An Inclusive Future. An Interdependent World.

President Clinton's Speeches

A “eureka moment” is defined as a moment of sudden, triumphant discovery, inspiration, or insight.  Not that long ago while I was in a drowsy stupor and preparing to go to sleep, I experienced a eureka moment courtesy of the sidebar on YouTube.  The recommend video I clicked on was a talk by former US President Bill Clinton.

When I came across President Clinton on YouTube, it was the talk he gave at North Carolina State’s speaker series on innovation, leadership, and higher education.  I followed that up with his four-part series at Georgetown University where he discussed four distinct themes: people, purpose, policy, and politics.

There was something profound about President Clinton’s message, and it led me to binge-watch many more of his talks.  It was time well spent.  His message resonated with me, and it left me wanting to share key takeaways which I felt other people might benefit from too.

North Carolina State University Speaker Series on Innovation, Leadership and Higher Education

What kind of world are we living in? What are you supposed to do about it? What, if anything, is your education supposed to contribute? What does it mean to innovate in this environment? These are the questions that President Clinton put forward to the audience at the start of his talk.

The talk then shifted to communitarianism and how people are becoming more communitarian.  The idea behind communitarianism is that there is a direct connection between an individual and their community, that people are molded by their communities, and that healthy communities and positive life outcomes are interdependent.  The talk then shifted focus to a world view, and how interdependent today’s world really was.

“In an interdepend world, where interdependence can be good or bad, it’s pretty clear where we should be going.  We should be trying to build up the positive forces of national, community, and global interdependence, and diminish the negative ones.  We should be trying to create a world where we share the future.  We share the benefits and the opportunities.  We share the burdens and the responsibilities.  We don’t hide our differences under the rug, we take them out and talk about them, but we do it knowing in the end we’ve got to find some way to come together, or we can’t go forward because unilateral progress in an interdependent world is, in the end, unsustainable.”

To illustrate unstable interdependence, President Clinton talked about Mexico and how it was fighting an all-out war against big narco-trafficking syndicates who have so much money and so much firepower they can suborn the ordinary instruments of order and law like local police to set up a virtual independent empire, something previously seen in Colombia.

Instability there is brought about by economic instability, security instability, and organized crime and narco-trafficking derived instability; these were just some of the issues of great importance that stretched beyond borders.  In addition to these instabilities, the challenge of persistent inequalities like inequality in income, opportunity, health care, and education were also discussed, and how interdependence and sustained persistent inequality were a troublesome mix.  The promises of a better life rung hollow to many people around the world because of all these issues and challenges.

“The modern world is unsustainable, and it largely has to do with climate change.  Most people have recognized that we are putting out an unsustainable amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and we have to find a way to do it differently.  The more greenhouse gasses go into the atmosphere the more the oceans try to take up the slack, that we are putting up too much carbon dioxide and too much methane in the air and tearing down too many trees to suck it up, so the oceans are trying to take up the difference.  We are changing the biological composition, the chemical composition of the oceans and their ability to sustain sea life.  Fish are the most affordable source of protein for billions of people, and their stocks are shrinking.”

I enjoyed the way in which President Clinton spoke about the challenge of climate change and habitat destruction.  It was direct and far more effective than the approach of sensationalizing climate change by saying we only have 12 years to save the planet.  That “12-year” punchline was first used over 20 years ago, but worst of all is that it gave life to the fringe belief that climate change is a hoax.  From here, the talk shifted to active citizenship, and President Clinton stressed the need for more doers.

There were three significant remarks related to the importance of being a “doer” that really stuck out.

“There is a crisis of doing in the world today.  We have all these problems out there that people know are problems that they can talk about till the cows come home but nobody knows the “how”.”

“People have more information than ever before and more opinions but there is still a shortage of people who can answer the question “how”.  How do you turn your good intentions into positive changes?”

“What is much more important today is the “how”.  How do you go about taking the best of intentions and turning them into positive changes in other people’s lives? The “how”.  One of the best things that’s happened in the interdependent world in the last decade is that more and more people are saying I think I got a better how than anybody else.  I think I can solve a social problem better than anybody else.”

If we reflect on President Clinton’s remarks about being a doer, there is a pressing need for active citizens to shift from action plans focused on raising awareness to solution-based strategies.  Raising awareness is always going to be important, and the internet has made it possible for people to be more informed than ever before.  However, we have finite resources, specifically financial resources, and those resources need to go where they are best put to use, with action plans focused on solution-based strategies.

Despite all the issues and challenges that are discussed, President Clinton provides a blueprint for an inclusive future in his closing remarks.

Divorce is not an option in an interdependent world, so we better make the best of each other and understand that as important as our differences are our common humanity matters more.  If we do that it’s going to be just fine.”

Georgetown University Lecture on People

The first lecture focused on people, and it was filled with life stories, but the emphasis was on the interdependence between four P’s.  The main idea was that society was heading down a path where we prioritized our differences over our common humanity, and how that holds a society back from broad prosperity.  There were references made to unstable areas of the world and how once we stop hearing what people who are different from us are saying, where ears are closed and minds are more closed, there is trouble.

The first lecture in this four-part series had me hooked.  In a world where emphasis is placed on fame and influence, the following remarks made by President Clinton were spot on, “You have a much better chance of living both a successful and a rewarding life of service if you begin by finding something to learn from everybody you run into.  If you begin by believing there is a certain inherent dignity to people who will never be on television, never be in a newspaper article or just a statistic.

Georgetown University Lecture on Policy

The second lecture was filled with great advice that extended beyond policy and stretched into personal life.

Take care of people who, without fault of themselves, can’t take care of themselves.  It’s not about you.  It’s about them.  Get caught trying so fewer people die.  Trying to solve disputes between people, it’s about them not you.  You can’t succeed if you ever forget that it’s about them not you.

That quote summed up President Clinton’s lecture on policy, but it was the response to a question from the crowd that I thought was the highlight of the lecture.

President Clinton was asked about the BRAIN Initiative, a public-private partnership focused on brain-specific research.  His response started with an explanation about how the brain starts to shrink as we age and how it was once believed that we would naturally atrophy intellectually and mentally as we do physically.  He also mentioned how new research has concluded that new neural networks in our brain can still form well into our sixties and that this brain growth was available to all people and not just geniuses.  There was also an emphasis on the “word gap”, how kids in poor families grow up hearing 30 million fewer words by the time they are three years old, and how the architecture of the brain is largely fixed by the time we are four years old.

In addition to speaking on the scientific advancements in research, President Clinton used a real-world situation with far-reaching implications and said the following, “What if this brain research revealed that we can start building again.  That we can take a 16-year-old who was in prison for stealing a car and give them the tools to create the person that god meant him to be in the first place.

Now think about that and the far-reaching societal implications of being able to help individuals get back on track instead of returning to a life of crime.  The research is clear that it is possible.  However, some individuals will require greater supports to get back on track and reach their full potential, and that is okay.

Georgetown University Lecture on Purpose

The third lecture focused on the importance of understanding people.  Without an understanding of people, it was hard to develop the best policies and to build and maintain support for them.  There was a fantastic metaphor used by President Clinton about not giving up on people; one where he explained that everyone had a story and that it was up to all of us to focus on helping other people have better stories.  He stressed that it was important to always look for the story and to stay away from storylines.  That stories are still being written and that nobody’s plot was set in stone.

As the lecture proceeded, the talk shifted to the importance of making a home for everyone and how inclusion was important.  The idea of accountability even came up, but more so, there was an emphasis on moving beyond.  The term “radical inclusion” was used multiple times and the idea of radical inclusion was explained with references to statesman Nelson Mandela and business magnate Ken Iverson.

President Clinton also shared his personal philosophy on life.  He stated that his purpose in life was pretty simple.  He described it as being able to answer with a resounding “yes” three questions: Are people better off when you quit than when you started? Do children have a brighter future? Are things coming together instead of being torn apart? Apart from that, everything else was simply background noise.

Towards the end of the talk, President Clinton quoted his former professor and what she would always tell her students and how that message resonated with him.  That messaged focused on a defining belief that the future could be better than the past and that every person had a personal moral responsibility to contribute to making it better.  Additionally, life would be a lot more fun if you had purpose and if it was bigger than you.

President Clinton ended the talk by saying the following, “We all find our purpose in our own way, but if you work at it, it’ll come.”

Harvard Commencement 2007

At Harvard University’s Commencement Ceremony in 2007, President Clinton addressed the graduating students and delivered a speech that was full of gems.

Early into President Clinton’s speech, he mentioned how there were poor people with good minds who never got a chance to follow their dreams.  This is something that I have seen first-hand, at Heron Gate, a low-income community in Ottawa.  That environment got the best of so many youth and derailed futures full of promise.  To build on this, he mentioned how, for all the opportunity in the world, there was still a lot of inequality.  There was also a lot of insecurity, instability, and unsustainability.  But all of it was all fixable and manageable.

Half-way into President Clinton’s talk, he discussed how he believed that the biggest challenge today had to do with psychological conflicts which required us to divide up and demonize people who were not “us”.  It was an ideological and emotional divide.  The premise behind this was the very simple idea that our differences are more important than our common humanity.

The end of the speech was quite captivating too.  President Clinton mentioned how ordinary people have more power to do public good than ever before, and that our common humanity was more important than what divided us.  He warned against falling to the trap of these psychological conflicts, to not allow our differences to ignore the elemental standards of learning, knowledge, and reason.  It was also important not to take good fate for granted and to believe that it was deserved, and that others deserved their bad fate.

Spend as much of your time and your heart and your spirit as you possibly can thinking about the other 99.9%.  See everyone and realize that everyone needs new beginnings.  Enjoy your good fortune.  Enjoy your differences.  But realize that our common humanity matters much much more.