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Salman Khan at Rice University's 2012 commencement

Rice commencement speaker Salman Khan's address to the graduates focused on contributions of a different kind: He urged the students to do everything they can to "increase the net happiness in the world."Khan is the founder of the Khan Academy, a free online education platform and not-for-profit organization that has made waves in the field of education. In 2004, Khan's online tutorials for a young cousin gained a wider audience, and five years later he turned his collection of free educational videos into the online Khan Academy. Today, his more than 3,200 online tutorials attract 6 million viewers every month, and Time magazine recently named him one of the world's 100 most influential people.For more: http://news.rice.edu/2012/05/12/khan-urges-graduates-to-increase-the-positivity-in-the-world/.

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Video transcript

Ladies and Gentleman, please join me in welcoming the commencement speaker for our 99th commencement exercises, Salman Khan. [APPLAUSE] It's really an honor, a surreal honor, to be here. What I hope to do, 'cause, to a large degree, I -- maybe, 35 might seem a lot older, but from my perspective, I don't feel a lot older than many of y'all in the audience. I kind of feel like a bit of an older brother to you. What I want to do is just share some thoughts, ideas, guiding principles that I have in my own adventure. They're a work in progress. Take them with a grain of salt. Hopefully, they'll help you in some way as you go on -- as you are about to embark on your own adventures. In a few minutes you are going to get a diploma. And it's a powerful thing. Obviously, things brought you to Rice -- your intelligence, your creativity, your hard work. But what that diploma is going to be is validation, a very powerful validation, from one of the world's truly great universities. And when you have that, really neat things are going to start happening in your life. You're going to go places. You're going to get the interview. Your resumé is going to go to the top of the stack. People are going to give you responsibility. They're going to give you the benefit of the doubt. The first thing I really want to kind of think together about is how you can leverage that validation that you're about to get to kind of increase the positivity in the world, the net happiness in the world, to help -- hopefully empower others. And I personally believe that it'll probably come back to you. And I say this from the point of view of someone who's been directly empowered by Rice graduates, frankly, in a way that, frankly, all of what you just heard might not have happened had a few Rice graduates not stepped out of the woodwork. in 2009 -- and you heard a little bit of the narrative of the Khan Academy -- it started from my cousins -- 2009, tens of thousands of people started using it. It was pretty obvious that most of them were not my cousins. I was fairly kind of intoxicated by what was happening. I was getting thank you letters from around the world. I sat down with my wife, and we had a little bit of savings. In the introduction, it said I was the hedge-fund manager. I want to clarify. I was the hedge fund analyst. It's two different economic strata. But it was a good career. I was doing well. And there was the potential of, one day, becoming the manager. But I, frankly, had trouble focusing on my day job. And so, I sat down with my wife. And we had a little bit of savings. And I said, "Hey, someone should -- It's a not for profit. There's a potential here to do civilization-scale education. We can educate people for all of time. There's almost an infinite social return on investment here. Surely, someone's going to realize that this is worth funding. And I kind of took that fairly naive point of view and quit my job and started working full time on the Khan Academy. And like a lot of these stories happen, nine months into it, I had a lot of meetings and nothing quite had happened. Frankly, when you hear a bio and you're on these lists, you think "Oh, it must have just been this very smooth ride." But, nine months into it, I actually hit something of a low point. We just had our first -- I was 32 years old. Our son had just been born. We had dug about thirty or forty thousand dollars into our savings, which was really for a down payment for a house we hadn't bought yet. And, like a lot of you guys, I had been this person -- good grades my whole life, kind of a fast track career and all that. And all of a sudden I had done something that was a risk. And I knew that people kind of said, "Well, you know, what's going on? Has Sal flaked out?" I started becoming a little bit paranoid -- ("Have I failed my family?) -- that we were on track to have a comfortable life and now, maybe it's all gone." Frankly, the only thing that kept me going was small acts of validation -- letters from people around the world saying, "Hey, this really helped. I got an 'A' on my algebra exam." Or, "This is the reason I was able to go back to college," or whatever else. But then all of a sudden, really, when I was almost at the lowest point, and I was frankly about to give up, I got the biggest act of validation -- or one in a series, really. I had a little link on the web site where people were donating five [or] ten dollars, and then all of a sudden a ten thousand dollar donation comes in. And it was from someone named Ann Doerr, who I later learned is Rice class of 1975. And I immediately emailed her back, I was like, "Well, thank you very much. This is the largest donation that the Khan Academy has ever received. If we were a physical school, you would now have a building named after you." (Which I think is somewhat less than what it goes for over here. I don't know what the, what the a -- ) But she said -- She was in Northern California. And she said, "Well, we should have lunch. I want to learn more about what you're doing." And we had lunch at an Indian buffet restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. And she says, "What's your vision here?" I said, "Well, I want to keep making videos for the rest of my life. We can have other faculty members. We can translate it into the world's languages. We can have interactive software, feedback. We can have ways for us to connect students in the world so that they can help each other. Really, a world class education for anyone anywhere -- for free." And she says "Well, you know, it's a very grand ambition. But I've seen what you've already done." (I had about 900 videos at that point.) "And I really think there's a potential here. But I have a question: 'How are you supporting yourself?'" And in kind of as proud a way as possible, I said, "I'm not." And she kind of nodded; and we went on our way. She got back on her bicycle. I got in my car. I went home. And right when I was going into the driveway, already excited, not expecting much more -- I'd had a hundred meetings like that. And not much had come of it. She had already proved to be the biggest supporter of the Khan Academy. Right when I'm coming into my driveway, I get a text message from Ann. And it reads, "You really need to be supporting yourself, I've just wired you a hundred thousand dollars." So it was a good day. (And I almost crashed into the garage.) And I say that -- Obviously, the money was a big deal -- based on the situation I was in and the family was in -- But the real power of what Ann did was that act of empowerment -- that act of validation. That act that [said] she really believed in what I was doing. And I know, sometimes when I tell this story, in the back of people's mind, [they] say, "Well you know, she was in a position to do that. I'm not in a position to give someone a hundred thousand dollars." But, one, I want to highlight that I had meetings with probably fifty other folks who were in even a better position to do it. But it was really -- they were waiting for something else to happen. They were saying, "Well this guy's operating out of a closet. I don't know what to make of it. It sounds like a good idea [but] -- ." And because of that kind of stalling, the idea might have [come] to nothing. It might have not existed. And it really took a special type of person to step out there. And the other thing I want to point out is, yes, if you are in a position [to do] what Ann did, that's unbelievable, and that's an unbelievable power to have in your life. But, I personally believe, and now, especially, now that I'm getting [into] more of a position to – not to do what Ann did but to -- empower other people -- . I want to highlight that this is something that you can do in your own way tonight. You can validate others -- empower others -- increase the net happiness -- the positivity in the world. I mean, it can be as simple as: your family's going to have dinner tonight. And you go to a restaurant tonight and you see someone do something great. And too often, we kind of just sit back and say, "Oh, that was good, that was good service." Maybe you give an extra tip. You're at work or you see a colleague who goes above and beyond, and you say, "Oh, that was pretty good -- they did a nice thing." And what I hope -- and this is something that I tell myself all the time is, "Don't just sit by and observe it. Recognize it! When you see someone do something great, tell them about it. Tell their bosses about it. Tell their family about it." And when you do that, all sorts of neat, exciting things are going to start percolating into the universe. Obviously, you are going to make that person's day. You're going to make their year. You might make their career. I've seen it happen before. You probably, in some way, will make their life. Even more, they're going to start doing that ultra-positive thing more. People around them are going to see the recognition they got for it, And they are going to start emulating it. And even though it wasn't your intent -- you just wanted to highlight something good that's happening in the world -- people will recognize that you are a source of positivity. And when you are a source of positivity, people will just naturally gravitate to you. The other, the second idea I want to share with you -- (And once again, all of these are works in progress.) is the idea of kind of being a life-long learner. Something I want to stress as much as possible Given the phase that you're about to enter -- You know, the next ten years are your chance to ask the naive questions that you will later learn are really the profound questions The ones that are really going to be the game changers -- Your chance to really invest in yourself -- One thing that I have kind of a unique vantage point at the Khan Acadamy, is that we see all of these lifelong learners, and how much it's changing their own views on life And, you know, early on, in 2008, I had a -- when the financial crisis hit -- I started making videos it was my background -- I started making videos on the Federal Reserve, and credit default swaps, and mortgage-backed securities. And I got a letter from a -- I got all sorts of, you know -- "This was really helpful. I understand what's happening in the news." But I got one particularly powerful letter. It was a gentleman who worked at – I will say -- an unnamed investment bank. And he says, "Thank you for that video on mortgage- backed securities. I now know what I do for a living." [LAUGHTER] Which is, I guess, that's more of a scary story than a good one. But it goes to the extreme. It's not just something that's going to affect you in a practical way -- forward your career. Probably --- We get all sorts of amazing letters and testimonials from people around the world. Still, the one that resonates in my brain the most -- And it really is this testament to lifelong learning. And it really is a testament that it goes beyond the practical. It goes beyond what you might make use of. I got a letter, also in 2008, a terminal cancer patient -- she had two months to live. And she said -- and it blew my mind – "I have -- I've got two months." And she said it in a shockingly positive tone. And she said, "But my life's dream was to learn calculus, and Khan Academy has given [me] that, and I look forward to spending the last two months of my life learning it. And when I saw that, it changed my own perspective It made me excited to be a learner for as long as I have the privilege of being around. The last idea I want to share with you is really just kind of "keep things in perspective." I know we all say it. But, it really – you just have to keep reinforcing it. Everyone in this audience -- knock on wood -- you're going to do just fine. You're going to have your four-bedroom house You're going to have your car with the power windows. You'll be able to go to Sea World whenever you want to. But along that way, there are going to be ups and downs. And actually, those ups and downs tend to happen a lot when you go to transition points. When you are entering the work force, you're entering some type of new phase in your life. And you just always have to keep [focused] on the long-term game -- the end game. And I'll tell you myself -- I've gone through some fairly dramatic ones right when I was out [of] the gate. When I was -- This is 1998. I had just graduated. I was a few months older than most of y'all. And some computer magazine had seen something I had done. And they wrote this neat profile about me. They called it "Future So Bright." And I saw that magazine, and I was very proud of it. I said, "Look, I'm set. I have this career ahead of me. I'm already profiled in a magazine." And frankly, I got kind of into myself. And that's OK. You can enjoy your successes. But I really didn't have any perspective. And frankly, it was a dangerous thing to happen. And to really put things in perspective -- and I'm happy it did happen -- Two months later I had kind of switched jobs -- higher salary -- I thought I was on the fast track. And I had a new boss. And on the first three days of work, he spent an hour just completely castigating me— Essentially telling me that I was not worth his time. That I was incompetent, as far as he was concerned. And so you can imagine, [here I'd had] success my whole life -- fancy degrees from fancy universities -- Two months ago, I was profiled in a magazine. And then now, all of a sudden, not even twenty-three years old, I was back in a hotel room, in the middle of nowhere -- crying; not knowing what I was going to do with my life -- convinced that it was all the end of everything, that all -- that everthing was for naught. And so, you get through them. You wake up in the morning. Things look a little bit better A week later, things look a little better. You start circulating your resumé around. I did find another job two months later. And it's OK. And the one thing I want to stress – (Because I've gone through ups and downs; and you only have one perspective for your own life.) -- but I suspect many of you all are going to have higher ups than I've had, and many of you all are going to have lower downs. And I worry about that sometimes. The ones of you who have higher ups, just keep them in perspective. And it's inevitable -- Some of you are going to race ahead and be so successful that none of us can imagine it right now. But keep them in perspective. Enjoy the successes. But when your ego starts feeling a little bit large, keep in mind the sun will supernova one day, the galaxies will collide. We are just these small little mammals on this small planet. There's a hundred, two-hundred million stars in the galaxy -- in just our galaxy alone. And just have peace in the little success[es]. And when you have a hard time -- and you will -- those of you who will go through painful periods. You might stumble and start your first few times out [of] the gate. Also keep in perspective that those stresses – put them in perspective of the universe – they are small. They are going to be things that you’ll be able to laugh about, talk about, ten, fifteen years from now – or hopefully ten, fifteen days from now. And so to bring it all together, I want to give you a little thought experiment that I actually use for myself all the time when I am faced with a tough decision, or I want to think about, "How do I approach my life?" And so, imagine yourself 50 years in the future. You're in your early seventies. You're hanging out at home. You've just watched the state of the union hologram by President Bieber. And right after that, you start reflecting on your life. And you first think about all of the successes you've had. You had a very good career – you were able to provide for your family – you had amazing friendships -- And I'll tell you, (right?) I can guarantee you, 50 years from now, you will keep reflecting about the friendships that you made here. You will keep thinking about this campus. And you'll reflect on them. You'll smile about it. You'll think about your children, you'll think about the bonds you've made – the contributions you've made to the world. But, you'll also think about things you'll wish you had done just a little bit better. Maybe. Call them “regrets,” if you want. We'll all have them. I have a sense of what those regrets might be. They'll be, "Well, I did alright; but I wish that I had spent more time with my children. I wish that I told my spouse that I loved them more frequently. I wish that I spread more positivity, I empowered more people, I validated more people. I smiled more often; I laughed more often. I wish that I had a chance to spend more time and hug and tell my parents how much I love them before they passed. And right when you start having those regrets, a genie pops up and says, "You seem like a good person. You’ve done a lot in your life. But I've been eaves dropping on your regrets, and they seem like valid ones. So I'm going to give you a second chance." And you say, "Well, sure." And so the genie snaps his fingers, and brings you back right over here -- brings you back to Rice University, May 2012 And says, "This is your second chance. You can do all of the successes that you had in your first pass. But this is your chance to optimize. This is your chance to laugh a little bit more, your chance to spread a little bit more positivity, to spread a little bit more positivity, a chance to really tell the people who matter to you just how much you love them, before, frankly, it's too late. And so here I am - truly honored and humbled to be here – just completely excited by what you all are going to do in your second pass. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] English subtitles by Mike Ridgway (khaniverse.blogspot.com)