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.