Expect no, but fight for yes

At the end of the day, there are no rules, only guidelines.

Editor’s note: this is the transcript of DJ Patil’s commencement address to the 2014 graduating class at UC Santa Cruz’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering; it is published here with permission.


DJ Patil with his father. Photo: courtesy of DJ Patil.

Thank you, Dean Ramirez and the distinguished faculty here today. And thank you to all the friends and family who have come out to celebrate this day. Thank you all for being here.

But most importantly: you. The Class of 2014. I gotta tell you guys: you look awesome. Downright amazing.

Now, I recognize that I’m the person standing between you and a selfie with your diploma, so I’m going to do my best to keep it short. And to start, I’m going to start with a confession: ever since Professor Getoor reached out and asked me if I’d be willing to do this, I’ve been dreading it. I mean really, really dreading it. I mean like as in final-exam-in-compilers dreading it.

Here’s why: I grew up just over the hill. So, it’s safe to say I’m intimately familiar with the UC Santa Cruz lifestyle you’ve been leading. In fact, in high school, I used to play in volleyball tournaments right here on campus. And since it’s so close, my dad is here to watch me give a talk for the first time since high school. To make matters worse, so are my kids, and they’re sitting next to my dad, so they can get the first-hand commentary. Along with them are my mom, my wife, and my mother-in-law. So, if this doesn’t go well, it’s going to be one long drive home. So, here we go.

Now that you’re about to graduate from this incredible institution, I want each of you to think back to your first real interaction with UC Santa Cruz. Do you remember how long it took to fill out your application? How about the day you were accepted here? I want you to picture where you were. Do you remember what you felt like when you found out you were accepted?

Back in my day, admission letters were sent by banana slug mail, and I perfectly remember receiving that first envelope. In it was a single sheet of paper telling me thanks, but no thanks. And this taught me an incredible life lesson: good things don’t come in thin envelopes.

Rejection hurts, and I really wanted to blame everyone for not seeing and valuing my raw awesomeness, but the truth was, the problem was me. To say I was a challenge growing up is putting it lightly, and it’s really not a surprise that I was rejected. After all, I had been suspended, kicked out of my math class, and read my rights. By the way, that was just in my first six months of high school. Then there were my poor grades and SAT scores that were so dismal they literally put me near the bottom of my high school class.

I didn’t get just one thin envelope. I had a whole stack. And I remember sitting in my room staring at them wondering what I would do next. It’s impressive how soul crushing the weight of so many no’s can be. I admit: I cried. A lot.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to ask the one person I swore I would never admit weakness to: my dad.

At the end of the day, there are no rules, only guidelines.His advice? “Why not just call up the universities?” Now you know why I didn’t want to ask him for his advice.

With no other options, that’s just what I did. And with no real plan in place, I just started dialing numbers. I know I sounded like an idiot because I didn’t even know what to ask for. But after many, many tries, I finally found a sympathetic lady at UCSD who asked a really simple question: “why don’t you just appeal the decision?”

Who knew you could appeal? She gave me some details, and I put my heart and soul into getting people to write letters for me and worked harder on my letter of appeal than I ever did on my college essay. Six weeks later a letter showed up at my house. This time the envelope was big and heavy.

Everyone I knew was stunned. Expect for one guy: my dad. While the rest thought “no” was the final word, he knew it was just the beginning of the conversation. And this realization taught me the most important principle in taking on really hard problems:

There are no rules, only guidelines.

Here’s why this is so important. There’s a dirty little secret out there and no one is telling you about it. You’re all about to receive a piece of paper that is going to look awesome framed on a wall and certifies that you are imminently qualified to update your LinkedIn profile. And armed with your diploma, you’re going to find a world filled with people whose first and last words to you will be “no.”

Class of 2014, I’m not going to lie to you: at some point in your life, the weight of all the no’s you’re going to receive will be soul crushing.

Chase your big ideas. Expect the no’s, but do not accept the no’s. Find reasons to turn those no’s into yes’s. And when you have the opportunity to do so, find reasons to say yes to others. Because at the end of the day, there are no rules, only guidelines.

I was fortunate enough to work for the US government during a pause in my academic career, and I had two colleagues who were incredibly passionate about helping the civilians in Iraq. It was still early in the war, and one of the big problems with the Iraqi educational system was that it was 40 years behind the one you’re about to graduate from. Literally, their most recent text books were 40 years older than the ones you’ve probably been trying to figure out how to stuff in a box and send home for storage. That means that their dental care, neonatal care, and agricultural techniques were stuck in the 70s.


2005 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows. Photo: courtesy of DJ Patil.

Take a moment and ask yourself: what does it really take to put a modern library in a place like Iraq? Well, one problem is that it’s in a war zone. Second, books are heavy — really heavy — so moving them is hard. And as you know from the campus bookstore, they’re expensive. Turns out, they’re flammable, too. Have you ever met a person from Iraq? I hadn’t. So many good reasons to say no.

But there was a yes. Online courses had just started and the transition to electronic journals were well under way, so it just made sense to do everything electronically. All we needed was to make sure they had Internet access.

We found out there was a high-speed fiber connection into Iraq. The only problem was the line ran through Kuwait, and they wouldn’t turn it on until Iraq had completed paying war reparations. So, we tried to track down the guy who was responsible for the Iraqi Internet domains, the .iq. And we did: in a jail cell in Texas serving a long sentence. More and more no’s.

While in a funk about the project, I happened to talk to another colleague, a former tank commander in Iraq, about the chaos surrounding our current undertaking. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I love chaos, because from chaos comes opportunity.”

And this has become one of my mantras because being a guy who spent his entire academic career working on Chaos Theory, it’s not often that I’m left speechless on the topic. But he was right. We were only looking for reasons to say no. We hadn’t been looking for enough reasons to say yes.

We got to work, but this time we decided to take baby steps. One of our team members located Iraqi faculty members through sheer will and dedication. Once we were able to establish contact, we learned they loved using Skype in cybercafés supported by satellite feeds. Unfortunately, we were working in a secured facility in Washington DC, so we drove to local coffee shops to use their free Wi-Fi with our personal laptops to talk to the Iraqi scientists.

But the no’s kept coming. Now they were depending on fancier words like “authorization,””oversight,” and “jurisdiction.” And good old just pushing meetings out. The bureaucracy we were working in was designed to say no.

One of our team members wondered how bad it would be if he wrote a memo to his uber-uber boss: the Secretary of State. It was a long shot, but we figured: screw the rules, because we really were running low on options. Then a few weeks later, he pulled out an envelope from his bag. The envelope was thin, so I was naturally freaking out. In it was the original memo, and at the bottom, hand written with emphasis, it said: G-O-O-D-!. It was like we had gotten a gold star on a homework assignment.

Do not fear chaos…Embrace it, and you will discover incredible opportunities.And then, people magically started to align with our goals. By getting one powerful person to buy into our vision, we were able to move from “no” conversations to “how” conversations. It was no longer a pet project; it was a combined effort. This taught me how important it is to go from “me” to “we” if you’re doing something hard.

Unfortunately, getting to “yes” often comes at a great cost. As hard as it was for us, the risks taken by our soldiers, diplomats, the Iraqi scientists, and educators, were substantially greater. We lost more than I’d like to count to the war. And as the gravity of the situation sank in, we needed to go faster. Our philosophy became: don’t ask for permission; beg for forgiveness. Because getting all of the green lights would be an eventual slow death.

Finally, the system was ready to go. When we saw the impact, I cried. Not because of the soul crushing no’s. This time, it was the thank you’s, the stories of the people who have used the system to make a difference. And now the program we started is the backbone of their educational system. That’s why the recent news out of the country is so heart-wrenching for me. The people I worked with are the ones I am confident will continue to find ways to say yes to fight for their country, their children, and a better life.

Class of 2014, do not fear chaos or run from it. Run toward chaos. Embrace it, and you will discover incredible opportunities.

We live in a culture where it is all too easy to find ways to say no. Instead, adopt a philosophy of begging for forgiveness rather than asking for permission. When looking to solve new problems, ask people to engage in “how” conversations instead of “no” ones.

Most of all, lead a path of intellectual honesty. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the passion of an idea, but if you’re not brutally honest with yourself and the people you’re working with, you will set yourself up for failure by creating a delusional environment.

Part of being intellectually honest is to anticipate failure. Know this and expect it by formulating hypotheses you can test. Your training here at the Baskin School has prepared you well for this important step. You’ve spent a critical portion of your life applying the scientific method to your work; now, apply it to your broader life. If you do this, you will move faster from no to yes. As you test your ideas, know that you’re not going to get it right the first time, the second, or even the third. Instead, focus on iterating from hypothesis to hypothesis. Let the scientific method be your guide, and it will never fail you.

The key to this is the speed at which you iterate. At the end of every day, ask yourself: are you massively smarter today than you were yesterday? Its okay if you bombed as long as you are 10x smarter. You all know how compound interest works with money; the same is true with experience and knowledge. Make sure you’re investing in yourself this way, and I guarantee that you will eventually look back at how far you’ve come and be stunned at the progress.

You’ve already seen this happen. That’s what this university is about. Think back to the first day on campus, when you didn’t even know where the bathrooms were. Remember your first really hard homework set? The struggle that it took as you sat there staring blankly at the page? Now that stuff is elementary. It’s stunning how far you’ve come. Don’t ever forget it.


A student graduating from UC Santa Cruz’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering. Photo: courtesy of DJ Patil.

And it’s not just this university that got you here. One of the most important things you will need in figuring out hard problems is the people that you’re sitting next to and all the people here to celebrate today with you. Your tribe. Your people. The ones who you can count on in your darkest hour. These are the people who will be the first to drop whatever they are doing to pick you back up.

Equally, they are the ones who will keep you honest when you go off course. They will be your compass for a path of intellectual honesty. Make sure to cherish and nurture those relationships. And recognize the reciprocity that is required to keep your tribe vibrant. You only succeed if you all succeed.

When I was in third grade, they had career day. I asked my father what he did. He told me he was an entrepreneur. Now, to put this in perspective, I was eight years old and still working on how to say “aluminum.” I remember being on the jungle gym during recess, and the kids started to try to one-up each other with what their parents did. Teacher, accountant, police officer, fireman. The only thing that followed as I horribly mangled the word “entrepreneur” was laughter. Man, I couldn’t believe how uncool my dad made me.

This went on year after year as he worked on his ideas. Raw struggle. And watching him, I learned that entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to say yes to crazy and unbelievable ideas. As the saying goes, entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane before you hit the ground. I think that embodies the best in fighting every instinct to say no.

After a decade, I saw his company go public, and through the press I finally realized what a powerful impact his crazy fight for yes had on so many lives. In fact, your lives. It turns out that he’s the Baskin School’s longest serving advisor, but no one figured out we’re related until a little while ago. Turns out, entrepreneurship is cool.

Watching him go through that journey and being lucky enough to go on my own path, I’ve learned that in order to break boundaries and constantly find ways to innovate, you have focus on creating more value than you take. Always give more than you take. For every unit you take, create 10x the return. It can be for every $1 you make, create $10 of value. Or for every hour of mentorship you receive, provide 10 hours of mentorship. When you give more than you take, we all benefit. That’s how you create your tribe. That’s how you’ll get people to help you build that plane after you jump off the cliff.

Once you’ve jumped, remember this advice: clever beats smart; wisdom beats experience. Smart is important, but clever will beat smart nine times out of 10. If you’re working on a hard problem, clever approaches allow you to iterate fast. Once you’ve figured it out, focus on smart because it will help you scale and solidify the idea. Clever is agility and smart is horsepower.

How do you get to be clever? Most people would say it’s through experience. In reality, that’s only part of the solution. There is a big difference between experience and wisdom. Experience will allow you to make the same mistake over and over again. Wisdom is gained upon reflection on those experiences. Make sure you take time in your incredibly busy lives to digest your experiences and turn them into wisdom.

There you have it, Class of 2014. My advice to you:

  1. Live a life of intellectual honesty.
  2. Create more than you take.
  3. Clever beats smart; wisdom beats experience.

And on this Father’s Day, please take some time to reflect on those experiences with dad or any father figure to turn them into wisdom.

Remember to say to thank you to those who help you fight for yes. It could be your dad, your mom, a mentor, your spouse, a sibling, or even your kids. Let’s take a moment to thank all those people here today who helped you get here — especially you dads and father figures out there!

My father used to always tell me I’d be good at math. Even though I kept failing at it. Literally. For 18 years, I always found a way to say no because it was a hard path. Yet, he never accepted my no. So, dad, now that my career is in math, thank you for fighting for yes. When my kids ask me what I do, I’m proud to tell them: I’m an entrepreneur. But before career day, I’m going to make sure they can say it and spell it correctly.

Class of 2014, you’ve met the criteria to be here today, to wear the regalia from what is, in my opinion, one of the best programs in the world. How do I know? Because, it’s one of my favorite programs to hire from. People from this program have never, ever let me down. They’re always ready for the fight, intellectually honest, and compassionate friends. I’m fortunate to count many of the Baskin alumni as part of my personal tribe.

Class of 2014, you’re entering a time where everyone is looking for reasons to say no. No to finding solutions to poverty. No to comprehensive global health care. No to keeping our planet pristine for our children.

Saying yes to tackling these challenges will come from you.

The diploma that you’re about to receive isn’t just a certification of how good you are. It’s a baton of trust given to you with the expectation that you will take on these challenges. It’s now your show, and with godspeed, you will open all of our eyes to a world of new wonders and solutions we never thought possible.

Class of 2014, hear the no’s, expect the no’s, confront them, respect them, but do not accept them. Fight for yes.

Class of 2014, I say yes to you. Good luck, godspeed, and dare to be great!

Full video from DJ Patil’s commencement address is available below:

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