Below is the prepared text of the Commencement address by Salman Khan ’98, MEng ‘98, founder of the Khan Academy, for MIT’s 146th Commencement held June 8, 2012.s.
So coming here, I really feel like I have come to my roots. That I am surrounded by an incredibly good-looking family that I am deeply connected to and that I care deeply about.
Many of you will soon enter the outside world and be somewhat taken aback. It will be far less efficient, far less fair, far less productive, and far more political than what you may have imagined it to be. There will be pessimism and cynicism everywhere. It is easy to succumb to this, to become cynical or negative yourself. If you do, you with the potential that you have, it would be a loss for yourself and for humanity.
To fight these forces of negativity, to increase the net positivity in the world, to optimize the happiness of yourself and the people you love, here are some tips and tools that I like to return to. I am not too much older than most of you, so take all of this with a large grain of salt.
Start every morning with a smile — even a forced one — it will make you happier. Replace the words “I have to” with “I get to” in your vocabulary. Smile with your mouth, your eyes, your ears, your face, your body at every living thing you see. Be a source of energy and optimism. Surround yourself with people that make you better. Realize or even rationalize that the grass is truly greener on your side of the fence. Just the belief that it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
View stressful, political interactions as nothing more than a deeply immersive strategy game. One that can be won if you stay focused on what matters most and your emotions and ego are not tied to your argument.
If you find yourself arguing with someone whom you respect and love, try to surrender your own ego to the shared identity you have with that person. In the heat of an argument, do the opposite of what your pride tells you to do. If you have the self-control, stop talking and give your opponent a random, intense minute-long hug.
Make people feel that you care about them. And here’s, a well, a little secret, the best way to do this is to actually care about them.
Make people feel that you are listening to them. Another little secret, the best way to do this is to actually listen.
When you gain or lose material things, remember how silly they really are. How little they mean relative to your health and relationships.
When you feel stressed, look up at the night sky and ponder the distance to the next star and the age of the universe. Think of all the other stressed sentient creatures from other star systems and galaxies looking out in the vastness of space in wonder and awe and take comfort in your shared experience.
When you feel overwhelmed, walk alone through the woods and forget your name, your title, your education and view yourself for what you really are — another mammal wondering why it is here but appreciating the fact that your civilization has not as yet been evaporated by a supernova.
Try to build true empathy. Regardless of your actual spiritual beliefs, it is sometimes helpful to imagine that time is not linear; that in past or future, or I guess parallel life, you literally are, have been or will be every person. That after this life, you will go back in time and be reincarnated as the person you are arguing with, or passing judgment on (and will then have to put up with the current version of you).
Remember that real success is maximizing your internally derived happiness. It will not come from external status or money or praise. It will come from a feeling of contribution. A feeling that you are using your gifts in the best way possible.
Also remember that whom you choose as a life partner is a far more important decision than what career you choose to pursue. If you are lucky enough to have a true equal, someone who fills you with joy and emotional contentment, with whom you have deep shared values, who respects you and loves you for your innate you-ness; no superficial, external failure or conflict can faze you.
But keep in mind that if you care about someone, but not enough to commit to them, the most selfish thing you can do is not let them move on.
Money is important for the basic necessities, and even luxuries, of life. All of you will be able to buy expensive fruit and go to Sea World whenever you want to. Beyond that, and many of you will go far beyond that, money is a command over resources — including people — and should be viewed as a serious responsibility.
Like money, status can be a powerful tool. But they can both distort your reality away from true internal groundedness.
One of my roommates when I was two years out of college, who had formerly been a bit of a track star at MIT, and I had finished watching Chariots of Fire one night at 2 a.m. I told him that it made me feel like running. He simply told me “Don’t waste inspiration.” I reminded him that it is 2 a.m. He said “so what; don’t waste inspiration.” I looked at him for a few seconds and realized that he was dead serious. I jumped off the couch, threw on my running shoes and took to the streets.
If you ever feel inspired, take action with it. Don’t let anyone tell you why you shouldn’t; at least lace up and give it a try.