Student Speaker: 'Vision Without Execution Is Just a Hallucination'

Part of the Commencement 2015 Series

This morning, I want to talk about vision, and execution. There’s a quote I love that says, “Vision without execution… is just hallucination.” People attribute it to everyone from Edison to Einstein. Someone traced it back to a Japanese proverb. “Vision without action is a daydream,” the proverb goes. “Action without vision is a nightmare.” No matter who said it first, it makes a good point. We need a creative vision to make change in the world—but vision alone is not enough; we also need execution to make that change real.

Think for a minute. What were you doing at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 29th?

You were probably cheering for our men’s basketball team while they played Gonzaga and earned their spot in the Final Four. And you might have kept watching the same channel after the game, when Duke was featured again—this time on “Sixty Minutes,” for a new brain cancer treatment.

Both of these very public victories came after years of hard work, and some brilliant behind-the-scenes innovation. This cancer treatment uses the polio virus to fight brain cancer. A Duke doctor turned a terrible disease into a tool in the fight against another terrible disease, turning a cause for fear into a cause for hope. This is an example of Duke innovation, combining a creative vision with years of painstaking execution.

And, though Cameron Indoor Stadium may seem like an unlikely arena for innovation, hear me out on this. About a year ago, Coach K had a new vision for how the men’s basketball team would work together. He spotted a talented new recruit, and thought the team would do best with the recruit paying point guard—but Quinn Cook, a member of our very own Class of 2015, had always played point guard!

Now, my friends will tell you I know nothing about sports—freshman year I ran into a basketball player in Kville and asked him what tent number he was—but I have to imagine it’s hard to change the position you’ve always played. But our team worked hard, practiced together, and executed Coach K’s creative vision—and boy, did it pay off, with a National Championship win for Duke!

Now I might not know much about sports, but what I do know about—and what you probably know about, too—is basically just as exciting: reading. We’ve spent the past few years reading—a lot. Whether it was MATLAB or Melville, case law or church fathers, Friedrich Hayek or Rachel Carson, there’s been a lot of small print. And all that small print has probably left us more near-sighted than when we first arrived. I’m just hoping I can still see well enough to read my diploma and check that I have, in fact, graduated—because, well, can Parking and Transportation actually keep us from graduating.

While our time at Duke may have hurt our eyesight, it also taught us to see some things differently. Like shades of blue—one is good; the other is… well, you know.

It wasn’t until 2014, though, that I realized the most powerful way Duke changes our vision. On a service trip in Costa Rica, our group lived alongside students from another university. Over dinner one night, just making conversation, we asked what they liked best about their school, and what they would change about it. Their forks stopped in mid-air and their jaws dropped wide open, as if we had asked them not what they would change about their school but what they would change about their mothers. “Oh, we like our school the way it is,” they said quickly… though they eventually conceded they would add more parking—something we could empathize with after long trudges from the far reaches of the Blue Zone. But they didn’t want to change anything else!

And then they asked us how we would change Duke, and we had no trouble coming up with a long list—from student organization funding to social culture to handicapped accessibility to all that construction. And I don’t think we like Duke any less than they like their school; we would have snarled at any outsider who made those same criticisms. No, I think we were able to come up with that list of changes because Duke has given us what I call “Blue Devil double vision.”

On the one hand, Dukies learn to see the world as it is. We’re taught to figure out how systems work, whether anatomical, political, economic, or theological. It’s trite but true that higher education doesn’t just teach us, but teaches us how to learn; it equips us with the ability to analyze the world around us, wherever we are. And we do that very well—which is probably why 98% of my peers are going into consulting. We don’t hold onto utopian visions that keep us from operating successfully in the world as it is. We are realistic and practical.

But over four years here I’ve learned that, at our best, we are also idealistic. While we’ve been taught to figure out how systems work, we’ve also been taught to creatively re-imagine how they might work better. Think of all the social justice campaigns on campus, from women’s empowerment to interfaith dialogue, from med school students who host a Black Lives Matter “die-in” to law school students who work tirelessly to free the wrongly convicted.

Now, many of the people graduating here today will probably be successful at execution—in business, or medicine, or law, or art, or fields that we have not even imagined yet. But we are not just good at execution; we are not just seeking success; we are not just ruthlessly practical profit-seekers—No, this isn’t Wolf of Wall Street University.

This is Duke University—and here, we’ve been pushed to develop a creative vision for how to improve the world around us. We can imagine how our communities, our countries, and our world might be more peaceful, more just, more beautiful, more equitable. Our speaker, Dr. Farmer, has lived this out as he worked to improve medical care in rural Haiti—where he worked to understand the world as it was so he could execute successfully, while holding tight to his creative vision of how the world might be better.

That’s the “Blue Devil double vision”: we can simultaneously see the world as it is, and as it might be. We can accept, work with, and even love the way things are—without ever giving up our vision of how they can be made better. We can realistically but lovingly critique the institutions to which we belong, whether they are businesses or hospitals or government agencies. We are reformers who care about results; we are advocates with realistic approaches; we are effective agents of change.

Duke has prepared us to combine vision and execution—to marry idealism and pragmatism. Duke has challenged us to see the world through two lenses at the same time, seeing the world as it is and as it might be. I hope we hold onto this Blue Devil double vision—because if we do, we might get to not only succeed for ourselves, but to leave the world a little bit better… than we found it.