May 17, 2021

Brad Smith: “Be Curious, Not Judgemental”

Microsoft President Brad Smith gave the following address to the School of Information graduating class on May 16, 2021:

BRAD SMITH: Hello everyone, and a big thank you, first, to Professor Farid with whom we at Microsoft have worked for many years on some really important projects, using technology to protect children around the world. The first thing I want to say to all of you who are graduating today is the obvious, congratulations. 

This is a happy day. It’s a big moment in your lives. You’ve worked hard to get here. And even though I’m sure it’s not the way any of you imagined your graduation would look like, none of that should take away from the enthusiasm that I hope all of you feel. And I hope you all have a chance to celebrate the day in whatever way works best for you. 

A second thing I would like to say at the outset is, wherever you are, I hope you’ll take a moment to say thank you to the people who have helped you reach this day. You may be sitting next to them on a couch somewhere watching this, or you may be talking to them right after this program comes to an end. 

One of the amazing things about the kind of program that each of you have made it through is that it’s not the type of thing that anyone ever truly does alone. You always rely on other people. Maybe it was a parent, or parents, or a spouse or a sibling, or friends or fellow students, or professors who so often are that helping hand that gets you through difficult times. Let them know today that you appreciate what they’ve done. 

“For better and for worse, for now and for all time, all of you will be remembered as the class that went to graduate school in a pandemic.”

And then I want to spend a few minutes stepping back and just sharing a few thoughts briefly on what I hope you might take away from the experience that you’ve had. For better and for worse, for now and for all time, all of you will be remembered as the class that went to graduate school in a pandemic. It is not what we would wish upon the graduates of tomorrow or a decade from now. 

My son just graduated from law school, so I got to see firsthand in our own household just how challenging the experience can be. But even though it’s not what you would have wished for, even though it’s not what I would wish for anyone, I think for better and for worse, it has provided you with a unique set of experiences and perspectives. And as you go out into the world and we look to a life beyond COVID, I think it is a foundation on which you can build. 

The first thing that it has provided is a deep sense of resilience. You’ve had to do this in a way that few students, that few generations of students, have ever had to, before. And because it has not been easy, because it has been hard, I know there have been many days when you’ve had to dig deep, be creative and persevere through graduate school with a novel approach, and that ability to just know that you can do things that others have not done before. That ability to have that self-confidence, that no matter what life throws at you, you can find new ways to address it; believe me, that will serve you well. 

I hope that you’ll never have another pandemic in your lifetime, but life will bring some kind of challenge. It may be a professional challenge. It may be a personal one. It may be large, it may be small, but call on the resilience and remember what got you through this, because it will serve you well in the future. 

One of the great things about graduate school is a second aspect that I hope you’ll also build upon as you go forward. It’s a wonderful time of life because you get to exercise your curiosity. You get to just pursue a love of learning and apply it. And let’s face it, for all of you, you’ve been applying it in one of the great fields that is changing the world around all of us. 

Well, one thing we’ve all done, I think it’s fair to say, over the last year-and-a-half, is spend more time watching streaming video than in normal times. And I have to admit, even though I’m on the board of Netflix, one of my favorite lessons of the last year came from watching a different series. It was the Ted Lasso series on Apple TV. 

There comes a moment when the main character, Ted Lasso, quotes Walt Whitman. It is a phrase that I love. He says, “Be curious, not judgmental.” I think that has such powerful words of wisdom for all of us. 

And as you go out and do whatever it is, it could be a career in academia, it could be at a tech company, it could be in a startup, it could be in government, it could be with a nonprofit. There will be days when I hope you’ll remember that phrase because you’ll suddenly be engaged in a conversation with people. It may even involve an important issue of the day, and you may find people rushing to judgment. 

“The judgments we reach will always be better if we start, not by reaching conclusions, but by being curious.”

Well, ultimately in life, we do need to make judgments. But the thing I love about that phrase is that the judgments we reach will always be better if we start, not by reaching conclusions, but by being curious. 

And curiosity is exercised by asking questions, not making statements. It’s at its best for each of us when we’re listening and not just talking. And just as you’ve had to be curious, to learn and master the subjects before you in graduate school, there’s just this fantastic opportunity, I think, for you to call on that capability and exercise it every day. 

And then there’s one last thought I would leave with you. You’re leaving one of the great universities in the world. You’re pursuing a path that many others before you have pursued when they’ve left Berkeley. And like them, you have the opportunity to take what you have learned and have an impact that is as broad as your imagination can reach. 

“You have the opportunity to take what you have learned and have an impact that is as broad as your imagination can reach.”

One of the great things about the path that you all have been pursuing, the subjects that you’ve been studying, is that they connect with every issue in the world today. When I think of the issues I’ve been dealing with, just at Microsoft today, I just came from a meeting talking about how we provide assistance and relief to people in India, suffering from the strain on a hospital system amidst COVID-19.

Dealing with issues about, you know, economic advancement, inclusion, the protection of human rights, privacy, security, all of the issues that matter to people in the world today have a piece that connects with what you have been learning about, and that gives you an opportunity, no matter what you do, to contribute to something that is bigger than yourselves. And that’s what I hope you’ll do. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily will devote every waking hour, but make it a slice, at least, of what you go out and do with your time in the years ahead. 

I am excited about what I think you have the opportunity to do. I’m excited in part because I’m optimistic about the decade ahead. I will virtually assure you that in the year 2030, we’re going to spend a lot more time talking about something like carbon rather than COVID. And that will be just one of the many issues of the decade that you will have the opportunity to help the world address. 

So, remember what it took to get you through and call on that resilience when you need it. Be curious, not judgmental, as you think about how technology and what you have learned will connect with everything that’s happening. And make a contribution to something that’s bigger than yourself. if you do those three things well, I think it’s a recipe for a happy life. I think it’s a recipe for a life worth living. It’s definitely a recipe for putting your education and this degree to good use.

Good luck. Thank you. I look forward to seeing what you can do.

Brad Smith, President, Microsoft

Brad Smith is the President of Microsoft, where he leads a team of more than 1,500 business, legal and corporate affairs professionals located in 54 countries and operating in more than 120 nations. He plays a key role in spearheading the company’s work on critical issues involving the intersection of technology and society, including cybersecurity, privacy, artificial intelligence, environmental sustainability, human rights, immigration and philanthropy.

He earned his J.D. from Columbia University Law School and studied international law and economics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. He was the first attorney in the long history of the law firm Covington and Burling to insist (in 1986) on having a personal computer on his desk as a condition for accepting a job offer.

The New York Times has called Smith “a de facto ambassador for the technology industry at large” and The Australian Financial Review has described him as “one of the technology industry’s most respected figures.”

Last updated:

May 17, 2021