“If our kids and grandkids grow up to be thoughtful people, they will ask us what we did about the problems of our time. None of us will be able to tell our grandkids that we did not know about climate change. It’s 2019. It is no longer legitimate to ignore this problem… And beyond the ethical consideration, taking responsibility for this problem is also one of the greatest economic opportunities of our time. For you, taking responsibility may be the biggest career opportunity of your time.”
Yova CEO Tillmann Lang was honoured to speak at the Universität St.Gallen (HSG) MBA Graduation last month.
You will find a full transcript below the video.
Thank you for the kind introduction. I am quite honoured to be invited to speak to you on this special day. Because it is quite a special day. Today you become graduates from one of the finest MBA programs worldwide at one of the most renowned academic institutions worldwide.
All of you here today are accomplished people already. You must have done impressive things in your life to even be admitted to this program. And now you’ve added a St Gallen MBA on top of this.
And today you are at a very special point in time in your lives and careers. You have accomplished something demanding and extra-ordinary. And graduating today puts you into a position where you have tremendous possibilities ahead of you.
You are equipped with more knowledge and experience than ever before. The doors that you may want to walk through are more open than ever before. And people will be even more willing to listen to you and follow your guidance than ever before.
And this is in no way an exaggeration. Generations of St Gallen MBA graduates have used their skills to change the world. You are in a prime position to become leaders of many people – and of influential organisations.
Getting into this situation – where now all these doors are open for you – might have been one of the main reasons why you decided to go for an MBA.
But if any of you are like me, with all these options ahead of you, may even be a bit overwhelming.
It may not be clear to you what you actually want to do; which door you want to walk through; which people and organisations you want to lead; and – maybe most importantly – in which direction you want to lead them.
“Who you are tomorrow starts with what you do today”. You have chosen this quote by Tim Fargo to guide our ceremony today. But can you know who you want to be tomorrow? How do you decide what to do today? So how do you best go about finding your path?
Well, who knows? I don’t. But I can offer you a perspective that has helped me make important life decisions – both in my career and in my personal life.
This perspective is based on my experiences – my achievements and my failures. My approach to finding what I want to do is quite simple. When I think about “what’s the right thing to do in my life”, I ask myself two questions. I call them my compass questions – because they help me find my way.
The questions that I ask myself when I think about an opportunity are:
1) Will I enjoy it? When I come home after a long day’s work, will I be frustrated or joyful?
2) Will I enjoy looking back on it later? When my grandkids ask me what I did with my time and my energy, will I answer them with enthusiasm and pride?
To explain why I think these questions are important and helpful, I want to tell you a couple of stories.
In my young 20s, I studied mathematics and computer science at the University of Heidelberg. And I loved every bit of it. I worked a lot during my student years. But still to me student life seemed like mostly play and little work. It was a lot of joy.
At the end I had a lot of deep and distinguished expertise. I could mathematically prove to you that zero and one are not the same thing. I knew how to apply Kuhn Tucker conditions to optimal control problems subject to multi-dimensional differential equations. I was able to prove the Riemann mapping theorem on less than a page. So with my math degree, I had a lot of knowledge that many other people didn’t
Then I joined McKinsey. And nobody cared. It turns out, most people didn’t need to be convinced that zero and one are not the same. I knew so many things. And they were all utterly useless.
But there was something about me that apparently was not useless at all: I took great joy in solving complex problems. And I had done it so intensely over the years that I had gotten really good at it.
Now it turned out that McKinsey and its clients were quite excited about that. In most situations I did not know the textbook approach to solving a particular problem. And I didn’t need one. Because I could invent my own.
Chances are that if I had studied something different I would have accumulated different knowledge. Knowledge that is more directly useful to the business world.
But chances are also that I would have studied with a lot less joy and eagerness. So the chances are quite high that in a different field of study – one with more practical use – I might have not developed a skill at a level that stood out.
Taking joy in my studies not only made me have great student years. Taking joy was a key in setting me up for what came next.
This experience has repeated itself for me over and over. That’s why my first compass question is: Do I enjoy what I do? Or will I enjoy what I do – if I go down this particular path?
I think this question is very important. Not only because if you don’t have joy in your life then you are wasting it. But also because if you don’t find joy in what you do, then you are unlikely to be at your personal best.
Even the psychological research is quite clear on that. I love the way that Shawn Achor, as positive psychologists from Harvard puts it:
So don’t shy away from making it a point to be happy and joyful!
There’s also a second question I propose asking yourself when assessing life decisions, and that is:
Will I enjoy looking back on it later? When my grandkids ask me what I did with my time and my energy, will I answer them with enthusiasm and pride?
To explain this question, I have to tell you a very personal story:
My family comes from a small city named Hof an der Saale, in the German region of Franconia. When I was a little boy, I was very fond of my grandfather. In fact, I still am today – so much that my first-born son has his name (despite that name being Rudolf). To me my grandfather was a warm and cheerful person – and full of strangely mysterious exciting magic.
As a result of World War II, he had an artificial leg made from wood, and splinters of metal in most parts of his body. As a kid I found that most fascinating. When I touched his arms, I could feel the splinters. At the same time to me that was simply how granddads were. They had fought in a war, lost part of their bodies and had scars and metal everywhere. In the eyes of a 6-year old exploring the world, this was neither extraordinary nor frightening.
As I grew up I learned about the terrors of World War II, and of the atrocities that the Germans had done to the world and especially to millions of Jewish families. Even though I – at some time growing up – made the intellectual connection between the war my beloved grandfather had fought in, and the German crimes at the same time, I did not make the emotional connection that these were the same thing.
Sadly, my grandfather passed away, before I was ever mature enough to really ask him about his life and his actions in the Third Reich. I know today that he was never a member of the Nazi Party or any of its associated organisations and that he was never involved in politics beyond his role as a soldier.
But like millions of other Germans that were born in the time since, I’ve been faced with unanswerable questions. It was the generation of my grandfathers and grandmothers who did this – and let this happen. How in the world could they have let this happen? In the face of such obvious wrong-doing, in the face of actions that so clearly created misery at a scale unbeknownst to the world, and for generations to come – how could so many people NOT take responsibility?
One answer that people in my generation heard from my grandfather’s generation was “We didn’t know – it all happened elsewhere, behind closed doors, we had no way of knowing”.
This may be true. Or it may be a thin excuse.
Like millions of Germans from my generation, I have never come to terms with this “we didn’t know”. I have never been able to make sense of it. And I most likely never will.
And so, since my grandfather will never get the chance to explain himself to me, there is this dark and gloomy question mark that hovers around my loving memory of him: Did he at least try to take responsibility and do something against the Nazis? I hope he did!
This story, this experience, has had a decisive influence on how I make decisions. It taught me that not taking responsibility can create gloomy things – even if it’s just question marks people have when they remember you.
Taking responsibility can mean many things. It can mean taking a close look at what you do today. It can mean that you think about what all those things you do today will mean for the future.
Sadly – this can be very difficult. Let me tell you why.
In the last three centuries, humanity has propelled itself forward. We’ve invented many beautiful things that have changed our lives for the better: Your family was able to travel here today, even if they live far away. You have access to all the knowledge in the world – through the phone in your hand that you use to share the memories of today’s celebration with the whole world. And modern medicine has created a world where 50 is the new 30 and 70 the new 50.
But when we take a moment to reflect, we see that well-intentioned things can go off track.
When humans invented the modern car it solved so many problems and made our lives so much better. We didn’t know about the long-term effects the internal combustion engine would have on our environment.
When we invented modern agricultural and farming technologies – we were able to feed more people in a predictable way, overcoming catastrophic suffering such as famine and hunger. We didn’t know about the long-term effects on soil and the potential for corporations to exploit this power.
When Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, he made the intriguing point that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of matter – but he did not foresee that this thought might lead to the atomic bomb within four decades.
Even the best intentions can create long-term problems. Not every long-term effect can be anticipated.
But this is okay, so long as we – as humans – are willing to take responsibility. Because the important insight here is this:
Sometimes others have to clean up your mess, and sometimes you’ll have to clean up messes that others have created.
This may be even more important today than in the past. As a global society, we face bigger problems than ever: The climate crisis has our glaciers melting, our oceans acidise, driving more species into extinction in a much shorter amount of time than ever before. Lands become uninhabitable and more people than ever are forced to flee from their homelands. And while millions of people move out of poverty in China and India everyday, millions are cemented into poverty more and more elsewhere.
You and I may not have created these problems. You and I may not have been the root cause –though with our way of living we might contribute to them. But these messes cannot be cleaned up by the people who caused them. Partly because it’s not possible to say who caused them. But it’s also irrelevant, now. It’s on us to take responsibility, and sometimes this means cleaning up messes that others have created
And do you know what is different about the problems we have in our time?
What is special about today’s problems is that we know. My grandfather’s generation might have been able to make a thin excuse that they didn’t. But we know. And today nobody can claim that they did not know.
Just think about how your lifestyle and my lifestyle, our sources of wealth make the climate crisis more and more difficult every day. You know. I know. Everybody in this room here today knows.
If our kids and grandkids grow up to be reflected and thoughtful people – and there’s little doubt that your kids will – then they will ask us what we did about the problems of our time. None of us can tell our grandkids that we did not know.
It’s time to take responsibility. And that is especially true for all of us in this room here today, and I’ll tell you why.
You are the one percent: you have more power, more influence, more resources. You are highly talented and highly educated. You are St Gallen MBA graduates. You are leaders and others will follow you. You are the 1%. If you can’t make things happen – then who will?
There is another reason: we really have no good reason not to work on these problems. Let’s face it! We’ve won the lottery of evolution. No other human generation in the history of mankind ever was this safe, healthy, wealthy, and free.
And within this generation of safe, healthy, wealthy and free people – we here in this room are among the healthiest, wealthiest and most free of them all. Our basic needs are covered. You will always be able to provide food and shelter for your family and friends. The grand majority of our problems are “first world problems”. So we are different from previous generations in the decisive way that we have the opportunity to take action.
If you’re struggling to feed your family, then of course the climate crisis and social inequality shrink to abstract, distant problems. But we are rich already. If anybody was ever in a position where they could afford to take action – then it’s us. It’s our generation.
And last but not least, I do think we also have a moral obligation. It is worthwhile remembering every now and then, that the reasons we are so wealthy, so well-fed, why we drive awesome cars, why we can go heli skiing, mountain biking and scuba diving are closely connected to many of the problems that the world has today.
We’ve become rich through an economic machine that has fed on fossil fuels for more than a century. It still does. It has made us rich because we got all the benefits, but we didn’t have to pay the costs. The costs are only now materializing.
But there is no such thing as a free lunch. The cost will be paid by the young generation, their kids and grandkids. And of course by the people in countries that have not even participated in the benefits.
So let’s take responsibility. If you and I don’t, then who will?
It’s 2019. Not considering problems like climate change in what you do is of course totally legal, but it is no longer legitimate. It certainly is not legitimate through the eyes of your children – and of my children.
Why am I saying all this on a day that is there for joy – and for celebrating your remarkable achievements. Talking about responsibility can sound heavy. But I am saying all this today because the realisation that it’s time to take responsibility, can be absolutely beautiful.
Because it can help you find your way. Because it can show you a path to happiness. And, because taking responsibility is not that difficult.
It does not mean that you have to work in an impact startup or an NGO. It does not mean that you can never have fun again because you need to devote your weekends to charitable work.
It simply means that whichever role you play, incorporate a sense of responsibility in every action and every decision you take. Be a better type of manager. Build a better type of organisation, one that is not oblivious to the world’s problems. One that sees the potential in humans to solve problems and create a better future. One that cares.
Striving for all of this does not mean setting up boundaries for yourself, absolutely not! It just means having a north star that helps you navigate.
A north star that can help you feel at home within yourself, that can help you be happy – and thereby successful.
It is also beautiful because it provides you with so much economic opportunity.
I work in impact investing and yes, I do it because I feel a sense of duty to make a difference for a better world. But I also do it because I think it is a great way to build a great company that is economically successful. Because after working in technology for years and years, I am convinced that solving the climate crisis is the greatest investment opportunity of our time.
So taking responsibility does not mean that you have to sacrifice yourself or your career for a greater cause. Quite the opposite: taking responsibility may be lead you the greatest economic opportunity of our time. Taking responsibility may be the biggest career opportunity of your time.
Grab it! It may also be the biggest opportunity to find a path that makes you happy.
So when you move on, think about these compass questions. Maybe they help you find your way. The one about today: do I enjoy it? And the one about tomorrow: will I enjoy looking back on it later? Will I talk about it with pride and enthusiasm?
I would like to close with a thought from one of the nerd comics that I used to read on the internet when I was a student. It was a comic about teaching machines to think like humans. There, the philosophical question of “what is life” came up. In the comic, a software developer was trying to program a definition of life into the computer. And the definition was:
Life is what you’re doing right now.
I have never forgotten this statement. I think about it when I spend time with my son and my wife, when I work on a cool project. I think about it, when I spend time on 9gag or when I browse social media to distract myself from working.
This little statement certainly is true: life is what you are doing right now.
It is not what you did in the past. You can always start a new chapter. And it is not what you want to do later. Don’t waste your life preparing. Do what’s important to you now.
If what you’re doing right now is enjoyable and purposeful to you, then chances are you will be happy. And chances are that you will be successful too. Remember what the Harvard researchers said: Happiness drives performance and success – not the other way around.
Investing in happiness might be your best move. So make your moves.
You are St Gallen MBAs now. You are all set to do amazing things. Do them!
So I wish you all the best. May you be well. May you live joyful lives. May you have careers that fulfil you. May you find success and joy and happiness.
Because if you do, then it will be beautiful for you. And it will also be beautiful for all of us.