2011 Harvey School Commencement Ceremony
Text of Mr. Walker’s Speech
Mr. Headmaster, members of the Board of Trustees, Eileen, my wife, distinguished guests, parents and families, I know you all join me in congratulating the Class of 2011, so thank you for inviting me to speak.
Though I speak often, this is my first chance to ever speak to a high school class. In the YouTube generation that means I have one minute and ten seconds left before it’s pretty much over. I’m an odd choice to be your speaker because I was never a good student and didn’t win any of those awards. Congratulations. I dropped out of college for a year and a half never intending to return to school, but because Eileen was there I went back. That’s the truth. Your headmaster said I was a good fit for Harvey because I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my life, but really the only thing I am best known for is for hiring William Shatner to do television commercials for the startup I created called Priceline.
So for the past few years you’ve been asking each other what are you going to major in now that you are going to college. Now that you have graduated it’s my turn to ask you the same question: what are you going to major in for the rest of your life. What’s going to be your specialty, what’s going to be the thing you do best, what are you going to focus on?
Now there are dozens of seniors here, and I don’t think I’ve met many of you, but I have an unusual opinion. I have an opinion about what each of you should major in for the rest of your life. It is based on a secret that I learned that I know is true, and people who focus on this life major, pay attention to this secret. They always get good jobs, they always get paid more, they always enjoy life more, they meet more interesting people, and they have better friends. So here’s the secret: you become what you imagine. I’ll say it again. You become what you imagine. From now on no matter what career or path you choose in life, this is the one thing I am sure you should major in, imagination, because when you combine the craft of imagination with the two most important attitudes in life, determination and passion, the results will astound you every time.
You see, imagination is the most important; it’s the most valuable, the most useful tool you can possess. Chances are you never took a course on it; in fact, chances are they don’t teach a course on it here at Harvey or really in high school or any college you are going to go to. There are no courses on imagination, but it’s a value that runs through Harvey and it’s been in every class you have been in, and it’s implied, so let’s make it explicit for a few minutes. Why, because I think imagination is going to be the most important skill you are going to need for the next 40 or 50 years.
Imagination is like learning to read or write. Once you learn how to do it, it changes the story and your whole life. So let me talk about the story of your life for a minute, in a minute, but first here are some common sense reasons why you want to develop imagination. Number one, imagination is liberating. It lets you go anywhere, do anything. It puts yourself in anyone’s shoes. You can persuade other people, you can inspire them, you can lift your gloom, and you can fire up your courage with imagination. It’s very profitable. Every new product, every new service, every new way to create value in life starts with one person’s imagination. It’s how the world moves forward when you meet your future spouse or partner. It’s all going to be about imagining your life together. If you decide to have a family, you’re going to imagine it first. A change of jobs or place to live, that starts in your imagination. Imagination starts everything. Absolutely everything starts with imagination, and, by the way, it’s fun. It makes us smile; it makes us laugh. Every joke we hear is typically an exercise in our imagination being tricked. We imagine one thing and the punch line surprises us and we laugh.
Thinking new ideas is just flat out fun, but imagination is actually the story of our lives. It’s the inner story we tell ourselves about where we are going, why we do things what we want for ourselves and for the people we love. Imagination is actually the life blood of stories, and stories are the most powerful things in the world. It’s why the Bible is filled with stories. The idea of America is a story. Personal freedom, democracy, limited government, personal responsibility, land of opportunity, American dreams. This is the story of America and when you die someday the eulogy at your funeral will be a story. Stories are so important that in my company I invented a job that nobody ever heard of. It’s called the Chief Story Telling Officer, and let me explain what the Chief Story Officer does. See, as your headmaster mentioned, I run a laboratory that invents new businesses, new ideas like Priceline and we invent things that people have never heard of and we have to sell that to people, but guess what, because they never heard of them, they’ve never been tested, and so nobody wants to buy them. So what do we do, we have to tell that story. We literally have to tell them stories about how our new ideas are going to work and why they should buy them and invest in them or come to work for them. So every part of what we do when we create new things is about stories. So the ideas of your future are just as unproven, who wants to hire you, who wants to marry you, who wants to take a chance on you. You’re the chief story teller of your life; you get to write your own story even though the world is going to throw all kinds of things at you. You actually get to tell the story of how you respond to all these things, you get to choose the story in your head and run it all the time and you can tell yourself, I am a musician, I’m an artist, I’m a helper, I’m a loving spouse, I’m a mother, I’m a father, I’m a good person, I’m generous, I’m curious, I’m honest and I’m hard working, I’m tough, I’m resourceful, I’m afraid, I’m brave. These are facts. These are stories we tell ourselves. The way you write your story of your life is with your imagination. So what is imagination? Well, too often people are going to tell you imagination is for children. It’s kind of like a magic carpet ride and it’s not very important, but the difference between childish and childlike is night and day. The reason great physicists do all of their work in the 20’s and 30’s, is by the time they hit 40 they lost their capacity to imagine. You’re not far away. That is why Einstein said if you want to stay on the path of discovery and innovation for your whole life, you’ve got to think of the world through the eyes of a child. Einstein is perhaps the greatest genius of a thousand years. Imagine what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. He didn’t imagine the mathematics. He imagined the idea that became general relativity that changed all our ideas of space and time, and he did it with a thought experiment of imagination.
So imagination is the ability to conceive what does not exist and it starts with these basic questions: what if? how about? why can’t we? Once it becomes applied to a field, imagination becomes creativity. Creativity is not imagination; it’s what comes before; then after creativity comes innovation and that’s when you try to invent things. So here is the three step chain: imagination, creativity, innovation.
Now imagination is uniquely human; in fact, it’s what makes us human. We can imagine the future and tell ourselves not one future but all kinds of different futures. It gives us empathy, our ability to project ourselves into other people, the ability to walk in their shoes. So, J.K. Rowlings of the Harry Potter books understands that, unlike any other creature on the planet, humans can learn, can understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other places; you don’t have to stick your hand in boiling hot water so everyone has imagination. It’s a myth that only a few of you, the creative prize winners, have imagination. Everyone’s born with it. It works all the time even while we sleep. Paul McCartney woke up with Beatles tunes in his head, and the song became “Yesterday.” He dreamed the song.
So how do you use your imagination? Well, #1, be committed to it. It’s like a muscle, you can’t ignore it. If you ignore imagination, it goes away. Number 2, look for problems, look for intriguing problems and then learn all you can because the more you know, the more you can imagine. So getting an education actually lets you imagine better, and then lastly listen to your inner voice because inside is what’s telling you what your imagination is all about. So the last way you can use your imagination is to live inside your vision. After you start to imagine what your future is like, starting living it. That might sound airy fairy to say that, but let me tell you an interesting story about Navy Seals. Nobody thinks Navy Seals are pretty imaginative, right? Navy Seals! We have heard the great stories about Navy Seals, but let me tell you what Navy Seals do. They go and stand in freezing cold water in the surf in the ocean and they stand up to their chests and they hold a heavy rifle over their heads and they stand there for 16 to 24 hours in the water. Meanwhile, their instructors walk up and down the beach and they yell at the Seals. “Don’t you just wish you were warm and dry? Sometime in the future see yourself as being right there next to a crackling fire all hot and toasty, right now. Don’t tell yourself your arms are getting tired. See yourself bursting with strength. Visualize balloons tied to your rifle pulling it over your head.” These are the instructors screaming at the Seals. One Seal went through the training explained, you know your drill captains are constantly urging us to see ourselves already on the mountain top enjoying the benefits, and you know when you stand there in that 35 degree water with your rifle over your head, once you start to visualize that fireplace and imagine the warmth and the power coursing through your veins, a funny thing starts to happen. The rifle doesn’t feel so heavy anymore; the water doesn’t feel so cold. You catch yourself spontaneously thinking, “I can do this.”
Living in your vision, whether you are a Navy Seal or yourself, it’s acting as if you are already there, even if all you are doing is taking small steps and this has a tremendous impact on your subconscious. It helps you find your way to take the vision into a reality even if you are standing in freezing cold water. In other words, we become what we imagine and finally you can use failure as the best way to fire your imagination no matter how discouraged you might feel. Imagination learns from itself. That’s why we learn from experience, not just your own failures, but others’ too. The only real failure is the failure to use your imagination.
So now imagine yourself with a great future. The world is waiting for people with passion, determination and especially imagination. You can invent your own job or future. You can hire yourself. This is the best economy in history to hire yourself. You can imagine a life of service to others and new levels of love for family, friends, country. You see, we the older generation, we imagined every one of you sitting here today. We were in a hospital 18 years ago waiting for you to arrive. We imagined what it would be like. So we have faith in you and we pass on to you our imagination for a long and wonderful future.