Being the text of a convocation address I offered to the graduating students in the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph on June 11, 2009.


The University, from which I graduated in 1981, very kindly awarded me an honorary “Doctor of Science” degree on this occasion. My thanks are due to Alumni Affairs VP Joanne Shoveler and Vice-Chancellor and President Alastair Summerlee, who got me back in touch with the University, and on the honorary-degree front, to my own College of Physical & Engineering Science and the University Senate.

Guelph seems an outstanding example of what a modern University should be, and I’m proud to be associated with it.

I wrote the speech, then I scribbled on the printed copy, then I extemporized a bit, so I guarantee that, while I tried for recapture, what you read here is not exactly what the audience heard.

Donald Bray, Jean Bray, Tim Bray

The new grad with his brother Donald and mother Jean.


I’ve never given a Convocation Address before. I wonder, are they supposed to have titles? This one has a subject: It’s about carving your initials on things.

I guess these are supposed to be about giving advice. It’s good thing that this is a graduation ceremony, because I’m the last person you’d want advice from on getting a degree. My own B.Sc. (Hon.) took me eight years. That was the nineteen-seventies, so my major field of study was sex and drugs and rock and roll, with a minor in Communist agitation. I took a year off to work at Biltmore Hats, turning soggy rabbit fur into stetsons and fedoras. Speaking of advice, I do not advise this alternative employment either before or after your graduation.

And one Halloween, I helped set a greased pig loose in a downtown Guelph bar. It was only a little pig, just under fifty pounds, but boy, was he ever fast. We’d bought this great big can of Crisco and we had to use it all, because those are leftovers you don’t want, even in a student house. So he wasn’t just a little bit greased.

Given that history, I think I’d do best to talk about what happens now, going forward.

First of all, congratulations! Graduating from University is a hard thing to do and it’s a good thing to do. It’s twenty-eight years since I did, and I totally believe that higher education in general, and the University of Guelph in particular, are essential things. As I observe the world, those beliefs grow stronger every year.

You’ve almost certainly learned how to learn, and with luck, also how to think. So, what are you going to do with that? I’m going to take as an assumption the notion that you would like the rest of your lives to matter.

For an adult there really only two things that matter, that deserve your essential focus: those are work and love. I’m an engineer, a computer programmer even, so I can’t possibly stand here and talk for ten minutes about love; perhaps I’d best stay mostly with the world of work.

Some of you will make a real mark with your work; so that when people are talking about something good out there in the world, they’ll say “You know who helped build that? <Insert your name here>”

That’s what’s driven me. I’ve managed to carve my initials, in a small way, in a couple of places on the Internet.

I know of no greater satisfaction than leaving your mark on something good, in a way that will be noticed and will last. This could be a company, or a song, or a consumer product, or a piece of legislation, or a technology, or a manifesto, or a story.

So let’s assume that you want to build something great. I do have some practical advice.

Basically nothing that’s great is ever built by an individual; nor ever has been. Anyone whose name has occasionally been celebrated knows perfectly well about standing on the shoulders of giants; and of trolls too, but mostly of ordinary people, the people who help you get your job done.

So if you’re going to get anything done, you’re going to have to listen and listen and listen and explain and explain and explain. A few years ago I published a little piece about the Law of Explanation and it seemed to amuse some people, so here it is.

The first half says “When you’re explaining something to somebody and they don’t get it, that’s not their problem, it’s your problem.” Anything that’s important, that’s deep enough to matter, is probably not self-evident; it’s going to require a lot of explanation, and that’s an essential part of your job.

The second half says “When someone’s explaining something to you and you’re not getting it, that’s not your problem, it’s their problem.”

The effect of this one is that you have to do a very courageous thing: say “No, I don’t understand.” This is hard for people who are young (and I suspect harder on average for those who are young and male). But if you’re talking to someone who’s really smart and has done work that matters, don’t worry; they’ll know these rules and won’t mind explaining till you get it.

Assuming you’ve got an urge to make something that matters, what should it be? Well, it should be something that lots of people need. So all you have to do is figure out what that is, and build it. Except for, that doesn’t work. Here’s what does work: Build something that you need yourself. You are the only person whose needs you really understand. And unless you’re really strange (well, some of you do look a little strange) there are a lot of other people out there who are like you; make yourself happy and you’ll make them happy.

If you talk to inventors and authors and songwriters and product designers, you’ll hear it over and over again: Don’t try to guess what the world needs, just do a really good job of scratching your own itch.

Once you’ve found an itch that needs scratching, and you’re going to build something to scratch it, what kind of thing should you build? You should build the simplest thing that could possibly work. At this point I’d like to tell you about Gall’s Law. John Gall wrote a book called Systemantics, and his law says:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

This rule is much in the minds of those of us who work on the Internet. We’re prone to sloganeering: “Don’t try to boil the ocean” and “The minimum progress required to declare victory” and (my favorite) “Dare to do less”. That last one is not ironic; it requires courage, when you’re facing a big complex urgent problem, to take small steps toward the solution. But they’re the only kind that will get you there.

I hope that there are, among you here today, people with big desires and big ideas; and that you’ll leave your initials on important things that make people happy.

But probably, most of you won’t. Some are lucky and have jobs that are vocations, but most of the people in the world spend most of their careers working at jobs that are just jobs.

Remember, there are two things that matter: work and love. So if your job is just a job, and you still want your life to matter, that leaves love.

Succeeding at love, in the long term, is as hard at succeeding at work, but I think more rewarding. The initials you leave behind, those initials are carved on people’s hearts.

I lack the standing to lecture you today on love and how to do it, but I want to talk about where it intersects with work: what we call “work-life balance”. I guarantee that you will grapple with this; it seems central to the Twenty-first Century.

And, I have bad news: a good work-life balance is probably impossible. The market being what it is, and the structure of capitalism what it is, there will be times when, to achieve your potential, to build something wonderful, or maybe just to keep your job so you can go on making your mortgage payments, you have to work way too hard.

I’m speaking for myself here: Around the time that my wife Lauren Wood, who’s sitting in the front row here, first moved in with me, I was working on building one of the first Internet search engines — Google’s great-grandparent — long-gone now, but we were pretty hot stuff back in 1995.

And one day there was a horrible bug and tens of thousands of searches were falling on the ground, and I was hunched over my computer at home in the evening, and Lauren came into the room with a question or maybe just wanting company, and I said “I love you, but right now you have to go away.” Because what I was doing mattered.

That was fifteen years ago. Tonight, at the other end of Canada, my nine-year-old son is playing his first little-league playoff game — he’ll pitch a couple of innings — and I won’t be there to watch. Because what we’re doing together here today matters.

That coin has another side. Last week, my employer staged a Really Important Meeting full of Really Important People in San Francisco, from Saturday to Friday. I went down Monday and left early Thursday. I missed some important meetings and probably irritated some important people. But I got to spend Sunday at home with my family, and that matters.

You’re going to have to make those choices, and they’re going to hurt. There will be regrets. The only advice I an give you is to take them seriously. Don’t pretend you can have it all, be a hot-shot entrepreneur and a superstar Mom or Dad, bring peace to East Africa while you raise five perfectly-adjusted children and maintain a happy marriage. You have got to make choices as to where you’re going to be carving your initials.

That’s about all, you are young and you’re smart and you’re amazingly lucky; living in a country where peace and prosperity are a matter of course. You don’t have to go to war if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to war.

If you have some ideas and energy and courage, the world is waiting for you to carve your initials on it.

But please think hard about where.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ray Baxter (Jun 12 2009, at 20:59)

Tim, That was really quite nice. Thank you for sharing.

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From: Tkil (Jun 12 2009, at 21:17)

Congratulations, and bravo!

Thanks for reminding me that, no matter how difficult or insignificant my current circumstances are, I have left my stamp in both work and love. For better or for worse...

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From: John Sellens (Jun 12 2009, at 22:15)

Tim - Great words with so many right things said - thanks! And congratulations on your well-deserved recognition!

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From: len (Jun 13 2009, at 10:22)

A destiny and a destination are not the same thing.

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From: Dave Walker (Jun 13 2009, at 13:44)

That's a really cool address; thanks for posting it (and thanks to the relevant folk at Guelph, for persuading you to write it ;-) ).

Still, some of us only get to have Work, and even then, changes happen from time to time, which go against our wishes. I suspect I'll still be reading your blog, once the current weirdness has settled down.

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From: Michael Lockrey (Jun 13 2009, at 16:25)

Thanks Tim. I really appreciated the way you articulated some insights there......one or two of which I have been struggling with for some time.....

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From: Erick Dovale (Jun 18 2009, at 11:23)

Simply brilliant. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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From: John Cowan (Jul 02 2009, at 10:05)

On initials: I think it's easy to misread this as "Make sure you get credit for everything you do, no matter how small", like those folks who send you a six-line patch, three lines of which are their copyright notice. Contribution first, credit afterwards if at all, thankyouverymuch.

On the Law of Explanation: You are overlooking the Law of Explanation, Politician Edition, which says "If you're explaining, you're losing", a maxim apparently so well known in Washington (I can't speak to Ottowa) that nobody cares who said it first (it gets about 51 kghits).

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