Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

White House Cabinet Member Peter R. Orszag Advises Rensselaer Graduates To Be Empirical and Resilient

May 29, 2010

White House Cabinet Member Peter R. Orszag Advises Rensselaer Graduates To Be Empirical and Resilient

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Addresses Nearly 1,400 Graduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute’s 204th Commencement; President Shirley Ann Jackson Urges Graduates To Collaborate in Innovation

White House Office of Budget and Management Director Peter R. Orszag offered the Class of 2010 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two pieces of advice at the Institute’s Commencement today:  “First, be empirical; and second, be resilient.”

He addressed nearly 1,400 graduates and their families at Rensselaer’s 204th Commencement today, the first to be held in the stadium at the Institute’s new East Campus Athletic Village.

“Class of 2010, you are about to join the ranks of RPI alumni — individuals who literally built America — from Ferris wheels to Fenway Park; from the transcontinental railroad to the Brooklyn Bridge,” Orszag said. “Individuals who changed our lives by putting TV’s in our homes, GPS in our cars, the “@” symbol in our e-mail, and — most importantly from the perspective of my 8-year-old son—Guitar Hero 5 on our Wii’s.”

See the full text of Orszag’s speech.

As graduates look ahead to their careers and lives which will shape our nation and our world for decades to come, he continued, “Let me use the privilege of being your Commencement speaker to offer two pieces of advice: first, be empirical; and second, be resilient.”

Be empirical, Orszag said, by applying theories with humility and checking them against evidence.

“This is especially true when it comes to the intersection of science and human beings,” he said. “Because whenever and wherever people are involved, the allure of pure mathematical elegance can lead us badly astray.”

Orszag cited his own field of economics, which once largely subscribed to the theory that humans behaved as rational supercomputers who carefully weigh costs and benefits and ultimately do what is optimal.

If that were true, he continued, the Class of 2010 would have arrived at Commencement having rationally calculated years ago that hard study, good marks, and admission to a good college would lead to a better life.

Instead, he said, today’s graduates owe their success to a host of factors, “most especially including the norms of those around you, that excited you about computers, engineering, or science ... people around you who made it clear that doing well academically was not just a necessity, but actually ‘cool.’”

Such insights, such willingness to accept empirical evidence, are what have led behavioral economists to better understand the true motivation behind actions beneath the rationale of a human supercomputer — like eating too much popcorn at the movies, not saving enough money for retirement, and wasting energy.

And in accepting that evidence, we are better able to tackle what problems we study.

“The bottom line is that as you move forward in whatever fields you pursue, always try to square the theory with actual observations,” Orszag said.

For his next piece of advice, Orszag recalled that, at the time of his college graduation, he “valued raw intelligence more than virtually any other human attribute.” But he has since learned that “it’s not smarts that matters most; it’s resilience.” 

“It is this ability to overcome adversity that is perhaps the single most important determinant of a well-led life—not only as reflected in external things such as how nice your house is, how lofty your title, or how large your paycheck — which ultimately will mean less to you than you might think now — but more crucially as measured by your own sense of self,” Orszag said.

“This resilience will empower you to try new things and posit new — or even radical — ideas,” Orszag said. “Ultimately, it is that stubborn refusal not to be deterred that has built America — that has made our labs, our universities, and our businesses the envy of the world.”

“So, as you set out to write the next chapter of your lives,” he concluded, “throw yourself at what you’re doing; follow the evidence; take calculated risks; and find comfort in how you approach adversity — rather than trying to eliminate it.”

President Jackson urges graduates to collaborate in innovation

Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson told graduates that a full economic recovery will demand innovation. And in innovation, the Class of 2010 is at an advantage.

“Although young people do not have an absolute monopoly on new ideas ... there are advantages to being young, in that you have not yet spent decades steeped in conventional wisdom,” Jackson said. “So, graduates, we all are depending on you for the insights that will help us to create new industries, to create new jobs, and to solve the great global challenges.”

Truly transformative ideas, she said, come from collaboration and the intersection of academic disciplines.

“I hope that you will remember one idea that we have worked hard to weave into the fabric of the Institute: the supreme importance of talking to people outside your own field of expertise,” Jackson said. “Conversation is a prerequisite for collaborative innovation, and for the movement of great ideas out into the world.”

The Class of 2010 is more greatly empowered to access information and express its voice than any of its predecessors. From today’s Internet and social media to tomorrow’s Semantic Web platform — being built at Rensselaer — the “Power of One” has never been greater.

“In other words, as newly minted graduates of Rensselaer, with formidable minds and skills, you have power to create and use technology responsibly — and beyond technology, you have the power to be leaders,” Jackson said.

But with great power, comes great responsibility, and Jackson urged graduates to “use the remarkable tools at your disposal wisely. To be truly effective, communication requires attention as much as expression, empathy as much as will, and generosity as much as personal confidence.”

“Graduates, today I hope that you, too, will wring new meanings from the stars overhead, or from the particles in an accelerator, or from the carbon nanotube in the wing of a futuristic airplane,” Jackson said. “But I also hope that you will learn how to strike up a conversation with the person who sits next to you on that same airplane; that you will take the time now and then to ask a colleague in a different department about his or her work; that occasionally, you will read a paper or article in a subject that is not your own; that you will not be afraid to give a speech or a bit of advice when asked; that you will keep corresponding with, and talking to, the old friends at your alma mater. And that you always will find a moment to tell your family and friends that you love them on occasions as beautiful as this one. For you are sure to have many.”

See the full text of Jackson’s speech at:

Class president exhorts classmates to bold action despite economic uncertainty

“My advice to you is this: be persistent, be tenacious, don’t give up, and don’t take ‘no’ as an answer,” Class of 2010 President Samuel Punshon-Smith said. “Follow your passions and try as hard as you can to get what you want in life, and don’t be afraid of failure. There is no such thing — just experiences and what you can learn from them.”

Punshon-Smith acknowledged the uncertain economic climate graduates enter.

“I wish I could say that we are all walking out into a booming economy and a wide open job market,” Punshon-Smith said. “Sadly, things aren’t so easy, at least not yet.”

But, he said, our times are “exciting and ambivalent.”

“Here we are, a legion of intelligent and high-quality professionals, academics, entrepreneurs, and leaders, about to be let loose onto an unsuspecting world,” Punshon-Smith said. “The future is unknown, and every day we are faced with enormous technical problems, challenging questions, and exciting potential for new growth and development. We have now been given the unique ability to get out and solve these problems, answer these questions, and change the world the way we see fit. Why not?”

See the full text of Smith’s speech at:

Celebrated guests awarded honorary degrees

In addition to delivering the Commencement address, Orszag received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Rensselaer also bestowed honorary degrees upon Robert S. Langer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Harold E. Varmus.

Langer, who received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree, is a renowned biotechnology pioneer, who currently serves as the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His research laboratory at MIT, which has been called the largest biomedical engineering laboratory in the world, is responsible for key advances in the administration of drugs through the skin without needles or other invasive methods, and important tissue engineering breakthroughs.

deGrasse Tyson, who received an honorary Doctor of Science degree, is a leading voice in astrophysics and a champion of increased science literacy for the general public, and currently serves as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Varmus, who received an honorary Doctor of Science degree, is co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering studies of the genetic basis of cancer. Varmus is the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and currently serves as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. President Barack Obama recently announced the appointment of Varmus to serve as director of the National Cancer Institute.

Commencement streamed live via Web

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 204th Commencement was broadcast live on the Web. A re-broadcast of the event can be viewed at

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146