Class of 2017: Will You Have The Audacity to Make The Future?

Graduates of the Class of 2017,

Contrary to what our loved ones may think, we’ve spent the last two years working. Maybe not work in the traditional sense, but work that I personally consider much more valuable. Work on ourselves. Because to identify the impact you want to make in this world, you must first begin to understand who you are.

Personally, the pieces to the puzzle of how I intend to make a difference in the world came together only a few months ago. It came to me during my most powerful learning experience over the last two years.  During this experience, the edges of my puzzle emerged. It occurred during the fall semester in Professor Scott Snooks Authentic Leadership Development class, better known as ALD.  The purpose of ALD is to help second-year MBA students become more effective, authentic individuals and leaders.

In our third session, in September, the level of reflection and interpersonal openness reached its zenith. That morning, Professor Snook handed everyone a small sheet of colored paper. On this sheet of paper, he instructed us to write down our greatest fear over the next five to ten years. Next, everyone passed the sheets with their answer, nothing else to the end of their row. Professor Snook then collected the responses, shuffled them up and asked each of us to randomly select one of the sheets of paper. What followed was truly an eye opening experience. The room had a stillness and a muteness about it that I will never forget. Next, the classroom of over 90 second year MBA students, read the words on the sheet of paper they had randomly selected. The fears of my classmates were stirring.

The fear of not being able to have kids.

The fear of ending up in some of our current relationships.

The fear of caring too much about money, at the expense of marriage and relationships that matter.

There was one response however, that was read over, and over again. The one fear that loomed over the heads of my classmates like a wave at its peak before it breaks, was the fear, the fear of ending up alone. By themselves. Void of the connection and relationships that are as essential to human life as air itself.

The experience brought back memories of my own. I have vivid memories of being dropped off and picked up from Cary Academy, a private middle school experience that no one else in the lower-class neighborhood I grew up in was privy to.  The car my hard working parents drove at the time was a 1985 Oldsmobile Tornado. It had a long, wide body covered with varying shades of steel and pearl gray paint. There was a comet-sized dent above the right rear wheel that caused it to make a thunderous sound. As we arrived and departed, I would sink in my seat, in an effort to remain invisible to my peers. Why? I was embarrassed. I didn’t believe I belonged. I believed that my socio-economic status and the neighborhood I lived in defined me. I felt alone as one of only three black students in the school.  Alone as the kid that didn’t have a big backyard. Alone as the kid whose parents weren’t doctors or lawyers. I felt alone – a feeling that I fear is becoming all too familiar in the 21st century.

The experience in Professors Snook’s class also brought to mind the social and political events that have roiled and ruptured individuals and relationships across our country over the last two years:

Kendra James. Sean Bell. Michael Brown. Just a few, of the many black men or women that died at the hands of the police over the last two years. “Black lives matter” – three simple words, packed with a deep yearning to belong. A yearning to feel a part of the whole. To feel connected. You see, the fear that many of us share, a fear of being alone, is a reality for a growing portion of our population.

And lastly, in the business context that we will be re-entering, is the growing alienation between corporate America and main street. Plunging trust in business, diminished confidence in the fairness of the economic system, and a loss of faith in capitalism itself pose a crippling threat to our economic future.

All of this is unsettling, as over the last few decades the narrative of prosperity has shifted, to one in which a commitment to steadily increasing openness and the destruction of boundaries was supposed to result in an economic tide that would lift all boats.

However, as many of us know deep down inside and as the stories over the last two years illustrate, the promise of a more open and connected world has fallen short of expectations in many ways. However, that’s not to say that Globalization and technology haven’t created prosperity. Because they undeniably have. The challenge is the distribution of this wealth and the impact it has had on the ties that connect the local communities of our country and the global community.

This is not, however, a condemnation of globalization itself. Or a reason to turn inward and close ourselves off from one another or the rest of our global community. The problem is, our actions as leaders and humans have lagged the open and accepting narrative of globalization.

Globalization is like a house. A house with infinite rooms to accommodate the citizens of the world. The economic engine has done a pretty decent job of allowing us to build new rooms and add new extensions to the house. The problem; however, is that those of us in the house have failed to reach out, failed to connect and failed to invite others inside.

So here we are, the class of 2017, walking into this large compound with access to resources and ideas. Each of us with some desire deep down inside to reach out and to share these ideas and utilize our resources to let others in. However, what stands in our way is fear. The little voice in our head that says it’s too soon. That we should wait to establish ourselves before we take the leap. Wait until we pay off our student loans, or make partner – then, we tell ourselves, the time will be right.

However, graduates of the class of 2017 it will always be too soon. Over 500 years ago Johannes Gutenberg launched the printing press. 96% of the population in Europe was illiterate at the time. When Karl Benz introduced the car to Germany it was against the law to drive a car. No one knew how to drive a car. And there were no roads and no gas stations.

You see, it will always be too soon.

Class of 2017, it is our task for the rest of our lives to work towards filling the house that globalization has built. However, the only way we can do that is to do something that the little voice in our head will tell us that we aren’t ready to do. Something that is too hard. Something that takes a different kind of labor – emotional labor.

Class of 2017, we must have the audacity to be Artists.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is personal.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is creative.

Artists have the audacity to work that changes the receiver.

What I am proposing is not the narrow and mainstream definition of an artist: “a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.”

Instead, that we are more generous, empathetic, gracious, and open.

That we are artist.

The writers of the declaration of independence were artists. They had the audacity to articulate a vision that would change how individuals viewed the world and their place in it.

Martin Luther King, Jr was an artist. He had the audacity to be creative and champion a movement of non-violence that was a catalyst in shaping how blacks and whites viewed one another.

Lastly, Henry Tsai, a fellow graduate of the HBS class of 2017, exemplifies the work of an artist. He had the audacity to create “Hi from the other side” (  a personal work of art that matches people who supported different candidates in the most recent election – with the aim of  not only bringing people together but, more importantly, bringing them together in a way that’s productive or civil

Class of 2017, we can do more than being bankers, consultants, startup founders, or hedge fund managers. We can restore the balance that our culture and the business community so desperately needs. The opportunity to do work that encourages people to seek to relate, to listen, to become themselves. Work that connects people so that they can experience the belongingness that over 90 second year MBA’s in Professor Snooks classroom expressed a yearning for the past September.

Our culture, and the business community, in particular, has an artist deficit. We need more people that aspire to provide products and services that are personal, creative, and passionate. Products and services that change the receiver.

We need more artists, not more managers.

In our current culture, too many leaders pretend that nobody can change anything. That we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.

But the truth is, every day, individuals, change their world over and over. They do this because they are artists.

Artists make the future. Class of 2017 I challenge you to have the audacity to make the future by imagining that things can be different.