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Mike Bloomberg’s Remarks at Johns Hopkins University Commencement 2021

The following remarks were delivered by Mike Bloomberg at Johns Hopkins University Commencement on May 27, 2021. 

Ron, thank you. You did the one thing that we really depend on university presidents to do – and that is to give us good weather at graduation. So congratulations on that. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Ernie for everything that he has done for Hopkins and for the world. It’s great that he could have his grandson to pick up the degree for him.

And William and Tejasvi, thank you, and good evening, everyone!

It really is a great day to be a Jay! And it’s great to be here at Homewood Field. But I think after the year we’ve just had, it’s great to be anywhere.

I’m excited to be able to say the next 11 words to you in person: Congratulations to the distinguished graduates of the great Class of 2021! You did it!

And I know it wasn’t always easy. You overcame some very tough obstacles to get here, and I know you missed out on a lot, too.

You survived it all with a lot of love and support from your parents and families. Isn’t it great to have at least some of them here with you? So let’s give them all a very big round of applause. They deserve it!

One of the reasons this past year has been so challenging is that, before the pandemic, when we were physically around each other, we fed off each other’s energy. That energy was food for the soul. It made us healthier and happier.

But since the pandemic began, instead of having that nourishment, we’ve been on a starvation diet, with a lot of binging on empty calories – like “The Real Housewives” and “Selling Sunset.”

But hopefully over the past year, we’ve also developed a new approach for the importance of being in each other’s presence. We once took that for granted – but I think we now realize that social interaction is truly special.

That idea – the importance of togetherness – is what I would like to speak with you about today, because I believe it holds the key to happiness, not only in our personal lives, but in your careers, as well.

For the past 15 months, we’ve seen each other mostly on the screens of our computers and phones. If the pandemic had arrived when your parents were your age, that wouldn’t have been possible.

But in the decade most of you were born, things began to change. That was back in the 1990s, when a big Thursday night meant getting to watch “Friends.” Actually, if you have HBO Max, maybe not much more has changed.

Think about it: The 90s brought us more than “The Rachel” haircut. Starting then, we realized a communications revolution was forever changing the way that we interact with each other. Email, text, chat, and video calls all connected people as never before. At our company, we introduced a chat function where customers were able to talk to each other. It was one of the first social networks in the world.

And in the years that followed, new social media platforms were created, allowing people to share opinions, news, photos, dance moves, and just about anything else – including, of course, the most brazen lies and the most outrageous conspiracy theories.

Now, ten years ago, we used to hear a lot about how social media would bring the world closer together. And in some ways, it really has.

But the zeitgeist has changed. And as we have seen here in the U.S., social media has also helped tear us apart. In fact, it now threatens to obscure something fundamental to the human experience.

And that is – and this is what I hope you will take away from my remarks tonight – there is real power in getting people together in person.

Leaders throughout history have understood that – whether they have been religious leaders, political leaders, military leaders, civil rights leaders, or business leaders.

When we gather in-person, whether it’s to play or pray, to work or peacefully protest, we gain the power to reach higher, and we live more fully than we could on our own.

Over the past year, we’ve gotten a good look at how digital technology cannot replace physical togetherness. Not when it comes to being with family and friends. Not when it comes to being with professors and classmates. Not when it comes to attending a party, or going to a museum. And not when it comes to interacting with colleagues and coworkers, in whatever field you choose to pursue, whether it’s science or medicine, engineering or business, the arts or the military.

And incidentally, speaking of those who protect our basic rights to be here and to protest outside like with the horns: To all the members of one of the oldest ROTC programs in the country, let me say: Thank you for serving our country to defend our freedoms, and for having the courage to train for the ultimate test when our freedoms are at risk.

Now, back in the 1990s, when I had the honor of serving as Chair of the Board here, management experts told us that soon, everyone would be telecommuting and working from home. The office was a dinosaur, slowly going extinct – or so we were told.

I didn’t believe it – and I even wrote about it in my autobiography. I would quote the passage, but a reading of “Bloomberg by Bloomberg” by Bloomberg might be too much, even for me.

Today, we’re hearing the same thing: Remote working will be the new norm. And for some employers, it may very well be, at least for a while.

But I am more convinced than ever before that the most successful organizations and individuals – whether they are public, private, or nonprofit – will place a premium on face-to-face, in-person interaction.

Zoom will never replace the water cooler – because when we gather face-to-face, we come to understand one of life’s great truths: Achieving our full potential as individuals can only be done with the help of others. And the more we surround ourselves with people from diverse backgrounds, the more we learn and the more we grow.

Whenever I speak to new employees at my company, I tell them: Forget the words “I” and “Me” and replace them with “We” and “Us.” Because no one accomplishes anything by themselves.

There’s a simple word for that idea: Teamwork. And the best and most successful teams – like our lacrosse team, go Jays! – have something intangible that gives them an edge. It’s called chemistry.

And while there’s a lot of technology that makes it possible, it can’t replace the chemistry that flows from direct human contact – which is what gives rise to the most powerful reactions and combinations.

Among the most important elements in those reactions – the elements that really drive innovation and problem-solving – are the two activities that simply cannot happen online: Spontaneous conversation and chance encounters.

Of course, over my career I’ve seen how we can be at our most productive when we’re taking a break.

Bumping into someone in the hall might spark a new collaboration. Kibitzing with a colleague over coffee or peanut butter crackers could spur a creative idea. So could getting together and having a beer after work.

Like many organizations today, my company designs all of our workspaces to maximize informal interactions. That’s why we have no walls in the company, why we have no private offices.

And to the eight of you graduates who will soon be joining Bloomberg as full-time employees, I just want to say: Please come by and say hello when you’re in the building. I’m at my desk every morning at 7AM. And if you’re one of the kinds of people who likes to get in late – say, at 7:15AM – don’t worry, I’ll be there waiting for you.

Now, I wasn’t the first person to recognize the importance of random interactions in the workplace.

Almost a century ago, creators of the fabled Bell Labs designed a building so that scientists would have to walk down long hallways, past many other offices, to get to the cafeteria. It was like a people collider, and all the scientists were instructed to work with their doors open.

Out of that environment came inventions that transformed life as we know it – including the first satellites, cell phones, and solar panels. Bell Labs was like a mass production line for Nobel Prize winners.

Maybe some of their inventions would have occurred without the long hallways and the open doors, but certainly not as early as they did. Because ultimately, innovation and success are driven by group interaction more than individual inspiration, and that is true for whatever profession you choose in your life going ahead.

Of course, kibitzing can also occur on Zoom. But the opportunities are more limited. Plus, the randomness of bumping into people disappears.

Video calls are fine for exchanging information, but when it comes to building relationships, building partnerships, building teams, and building networks – when it comes to fostering creativity and cooperation, and solving problems – there is no substitute for being there and looking people in the eye.

If you’re not convinced, just think about remote classes versus in-person ones. I think you’ll agree: Not the same. Or watching a concert online versus in person. Not the same. Or dating remotely versus in-person – definitely not the same.

The experiences couldn’t be more different – because of the chemistry.

In each case, when we are physically with others, the experience is more enjoyable, uplifting, and powerful.

The energy and inspiration we get from being with other people is what drives the world forward. It’s how problems get solved. It’s how innovation happens. It’s how power is exercised. It’s how tyrants are toppled. It’s how changes get made. And it’s how we can achieve great things in our lives, for our communities and for our countries.

Now, as you apply for jobs, you or your friends may be hoping for an employer that will let you work from home five days a week. But once you begin spending every waking hour with your roommates – or your parents – you may change your mind. There is more to career happiness than wearing pajama bottoms all day and remembering to press the mute button when you visit the bathroom.

Since you presumably plan to work for a few years to come, I’d suggest you ask yourself whether you really want to stake your future on an organization that doesn’t prioritize contact among employees – because it may not be around for very long.

And as they say in the New York State lottery: You gotta be in it to win it.

Now, that doesn’t mean you need a 10-year plan for your career. When I was in your school about to be handed a diploma in electrical engineering, it never occurred to me that I would work on Wall Street, start a company that invented a computer, or build a global media business, or serve three terms as Mayor of New York City, or start a foundation to tackle global problems, including an issue none of us even knew about back then called climate change.

I didn’t imagine I could do any of that – and I can assure you my professors did not either.

But the main reason I’ve been able to do it is simple: I work closely with so many talented and driven people who opened my eyes to new possibilities. They help me do things I never could have done on my own, and they stop me before I did something stupid.

I remember in high school, working at a small electronics company, where I learned about engineering. My boss recommended I apply to a small college in Baltimore. That worked out pretty well for me – and I guess not bad for JHU, as well.

After business school, I didn’t have a job lined up, so a friend recommended I apply for an entry level position on Wall Street, even though I had no particular interest in finance. I worked long days and nights for 15 years – right up to the day I was let go, which is a nice way of saying I was being fired. But from the close relationships I made during those years, I was able to hire three incredibly talented people and start a company.

So yes, it’s good to have a career plan that you care about. But it’s better to have close colleagues and friends you care about, and who care about you, because even the best laid career plans have a way of changing for the better when you develop strong relationships with people who you see every day, and who can help open new worlds to you.

Then, when those worlds open, the question is: Do you have the courage to seize an opportunity and the drive to work like crazy to make the most of it?

I’ve always believed that being the first one in in the morning and the last one out at night is the way to succeed.

I’ve done that my whole life – because there really is some truth in what Thomas Edison said: Genius is one percent inspiration and 99% percent perspiration.

Hard work is the one thing in your career entirely within your control. And I can just promise you this: The harder you work, the more fun you’ll have, and the more success you will enjoy out in the cold, cruel world.

Now, I know this is not the easiest time to be graduating from college – whether you’re looking for a job or starting graduate school. But it is an exciting time to begin your careers.

Workplaces in all fields continue to evolve for the better, and more organizations are designing their spaces to promote interaction and collaboration.

I’m glad to see that that is also true for the new Student Center here, and the Agora Center, as well.

The Agora – as you may know – is named for the place in ancient Athens where people gathered for public discussion and debate. Its mission here at Hopkins is to strengthen global democracy through open dialogue and civic engagement.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, that dialogue is breaking down across the United States – partially, I believe, because people are willing to say things to other people online they would never dare to say to their face.

For democracy to work, we need to be able to have difficult conversations about politics and religion, voting rights and racial justice, equity in health care and education, crime and gun safety, gender and orientation.

And the more we can have those conversations face to face instead of screen to screen, the more constructive and productive they will be, and the more progress we will make.

I know how deeply you care about these and other issues, and I know many of you have been involved with them. That gives me a lot of hope for the future.

And the reason I’ve given so much financial support to aid here is not just to benefit you. And it’s also not just because I’ve always dreamed of going on Facebook and seeing: “Daddy Bloomberg’s Meme Page.”

I’ve given those donations to benefit our whole country – because the more diverse we make every field, the better we will be. And the more work we do together face to face, the stronger we will be.

The 21st century belongs to nations that can harness technology to strengthen team chemistry, instead of being saddled by technology that weakens it. And if we don’t lead the way, rest assured, other countries will – and in Asia and other regions, they already are.

So, as you leave this campus and go out into the world, I hope you will take one big idea with you, because it really could not be more important. And that is, simply: Be present for others, in your careers and in your personal lives.

Because ultimately, it is only through the power of our relationships that we can fulfill our potential, and that we can build teams capable of creating a society that is more just, more equal, more peaceful, and – in the words of our nation’s founders – more perfect.

Whatever you do though, tonight and tomorrow, and for the rest of your lives: Do it like the world may lock down again tomorrow. Do it together. And do it in person.

If you take that to heart, I know you will do amazing things.

Congratulations – and good luck! Go Jays.

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