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Dr. Andrew Read gives Graduate School Commencement Speech

Posted: May 8, 2017

Andrew F. Read, Ph.D., Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology and Eberly Professor of Biotechnology, was the keynote speaker for this year's Graduate School commencement ceremony held on May 7, 2017.

Dr. Read addressed a class of 2,000 graduate students and their families. Watch his engaging speech and find the full transcript below.

Keynote Speech Video

Dr. Read's speech begins at 34 minutes 21 seconds.

Transcript

Thank you President Barron for your introduction. Congratulations to the graduating graduates for your achievements. Now you are really stepping out on life’s journey.  

I on the other hand realized rather suddenly that I am no longer setting out. In the last few months, I learned that my eldest son is about to start his retirement savings, that I have arthritis, that I am about to become a grandpa and worst, that largely on the basis of my age, the university considers me qualified to give this commencement speech.  

Which brings me to my first point: Life flies by. You’ve heard that before, and you don’t understand or believe it. But your parents and grandparents do and the people on this podium do.  You go from Young Turk to Old Turkey in the flash of an eye. Get on with it folks: you haven’t much time left. 

So how can you make the most of it? Well, do the obvious stuff said on these occasions: follow your passions, take risks, hang out with people who are better than you. And that’s all good advice. But today, I want to share with you what John Maynard Smith told me when I asked him how I should make the most of my life. 

Almost none of you will have heard of John Maynard Smith. But he was one of the towering figures of 20th Century biology. If there were Nobel Prizes in Biology, he would have won one. I wanted to be like him when I grew up, so when I was a young PhD student, I asked him what his secret was. After some thought, he said: Andrew, it is a great thing to be ignorant and lazy. 

What?? I thought. It’s a great thing to be ignorant and lazy? You’ve got to be kidding! Maynard Smith himself was far from lazy and ignorant, and everywhere I looked, all I could see were people far smarter than me working their butts off. But now, 30-some years later, Maynard Smith’s advice still sticks with me and so I am going to offer it to you now: Be ignorant and lazy. But you have to do it right. The trick is to focus on good ignorant and good lazy. 

Bad ignorance is willful stupidity, willful indifference to facts, and hatred of contrary opinions and difficult ideas. In my experience, that sort of ignorance leads to a rather shallow existence and can do great harm. DO NOT GO THERE.

Good ignorance is mindful ignorance. It is when you try to recognize what you do not know or what does not make sense and you engage in that. It is what makes you ask: Why is it like that? Can we do better? Is that really the key issue? What if instead we…? Mindful ignorance is what drives progress. It is what happened when Steve Jobs wondered what else a phone could be. It is what happened when John Kennedy asked if we could go to the moon. It is what happened when Fleming wondered what killed his bacteria. And it is what happens when people in strong relationships, strong marriages, ask: can we make this relationship better?

It can be super hard to engage your mindful ignorance. First, you have to be curious and inquisitive about your world. That can be hard enough. But you had extreme curiosity as a kid and so, as you go into the world you can grow that. 

The hardest part is that, while studying the world around, you have to be up front about what doesn’t make sense. That means asking questions, challenging assumptions. And that is really scary. You might look foolish or stupid in front of other people. And there is little we humans fear more than coming across as stupid. But I increasingly think that is what separates average people from exceptional people. Exceptional people are not worried about looking stupid. That’s one of the things that made Maynard Smith special. He was comfortable with his ignorance and far more interested in what he did not know than in what he did. As a result, he had few pre-conceived ideas and would be always asking about things that made no sense. 

This is the hardest thing to get across to students when you’re teaching. If I, the professor, say something that doesn’t make sense: ask me. The worse case scenario is that I will learn that I am not explaining things well. The best case is that we will all learn that the emperor has no clothes. That’s why Maynard Smith became a giant in my field. By asking questions, he repeatedly discovered naked emperors in biology. It turned out they were all over the place. 

But it’s not just science. Be curious about work practices, your loved ones, industry standards, parenting, politics, art, company policies, whatever. Ask about what does not make sense to you or whether things could be better or different. If you can get comfortable with mindful ignorance, your life will be immeasurable enriched and you stand a chance of making the world a better place.

OK, that’s good ignorance. What about good laziness? 

Good lazy is the force that prevents you wasting time on unnecessary stuff.  As a teacher, there is nothing sadder than a student with a D claiming they deserve an A because they put in hours of effort. That is SO sad. The world eats those who mistake effort for productivity. So here at Penn State, we run courses for undergraduates called Study Smarter NOT Harder. These courses train students to figure out what’s important to learn and the most efficient ways to learn it. Students who come to these courses have the right type of laziness. They do not want to spend 10 hours revising for a test when 4 will do. And I think that’s a good message for life: LIVE smarter, not harder. Spend time figuring out what’s important, and then the most efficient way to tackle it. And then—and only then—Go Do It.

The laziness that prevents you wasting life on unnecessary, unimportant stuff is tough to cultivate. I find it a daily struggle. It is far easier to be busy than to be productive. It’s hard to strategize with your self at the best of times, and it’s even harder to make time to do it. But it’s important. Amos Taversky, who founded the field of behavioral economics, said: “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little under-employed. You waste years by not be able to waste hours.

For me, I have learned to hate busy work, to not answer every email, to not do everything everyone asks. Sometimes, that can make you unpopular. But when I look at my career, the most productive and satisfying times in all aspects of life are when I’ve managed to be the right kind of lazy. I think that’s true of all the successful and happy people I know in all walks of life, not least the Nobel Prize winners I have met. They make time, despite the modern world, to think about what’s important and how best to tackle it. They are not whirlwinds of action taking on everything that is thrown at them and working 100 hours a week. Often they have nothing to show for a day. But they have something to show for a life.

So, there you have it, my advice: Life is short: get on with it. But don’t run around aimlessly. Be ignorant and lazy. But be ignorant and lazy in the right way. Ask about things that don’t make sense. And don’t waste time on stuff that is unimportant or inefficient.

Good luck.