On December 10, 2022, Dr. Heidi K. Gardner spoke to more than 550 graduating students at the University of Idaho.
Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Bestselling Author Dr. Heidi K. Gardner delivered the commencement address at the University of Idaho’s 2022 Winter Commencement Ceremony. A video and transcript of her speech are provided below.
Video of Dr. Heidi K. Gardner’s commencement address
Transcript of Dr. Heidi K. Gardner’s commencement address
Thank you for the warm welcome, President Green, and thank you to everyone here in the community for having me with you on this incredibly momentous occasion. I have been thinking a lot about you over the last weeks, and want to extend to each of you my deepest wishes for continued healing and peace.
And this day today is about you, the graduates. And I’m absolutely thrilled and grateful to be with you, to offer just a few morsels of wisdom and guidance as you are moving forward in your life journey. You’ve worked incredibly hard. And by the end of our short (and yes, I do mean short) time together here (I’ll keep it small, I know that’s what you want to hear), I hope you pick up at least one small, practical action that you can take forward that will multiply you hard work so that you can go further than even you imagine at this point.
But let’s be honest—are you sitting there wondering what I could possibly say that’s relatable and practical for each of you?
Well, here’s the truth: we share a lot more in common than you might initially realize from that intro. For example: like some of you who grew up in a rural area, I was born and raised in Amish country in Pennsylvania. That means we probably share a similar work ethic and a pragmatic outlook.
And, also like some of you, you, and you, and all of you, and some I saw stand up earlier, I’m a first-generation college student, and I’m only here because my parents dreamed that their kids could have better and more opportunities than they did—and then they sacrificed to make that happen.
So, I didn’t take that lightly. I’ve always worked incredibly hard and I’ve had some amazing experiences along the way—from working in the former East German educational system as a Fulbright Fellow to helping companies succeed in South Africa. And I am incredibly grateful for my mentors along the way, and now my husband and two daughters for putting up with and supporting my crazy travel schedule and long work hours.
Now, just a few minutes ago you had the opportunity to stand up and acknowledge and thank the people who have been supporting you along the way. And, congratulations, you’ve actually just practiced the important piece that will help to super-charge your work going forward. By the simple act of saying a heartfelt “thank you,” did you know you improve your own physical and mental health? And it inspires people around you, the people you’ve thanked, to be more generous and prosocial and it strengthens relationships, which kickstarts a virtuous cycle.
So, first piece of advice to you: practice gratitude every single day. Now for some of you who are kind of looking at me like this, I’m watching you, OK? Because you think this sounds “fluffy.” But if that’s what you’re thinking, if you’re a little skeptical about that piece of advice of practicing gratitude and all the benefits that come to you, I’d encourage you to read the research. It’s backed up by hard neuroscience and it has been used to great effect in places like helping our country’s soldiers who are suffering from and fighting back against PTSD. So don’t tell those brave women and men that practicing gratitude is “soft.”
Now, going back to what we do and don’t have in common, anybody here speak Japanese? I know at least one person here speaks Japanese. It’s a weird thing for a girl who grew up in Amish country. I started studying Japanese when I was 16 years old. I’d won a place to study for a month or so at a state-sponsored summer school, and fell in love with the language because it was the most foreign thing I’d ever heard. And from Amish country that’s kind of a form of rebellion.
And I went on to be a Japanese major in college. (Nihongo dekimasu. ICU to Kansai Gaidai ni benkyou shite imashta no de.) I wasn’t perfectly fluent, but I could converse pretty easily and even read a newspaper. And these days, I’m lucky if can order sushi without a grammatical mistake!
And so people ask me, aren’t you frustrated you spent so much time learning Japanese and you don’t really use it anymore? Wasn’t it a waste of time?
No way! It allowed me to live with Japanese host families, participate in the culture, and make friends in ways I could have never done without investing in learning the language. And to this day, those experiences help me empathize with people across very different cultures because I know what it’s like to be an outsider. It also gives me courage to try really difficult things, and not be afraid of making mistakes.
So what? Well, here’s my point to you: if you’re curious or passionate about a topic or an idea—jump on it. You never know where it’ll lead. And learning is a lifelong adventure. No matter what you studied, I bet you’re going to find that maybe it’s not the content, but the way you “learned to learn” that will really make a difference.
And think back to when you were 16—or younger. For some of you it wasn’t all that long ago. Were you super interested in some area, but then abandoned it to pursue a more “realistic” path?
Let me tell you quickly about a really awesome person I just met while doing my research. She’s a lawyer who told me, “I’ve always been a gearhead.” She said “I went to law school so that I could buy better cars.” Well, that’s a motivation. Now she leads her firm’s global autonomous vehicles practice.
And I think it’s a brilliant example of how somebody took their “grown up profession” and crafted it to deploy her passion. And she’s great at it, because she’s authentic and because she really, really cares.
So, have you reflected on what makes you great? Passion’s part of it. Hard work is part of it. And you also have some incredible strengths, built of your unique life experiences and talents you’ve cultivated along the way.
Keep reflecting and honing. The more you recognize your strengths, and practice them, the more pronounced they’ll become. Find out where you shine, and then run full blast with these superpowers.
So, that’s my second piece of advice, after practicing gratitude: use your passion and your strengths to your advantage.
But let’s face it: today’s problems are incredibly complex. If you try to tackle them on your own, you’re surely going to miss something important. No matter how smart or hardworking you are, you’re never going to be great at everything. The liberating point is: you don’t have to be!
To do really important work, and by that…you need to team up with people who are really different from you.
Let’s think for a minute about innovation. Innovation kind of makes the world go around these days, right? And a lot of people get confused—they think innovation is the same as creativity. But creativity is about novel ideas, blue sky thinking, big crazy stuff, right? Yeah, but if that’s all you’ve got, you’re just left with a bunch of big, crazy ideas.
Innovation requires application. And to innovate, that means you need to take those big new, new, new ideas and turn them into something practical, and useful. And the reality is, most of us are good at only one of those things.
So, let’s do a quick thought experiment. All of you, I want you to think about which one sounds more like you. I’m going to describe two ways of thinking. Are you the big-picture complex thinker? You love abstract ideas. Do you see connections between unusual things? Or are you the person who asks “So what?,” “How does it work?,” “Who’s going to get started?” Do you take those big ideas and apply them and turn them into something concrete and usable? Both kinds of thinkers are absolutely essential for innovation.
The problem is that those two types of thinkers rarely work well together. In fact, they often get on each other’s nerves. The big thinking says “Oh, I’m so superior—I only think big thoughts” and the really concrete one goes “C’mon dude, let’s make it happen.”
And that difference is just one of a zillion (zillion being a technical term), zillion kinds of differences between people. Diversity comes in a vast array of flavors—it could be different knowledge interest, work experiences, cultural backgrounds, wealth, and so on. And the thing is, human nature is such that we tend to gravitate toward people who are really similar to us.
So, if you want to really succeed—and that means tackling tough problems and creating breakthrough solutions—you need to get out of your comfort zone. You need to find people who are genuinely different than you, and—here’s the hard part—learn how to use healthy conflict to take advantage of those differences.
For our new book Smarter Collaboration, my coauthor and I, we collected and analyzed millions of data records from organizations across the planet. And if you take a look at even the first chapter of that, you’re going to see proof that people who operate like this—they deliberately work across silos and seek out and engage with people who are different from them, they are far, far more successful than people who operate in silos.
But just surrounding yourself with people who think differently isn’t enough. You need to learn how to stimulate and use what’s called task conflict for a creative and constructive outcome. If you’re in a group, find ways to challenge each other, debate ideas, and bring your unique point of view to bear.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had a really big argument with somebody about the ideas and then afterward you walked off together and said, “Hey, that was cool. Let’s go grab a coffee, or a beer, or whatever—right?” But too often, that doesn’t happen. We disagree and it turns personal. The crucial ingredients to preventing that debate from turning into interpersonal discord are trust and curiosity. When you start to disagree, make sure you’re doing it with the right intentions: you’re trying to pressure test concepts so that you come up with a far better solution than any of you could have done on your own. Tell the other person why you’re being so tough on their ideas and it’s because you want to reach a better solution—you’re not trying to make them look stupid. Gaining their trust is essential.
The other angle is curiosity: When you have an allergic reaction to something that somebody is saying, rather than reject it to reject them or mock them—use it to spark curiosity. Ask yourself: why do they see the world so differently? What if you were to put those two sets of really different ideas together, and how could that be more powerful than either of you on your own?
That’s absolutely what we mean by the term “smarter collaboration.” It’s knowing your strengths, having the courage to admit where you’re not brilliant, finding people who complement you, and then embracing them because they’re different from you.
OK, so let’s do a quick recap. Here’s what we’re going to try to do: pick one, only one. First thing, practice gratitude: it helps you build the kind of supportive network you need throughout life. Two: identify and use your passion and strengths: that’s how you stay energized and make the biggest difference in the world. Three: team up with people who are really different than you: that’s when your strengths shine, and you become most powerful. And lastly, harness differences by building trust and fostering curiosity.
Let me wrap up with a piece of advice we use in the opening of our new book. And I have to tell you this little bit because it only makes sense: my coauthor on the new book is my husband—that’s a story for another day. But what I wanted to tell you is the dedication, we gave to our daughters, Zoe and Anya, and the whole generation of upcoming smart collaborators—that’s you.
So, here’s the advice: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And you’ve already begun this journey with your fellow Vandals, and I have faith you’ll do it wherever life takes you: reaching unimaginable heights. Godspeed, thank you, and go Vandals!