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PM speaking notes for NYU Commencement Address

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Hello everyone! Thank you!

I’m very happy to be here with you today

Thank you for that kind introduction, Niobe.

Andrew, it’s wonderful to see you again. I am so grateful for the honour you and NYU have given me today.

You know, Andrew is an honourary Canadian and British Columbian because, like me, he studied at UBC back in the day.

It makes me proud that Canada was part of Andrew’s formation, just as NYU has helped form so many amazing Canadians, including two members of my own staff. 

I’m told 180 of the NYU class of 2018 are Canadians. Hello! Well done!

I have to say, to be here now, speaking with all of you – in Yankee Stadium: one of the greatest places in one of the greatest cities on Earth – is more than a little humbling.

My friends, you are now NYU graduates – the best and the brightest.

You have great potential and possibilities. And therefore, you have enormous responsibility, too.

So today, I’d like to talk about the nature of both those things.

And I’d like to offer you a challenge.

One I think is essential for your future success as individuals, and as the leaders you are becoming.

Among the many things I admire about NYU, is that about a fifth of the students are international. And a similar proportion are the first in their families to go to college.

This group is truly diverse in every possible way.

I think that is extraordinarily valuable and important.

When I graduated in the early 1990s, I went on a trip around the world with a few good friends – and who remain good friends to this day, which is sort of a miracle.

We trekked, mostly overland, from Europe, to Africa, to Asia. That remains one of the great formative experiences of my life. It was an amazing adventure.

But it was also enormously important to my continued, broader education. Because it forced me, really for the first time as an adult, to meet, engage with and befriend people whose views and experiences, ideas, and values, were very different from my own.

When a kid from Montréal meets a Korean fisherman living in Mauritania, befriends a Russian veteran of their Afghan war, or a shopkeeper and his family in Danang, interesting conversations happen.

Now, maybe some of you have talked of doing something like that after graduation.

And I’d be willing to bet one of the first things you heard was a warning: “You can’t do that in this day and age. It’s not safe!”

But here’s my question: Is it really just the issue of physical safety that makes our loved ones so anxious?

Or is it the threat that if we look past the frames of our own lives, of our own community’s structured values and belief systems, to truly engage with people who believe fundamentally different things, we could be transformed into someone new and unfamiliar?

There’s no question that the world today is more complex than it was in the mid 1990s. There are serious and important problems that we are grappling with and will continue to grapple with.

But we are not going to arrive at mutual respect, which is where we solve common problems, if we cocoon ourselves in an ideological, social, or intellectual bubble.

There’s a peculiar fascination with dystopia in our culture today – you see it on TV and in film.

But the truth is that, on balance, we have the good fortune to live in a time of tremendous possibilities and potential; a time when we have it within our grasp to eliminate extreme poverty, end terrible diseases like TB and malaria, and offer a real chance at an education to all.

But for us to keep moving forward, we have to do it together. All together.

Humanity has to fight our tribal mindset. We go to the same church? Cool, you’re in my tribe.

You speak my language? You’re in my tribe.

You play Pokemon Go? You’re a vegetarian? You like the Yankees? You go to the gun range? You’re pro-choice?


But of course, it's not the ‘belonging’ part that’s the problem, it’s the corollary:

You are part of my tribe, and they are not.

Whether it’s race, gender, language, sexual orientation, religious or ethnic origin, or our beliefs and values themselves – diversity doesn’t have to be a weakness.

It can be our greatest strength.

Sometimes people talk about striving for tolerance. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are places in this world where a little more tolerance would go a long way, but if we’re being honest right now, right here, I think we should aim a little higher.

Think about it: Saying “I tolerate you” actually means something like “Ok, I grudgingly admit that you have a right to exist, but just don’t get up in my face about it. Or date my sister.”

There’s not a religion in the world that asks you to Tolerate thy neighbour.

So let’s try for something a little more like acceptance, respect, friendship, and yes, even love.

Why does this matter? Because, in our aspiration to relevance; in our love of our families; in our desire to make this world a better place, despite our differences, we are all the same.

When you meet and befriend someone from another culture or country who speaks a different language or who worships differently, you quickly realize this.

And here’s my main point, and the challenge I’m offering you today.

Our celebration of difference needs to extend to differences of values and belief, too.

Diversity includes political and cultural diversity. It includes a diversity of perspectives and approaches to solving problems.

It’s far too easy, with social media shaping our interactions, to engage only with people with whom we already agree. Members of our tribe.

This world is bigger than that.

So here is my request: As you go forward from this place, I would like you to make a point of reaching out to people whose beliefs and values differ from your own. I would like you to listen to them, to truly listen, and try to understand them, and find that common ground.

You have a world of opportunity at your fingertips.

But as you go forward from here, understand that just around the corner, a whole different order of learning awaits, in which your teachers will come from every station in life, every level of education, every belief system, every lifestyle.

I hope you will embrace that.

You have been students, you will continue to learn all your life, but now it is time to become leaders.

In every generation, leaders emerge because they one day awake to the realization that it’s not up to someone else to fix this problem, or take up that cause – it’s up to them.

Now is the time for you to lead.


I’m sure that’s a word that’s been tossed around you and at you quite a bit over the past few days, weeks, and years. Leaders of tomorrow. Leaders of today.

But what does it mean? What attributes does a 21st century leader need to have? What do people need most from their leaders?

Well, I think you need to be brave. Really brave.

And I know, when you think of courageous leaders, you think of those folks who stood implacably and fearlessly, anchored in their sense of rightness, willing to pit their ideals against all comers, against the slings and arrows aimed their way.

Well, I don’t think that’s brave enough. I don’t think that’s good enough for what our shared future will ask of you. I actually don’t think it’s ever been.

Let me tell you a bit about Wilfrid Laurier, a promising young lawyer at the end of the 19th century, who would go on to become my second-favourite Canadian Prime Minister.

He was raised and educated as a proud, Catholic French-Canadian, an exemplary representative of one side of the two identities that had come together to found Canada just a few decades before.

The two solitudes (the other half being English-speaking, Protestant, and fiercely loyal to the British Crown) accommodated each other, cooperated together, and generally put up with each other to build our country, but still felt all too well the divisions and fault lines that had led them through almost a millennium of tensions and wars between English and French.

It was impressed upon Wilfrid by his teachers and elders that he must stand up unflinchingly for the values and identity of his heritage, those beliefs and approaches that were his birthright, and would be his legacy.

That THAT was leadership.

But Wilfrid grew to believe otherwise. He realized that it’s actually easy to stand rooted in the conviction that you are right, and either wait for others to come to you, or wait for your chance to impose that rightness on others. It is actually harder to seek compromise.

To dig in deep into yourself, your ideas and convictions, honestly and rigorously, to see where you can give, and where you do need to stand, while opening yourself up to the other point of view, to seek out and find that common ground.

And that remains Wilfrid Laurier’s political legacy, more than 100 years later.

To let yourself be vulnerable to another point of view. That’s what takes true courage.

To open yourself to another’s convictions, and risk being convinced, a little, or a lot, of the validity of their perspective.

Now that’s scary: discovering that someone you vehemently disagree with might have a point. Might even be right.

But it shouldn’t be scary, or threatening. Particularly to all of you, who have worked so hard these past years to pursue truth, to learn, to grow.

Being open to others is what has gradually led Canadians to the understanding that differences can and should be a source of strength, not of weakness.

And I say ‘gradually,’ because 20th century Canadian history is filled with counter-examples and terrible setbacks that we are still trying to remedy today, most notable the systemic marginalization and oppression of Indigenous Peoples.

We’re not perfect, of course, but that sense of openness, respect for other points of view, and acceptance of each other really does underpin our approach as we try to solve the great problems of our time.

And not because we’re nice (although of course we are), but because bringing together diverse perspectives gives you a much better shot at meeting those challenges.

And that’s how we come back to you, and the leaders the world needs you to be.

Leadership has always been about getting people to act in common cause. “We’re going to build a new country! We’re going to war! We’re going to the moon!”

It usually required convincing, or coercing, a specific group to follow you.

And the easiest way to do that has always been through tribal contrasts: “They believe in a different God! They speak a different language! They don’t want the same things as we do.”

But the leadership we need most today, and in the years to come, is leadership that brings people together.

That brings diversity to a common cause.

This is the antithesis of the polarization, the aggressive nationalism, the identity politics that have grown so common of late.

It’s harder, of course. Always been easier to divide than unite.

But mostly, it requires true courage.

Because if you want to bring people around to your way of thinking, you need to first show them that you are open to theirs.

That you are willing to enter into a conversation that might change your mind.

Show respect for their point of view, and you have a better chance of having them actually listen to yours.

And regardless of what happens, you will have had a genuine exchange that focused on understanding, not on winning a debate or scoring points.

And you will both be improved for it.

Let me be very clear: this is not an endorsement of moral relativism, or a declaration that all points of view are valid.

Female genital mutilation is wrong, no matter how many generations have practiced it.

Anthropogenic climate change is real, no matter how much some folks want to deny it.

But here’s the question: do you want to win an argument and feel good about how superior you are? Or do you want to actually change behaviours and beliefs?

It’s been pointed out that one of the many differences between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis was that Davis preferred to win a debate, while Lincoln would rather win the war.

And that’s the question: Do you want to win an argument, or do you want to change the world?

With malice toward none, and charity toward all. Let those greatest words of this country’s greatest president guide your ambitions, your hopes for yourselves, your families, your country, your planet.

There is no shortage of cynicism and selfishness in the world. Be their answer, their antidote. I am abundantly optimistic about the future because of you. It is yours to make and mold and shape.

The world eagerly awaits, indeed requires, your ideas. Your initiative. Your enterprise. Your energy. Your passion and compassion. Your idealism. Your ambition.

But remember that true courage is the essential ingredient in all your efforts.

Congratulations Class of 2018. Go change the world.

Thank you!