I don’t even have a college degree. I just didn’t graduate from Harvard. I got pretty close, but I started to get movie roles and didn’t finish all my courses. So you can imagine how excited I was when President Reif called to invite me to speak at the MIT commencement.
My brother Kyle and I, and my friend Ben Affleck never really amounted to much.One of the scenes in Good Will Hunting was based on something that actually happened to my brother. Kyle was visiting a physicist we knew at MIT, and he was walking down the Infinite Corridor. He saw those blackboards that line the halls. So my brother, who’s an artist, picked up some chalk and wrote an incredibly elaborate, totally fake, version of an equation. It was so cool and so completely insanethat no one erased it for months. This is true.
But like I said, we later made a movie here. Which did not go unnoticed on campus. In fact I’d like to read you some actual lines, some selected passages, from the review of Good Will Huntingin the MIT school paper.
You’re working on some crazy stuff in these buildings. I’ll tell you one that’s been on my mind: Simulation Theory. There’s a philosopher named Nick Bostrom at Oxford, and he’s postulated that if there’s a truly advanced form of intelligence out there in the universe, then it’s probably advanced enough to run simulations of entire worlds — maybe trillions of them — maybe even our own.
But then again: what if it isn’t a simulation? Either way, what we do matters. What we do affects the outcome. MIT, you’ve got to go out and do really interesting things. Important things. Inventive things. Because this world ... real or imagined ... this world has some problems we need you to drop everything and solve.
But before you step out into our big, troubled world, I want to pass along a piece of advice that Bill Clinton offered me a little over a decade ago. What he said was “turn toward the problems you see.”Turn toward the problems you see. Engage with them. Walk right up to them, look them in the eye. In my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually going and seeing things.
When I was a teenager, Mom thought it was important for us to see the world outside of Boston. I think it was that same impulse that took my brother and me to Zambia in 2006, as part of the ONE Campaign — the organization to fight poverty and preventable disease in the developing world. On that trip, in a small community, I met a girl and walked with her to a nearby bore well where she could get clean water.
And water goes hand-in-hand with sanitation. And getting out in the world and meeting people like this little girl is what put me on the path to starting Water.org. You see some tough things out there. But you also see life- changing joy. And it all changes you.
There was a refugee crisis back in ’09 that I read about in an amazing article in the New York Times. People were streaming across the border of Zimbabwe to a little town in northern South Africa called Messina. I was working in South Africa, so I went up to Messina to see for myself what was going on. Human beings will take your breath away. They will teach you a lot... but you have to engage. There’s a lot of trouble out there, MIT. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. I hope you see both.
The point is to try to eliminate your blind spots — the things that keep us from grasping the bigger picture. But looking at the world as it is, and engaging with it, is the first step toward finding our blind spots. There’s a few more things I hope you’ll keep in mind.
First, you’re going to fail sometimes, and that’s a good thing. Not having an answer isn’t embarrassing. It’s an opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
The second thing is that you’ve got to keep listening. Even outside your work, there are ways to keep challenging yourself. Listen to online lectures. I love what President Obama said at Howard University’s commencement last month: he said,“Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.”
Here you are alive at a time when science and technology may not hold all the answers, but are indispensable to any solution.
So I hope you’ll turn toward the problem of your choosing ... Because you must. I hope you’ll drop everything ... Because you must And I hope you’ll solve it. Because you must. Your game begins: now. Congratulations and thanks very much!