Remarks from the Dean: Jonathan Levin

Read the dean’s remarks given to the Class of 2021 on June 7, 2021 by Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin.

Last week, I recorded a podcast with a GSB alumnus. He was curious about graduation. He asked: “What’s distinctive about the graduating class?” And, “do you have a theme for graduation?”

The first question was easy. You arrived at the GSB from more than 60 countries, investors, consultants, entrepreneurs, activists, Olympians, surprisingly good dancers, and formed a historically resilient class.

The second question made me think. I said, my theme is optimism.

Let me tell you a favorite story about optimism.

In 1914, the great polar explorer Ernest Shackleton set out to attempt the first crossing of Antarctica. As he and his crew neared land, his ship, Endurance, was crushed in the sea ice, stranding them for more than a year. Eventually, they managed to reach a remote island.

With no rescue coming, Shackleton then left his men behind, and with five companions, set out on the open sea in a 22-foot wooden lifeboat. They sailed 800 miles through some of the most treacherous ocean on the planet to South Georgia Island. They attached nails to their boots, and with a single fifty-foot rope and a makeshift ice axe, crossed the mountains to a whaling station. Everyone in Shackelton’s party was saved.

Later, a reporter asked Shackleton if he believed his men would survive. Shackleton said, of course he had: “The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeats. Optimism is true moral courage.”

I am sometimes accused, fairly, of being an optimist. But let me be clear about the meaning of the word — and how I think Shackleton was thinking about it.

Optimism does not mean having the naive sense that everything is fine, or will simply work out. Optimism comes from the Latin word “optimus” meaning “the best.” Optimism means continuing to believe that the best is possible, and striving for it.

To Shackleton, optimism was a form of courage — not being undone by negative outcomes, but believing that rescue was possible, and from that belief, drawing the strength to make it happen.

Fifteen months ago, this class was dealt a reverse, an apparent defeat. Okay, it wasn’t being stranded on the ice in Antarctica for an entire winter. Some of it involved too much Netflix and repeated orders from DoorDash. But it was a setback. And a setback of global proportions, with consequences for everyone on the planet.

Your reaction could have been disappointment, dismay, despair. And of course, there was some of that. Some of you suffered personal losses. All of you experienced a year you hadn’t planned for, or necessarily wanted. But in so many instances, this class responded with optimism.

You contributed to and helped create the experience of online learning. You planned and executed major events — and I only had to yell at you about some of them. You started organizations. You engaged with each other on a wide range of incredibly complicated topics, including racial equity and politics. You formed strong friendships.

We said many times this year that you don’t always get to choose your circumstances, but you do get to choose what to make of them. You chose to make the most of your GSB experience.

And now we’re here. The pandemic is ending (at least here). And there is every reason to be optimistic about your future. One paradox of the pandemic is that while it limited our lives, what was possible, it also created many opportunities.

You are graduating at a time of enormous change: an acceleration of digital technology, a rethinking of work, the opportunity to build and reshape organizations, a recognition that business can help solve the biggest challenges of our time. It is exactly a time when your Stanford education will be most valuable.

And, more than other classes, you’ve learned how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and to be adaptable and resilient, an incredible set of lessons for your career and life.

This brings me to my final point about optimism. One of the historical uses of the word was “the greater good.” As you leave the GSB, I want to ask: “How will you use what you’ve learned to contribute to the greater good?”

Truthfully, I ask this of every class. I tell them how much I expect of them, and how excited I am for the contribution they will make. This year, I say it with even more excitement and confidence, because of the ways your unique experience has prepared you to be leaders in the world.

Congratulations. I wish you all the best in your next voyage.