innate power derives from your natural talents, proclivities and competencies, areas where you have force multipliers. If you spend a minute on something that takes others three, that is a superpower.
So how do we discover what we’re good at? Do we ask our partner, consult our performance reviews, survey our friends? Do we see what we’ve written on resumes, or backtrack from job descriptions we want to have?
Those can be valuable, but are often shaped by narratives and norms rather than the data and insights from our actual lived experiences. Rather than trying to catch our reflection in others’ mirrors, we can take the time to do the work, to reflect and introspect, find and look at the data.
We inherit powerful methods to get to the bottom of things from the principles of Need finding in Design Thinking. To get the right data in front of us, we need to ask the right questions. In this case, the devil is in the semantic details.
You don’t want to ask a rephrasing of the answer you are looking for, like “What am I good at?,” that would query your preconceived syntheses and notions that are likely riddled with bias towards your past decisions or future ambitions.
Instead, we want to query the raw experiences themselves and see where those take us. That way, we can cluster up from the data itself.
In this spirit, a question you could ask that would help you understand what you’re good at would be: When was a time that I experienced Flow?
By using the word when, we can recall specific instances, instead of pre-synthesized notions. And Flow, as you may recall, is getting so immersed and absorbed in doing something that you lose sense of time. It is the intersection of a task that has high difficulty, and one in which you have high competency. So looking for flow implicitly queries things you “are good at.”
The idea here is to see ourselves in all our dimensions.
As competencies are not topic-specific, even if they express themselves in a specific domain, the higher level skill is translatable.
Now that we have our question, we can ideate the answers. Post-it notes on a big blank wall is a good way to capture your answers. You want your responses to be movable so you can group them. Once you have your experiences laid out, say 50 to 100 of them, cluster them by activity-type to see the patterns. Once you have your clusters, you can meta-group these to see the highest level trends, or your “Flow Zones.” These are high level competencies that are domain agnostic, like analyzing, synthesizing, presenting and teaching.
This is the overall method for each question that creates your North Star, not only for finding what you are good at, but also what you love, and what the world needs. First you pose a question that queries raw experiences related to that larger question. Next you recall as many experiences as you can. Then you cluster and meta-cluster to find the patterns.
After finding what you’re good at, we layer on the topics that you love. When did it feel like play to do that thing that you’re good at, as opposed to it feeling like work? This clustering reveals the Passion Zones and you will arrive at what is actually you and not just the way you have been presenting yourself.
Often, we adopt the passions of our parents or those that our heroes believe to be worthy. We should acknowledge and honor their passions but following them is taking the path of least resistance. It’s easy to do what others want us to do because it makes money or it’s socially celebrated. But these external sources of passion erode our agency and make us susceptible to damage when big changes happen. We need to hunt down our own assumptions before a turbulent world does. Steve Jobs killed the enormously successful iPod to give life to the iPhone, management consultants and investors may have advised him otherwise.
So far, our quest for the North Star has been focused on US, what are WE good at and what do WE love. But, to truly find a direction in life that is nourishing to us, all the research shows it must also be nourishing to others. With that in mind, what does the world need from you? You can start to unpack this by asking, When is a time I’ve felt called to serve? Once again, practice your Design Thinking methods, flare out and focus in, generating as many instances as you can possibly think of, going back to your earliest memories as a child, then cluster, and meta-cluster to find your Purpose Zones.
Now you should have the meta-clusters for what you’re good at, what you love and what the world needs from you. Your North Star lives at the intersection of these three insights. Often, our job addresses only one, if we’re lucky, leaving us playing catch up on the other two in our free time, and for many of us, neglecting them altogether. By looking at our data and following where it points us, we can work in a way where every minute of work is nourishing us threefold, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
You may have noticed I didn’t mention material fulfillment. This is because, a) you know how to make money, that’s how you got to the top business school in the world, b) it’s overvalued and ubiquitously covered already and c) it does not guarantee peace of mind, joyful relationships or health. Indeed, it is often our hyperfocus on material accumulation that deteriorates those sacred and meaningful things. Remember this, every breakthrough in science comes with a breakthrough in models. You can’t make quantum computers or nanobots or nuclear fusion using models from a world that excludes those possibilities. To become a radically better leader — to guide your own life and positively influence the lives of others during these turbulent times — you need a new model. And we all know that a good model needs good data. The more objectively you collect data about your life, the better your model, and the greater leader you will become.
Our hyper-dynamic world needs sober, stable and energetic leaders. As MSx’ers, you have already taken the step to pivot and retool, now peel off the accumulated dead weight of destinations, narratives and norms – and find your North Star. I leave you with four parting thoughts, born of my own lifelong quest for meaning and impact
1. Learn Design Thinking
- Master it,
- Use in your work, home life, with friends, and in philanthropy.
2. Your biggest contribution to the world may be taking care of the people around you and specially your kids
- Raise your kids yourself, spend time with them, get to know them well, in this superficially connected world, deep connections are priceless ,
- Have empathy for your kids, the world we’re handing to them is stormy,
- Have high expectations of them but do so in the context of the world today, not the one that your parents lived in when they were raising you,
- And his advice applies to mentees as well.
3. Health is wealth
- Pursue your North Star,
- Survive the next pandemic, and
- Thrive in an explosive world.
Be as healthy and bio-resilient as you can possibly be.
This is a bit hypocritical because I struggle with it myself, yes, I am a work in progress.
As you know, the warranty runs out at around 40 years of age so take the time to establish a few baselines.
- Try a Neuropsychology test for cognitive function and finding your super powers, it’s not too late to discover how you learn and lean into those gifts and insights,
- Take a full body MRI which can be predictive and tilt the odds in your favor,
- Take your EEG, EKG, early detection blood and stool tests, and take them again every few years to see how you’re trending,
- Explore omics,
- Wear monitors and dial your lifestyle,
- Adopt healthy habits, food, and specifically fiber, are our biggest
4. Stay engaged with your class
- Make a point of visiting your classmates when you travel,
- Celebrate each other’s wins with kudos and shout-outs,
- Convene on quarterly zoom calls and organize reunions,
- Take advantage of Stanford’s abundant educational opportunities including D School, Institute of Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and the new School for Sustainability.
- And give to Stanford.
A lot of people gave a lot of themselves to make this experience possible for you. Be a good ancestor and leave good things behind for future generations.
Class of 2021: thank you
Thank you in advance for the solutions to the problems of people and planet that you will be introducing to our world. And for the novel blueprints of humble and human-centric leadership that you will no doubt design along the way. We will all be the beneficiaries of your collective contributions.
As your fellow Stanford alum, I’ll be cheering you on. You’ve already given me great hope for the future. Congratulations!