Delivered at the commencement ceremony of the Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado Boulder, May 10, 2019.
It's an honor to be here with you today. I would like to begin with the final syllogism of your college philosophy experience:
Commencement speeches are full of unsolicited advice.
Unsolicited advice is worthless.
Therefore: commencement speeches are worthless.
I hope to avoid the inexorable consequences of this Aristotelian logic and say something of value to you.
But first, I would like to thank this flourishing department for inviting me, especially your chair Professor Steup and also Professor Lee, with whom I graduated from Columbia University in ancient philosophy thirty years ago.
Second, I would like to praise the parents. I suspect the usual reaction upon learning that your child has chosen philosophy is: "You're majoring in what?!" You are to be commended for staying the course.
Third, I would like to congratulate the graduates. Although our beloved discipline is sometimes the butt of jokes, we know that philosophy is a tough major. Unfortunately it doesn't get any easier, because you're about to enter the real world, where the path to success is far from assured — especially, perhaps, for philosophy majors.
Yet I'm here to tell you it's possible. In fact, I'll try to show that you have some philosophical super powers on your side!
You may be wondering: who am I to tell you? Thirty years ago I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Classics, but with no job prospects and no idea of what I would do outside of academia. I bounced around for years before I got in on the ground floor of the Internet boom in the mid-1990s. I've worked for companies large and small, I've run an open-source software community, I've defined dozens of industry standards for the technical workings of the Internet, I've been a CTO a few times, and I've been fired a few times. Those were all great experiences. Nowadays I'm a Principal Engineer on the Mozilla Firefox web browser, where I manage our technical relationships with strategic partners like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. By the way, in my spare time I also write short books on philosophy.
But you don't have to take my word for it. We've all heard about famous philosophy majors such as Supreme Court justices Souter and Breyer, billionaire investors like George Soros and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, even movie stars like Harrison Ford.
For our purposes, perhaps the most challenging student of philosophy is comedian Steve Martin. He once joked that "if you're studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life."
Steve is funny, but I think he's wrong. In good Hegelian fashion, I'll offer a thesis, counter it with an antithesis, and provide a synthesis that turns his joke upside down.
My thesis is that philosophy is a great foundation for success.
First, philosophy is probably the most intellectually difficult major that doesn't require calculus. In some ways it's even harder than fields like physics or chemistry because of the depth of the problems it tries to solve. Thus people who are drawn to philosophy tend to be smart, and intelligence is highly correlated with career success.
Second, philosophical training imparts some crucially important skills: thinking logically, critically, creatively, and systematically; analyzing hard problems and finding deep solutions; writing clearly and communicating persuasively; understanding different viewpoints; dealing with paradox; handling ambiguous situations; and many more.
These higher-order skills are extremely valuable in the workplace because few people have mastered them. They are becoming more important as routine tasks are automated. And they help you stand out as you advance in your career. This is why philosophy majors can earn a good living. In fact, by mid-career, the 90th percentile of philosophy majors get paid more than the 90th percentile of, say, electrical engineering majors.
So that's my thesis. But I warned you there would be an antithesis, which is that philosophy provides no guarantee of success. In fact, it can hamper you in several ways.
The first challenge is that you might need to adjust your attitude. Although philosophy is the realm of big ideas, in the working world it's not good to be just a "big idea" person. In my industry we talk about starters and finishers. Starters dream up things to do. Finishers get things done. People who get things done are recognized, respected, and rewarded, financially and otherwise. People who dream up things to do eventually get assigned to special projects or shunted aside entirely.
Thus you want to be a finisher. However, if you like big ideas, this might require significant self-discipline. You'll need to learn career-relevant skills that might seem boring, unpleasant, hopelessly bourgeois, vaguely unethical, or downright frightening. Examples include time management, customer service, negotiating for a raise, navigating office politics, and public speaking. Motivating yourself to learn these skills isn't easy, but it's absolutely necessary.
The second challenge is that philosophy doesn't directly give you practical knowledge. In the real world, no one will pay you for your insights into the categorical imperative or your mastery of symbolic logic. To climb the career ladder, you first need to get on the bottom rung. Thus you'll need to gain practical knowledge that employers will pay for, in a field like computer programming, statistics, business, even accounting. It's never too late to begin learning in these areas, and in any case you'll need to keep doing so for as long as you're in the workforce, so you might as well start now.
Here's where things get interesting. Because the career landscape is changing faster and faster, ten or twenty years from now you might be doing a job that doesn't currently exist. Philosophy gives you the mental flexibility to handle that kind of change — if, that is, you can combine your higher-order knowledge and skills with practical learning and experience. A colleague of mine at Mozilla who majored in philosophy calls this a super power, because she notes that very few people can both visualize a big-picture solution and also make it happen in reality.
Thus my synthesis: philosophy plus practicality is a recipe for success.
But now we come to the philosophical part of my talk, because I'd like to challenge you by asking a Socratic question: what is success?
So far we've talked about career success, but there are much more important reasons to study philosophy. Even though it might seem that your philosophical training has now ended, I'd like to suggest that it's just begun. In opposition to Steve Martin, I think philosophy can actively help you throughout your entire life.
First, philosophy is a fascinating, challenging, and beautiful realm of human inquiry. The love of wisdom is intrinsically rewarding. By living an examined life, you make your life worth living.
Second, great thinkers teach us great values like self-knowledge, mindfulness, moderation, patience, courage, justice, fairness, truthfulness, civility, and mutual respect. These qualities are emphasized consistently in every major philosophical tradition. Yes, they're valuable at work, but they're even more valuable in your friendships, your family, and your community.
Third, the lifelong practice of what Pierre Hadot called philosophy as a way of life can help you become not just highly accomplished in your career, but highly accomplished as a human being. Spinoza ended his Ethics by saying that all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. Your grounding in philosophy gives you the best of foundations, and now it's up to each one of you to become an accomplished, excellent, exceptional person. In that highest of pursuits, I wish you the best of success.
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