Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Mark Rober Address to MIT Class of 2023

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MARK ROBER: All right.

Good afternoon, esteemed faculty, distinguished guests,

relieved parents, bored siblings, confused pets,

and, of course, the 2023 graduating class of MIT.


It is indeed a warm welcome.

It’s hot.

And you know what I love to do on a beautiful, sunny,

95-degree summer day?

Where a big black blanket.


At least I’m up here in the shade.

You’d think the best engineering school on the planet

could design a bigger awning for everyone.


It’s for next year.


Standing here before you is weird.

I feel this pressure to give some timeless

advice that will endure, despite our world changing

at an unprecedented pace.

The world is so different, even from four years ago.

For example, for the undergrads, you

are the first graduating class to have persevered

through a global pandemic, just as this

is the first commencement speech written entirely by ChatGPT.


The tech is still very new.

So if I make any grammatical errors

or threaten to end all human life, that did not come for me.

That’s the robot.


At this point, I should probably tell your parents who I am.

I’m Mark Rober, a former Apple and NASA mechanical

engineer who became a YouTuber.

And, yes, I know, to some of you,

it sounds like I just said I quit

the NBA to work at Foot Locker.


Or I traded a Picasso for an NFT of a stoned monkey.


But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I sort of feel at home here, because Buzz Aldrin

went to MIT.

And just like me, Buzz was a NASA engineer.

Only Buzz stuck with it and became one of the first humans

to set foot on the moon.

Whereas I quit to become the first human to

sprinkle porch pirates with glitter and fart spray.


It’s on YouTube.

Your kids will explain it at dinner.


But whether it’s seeking karmic justice for package thieves,

or building an obstacle course for squirrels in my backyard,

I plan my monthly YouTube videos really far out in advance.

In fact, I’ve already decided what my June 2053

video will be.

And it’s going to be a collab with all of you.

It’s going to be a retrospective look at all the amazing things

this MIT graduating class of 2023 has accomplished.

In fact, this right now is the video intro.

So if you’ve ever wanted to be in one of my videos,

this is your chance.


Now, will YouTube still be around in 30 years?

Hopefully, unless Elon buys it.


But here’s the thing.

The degree to which you positively impact the world

is the degree to which you’ll be featured in the video.

So in order to increase your chances of making the cut,

I want to give you three pieces of advice based off

my life experience.

The first bit of advice–

is to moisturize when giving a commencement speech–

is to embrace naive optimism.

What do I mean by naive optimism?

Actually, before I go any further,

usually in my YouTube videos, when I get to the juicy part,

I’m not really used to this public speaking thing,

so the music kicks in.

So if you’ll just give me a moment and hit this button.

Trust me, this is going to be better for both of us.

Here we go.

Right here.

Let’s see.

There we go.



All right.

That’s better.

What do I mean by naive optimism?


Naive optimism means it’s easier to be

optimistic about your future when you’re

sort of naive about what lies ahead,

when you don’t know what you don’t know.

As an example, think back on the first week at MIT,

how naive you were about the number of all-nighters and cans

of Red Bull that would be required to be sitting where

you are right now.

In fact, you guys drank so much caffeine I’m surprised

you’re even sitting at all.


If you truly understood what would be required,

that discouragement might have prevented you

from even starting.

Sometimes it’s an advantage not to be the expert with all

the experience.

There’s no reputational risk.

So it’s easier to try new things and approach them

from a fresh first principles approach.

Naive optimism can also help when

faced with a big life decision, when you feel like you want

to know the results before you decide,

but the true outcome is simply unknowable.

Naive optimism means you have irrational– naive optimism

means you have the irrational confidence of a child learning

to walk or a mom learning to TikTok.


And you pick what you think is the best path and just move

forward, knowing there’s more than one trail that

leads to the top of Mount Fuji.

It’s OK that you don’t know exactly what you

want to be doing 20 years from now

or what you want to have accomplished.

And by the way, even if you do know,

it doesn’t matter, because you’re wrong.

Anyone who tells you they knew where they’d be,

where they’re at, 20 years ago is

either lying, or delusional, or a time-traveler, or Pat Sajak.


Life is like trying to cross a big flowing

river with lots of rocks and boulders strewn about.

If you want to cross the river, you have to start on the bank

and look at the first several rocks in front of you.

You can wiggle them with your toe

and scan a few boulders out.

But at some point, you’ve just got to pick one and jump,

because the river is dynamic and always changing.

If the first rock in this metaphor is a hobby,

let curiosity and passion guide your initial step.

If the first rock represents your professional career,

take curiosity and passion into account,

but you should also weigh what you’re good at

and what the world needs, even if the world might not

know they need it yet.

Whichever one you’d pick, the real secret is to dominate it.

Obsessively study it from every angle.

Master it.

Now, from your position of more secure footing,

you can reevaluate the river.

And you’ll find you’ve got a few more rocks available that you

couldn’t even see from where you started,

so you could continue on your journey.

Instead of putting the pressure on myself

to create some master life plan, this attitude of naive optimism

combined with dedication, enthusiasm,

and 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 MI

frickin’ T.



There’s no way I could have predicted that path when

I was exactly in your shoes 20 years ago.

So cross your river one rock at a time,

but do it with a naive optimism that it’s all

going to work out.

Let that be your North Star.

If you actually knew how cold the river can get,

or how long it takes to recover from a sprained ankle

if you slipped, your knowledge might get in the way.

So have faith in yourself.

You’re about to get a degree from MIT.

So you’ve obviously made some pretty great decisions so far.

Embrace your inexperience, and keep taking leaps forward.

And apologies to all the civil engineering

majors who have been grumbling sitting there saying, if he

wants to cross this river so bad,

why doesn’t he just build a suspension bridge?

Because it’s my metaphor, all right?

Back off.


And now, for some real talk.

You’re going to take that leap of faith,

land on a rock, and only then realize

it’s not as stable as your foot wiggle have predicted,

and you’re going to fall into the river sometimes.

That leads to my second of three pieces of advice

to maximize your chance of positively impacting the world

and making the video cut, which is to frame your failures.




You can tell, it’s the juicy part, because the music’s back.

To illustrate what I mean by this,

I asked 50,000 of my YouTube followers

that subscribe to my channel to play a simple computer

programming puzzle that I made.

But what they didn’t know is that I

had served up two slightly different versions

of the puzzle.

In one, if you failed the puzzle,

you didn’t lose any of your starting 200 points,

and you were prompted to try again.

Whereas in the other, if you didn’t succeed,

you were also prompted to try again, but I said

I was taking away five of those starting 200 points.

That was the only difference.

And even though they were no value in the real world,

no one will ever see these completely fake

meaningless internet points, those

who didn’t lose those points attempted

to solve the puzzle two and 1/2 times more

and saw success 16% more of the time.

And because 50,000 people took the test,

those results are super statistically significant.

Basically, those who didn’t frame

losing in a negative light stuck with it for longer,

saw more success, and learned more.

And I think a great example of this in real life

is video games.

When Super Mario Brothers first came out,

my friends and I became obsessed with making it to the castle

and rescuing Princess Peach from the evil Bowser.

Water break.

We’d get to school and ask each other,

dude, what level did you make it to?

Did you pass the game?

We never asked each other for details

on all the different ways we might have died.

This was before Call of Duty.

When it comes to video games like, this no one ever picks up

the controller for the first time,

falls in the pit right away, and thinks, I’m so ashamed.

That was such a failure.

I’m never doing this again.

How am I going to break it to Luigi?

I murdered his brother.


What really happens is you think, OK, I got to remember,

there’s a pit there.

Next time, I’m going to come at it with a bit more speed.

The focus and obsession is about beating the game, not how dumb

you might look if you get hit by a sliding green shell.

And as a direct result of that attitude,

of learning from but not being focused on the failures,

we got really good and learned a ton

in a very short amount of time.

And in my personal and work life,

I’ve dealt with my share of sliding green shells.

I still feel like every video we make each month there’s

a moment where it seems everything that can go wrong

has gone wrong.

And those failures can be gut-wrenching.

And they can sting real bad.

But they sting like missing that one key Mario long-jump

right at the end of level 8-1.

And then, right after that, really quickly it

turns in, OK, what did we just learn from that?

What should we try differently for next time?

And this concept of life imitation

is more than just have a positive attitude

or never give up.

Because those imply you have to fight against your true desire

to quit.

And I feel like when you frame a challenge or a learning

process in this way, you actually want to do it.

It feels natural to ignore the failure and try again.

In the same way a toddler will want

to keep trying to stand up, or in the same way

you want to keep playing Super Mario Brothers,

or in the same way half the people who

attempted my coding puzzle had a desire to stick with it two

and 1/2 times longer.

The framing of their failures made it

so they wanted to keep trying and learning.

And that’s exactly why the most meaningful high-fives

of my adolescence were when I said,

dude, I finally beat Bowser last night.

It probably goes without saying, but girls didn’t talk to me

till I was much older.


And in case you’re like, yeah, but my real life

would just be so much better if my top five challenges


Would it?

I’d like to point out that if Super Mario Brothers was just

jumping over one pit, and then you rescued Princess Peach,

no one would play it.

Where’s the risk and the reward?

Where’s the challenge?

There’s no ultimate feeling of satisfaction.

The degree you’re getting today means so much to you

precisely because of all the struggle and setbacks

that you’ve had to endure.

If you want to cross the river of life,

you’re going to get wet.

You’re going to have to backtrack.

And that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.

Frame those failures and slips like a video game.

And not only will you learn more and do it faster,

but it will make all the successful jumps

along the way that much sweeter.

All right, now, I’ve got some good news,

which is that you’re not crossing the river alone.

For my third and final bit of advice

is to 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 did here at school.

And this isn’t great, because we evolved

to be social cooperative creatures.

50,000 years ago, conditions were much harsher.

So those who were more inclined to cooperate

with their fellow humans were also

much more likely to succeed and pass

on those cooperation genes.

So we’ve inherited these brains designed

for social interaction.

And we are hardwired to cooperate with other people.

And, look, I don’t blame you if you want to cast aside advice

from a guy who makes a living trying to outwit squirrels.

But I wouldn’t recommend doing that

to six million years of evolutionary programming.

Because in today’s society, it’s really convenient

just to isolate yourself.

You can attend the board meeting from your kitchen table.

You can order food in the shower.

You can bank on the toilet.

You can even look for a new apartment

without leaving your apartment.

It’s easier to stay anonymous in our big cities

versus the small tribes of our ancestors

where everyone knew each other.

Which means we’ve got to actively work at fostering

meaningful relationships.

And because I know this can be harder

for some more than others, here’s

a life fact I’ve found that really helps.

Confirmation bias is when your brain ignores evidence that

doesn’t support your beliefs.

And then it cherry-picks the evidence that does.

And, generally, when people hear this term,

they think it’s a broken unscientific way for our brains

to approach the world.

And this is true.

But you could judo-flip it to your advantage.

The trick is to positively apply confirmation bias

to your 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.

That’s just how our brains work.

If you tell yourself that your fellow humans are

inherently good, your brain will find examples of it everywhere.

And that will reinforce your outlook.

The opposite, unfortunately, is also true.

Basically, whether you think the world and everyone in it

is out to hurt you or help you, you’re right.

Studies have shown that the best predictor of divorce

is if the couple assumes bad intentions in their partner’s

actions, or if you marry Kanye.


But if you get it in your head that your partner is selfish,

or inconsiderate, or willfully refusing to take out

the garbage, that creates a negative feedback loop

of confirmation bias, seeking to find further evidence

that your spouse is a jerk, even when good faith efforts are

being made.

And this hack works not just for spouses, friends, and family,

but even total strangers who might infuriate you.

And, look, I agree with you, they’re wrong.

But don’t forget, as George Carlin pointed out,

anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot,

and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.

Fostering your relationship closes out

my list of three bits of advice, because that may be where

your impact is the greatest.

Due to a challenging upbringing, my mom

barely graduated high school.

But she 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.

She passed away over a decade ago

from ALS, six months before I ever released my first YouTube


But I love the idea that the ripples from her influence

are still being felt as strongly as they ever

have through the work that I try and do today.

If there’s anything I’ve said today has resonated

with you in my mind, it’s a direct result of her commitment

to this third piece of advice.

So leverage concrete means to confirmation bias

to enhance your relationships as you

cooperate to cross the river.

Train your brain to assume good intentions.

And try to remember if someone cuts you off on the freeway,

maybe they’re not out to get you.

Maybe they just have diarrhea.



Now, for piece of advice number four,

engage in occasional playful anarchy.

But, Mark, you told us were only going to give us

three pieces of advice.


Here’s a fourth, because, why not?

I am playing music in a commencement

speech because why not?

Is not ending your speech with pump up music

just objectively better?

Or like how these graduation robes and hats

are just objectively silly?

Why shouldn’t I take my own fourth piece of advice

right now and engage in some playful anarchy?

Anybody can toss their hat in the air.

We see it at every graduation.

But few have dared to make it actually fly.

I bet Buzz Aldrin never tried this.

You know what?

Time out.

This is actually a great opportunity

to review everything we just talked about.


To my first point, I will embrace my naive optimism

that my hat will actually get airborne.

But if not, to my second point, if it goes

haywire, and I accidentally blow up E-53,

I can reframe the failure as an opportunity

to renovate a very old and sketchy building.


Maybe this time we’ll even add a few windows.


And then, to my third point, when I get sued by the faculty,

I will foster the relationship I have with my defense lawyers.


Because settling with MIT over damages

will bring us all closer together.



And so, now, after turning on my hat–


–I’ve done my part and filmed a banger of an intro

to our upcoming collab 30 years from now.

Which means all that’s left to do

is your part, to go out and change

the world for the better.

Congratulations, MIT class of 2023.

You totally got this.


Thank you.