2012 Commencement Speech by Fareed Zakaria

The following speech was delivered to Duke graduates, their families and other attendees on Sunday, May 13, in Wallace Wade Stadium

Thank you so much President Brodhead, Chairman Wagoner, the Board of Trustees, parents, students. To the students in particular, I have to tell you I am in awe of you because you're already way ahead of me on this day in my life. You see, I actually didn't make it to my commencement day celebration. I celebrated a bit the night before and -- I did a kind of anticipatory celebration of what was meant to be the night after. Well, I didn't make it for most of it. This is a chance to do a re-do, so thank you.

You know I've always felt these events are very strange for me. I think of commencements as great advice-giving events and I try to think of myself still as young enough not to really have much advice to give anyone, as being vaguely post-graduate. I don't know quite what to say. I have a vivid memory of Woody Allen's movie "Radio Days," where this young kid spends all his time listening to the radio in the 1930s and it drives his mother crazy. These were the days when people thought that listening to Gershwin and Cole Porter was bad for your morals. And the mother tells him, "You've got to stop listening to the radio." And he turns to her and says, "But ma, you listen to the radio all day." And she looks at him and says, "That's different. My life is ruined already."

I tend to think my life isn't ruined already so I've still got a little while to go. I'm not quite sure what to say. The best commencement speech I ever heard, or heard of, was the humorist Art Buchwald, who gave a very short one. He looked at the sea of young people in front of him and he said, "Now remember boys and girls, we are leaving you a perfect world. Don't screw it up."

I think there are very few people who would look at the world right now and feel that way. You're entering, as you well know, a very difficult economic climate in the United States. There are problems that people talk about abroad, from Iran to the Middle East. There are the larger issues of climate change that people are concerned about, and all these concerns are real. But I want to sketch out for you with perhaps a little bit of historical context the kind of world you are really entering into.

The world you are entering into is, first of all, at peace -- profoundly at peace. This is historically a very rare phenomenon. You don't have major wars, proxy wars, arms races among the richest counties of the world. You would have to go back hundreds of years to find a similar circumstance. I know you read about and watch a bomb going off here and there and think we live in scary and dangerous times, but trust in the data. The data says the number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war and yes, terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is of course down 99 percent from the decade before that, which is World War II.

We are living in astonishingly peaceful times and this peace, this political stability, has allowed the creation of a single global system in which countries around the world are participating for the first time. In 1979, the number of countries that were growing at about 3 percent a year was about 30, 31 or 32. The number of countries even after the financial crisis that are growing at 3 percent a year or more, thriving in this global economy, is 90, three times that number. It was 125 before the financial crisis hit. So you are living in a world where people have an extraordinary ability and opportunity to prosper, to thrive, to make something of themselves. Even in the current climate, which seems depressed, keep in mind that this decade the global economy as a whole will grow 10-20 percent faster than it did a decade ago, 50 percent faster than it did three decades ago and five times as fast as it did 60 years ago.

We are living in an astonishing period of progress and you only need to think about that progress in one sense to grasp it, which is -- think of the cell phones that you have in your pockets ... and many of you are actually looking at right now. Don't think I can't see you. The cell phones you have now have more computing power than the Apollo space capsule, and that capsule couldn't even Tweet. So just imagine the opportunities you have in that sense. And they're only beginning. Moore's Law, which says that the computing power of a computer will double every 18 months while the price halves, continues to apply except it has accelerated in one very important field. The human genome is being sequenced faster than Moore's Law. So when I think of our student speaker who is a biomedical engineer, I imagine the kind of data and capacity he is going to have to help solve the problems that we all confront.

You can see this in terms of the increases in human life expectancy. We gain five hours of life expectance every day. Think about that -- without even exercising. The reality is that medicine has produced almost unimaginable progress. Atul Gawande, this wonderful surgeon who also writes about medicine for The New Yorker, recalls the 19th century operation in which the surgeon was trying to amputate the patient's leg. He did that but accidentally amputated his assistant's finger as well. Both patients, I suppose one would call them, both patients died of sepsis and an onlooker died of shock. It is the only known medical procedure to have a 300 percent fatality rate. You can be assured that thanks to efforts of places like Duke, medical technology and medical procedures have gotten much, much better. You can see it in this extraordinary rise in life expectancy around the world.

The data goes on and you could look at and cut it any way you like. You look at the number of college graduates we will have globally. It has risen fourfold in the last four decades for men. It has risen sevenfold for women. If you are wondering whether women are in fact smarter than men, the evidence now is overwhelming: The answer is yes. My favorite example of this is there was a study done over the last 25 years in which it found, per person, female representatives in the House of Congress were able to bring back $49 million more in federal grants than their male counterparts. So even in pork barrel politics, it turns out women are better than men. So we can look forward to a world with increasing female participation.

Now when I tell you all these things I don't want you feel I am urging some kind of complacency. I'm not. What I am pointing out is that there have been extraordinary challenges over the last 50 years, 75 years -- a Depression, a World War, a Cold War and many, many smaller ones. But we have overcome them. Human action, achievement, has managed to solve the problems in ways that would have been unimaginable decades ago. And when we look forward to the problems we face -- of possible wars, of economic crises, of depressions, and of climate change and problems with regard to access and scarcity of water -- keep in mind, these problems are real but the human reaction and response to them is also very real. We can often spend a great deal of time mapping out the problem and we forget that there are these extraordinary opportunities that human beings have to solve these problems. That is what you will be doing. And what I urge you to remember is that you will have a profound effect when you do that.

Let me give you one example. In 2009 the H1N1 virus broke out in Mexico. Now if you looked back and saw the trajectory of these kinds of viruses, it is quite conceivable that you would have had one like the Asian flu in 1957 or 1968, in which 4 million people died. But the Mexican health authorities in this case identified the problem early, shared the information with the WHO, learned best practices fast, tracked down the outbreak exactly where it was, quarantined people, vaccinated people -- they went on a full-scale alert. In a Catholic country it was not allowed to go to church for three Sundays. Perhaps more importantly, you weren't allowed to go to soccer games for three weeks. And that had the result of massively containing the problem to the point where three months later, people wondered what the big fuss was about and did we overreact. We didn't overreact; we reacted, we responded, we solved the problem. That is what we often forget when we confront these challenges.

Now if you look at this and say 'That's all wonderful for the world at large but what does this mean for this country that this great university is in?' Well, I can only remind you that you are living in a country that has the most dynamic economy in the world, that continues to have the greatest technology companies in the world, that continues to have the greatest universities in the world. There are three lists that rank universities -- top 20, top 50, top 100. America dominates all those lists and you can be sure of that because Duke is on all of them.

The United States remains the only county in the industrialized world that is demographically vibrant, by which I mean we add 3 million people to the country every year. That itself gives it a powerful life force and that life force is perhaps renewed and made especially new by the fact that so many of these people are immigrants. They come to this country with aspirations, with hunger, with drive, with determination. And you look at that picture of a country that is economically, technologically, and in societal terms, vibrant and dynamic. And you say to yourself, 'Will I as an individual have the opportunity to make an impact, to solve some of these problems?' I think the answer clearly is yes.

So I say to you: Yes, you may be going through a particular year or two that are more difficult than others have been, but this is an extraordinary world to come into. This is an extraordinary country to come into. I think you will find that if you work at it, you can achieve anything you want. Now people often say to me, "What specific advice do you have for people going out there? Should you go into nanotechnology or bioengineering or investment banking?" Well, I guess fewer people ask about investment banking these days. I will say honestly: I have no idea. I don't know what will be the trends of the future, the waves of the future, the industries of the future. But one thing I do know is that human beings will reward and honor those talents of heart and mind they have always honored for 10,000 years. Those are intelligence, hard work, discipline, courage, loyalty and, perhaps above all, love and faith. Those are the qualities that, at the end of the day, make you live a great life, one that perhaps is rewarded by the outside world, and a good life, one that is rewarded only by those who know you best. And those are the things to strive for, as they have always been. Those are the things that people built statues for 5,000 years ago. That's what people will build statues for today. Well, nobody builds statues any more, they build weird modernist doodads with pieces of metal falling off of them, but you get my idea. The point is just trust yourself; you know what you should do. You know the kind of life you should live. You don't need an ethics course to know what you shouldn't do. Just trust in your instincts, be true to them and you will make for yourself a great life.

I said to you that I don't have any grand piece of practical advice or wisdom at my age but there is one thing that I will tell you in conclusion that I am absolutely sure of. For all of you who are graduating students, trust me, you cannot possibly understand the love that your parents have for you until you have children of your own. So on Mother's Day, make sure you go out and hug your mom and tell her you love her.

Ladies and gentlemen, Godspeed.