May 2012

How Passionate People Can Change the World

Yesterday, the School of Medicine celebrated our 170th graduation, where I shared some thoughts with the students about how passionate people can change the world. Because the theme really applies to everyone, and because it involves some of my deepest beliefs, I wanted to also share these thoughts with all of you.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

You MADE it! What a fantastic day this is!

And my guess would be—remembering back to the day when I was in your shoes, waiting to get my diploma—that you feel some combination of euphoria…validation…and relief! No?

I suspect—and hope!—that there’s another emotion swirling around in you right now: gratitude…toward those who have believed in you and supported you along the way—your families…your friends…and your teachers.

I think you’d agree that today is their triumph, as well as your own…so let’s take a moment to thank them.   

Many of you, I know, overcame major obstacles to get to medical school. And all of you worked incredibly hard to get through it.
To me, though, the most telling thing of all is that you signed up before all those economic bubbles burst—while huge numbers of your peers were lured by the apparent promise of “instant megabucks.”

You wouldn’t be sitting here, in other words…if you weren’t propelled by a profound desire to make a difference with your life.
In the next few minutes, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about what it will take to actually do that.

Intelligence…creativity…opportunity…and even luck all help shape a life of achievement.

But none of them explain why some people “get there”…while so many others—starting with similar (or even more impressive) assets—don’t.

How many people set out at top speed—but forget they face a marathon, not a 50-yard dash?

How many take a shot or two at a glorious dream—and when the attempt falls short, simply throw up their hands and forget it?

And how many others gradually let the forces of inertia wear them down?

All of those life-trajectories are familiar…and, I suppose, understandable. But they rarely lead to accomplishments that mirror the dreams one started out with.

So what is it that allows certain individuals to defy the “gravity” of life—and hold fast to what they set out to do?

In my eyes, the deciding factor is…passion.

Now, passion, for many people, is a flamboyant trait. Think flamenco, for example.

And of course, it isn’t always positive—far from it! Soccer hooligans are passionate. Political extremists, lord knows, are passionate. And as we all know, most of history’s greatest tragedies have been set ablaze by passion run amok.

The kind of passion I’m talking about is obviously about creating, not destroying. It’s about unwavering—“un-de-rail-able”—commitment and determination to rise to the very best of oneself. 

From Sir Laurence Olivier to Meryl Streep, the great performers have it.

So do the great athletes, including amateurs like the four oarsmen David Halberstam described in his 1985 book—crewmen bent on winning an Olympic medal because, as he put it “they wanted to, for no reward other than the feeling itself.”

The great chefs…the great designers…the great writers—all those who distinguish themselves by elevating a craft into an art form—reach the heights they do because their passion carries them through the thankless slog of attaining mastery in their field.

The same, needless to say, is true of clinicians and scientists.

If this were only about consummate expertise, we could stop right here. And passion would come down to a mere predictable prerequisite of iron-clad self-discipline.

But I think truly passionate people bring something else—something indescribably valuable…even world-altering —to the table. And that is: they forever change the way we see things. They transfect our DNA.

  • Think of Van Gogh or Picasso, who each—despite their very different personal fortunes—redefined centuries’ worth of quote-unquote “certainties” about what it means to paint a picture.
  • Or think of Winston Churchill, who during World War II led a country about the size of Kansas… just 21 miles from the Nazi-dominated mainland…while bombs were raining down mercilessly on London…and whose radio-broadcast speeches rallied his beleaguered nation to keep on fighting—probably saving much of our world through the power of his words alone.
  • Or think of the giants in science and medicine.
    • From Louis Pasteur, so fearless in his pursuit of the causes of infectious disease that he once collected saliva—in a vial clenched between his teeth—from the mouth of a rabid bull-dog…
    • …to Marie Curie, who processed ten tons of pitchblende residue—in 20-kilogram batches!—to isolate one tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride…
    • …to anti-polio crusader (and NYU alumnus) Jonas Salk, who devoted eight tireless years to developing a vaccine that he tested on himself…and never sought to patent, because, as he said, it would be like trying to patent the sun… 
    • …to our friend Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who ground through 25 thousand tries before making the cell’s protein factories take on a crystalline form so their structure could be studied. (By the way, Dr. Yonath was our 2011 Graduation speaker. For years and years, the great champion of her work was our wonderful benefactor, Helen Kimmel!)

The legacy of our School brims with examples like these, as maybe you’ve already discovered in the book of our history, called Pioneering Medicine, that you received earlier this week.

In an interview a few months back, Ron Chernow, author of the Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington, summed up the astonishing level of impact one person can have.

According to Chernow, our country’s first president (who as you probably know, was not a warm and fuzzy guy, say nothing of a cheerleader or a blazing orator!) left a legacy that teaches us, and I quote, “the importance of clarity of vision…of tenacity of purpose and character…and how much can be accomplished in life if you keep your sights set on your ultimate goals.”

Some of you will be heading into the laboratory. Others into the classroom. And still others into lives of service in disaster zones or underserved areas.

Whatever your path, you have within you the power to leave the world a better place than you found it.

Depending on your temperament, your passion for what you do can be quiet…or vociferously contagious. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have it.


Congratulations again to each and all of you! Keep the flame! Thank you very much.