To the Class of 2021: Show Up for Each Other

The following is an adaptation of Michael Bloomberg’s commencement address to Johns Hopkins University’s class of 2021.

The pain and loss that America and the world — and you — have felt this year has been unfathomable. Isolation has made it even harder.

One of the reasons this time has been so challenging is that before the pandemic, when we were physically around each other, we fed off each other’s energy. That energy was food for the soul. It made us healthier and happier. But since the pandemic began, instead of having that nourishment, we’ve been on a starvation diet — with a lot of bingeing on empty calories like “The Real Housewives” and “Selling Sunset.”

But hopefully over the past year, we’ve also developed a new appreciation for the importance of being in each other’s presence. We once took that for granted, but I think we now realize that social interaction is truly special.

That idea — the importance of togetherness — is what I’d like to speak with you about today. Because I believe it holds the key to happiness not only in your personal lives, but in your careers, too.

For the past 15 months, we’ve seen each other mostly on the screens of our computers and phones. If the pandemic had arrived when your parents were your age, that wouldn’t have been possible. But in the decade most of you were born, things began to change.

Starting then, we realized a communications revolution was forever changing the way we interact with each another. Email, text, chat and video calls all connected people as never before. At our company, we introduced a chat function for customers that was one of the first social networks in the world.

And in the years that followed, new social media platforms were created, allowing people to share opinions, news, photos, dance moves and just about everything else — including, of course, the most brazen lies and the most outrageous conspiracy theories.

Ten years ago, we used to hear a lot about how social media would bring the world closer together. And in some ways, it has. But the zeitgeist has changed. And as we have seen here in the U.S., social media has also helped tear us apart.

In fact, it now threatens to obscure something fundamental to the human experience. And that is: There is real power in the act of gathering together in person.

Leaders throughout history have understood that. When we gather in person — whether it’s to play or pray, to work or peacefully protest — we gain the power to reach higher and we live more fully than we could on our own.

Over the past year, we’ve gotten a good look at how digital technology cannot replace physical togetherness. Not when it comes to being with friends and family. Not when it comes to being with professors and classmates. Not when it comes to attending a party or going to a museum. And not when it comes to interacting with colleagues and coworkers, in whatever field you choose to pursue — whether it’s science or medicine, engineering or business, the arts or the military.

Back in the 1990s, management experts told us that soon everyone would be telecommuting and working from home. The office was a dinosaur, slowly going extinct — or so we were told. They were wrong. It survived.

Today, we’re hearing the same thing: Remote working will be the new normal. And for some employers, it may very well be — at least for a while. But I’m more convinced than ever that the most successful organizations and individuals — whether they are in the private, public or nonprofit sectors — will be those that place a premium on face-to-face, in-person interaction.

Zoom will never replace the water cooler, because when we gather face-to-face, we come to understand one of life’s great truths: Achieving our full potential as individuals can only be done with the help of others. And the more we surround ourselves with people from diverse backgrounds, the more we learn and grow.

There’s a simple word for that idea: teamwork. And the best and most successful teams have something intangible that gives them an edge. It’s called “chemistry.” And while there’s a lot that technology makes possible, it cannot replace the chemistry that flows from direct human contact, which is what gives rise to the most powerful reactions and combinations.

Among the most important elements in those reactions, the elements that really drive innovation and problem-solving, are two activities that simply cannot happen online: spontaneous conversation and chance encounters.

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen how we can be at our most productive when we’re taking a break. Bumping into someone in the hall might spark a new collaboration. Kibitzing with a colleague over coffee or peanut-butter crackers could spur a creative idea. Like many organizations today, our company designs all of our work spaces to maximize informal interactions. That’s why we have no walls and no private offices.

Now, I wasn’t the first person to recognize the importance of random interactions in the workplace. Almost a century ago, the creators of the fabled Bell Labs designed a building so that scientists would have to walk down long hallways past many other offices to get to the cafeteria. It was like a people collider, and all the scientists were instructed to work with their doors open.

Out of that environment came inventions that transformed life as we know it, including the first satellites, cell phones and solar panels. Bell Labs was like a mass-production line for Nobel Prize winners.

Maybe some of their inventions would have occurred without the long hallways and open doors — but certainly not as early as they did. Because ultimately, innovation and success are driven more by group interaction than individual inspiration. And that is true for whatever profession you choose.

Of course, kibitzing can also occur on Zoom. But the opportunities are more limited. Plus, the randomness of bumping into people disappears. Video calls are fine for exchanging information. But when it comes to building relationships, building partnerships, building teams and building networks, when it comes to fostering creativity and cooperation and solving problems, there’s no substitute for being there and looking people in the eye.

If you’re not convinced, just think about remote classes versus in-person ones. I think you’d agree: not the same.

Or watching a concert online versus in person: not the same.

Or dating remotely versus in person: definitely not the same.

The experiences could not be more different because of the chemistry. The energy and inspiration we get from being with other people is what drives the world forward.

It’s how problems get solved.

It’s how innovation happens.

It’s how power is exercised.

It’s how tyrants are toppled.

It’s how change gets made, and it’s how we can achieve great things in our lives, for our communities, and for our countries.

Now, as you apply for jobs, you or your friends may be hoping for an employer that will let you work from home five days a week. But there is more to career happiness than wearing pajama bottoms all day and remembering to press the mute button when you visit the bathroom. 

Since you presumably plan to work for a few years to come, you might ask yourself whether you really want to stake your future on an organization that doesn’t prioritize contact among employees. Because it may not be around for the long haul.

That doesn’t mean you need a 10-year plan for your career. When I was in your shoes, about to be handed a diploma in electrical engineering, it never occurred to me that I would work on Wall Street, or start a company that invented a computer, or build a global media business, or serve three terms as mayor of New York, or start a foundation to tackle global problems — including an issue none of us even knew existed back then: climate change.

I didn’t imagine I’d do any of that, and I can assure you my professors didn’t either.

The main reason I’ve been able to do it is simple: I worked closely with so many talented and driven people who opened my eyes to new possibilities. They helped me do things I never could have done on my own, and they stopped me before I did something stupid.

After business school, I didn’t have a job lined up, so a friend recommended I apply for an entry-level position on Wall Street — even though I had no particular interest in finance. I worked long days and nights for 15 years, right up until the day I was let go — which is a nice way of saying I was fired. But from the close relationships I made during those years, I was able to hire three incredibly talented people and start a company.

So, yes: It’s good to have a career plan that you care about. But it’s better to have close colleagues and friends you care about, and who care about you. Because even the best laid career plans have a way of changing for the better when you develop strong relationships with people who you see every day, and who can help open new worlds to you.

This goes well beyond our personal lives and our careers. It connects to our democracy and the health of our republic. As we have seen, that dialogue is breaking down across the U.S. — partially, I believe, because people are willing to say things to other people online that they would never dare to say to their face.

For democracy to work, we need to be able to have difficult conversations about politics and religion, voting rights and racial justice, equity in health care and education, crime and gun safety, gender and orientation. And the more we can have those conversations face-to-face instead of screen-to-screen, the more constructive and productive they will be, and the more progress we will make.

So ­­as you leave this campus and go out into the world, I hope you will take this one big idea with you — because it really could not be more important. And that is, simply: Be present for others, in your careers and personal lives.

Because ultimately, it is only through the power of our relationships that we can fulfill our potential, and that we can build teams capable of creating a society that is more just, more equal, more peaceful and — in the words of our nation’s founders — more perfect.

Whatever you do tonight and tomorrow, and for the rest of your lives: Do it like the world may lock down again tomorrow. Do it together. And do it in person.

If you take that to heart, I know you’ll do amazing things.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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