See what everyone else sees and do what no one else does.
Remarks to the Fay School Class of 2015
Good Morning. I am honored to be with you here today as the Fay School class of 2015 celebrates years of hard work and achievement.
When people look at accomplishment, they often lend it the air of inevitability. Like the overnight startup success that actually took 10 years of toiling in obscurity to accomplish.
I was invited here, because of my accomplishments in the 17 years since I sat where you are sitting today. I went to Choate, Bryn Mawr, Berkeley, and earned a PhD at Tufts Medical. I started a non-profit to increase sustainable access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world. I’m proud of these accomplishments but there was nothing inevitable about them.
When I arrived at Fay in September 1996, I was adrift. I had essentially failed out of my old school and was sleepwalking through my life. I arrived on campus with a trunk of approved clothing. Clothing I had never worn. Blue blazers, white button downs, grey skirts. The students were as foreign as the clothing but I quickly realized that we all escaping from something.
In the first year, I learned the rules, broke a few and found my place. I realized that beyond the dress code, there was very little I couldn’t do if I wanted to. I realized that I was in a completely new place full of new possibilities.
For me, It was like waking up.
I began to look around. The first thing I noticed is that there was no candy. I liked candy, my friends liked candy but the only want to get it was to go to DTS. I decided to do something about that. I took advantage of the BJ and Sam’s club runs to buy candy in bulk and stock a small store from a trunk in my room. It was a small thing. A very small thing that was probably totally against the rules, but seeing the impact I could have on my friends, made a difference in me.
I looked around more. I saw the incredibly diversity of the students. We hailed from all over the world and all over the country- from Harlem, to Jordan, Arizona to Aruba, Thailand to Texas- but it wasn’t something we talked about. So I decided to organize events to give students a place to talk about diversity and all of the different cultures and experiences we brought to Fay.
And that was only the beginning for me. Everywhere I looked, I saw what everyone else saw — the same problems and challenges that the world presented, many with no one stepping up to solve them.
So I’m here to tell you today: You have to wake up. Or rather, you don’t have to wake up. You can coast through life. Go to High School, Go to College, Get the law degree your parents want for you, meet a nice doctor, settle down.
But if you want to have impact, if you want to live a life of excitement and fire, wake up. Look around. See what everyone else sees and do what no one else does.
When I got to graduate school, I had worked hard for 10 years to get there. It was my one major objective. When I got there, I looked around. I realized that research is a powerful tool for moving humanity forward, but I wanted my life to be about action. About solving the problem I saw and wanted to do something about.
That problem was that there were a million children dying around the world from diarrhea. That problem was children not living to see their fifth birthday because of dirty drinking water. I realized that for me, the solution was not in the lab. The solution was already there. Help children drink clean water. Simple!
So I started to look around. I started to show up at seminars, panels, and conferences and schedule meetings with people in the field. I asked one single annoying question: why is it that in the 21st century we can’t get clean water to the billion people who don’t have it? And toilets to the 2.5 billion people who don’t have them? And stop 2 million children a year from dying because of diarrhea? What is stopping us?
And what I realized through these conversations, is that many of the people who were working so hard, with such good intentions didn’t have the answer to that question. They didn’t even ask it. They were sleepwalking. They were stuck.
Over the course of my searching for the answer, I came upon an obvious fact- parents don’t want their children to die. The world’s poorest spend tens of billions of dollars every year on water to try and prevent their families from getting sick. But clean water is still a luxury. It doesn’t have to be. There are affordable solutions out there, solutions that could create local jobs that are resistant to a charity losing its funding and resistant to the catastrophes around the world that so often move charitable funding from one disaster to the next. From Haiti, to Syria, to the Philippines, to Nepal with no lasting change. No lasting impact.
When I didn’t find anyone working to create sustainable large scale change- I built the Archimedes Project.
Today I want to encourage you, to exhort you to“look around”. Look at what everyone sees and do what no one else does. Be independent and don’t wait. The Fay motto is “You can if you will”. Not “you can if you have an MBA” or “you can if you have 10 years of Experience”. You can if you WILL.
So what do you want? What do you want to do with your limited days? What kind of mark do you want to leave on the world? What do you see that everyone else sees? And what can you do that no one else is doing?
Good Luck and Congratulations!
Delivered on Saturday June 6, 2015.