Slow Down and Fix Things
– Opening Assembly Address, Yale College Class of 2027
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
August 21, 2023
I’m sorry that I cannot be there with you in person today. Although I feel fine, I tested positive for Covid yesterday, and in accordance with the University’s health guidelines, I’m staying home. However, I’m delighted to join you through video.
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you, our entering students, and your family members to campus, and to mark officially the start of your undergraduate education.
This is a big moment – for you and for Yale!
I’m glad this day has arrived and I’m so glad you are here.
It is evident why you belong at Yale. Your academic distinction, leadership savvy, and outstanding motivation solidify your standing among students who have sat for centuries where you are sitting today. What is more, the richness of your diversity – across every dimension – reflects Yale’s commitment to creating an inclusive educational environment.
Now, as you prepare to enter Yale – and leave your unique imprint on it – allow me to alert you to a perennial observation among our alumni. Many of your predecessors, I must caution, have marveled at the breakneck clip at which today’s festivities give way to your graduation.
It’s a hard truth codified in one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions, the singing of our unofficial alma mater, “Bright College Years.” Your time here is described as the “shortest, gladdest years of life,” and as “gliding by,” “swiftly,” in fact.
So I encourage you to savor the qualities that drew you to this remarkable place.
Between the ceremonies that will bookend your “bright college years,” I encourage you to remain ever aware that time here moves at warp speed.
As you set off on the grand adventure of a liberal education, though, I want also to impart a bit of wisdom. Today, I want to urge you to cultivate the habit of moving deliberately, systematically – slowly – not necessarily to blunt the wistfulness you may feel in four years’ time, but to reflect on the ideas to which you will be exposed, and to be in a position to repair what is broken in the world you will then enter.
As perhaps never before, this year’s cohort of new undergraduate students has come of age in a culture of haste. Yours is a generation that has never known life without the instant spread of information. Social networking was born before nearly all of you. And similarly novel technologies that were unthinkable in my generation are native to yours.
Many of the innovations on which society has come to rely are the fruit of a mantra first articulated by Mark Zuckerberg. “Move fast and break things,” he instructed his staff at Facebook around the time of its 2004 launch. “Unless you are breaking stuff,” he continued, “you are not moving fast enough.”
To be sure, this mantra was eventually phased out as Facebook’s motto, but it remains very much a prevailing ethos that animates today’s tech ecosystem. “Blitzscaling,” as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman characterized it, “drives ‘lightning’ growth by prioritizing speed over efficiency, even in an environment of uncertainty.”
Of course, this ethos also has seeped into the DNA of newer online platforms that prioritize, rather detrimentally, speed over depth – platforms that can stoke our emotional impulses all while suppressing our capacity to think broadly and engage with ideas that challenge us. The emerging frontier of artificial intelligence has given us a glimpse into its potential to compound these tendencies.
So, rather than “move fast and break things,” I say, here today, “slow down and fix things.”
Now, I am not a Luddite. I treasure the benefits of technological advance to our lives and our relationships. Here on campus, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the extraordinary usefulness of digital tools in sustaining our educational mission – and in allowing us to cope and connect with one another – amid social isolation and hardship. And sometimes, tech is just plain fun. I can spend hours on YouTube checking out Appalachian music from past decades.
But the propensity we have developed for the immediate deprives us of the time and space necessary for careful reflection. Social media feeds can bait us with the hollow lure of “likes” – and then bombard us with viewpoints that reinforce, indeed intensify, our most strongly held assumptions. We consume what we already believe to be true – and are largely shielded, therefore, from what is.
So, I encourage you: Slow down and fix things.
To place this advice in context, I’d like to draw upon my field of study, the discipline of psychology.
Last year, I had the special privilege of engaging in a public dialogue about generative AI with Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist known best for his field-changing research on decision-making heuristics and biases. Years ago, my lab relied on his work to conduct research on how to make health messages more persuasive. And Yale was proud to bestow on him an honorary degree in 2014.
In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Professor Kahneman details how our minds are governed by two systems. System 1 is the fast one. It’s based on emotion, reflex, and stereotype. And it makes us “gullible,” therefore, “and biased to believe.” System 2 is the slow one, in charge of “doubting and unbelieving” through analytical, deliberate, and rational thought.
“The confirmatory bias of System 1,” he says, in short, “favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggerations of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.” Well, we can see here the hazards of nurturing it as a default way of thinking, particularly in a time of upheaval and unrest.
Of course, as members of the Class of 2027, your most formative years coincided with moments of monumental consequence. In high school, you witnessed a once-in-a-generation pandemic and the virulent spread of conspiracy theories about it. You saw violent insurrectionists disrupt the most basic functioning of our democracy, and Vladimir Putin launch the largest ground war in Europe since the Second World War. You have seen, and some of you have participated in, transformative social and cultural movements. And as recently as this summer, you experienced the hottest recorded week in history even as some deny the severity – in fact, the existence – of the climate emergency.
So, I sense you may rightfully feel, among a mix of other emotions, a burning desire to pursue speedy action. But our commitment to lux et veritas – to light and truth – compels us to slow down, to listen to each other, to deal with complex and sometimes conflicting ideas, to engage in deep thoughtfulness, and then to look for ways to fix things.
Now, let me be clear: this is not to suggest that the pace of progress ought to be glacial.
No, the challenges confronting society demand our restlessness to improve the world for this and future generations. Patience, as university president Kingman Brewster Jr. told incoming members of a Yale College class, “is not come by easily in a world for which survival is a serious question.” And that was to the Class of 1974! So “where then,” he asked, “is the purpose which makes patient learning supportable?”
As President Brewster would go on to insinuate, enduring, institutional progress takes not only knowledge but understanding. Solutions born of even the most well-founded scientific or historical expertise still require the public will to implement them. Changing other people’s minds requires us to expand our own; breakthroughs are brought about in a chorus, not an echo chamber. We must take time to think deliberatively if we want to fix things.
Let me provide an example from two Yale College alumni, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, political scientists, the latter of whom is at Yale. Professors Broockman and Kalla focus on political persuasion, public opinion, and prejudice reduction. And their signal work on transgender rights and immigration informs and guides meaningful action in these and other realms of public discourse.
They found that the inclination to correct others who do not see the world as we do “may provide emotional relief, but it’s not likely to persuade”, in their words. “In fact, [expressing such frustration] can make people harden their existing views.” “Deep canvassing,” – that is “non-judgmentally exchanging narratives in interpersonal conversations” – can “facilitate durable reductions in exclusionary attitudes.”
OK. So they dispatched dozens of door-to-door canvassers in the wake of a new law to protect transgender people from discrimination. One group of canvassers “said nothing to residents about transphobia,” while the other “[asked] sensitive questions, [listened] to the answers with sincere interest, and then [asked] more questions.”
The result? Well, here is what they said, “Not everyone was swayed… but on average, [the group engaged in the deeper, thoughtful interactions] experienced a drop in transphobia [even] greater than the fall in homophobia among Americans from 1998 to 2012.” The canvassers, by listening sincerely – patiently – “had produced the equivalent of fourteen years of social change.” So, we must undertake the rigorous, painstaking, and yes, sometimes plodding, task of listening carefully to the broad range of perspectives that surround us instead of blazing forth complacently.
We must elevate the virtues, indeed the value, of patience and a willingness to listen to ideas we don’t like, and reject a counterproductive culture of calling out, denunciation, and ostracism. In an obvious paradox, slowing down can achieve faster, more effective results.
In thinking of this imperative, I am reminded of the Reverend Tish Harrison Warren’s recent exploration of patience as a virtue with the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture. “Internet advocacy – our very connected world – does make us [a] less patient people. I mean that in both ways,” she says, “less patient for change but also less patient with one another. It takes real work to slow down and listen to another person’s perspective, especially if you disagree.”
I think, too, of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, another honorary Yale degree recipient I reference today, who expressed powerfully that “arguments are won only by giving your opponent a hearing.”
Here at Yale, and at colleges and universities like it, we advance this worthy endeavor by educating students to seek out competing ideas, to evaluate evidence, to mobilize the tools of reason and critical inquiry. Yes, this takes time and patience. But the effortful System 2 mode of thinking a liberal education promotes cultivates collaboration – and thereby propels sweeping contributions to our world.
That is, I think, what makes education “the strongest force available.”
It is what makes “patient learning” supportable, in fact, essential.
I take as my final words today a part of what Rabbi Sacks wrote on the merits of engaging with diverse perspectives. Jewish scholarship in the first century BCE, he noted, “was riven by a series of controversies between the schools of two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Eventually, the views of Rabbi Hillel prevailed on most issues. The Talmud explains why: ‘the disciples of Hillel were pleasant and did not take offense, and they taught the views of their opponents as well as their own; indeed, they taught the views of their opponents before their own.’” He might have said, seek lux et veritas, light and truth, through audi alteram partem, listening to the other side – that is, if Rabbi Hillel spoke Latin.
Here in the arena of higher education, I am sure, you will do so. Here you will find an oasis – if not an island – of the pensive, interdependent thought process through which positive change advances. And then, in due course, you will be well-positioned to put this hallmark of your Yale education to work in the world.
You will know that taking the time to see the whole of a problem, to create something lasting and beneficial, and to build consensus – even, and most especially, with those whose worldview does not align with your own – is not an impediment but a prerequisite to progress.
Even as you slow down and contemplate new perspectives, you will still hold fast to your ideals and move thoughtfully – faithfully – to fulfill them.
I’m pleased to welcome you to Yale today.
I’m pleased to advise you: slow down, fix things.