Of late, I’ve felt a sense of isolation and frustration as I’ve departed from most of our “big name” speaker events. Bill Gates. Kofi Annan. The Dalai Lama. The list goes on, but unequivocally, as I file patiently out among the thronging crowds, passers-by will ask one another, “wow, wasn’t that inspiring?!” Generally speaking, the socially expected and accepted response is an effusive and enthusiastic gush of superlatives. This guy is a big deal, it seems to convey, so it must have been important!
Yeah, sure, they’ve got the resumes. But for those of us paying close attention to the details of these speeches, it quickly becomes apparent that these motivational speeches for the next generation of leaders are less than substantive. The speakers launch into harrowing statistics and anecdotes about societal problem X, pulling a PWR1 triple punch of ethos, pathos and logos to convince us of the nobility of their aims. But when push comes to shove and the message delves into a call to action, the instructions are painfully, almost naively, vague.
Take, for example, Kofi Annan’s recent speech on food security. Yes, 1 billion people have been born in the last 13 years, and yes, it’s alarming that aid to Africa has dropped 70% in real terms in the last 10 years. But upon impassioned inquiries from the crowd during Q&A on how Stanford students might rise to the challenge, he categorically dodged divulging any form of concrete, actionable tasks.
He isn’t the only one. Bill Gates’ instruction to change the world and the Dalai Lama’s call to compassion last year were well received, but lacked any substantive direction for students hoping to accomplish these important goals. And while I’m not arguing that it is the responsibility of the great thinkers of our time to hand out to-do lists to each university they visit, I think that more concrete and tangible recommendations might be in order to maximize the potential of our next generation of scholars.
A social pandemic?
A prime example of generality syndrome is the Occupy movement. However you may feel about the movement politically, one characteristic can’t be avoided: it has no actionable central objective. From the New York Times to the L.A. Times, when occupiers are asked about their plans and aspirations, the demands are many, but the only shared tenet is that of “fighting the system.” What does that mean? Which system? Whose fight?
Remember that scene from Miss Congeniality where the contestants are asked, “what is the one most important thing our society needs?” Mechanically, almost laughably, each of the contestants responds “world peace!” with a smile, to great applause. Sandra Bullock responds with the only pragmatic response and the crowd falls silent. Crickets chirp and the audience shifts uneasily as they wait for the easy, conveniently vague response.
Concrete goals are a liability. Because they are attainable, the act of not attaining them constitutes failure, and failure is never politically popular. But it is only through facing difficult challenges and overcoming them that society can truly progress.
Why “change the world” isn’t enough of a gameplan:
Don’t let yourself become like Miss Congeniality‘s vapid pageant queens. We are highly trained and impassioned students with real skills that can make a tangible difference on the various, specific problems facing our society. Take ownership of your goals. Instead of grasping for the wispy clouds of “world peace” and “ending world hunger,” identify specific areas where you can excel and chip away at a sizeable portion of the problem. You won’t cure cancer or reverse climate change all by yourself, but by taking concrete actions, you can be a part of the solution.
So step up to that microphone and ask famous speaker Y that difficult question. You might as well, ’cause two years hence, you’ll be the one answering it through action.