Matt Damon, award-winning actor and founder of www.water.org.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
June 3, 2016
Thank you, President Reif — and thank you Class of 2016!
It’s an honor to be part of this day — an honor to be here with you, with your friends, your professors, and your parents. But let’s be honest — it’s an honor I didn’t earn. Let’s just put that out there. I mean, I’ve seen the list of previous commencement speakers: Nobel Prize winners. The UN Secretary General. President of the World Bank. President of the United States. And who did you get? The guy who did the voice for a cartoon horse.
If you’re wondering which cartoon horse: that’s “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” Definitely one of my best performances … as a cartoon horse.
Look, I don’t even have a college degree. As you might have heard, I went to Harvard. 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. I put on a cap and gown and walked with my class; my Mom and Dad were there and everything; I just never got an actual degree. You could say I kind of fake graduated.
So you can imagine how excited I was when President Reif called to invite me to speak at the MIT commencement. Then you can imagine how sorry I was to learn that the MIT commencement speaker does not get to go home with a degree. So yes, today, for the second time in my life, I am fake graduating from a college in my hometown.
My Mom and Dad are here again… And this time I brought my wife and four kids. Welcome, kids, to Dad’s fake graduation. You must be so proud.
So as I said, my Mom is here. She’s a professor, so she knows the value of an MIT degree. She also knows that I couldn’t have gotten in here. I mean, Harvard, yes. Or a safety school — like Yale. No, I couldn’t have gotten in here, but I did grow up here. Grew up in the neighborhood, in the shadow of this imposing place. My brother Kyle and I, and my friend Ben Affleck—brilliant guy, good guy, never really amounted to much — we all grew up here, in Central Square, children of this sometimes rocky marriage between this city and its great institutions.
To us, MIT was kind of The Man … This big, impressive, impersonal force … That was our provincial, knee-jerk, teenage reaction, anyway.
Then Ben and I shot a movie here.
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 insane that no one erased it for months. This is true.
Anyway, Kyle came back and he said, you guys, listen to this … They’ve got blackboards running down the hall! Because these kids are so smart they just need to, you know, drop everything and solve problems!
It was then we knew for sure we could never have gotten in. 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 Hunting in the MIT school paper.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, Will was me, and Sean was played by the late Robin Williams, a man I miss a hell of a lot.
So I’m quoting here: “Good Will Hunting is very entertaining; but then again, any movie partially set at MIT has to be.” There’s more. “In the end…,” the reviewer writes, “the actual character development flies out the window. Will and Sean talk, bond, solve each other’s problems, and then cry and hug each other. After said crying and hugging, the movie ends… Such feel-good pretentiousness is definitely not my mug of eggnog.”
Well, this kind of hurts my feelings. But don’t worry: I now know better than to cry at MIT.
But look, I’m happy to be here anyway. I might still be a knee-jerk teenager in key respects, but I know an amazing school when I see it. We’re lucky to have MIT in Boston. And we’re lucky it draws the people it does, people like you, from around the world.
I mean, you’re working on some crazy stuff in these buildings. Stuff that would freak me out if I actually understood it. Theories, models, paradigm shifts. I’ll tell you one that’s been on my mind: Simulation Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you took a class with Max Tegmark.
Well, for the uninitiated, 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.
The basic idea, as I understand it, is that we could be living in a massive simulation run by a far smarter civilization, a giant computer game, and we don’t even know it. And here’s the thing: a lot of physicists, cosmologists, won’t rule it out. I watched a discussion that was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of the Hayden Planetarium, and by and large, the panel couldn’t give a definitive answer. Tyson himself put the odds at 50-50. I’m not sure how scientific that is, but it had numbers in it, so I was impressed.
Well, it got me to thinking: What if this—all of this—is a simulation? I mean, it’s a crazy idea, but what if it is? And if there are multiple simulations, how come we’re in the one where Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee? Can we, like, transfer to a different one?
Professor Tegmark has an excellent take on all this. “My advice,” he said recently, “is to go out and do really interesting things… so the simulators don’t shut you down.”
But then again: what if it isn’t a simulation? Well, either way, my answer is the same.
Either way, what we do matters. What we do affects the outcome.
So either way, 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. Go ahead: take your pick from the world’s worst buffet.
Economic inequality, there’s a problem… Or how about the refugee crisis, massive global insecurity… climate change and pandemics… institutional racism… a pull to nativism, fear-driven brains working overtime here in America and in places like Austria, where a far-right candidate nearly won the presidential election for the first time since World War II.
Or Brexit, for God’s sakes, that insane idea that the best path for Britain is to cut loose from Europe and drift out to sea. Add to that an American political system that’s failing… we’ve got congressmen on a two-year election cycle who are only incentivized to think short term, and simply do not engage with long-term problems.
Add to that a media that thrives on scandal and people with their pants down… Anything to get you to tune in so they can hawk you products that you don’t need. And add to that a banking system that steals people’s money. Like I said, I’m never running for office!
But while I’m on this, let me say this to the bankers who brought you the biggest heist in history: It was theft and you knew it. It was fraud and you knew it.
And you know what else? We know that you knew it.
And yeah, OK, you sort of got away with it. You got that house in the Hamptons that other people paid for as their own mortgages went underwater.
Well, you might have their money, but you don’t have our respect.
Just so you know, when we pass you on the street and look you in the eye, that’s what we’re thinking. I don’t know if justice is coming for you in this life or the next. But if justice does come for you in this life, her name is Elizabeth Warren.
Okay, so before my banking digression, I rattled off a bunch of big problems. And a natural response is to tune out, turn away.
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. Well, actually, when he said it, it felt less like advice and more like a direct order.
What he said was “turn toward the problems you see.”
It seemed kind of simple at the time, but the older I get, the more wisdom I see in this. And that’s what I want to urge you to do today: turn toward the problems you see. And don’t just turn toward them. Engage with them. Walk right up to them, look them in the eye … then look yourself in the eye and decide what you’re going to do about them.
In my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually going and seeing things.
I owe this insight, like many others, to my Mom. When I was a teenager, Mom thought it was important for us to see the world outside of Boston. And I don’t mean Framingham. She took us to places like Guatemala, where we saw extreme poverty up close. It changed my whole frame of reference.
I think it was that same impulse that took my brother and me to Zambia in 2006, as part of the ONECampaign — the organization that Bono founded to fight desperate, stupid 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.
She had just come from school. And I knew the reason that she was able to go to school at all: clean water. Namely, the fact that clean water was available nearby, so she didn’t have to walk miles back and forth all day to get water for her family, as so many girls and women do.
I asked her if she wanted to stay in her village when she grew up. She said, “No! I want to go to Lusaka and become a nurse!”
Clean water — something as basic as that — had given this child the chance to dream.
As I learned more about water and sanitation, I was floored by the extent to which it undergirds all these problems of extreme poverty. The fate of entire communities, economies, countries is caught up in that glass of water, something the rest of us get to take for granted.
People at ONE told me that water is the least sexy aspect of the effort to fight extreme poverty. And water goes hand-in-hand with sanitation. If you think water isn’t sexy, you should try to get into the shit business.
But I was already hooked. The enormity of it, and the complexity of the issue, had already hooked me. And getting out in the world and meeting people like this little girl is what put me on the path to starting Water.org, with a brilliant civil engineer named Gary White.
For Gary and me both, seeing the world, its problems, its possibilities heightened our disbelief that so many people, millions, in fact, can’t get a safe, clean drink of water or a safe, clean, private place to go to the bathroom. And it heightened our determination to do something about it.
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.
I spent a day speaking with women who had made this perilous journey across the Limpopo River, dodging bandits on one side, crocodiles in the river, and bandits on the other. Every woman I spoke to that day had been raped. Every single one. On one side of the river or both.
At the end of my time there I met a woman who was so positive, so joyful. She had just been given her papers and had been given political asylum in South Africa. And in the midst of this joyful conversation, I mustered up the courage and said, “Ma’am, do you mind my asking: were you assaulted on your journey to South Africa?”
And she replied, still smiling, “Oh, yes, I was raped. But I have my papers now. And those bastards didn’t get my dignity.”
Human beings will take your breath away. They will teach you a lot… but you have to engage.
I only had that experience because I went there myself. It was horrible in many ways, it was hard to get to… but of course that’s the point.
There’s a lot of trouble out there, MIT. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. I hope you see both.
But again, the point is not to become some kind of well-rounded, high-minded voyeur. The point is to try to eliminate your blind spots — the things that keep us from grasping the bigger picture. And look, even though I grew up in this neighborhood — in this incredible, multicultural neighborhood that was a little rough at that time — I find myself here before you as an American, white, male movie star. I don’t have a clue where my blind spots begin and end.
But looking at the world as it is, and engaging with it, is the first step toward finding our blind spots. And that’s when we can really start to understand ourselves better and begin to solve some problems.
With that as your goal, 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.
For all the amazing successes I’ve been lucky to share in, few things have shaped me more than the auditions that Ben and I used to do as young actors — where we would get on a bus, show up in New York, wait for our turn, cry our hearts out for a scene, and then be told, “OK, thanks.” Meaning: game over. We used to call it “being OK thanksed.”
Those experiences became our armor.
So now you’re thinking, that’s great, Matt. Failure is good. Thanks a ton. Tell me something I didn’t hear at my high school graduation. To which I say: OK, I will!
You know the real danger for MIT graduates? It’s not getting “OK thanksed.” The real danger is all that smoke that’s been blown up your… graduation gowns about how freaking smart you are.
Well, you are that freaking smart! But don’t believe the hype that’s thrown at you. You don’t have all the answers. And you shouldn’t. And that’s fine.
You’re going to have your share of bad ideas.
For me, one was playing a character named “Edgar Pudwhacker.” I wish I could tell you I’m making that up.
But as the great philosopher, Benjamin Affleck, once said: “Judge me by how good my good ideas are, not by how bad my bad ideas are.” You’ve got to suit up in your armor, and get ready to sound like a total fool.
Not having an answer isn’t embarrassing. It’s an opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I know so much less the second time I’m fake graduating than the first time.
The second thing I want to leave you with is that you’ve got to keep listening.
The world wants to hear your ideas — good and bad. But today’s not the day you switch from “receive” to “transmit.” Once you do that, your education is over. And your education should never be over.
Even outside your work, there are ways to keep challenging yourself. Listen to online lectures. I just retook a philosophy course online that I took at Harvard when I was nineteen. Or use MIT OpenCourseWare. Go to Wait But Why, or TED.com.
I’m told there’s even a Trump University. I have no earthly idea what they teach there. But whatever you do, just keep listening. Even to people you don’t agree with at all.
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.”
I heard that and I thought: here is a man who has been happily married for a long time. Not that the First Lady has ever been wrong about anything. Just like my wife. Never wrong. Not even when she decided last month that in a family with four kids, what was missing in our lives was a third rescue dog. That was an outstanding decision, honey. And I love you.
The third and last thought I want to leave you with is that not every problem has a high-tech solution. I guess this is obvious. But: it is really?
If anybody has a right to think we can pretty much tech support the world’s problems into submission, it’s you. Think of the innovations that got their start at MIT or by MIT alums: the World Wide Web. Nuclear fission. Condensed soup. (This is true! You should be proud.)
But the truth is, we can’t science the shit out of every problem. There is not always a freaking app for that.
Take water again as an example. People are always looking for some scientific quick fix for the problem of dirty and disease-ridden water. A “pill you put in the glass,” a filter, or something like that. But there’s no magic bullet. The problem’s too complex.
Yes, there is definitely, absolutely a role for science. There’s incredible advances being made in clean water technology. Companies and universities are getting in on the game. I’m glad to know that professors like Susan Mercott at D-Lab are focusing on water and sanitation.
But as I’m sure she’d agree, science alone can’t solve this problem. We need to be just as innovative in public policy, just as innovative in our financial models. That’s the idea behind an approach we have at Water.org called WaterCredit.
WaterCredit is based on Gary White’s insight that poor people were already paying for their water and they, no less than the rest of us, want to participate in their own solutions. So WaterCredit helps connect the poor with microfinance organizations, which enables them to build water connections and toilets in their homes and communities. The approach is working — helping 4 million people so far — and this is only the start.
Our loans are paying back at over 99 percent. Which is a hell of a better deal than those bankers I was talking about earlier.
I agree it’s still not sexy… but it is without a doubt the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
So, graduates, let me ask you this in closing: What do you want to be a part of? What’s the problem you’ll try to solve? Whatever your answer, it’s not going to be easy. Sometimes your work will hit a dead-end. Sometimes your work will be measured in half-steps.
And sometimes your work will make you wear a white sequined military uniform and make love to Michael Douglas.
Well, maybe that’s just my work.
But for all of you here, your work starts today.
And seriously, how lucky are you? I mean, what are the odds that you’re the ones who are here today?
In the Earth’s 4.5 billion year run, with 100 billion people who have lived and died, and with 7 billion of us here now… Here you are. Yes, here you are, alive at a time of potential extinction-level events, a time when fewer and fewer people can cause more and more damage, a time when science and technology may not hold all the answers, but are indispensable to any solution.
What are the odds that you get to be you, right now, the MIT class of 2016, with so much on the line?
There are potentially trillions of human beings who will someday exist whose fate, in large part, depends on the choices you make, on your ideas, on your grit and persistence and willingness to engage.
If this were a movie I were trying to pitch, I’d be laughed out of every office in Hollywood.
Joseph Campbell himself — he of the “monomyth,” the ultimate hero’s journey — even he wouldn’t even go this far. Campbell would tell me to throttle this down, lower the stakes.
But I can’t. Because this is fact, not fiction. This improbable thing is actually happening. There’s more at stake today than in any story ever told. And how lucky you are — and how lucky we are — that you’re here, and you’re you.
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.
This is your life, Class of 2016. This is your moment, and it’s all down to you.
Ready player one. Your game begins: now. Congratulations and thanks very much!