On Wednesday, December 21st Redfin Chief Economist Nela Richardson returned to her alma mater at the University of Maryland to give the following address to graduates at the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences’ winter commencement. Click here to watch the video of her remarks.
Thank you for that kind introduction and for extending me this honor of congratulating the class of 2016.
A lot has changed in the world since I sat in your chair. By way of a personal example—the 6 lb 8 oz newborn my husband and I had my final year of doctoral school is now taller than me, and his younger brother is catching up fast.
One of the biggest changes among them is the role of technology and big data in nearly every facet of our decision making. Looking for a home to buy, a ride to the airport, Juan Dixon’s jersey from NCAA Basketball Championships in 2002—there’s an app for all of that. And with technology, and the advancement of big data, people are making decisions faster than ever. The world that you are graduating into is changing very quickly. For some of you, careers that you will dedicate the rest of your lives to haven’t been invented yet.
Along with a great education, BSOS has given each of you a special mission—to be the solution. “Be the solution”—in my remarks today I’d like to focus on that first word: be.
Ten years ago—a commencement speaker might have encouraged you to be the solution by identifying a career path. An even bolder speech would have inspired you to be a trailblazer and to find your own path.
And while it’s always good to have a plan, I’ve learned that the the winds of change will blow you off course and off your preset path. I started my career at the height of the housing boom for a large mortgage insurer. At that time, we were told that “the worst was over” and it would be smooth sailing from there on out. Over the next 5 years a lot of boats capsized—boats from all around the world: financial institutions, pension funds, multinational companies, city government, and millions of families that lost their homes to foreclose.
I spent a year writing about the financial crisis with a housing policy group at Harvard. Over that time, I stopped seeing myself as an analyzer of data and started seeing myself as a humanizer of it.
You see, the world’s hardest problems are persistent, but data changes so quickly. While technology races ahead, people are often left behind. No matter how many data points, algorithms and economic models you program, it’s impossible to automate every solution.
My success in finding solutions in the haystack of data has been based on being authentic, having a unique voice. At some point in my career, after trying in vain to find and follow an ever-elusive near mythical career path, I began to realize that if my success was based on authenticity then I couldn’t expect my path to be automated, pre set or scheduled. My career, like my life, updates with new information, experiences, ideas, that form who I am as a person. By being authentic, I can humanize data so that other people can benefit from it.
Automation, preset paths, fixed beliefs are the death knell to innovation. Think of the greatest innovators and change agents in a culture—Steve Jobs, Dave Chappelle, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Misty Copeland, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Gates, Shirley Ann Jackson. In every one of their stories an authenticity was key. Innovation requires authenticity. I submit to you today that there is really only one way to be the solution in a world of constant change—by being authentic to your best self, talents and beliefs.
Being an economist, I’ve always enjoyed game theory, particularly the concept of backward induction, where you start at the end of a problem and work your way backward to find the solution. On the cusp of a new world of opportunity at the birth of your careers, I ask you to jump to the end.
Before you’ve advanced in your career, before you’ve made compromises, before you’ve burnt the midnight oil, or burnt out from the pressure, before you’ve been sidelined, or sidetracked, or climbed the ladder all the way to the top, before all that—imagine what success feels like to you. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re all in a beachfront villa in Hawaii with an S-class convertible out front. But let’s turn the screw a bit deeper. Who’s with you? Family? Friends? What is the one thing that’s brought you consistent joy—writing, managing, creating, traveling, programming.
What’s the thing you did that you are most proud of? Whose life or lives did you effect? What did you change? What did you solve?
Now friends work backward. How did you get there? Only you can answer that. But you all can get there—as long as you are authentic to what success means to you. Let that be your north star through change. That’s how you be the solution.
Congratulations class of 2016—I am looking forward to seeing how your authentic voices change the world!
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