At today’s OneMIT Commencement ceremony, Mark Rober — engineer, inventor, and YouTuber — urged MIT’s graduating class to cultivate a sense of optimism and collaboration, and, in our uncertain world, to “pick what you think is the best path and just move forward.”
A warm and sunny Killian Court served as the setting for a festive and energetic event, with thousands of graduates in attendance with family, friends, and MIT community members. Rober encouraged graduates to positively impact the world while practicing “optimism combined with dedication” and fostering their relationships with others.
He also offered his own example of innovation in action. After wearing a conventional mortarboard during his speech, the kind graduates typically toss in the air at the end of the ceremony. Rober took it off after his remarks, attached it to a drone, and sent it soaring over the MIT’s Great Dome.
“Anybody can toss their hat in the air. We see it at every graduation — but few have dared to make it actually fly,” Rober said before his hat reached liftoff. His remarks and grand finale drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Rober’s address was followed by remarks from MIT President Sally Kornbluth, who suggested the Institute’s new graduates cultivate “curiosity and a sense of larger purpose” while finding their pursuits in life.
“While the world — and possibly your parents — may be expecting big things from you right away, I want to give you permission, for a while, to not know,” Kornbluth said. “And to try different paths. And to change your mind. Especially in this world with new industries, new disciplines, and new jobs emerging on every frontier.”
Rober is an engineer by training who worked for NASA for almost a decade and was part of the team that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. He has also worked for Apple. Even as his engineering career was flourishing, Rober began making videos exploring science and engineering, and in 2011 established his YouTube channel, which now has over 24 million subscribers. Rober’s videos span an array of topics from his NASA work to squirrel behavior, toothpaste explosions, shark activity, the properties of Jell-O, and much, much more.
In his address, Rober offered three distinct pieces of advice for MIT’s graduates — accompanied at times by the theme music from his videos. Roper’s first item was to “embrace naive optimism” as a way of avoiding excessive doubt and discouragement.
“It’s easier to be optimistic about your future opportunities when you’re sort of naive about what lies ahead,” Rober said, using the challenge of graduating from MIT as one example. “If you truly understood what would be required, that discouragement might have prevented you from starting.” He added that such an attitude can also aid a big life decision. “When you feel like you want to know the results before you decide, but the true outcome is simply unknowable.”
Instead, Rober suggested, “Life is like trying to cross a big flowing river with lots of rocks and boulders strewn about.” We must negotiate things one rock or boulder at a time, he emphasized, remarking that “the willingness to jump from my current safe rock to the next is what I feel has led me from college to NASA to YouTube to eventually landing on this rock, of giving the commencement speech at M-I- freaking-T. There’s no way I could have predicted that path when I was exactly in your shoes 20 years ago.”
As a second nugget of advice, Rober advised graduates to “frame your failures” in order to learn from them without being too stressed by them — as one might in a casual setting like video gaming, where people are unselfconsciously motivated to improve.
“I feel like when you frame a challenge or a learning process in this way, you actually want to do it,” Rober said. “If you want to cross the river of life, you’re gonna get wet, you’re gonna have to backtrack, and that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.”
Thirdly, Rober advised the graduates, “foster your relationships. A sad truth about getting older is, life gets busier and busier and it gets harder and harder to make really close friends like you made here in school.”
We have evolved as cooperative creatures, he noted, and should “positively apply confirmation bias to [our] relationships. If you assume good intentions on the part of your friends and family, and you tell yourself you’re lucky to have them, your brain will naturally work to find evidence to support that.”
In an address laced with humor and quips, Rober turned serious while discussing his mother, who “took being a mom and instilling values in her children really seriously. As such, she’s the single biggest influence on my life by far.” Over a decade ago, Rober’s mother died from ALS. Even so, he said, “I love the idea that the ripples from her influence are being felt as strongly as they ever have, through the work that I try and do now.”
Kornbluth, MIT’s 18th president, was formally inaugurated a month ago, and today participated in her first Institute commencement. Issuing the president’s traditional “charge to the graduates,” she saluted the Class of 2023 for having graduated with “an involuntary double major in applied pandemic studies,” having matriculated through the Covid-19 crisis.
“You learned and created and explored in ways no one at MIT had ever done — all while caring for your friends, your families and yourselves, through a long struggle none of us were prepared for,” Kornbluth said.
She elaborated: “In an important sense, you also held together MIT. Somehow, across thousands of miles and endless hours of Zoom, you kept the culture, traditions, and values of MIT alive and thriving. … Because of you, the Institute I’ve inherited is kinder, wiser, nimbler, and more playful. You made sure that the MIT spirit — the spirit that drew you here! — would endure. And you found ways to make it even better. And for that, I cannot thank you enough.”
Observing that issuing a “charge” might sound a little too much like graduates were being given one last “grand assignment,” Kornbluth suggested graduates think of it as “a different kind of charge. A charge, as in a source of energy.”
Today, Kornbluth said, “we all live surrounded by devices and media and societal forces that tend to drain our batteries and dissipate our energy and attention. Which means that, for each of us, it has never been more important to cultivate our personal sources of renewable energy.”
For herself, Kornbluth observed, “I’ve found two infinitely renewable sources of energy: curiosity and a sense of larger purpose.” Relating a story from her time in graduate school, when she witnessed another graduate student’s “Eureka” moment in identifying a new class of cancer-causing genes, she reflected, “I’m sure he would tell you that it was one of the most exciting moments of his life. And the curiosity that led him there has renewed itself over and over, powering his own work and inspiring those around him ever since.”
In this sense, Kornbluth said, “curiosity is endlessly electrifying. And best of all is if you can find a way to harness your curiosity to a purpose larger than yourself. One of the greatest joys in life is the feeling of using your skills to the limit, to do something important for others: your community, your discipline, your institution, your country — or even the whole human family and our fragile planet. If you can do that, you will find a free, wireless charge wherever you go.”
Kornbluth concluded: “I wish you the warmest congratulations on all that you’ve achieved. And I cannot wait to see where your curiosity and sense of purpose lead you next.”
MIT’s Class of 2023 consists of 3,735 students, receiving 1,146 undergraduate and 2,613 graduate degrees. The OneMIT Commencement ceremony encompasses all graduates. MIT’s undergraduates and graduate students also have separate ceremonies in which they have their names read as they walk across stage, held from Wednesday, May 31 to Friday, June 2.
At today’s OneMIT Commencement ceremony, Diane B. Greene SM ’78, chair of the MIT Corporation, introduced the speakers, thanked Rober for “redefining the commencement speech,” and hailed the “remarkable, stunning” Class of 2023.
The event began with an alumni parade for the members of the class of 1973, celebrating their 50th anniversary reunion. It was followed by the traditional procession of administration and faculty, accompanied by the Killian Court Brass Ensemble, conducted by Kenneth Amis.
After welcoming remarks by Greene, Thea Keith-Lucas, chaplain to the Institute, gave an invocation, and the Chorallaries of MIT, a campus a cappella group, sang the national anthem.
Adam Joseph Miller, president of the Graduate Student Council from 2021 to 2023, delivered remarks as well, saying that in the face of much turmoil in the world, “We do not give up. Despite all the challenges, the future is bright. Bright, because of the brilliance of this class, and this generation.”
Miller was followed by Anna T. Sun, president of the undergraduate Class of 2023, who also sounded a note of optimism and determination.
“Now is our time,” Sun said. “We have the opportunity, the privilege, and the responsibility to create ripples that make this world a better place.”
Stephen D. Baker ’84, MArch ’88, issued the traditional brief welcome for graduates into the MIT Alumni Association. The Chorallaries sang the school song, “In praise of MIT,” moments after Greene issued closing remarks to the class of 2023.
“Yes, you’re entering a world full of problems, but it’s also an amazing and beautiful world,” Greene said. “And it is one that you will make … more beautiful and more amazing.”