Logo: University of Southern California

Ken Klein's Keynote Address

Viterbi School Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony, May 16, 2008

May 16, 2008 — Dean Yannis Yortsos, Department Chairs, Associate Deans, Faculty, Staff, Family, Friends, and Students.

Good Morning! It’s an honor for me to share in this special time with you - this Commencement Ceremony in this 102nd year for the USC Engineering School, now the Viterbi School.

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Congratulations to all of you, the Viterbi School of Engineering class of 2008! You have much for which to be proud. Based on your scores and achievements, you are the most talented engineering class ever to graduate from USC
Ken Klein addresses the Viterbi School graduating class of 2008.   —Ben Murray photo

And thanks in large part to you — the Viterbi School, has become one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world— and the curve continues to be steeply up and to the right.

As we might have expected, you are not standing still. I understand a third of you plan to go on to graduate school, another third to industry, and the rest of you plan to pursue a combination of both. I think it’s very appropriate at this time to recognize the family and friends who supported you along the way.

May I have all of those family and friends who supported our Viterbi graduates stand now please. Graduates, let’s show them our appreciation

  Twenty-six years ago, I was exactly where you are today, at a ceremony just like this, although the location was somewhat different. We were on the steps of Doheny Library on an oppressively hot day. In preparing for this, I thought of what I wish I would have heard on that sweltering day.

What could the commencement speaker have told us to help us anticipate what would lie ahead? What could have helped? Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the commencement speech – I was probably exhausted from the usual excesses, and just thinking about getting moved out, spending some time with my family and friends, and waiting for my name to be called.

If you will indulge me (not that you have much choice in the matter at this point), I would like to share with you some very personal influences that have helped me anticipate the road ahead and remind me of how important it is to have something you’re passionate about in your life.
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Before the speech

But don’t worry- as Henry VIII said to one of his wives, “I won’t keep you long.”

When he was in his seventies, I remember my paternal grandfather, as a small man, fastidiously dressed, with a quick smile and an even faster wit. I remember my younger brother and I walking with him to Chicago’s soot-covered Union Station, in his pressed suit, his neatly folded monogrammed handkerchief protruding from his jacket pocket and his Dobbs Challenger brown felt dress hat tilting its usual 15 degrees off center.

After returning from World War I, my grandfather settled in Chicago, married my grandmother and started a travel agency with a partner. Although my grandfather had just a grade school education, he became a very sophisticated, worldly man, having traveled to every country save two. Though he lived in Chicago, his friendships spanned the globe -- in some countries that don’t even exist anymore.

After he lost his wife to tuberculosis, he could have become bitter. He did not. Instead, he chose to give back. He seemed to build relationships with everyone with whom he came in contact: the police officer on the corner, the elevator operator in his apartment building, his housekeeper, business associates, and clients alike. He was passionate about people – building an extended family in his community and beyond.

He had a gift for intently listening and relating to people. When people were in need, he gave of his time, his talent, and his resources – often reaching out to those less fortunate. Those that knew him well – and even those that did not – described him as a generous man.

He died in 1970, in Paris, fittingly in the city of love. Scores of people attended his funeral, many of whom my family had not met before. His enduring legacy certainly was not a business empire – although 38 years after his death, the small travel agency which he founded, still bears his name. Instead, his legacy is who he was - defined by his passion and love for people. Through his financial generosity, he enabled me to attend USC, and speak with you now.

My father did not inherit the same passion for people. However, my dad has always had a passion for the pursuit of knowledge – practical or otherwise. I’m told that in high school, my father’s science teacher visited my grandfather at his apartment, intent on finding out why his son showed little interest in his class.

My grandfather led the teacher to my dad’s room where the teenager was in the process of building a large refractor telescope. Mirrors, tubes, and other optical components were strewn across the floor. For some reason, the teacher seemed to be less concerned about my dad’s academic progress after that visit. A number of years later, after receiving what amounted to three PhD’s from MIT, all the pieces seemed to be in place for my dad to launch a stellar career in academics or industry.

However, it did not turn out that way. My dad was far too restless of spirit to stay with any job or assignment too long. It certainly didn’t help him build relationships or achieve some traditional measures of success.

One could interpret his career as a series of bad breaks and poor choices. However, there is much more to his life. His almost child-like curiosity has led him in a number of different – often frustratingly impractical – directions. However, he conducted some meaningful high-energy particle research in the 60’s, patented some early voice recognition devices and lead medical instrumentation advances in the 70’s.

He developed a personal discovery application using inferential statistics a few years ago. And more recently – now in his early eighties – he has explored interesting relationships between music and technology and investigated if time explains some of the missing mass in the universe.

His passion is the pure and joyous pursuit of answers to life’s questions. One of these questions was whether Notre Dame’s strategy to let the South Bend stadium grass grow long in October 2005 disproportionately slowed our speedier Trojan football team – or proportionately slowed both the Irish and the Men of Troy. The answer was found at the end of my dad’s two-page mathematical analysis, which modeled a blade of grass as a theoretical mechanical spring. For any who are interested, I would be happy to share the analysis afterwards, perhaps over a cold beverage or two.

As far back as I can remember, my parents have said that I consistently chose to do things the hard way.

If I would only listen to teachers, to my parents, and to reason! I’m sure I frustrated them to no end and faithfully still do so today. I remember as far back as the first grade in West Lafayette, Indiana, how much more interesting it was watching the snowflakes accumulate on one of the classroom windows than listening to the teacher drone on. Or in the spring, my classroom daydreams of scouring nearby fields for Indian arrowheads and the nearby Wabash River for snails. During that year, I alternated between being inattentive and disruptive in class. Of course, there would be consequences of these intellectual truancies.

In that era, it was common to see the symptom rather than the child. I saw my family's legacy shifting from the brown felt Challenger hat to the dunce cap so often perched upon my head.

This was traumatic and humiliating for me because it felt like I had received a life sentence – branded as a low achiever and disappointment to my family.

Fortunately, a few years later, a Stanford-Binet test would liberate me from that self-view and help turn a repressed well of insecurity into a renewed belief in myself. My conviction that I had been misdiagnosed if not mistreated served as a source of motivation and still does to this day.

I became passionate about meeting obstacles and overcoming them. There have been good times and bad for me – from some desperate times without a job, to a broken back that ended my athletic dreams, and then those cherished moments with my family, career and faith. I’m convinced all of these experiences formed a solid foundation, which allowed me to confront some difficult business and personal challenges along the way. I’ve noticed that the standout people and top performers in my profession tend to be very passionate people. It seems to me that their passion sustains them through the tough times.

All of this is really about maintaining one’s vision, ignoring the naysayers, taking risks on ideas that just might be ahead of their time – and most importantly – to fight on

All of you are going to experience setbacks and failure in your life. The question is: How will you choose to react? What will you do?

My wish for all of you is that you confront and transform your inevitable setbacks and failures into success in your life. You’ve received lots of feedback over these past four or five years – from grades, class rankings, teachers, parents and even friends.

These are important perspectives, but may carry other peoples’ biases and certainly do not fully define you. For some of you, you may have begun to doubt or even lost some of your passion because of what you think others see in you.

Don’t let that happen. Find your passion!

Your passion for people, your passion for knowledge, your passion for tackling tough problems, your passion for leading others to your vision of the future, or something else entirely.

However defined, your passion will strengthen your integrity and serve you and others well. It will bring out the most honest and best part of you. If you’re fortunate, you’ll find your passion early in life, giving you more time to hone your craft.

Our own Warren Bennis of USC has said: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.”

As I’ve reflected on the 26 years since that commencement speaker addressed my class, I wanted to give to you what I’ve found to be important. By the way, did anyone hear the word passion?

And this is my final wish for you: that you would be generous and tread in the footsteps of people like my grandfather – that you would give back. As Engineers of the 21st Century, it’s incumbent on you to give back — not by building out the world but, in fact, by saving it.

Ironically as noted by Paul Saffo, technology forecaster and futurist, your job is to fix problems that were the solutions to the problems of the past. I hope that you will do so in an enlightened and humble way. And that someday, as you think about this day and these past four or five years at USC and what this time has meant to you, as our newest members of the extended Trojan family:
  • -You will find the strength to transform your setbacks into successes;
  • -You will find and do what you love;
  • -And you will give back, leaving this world a better place than when you found it.
Congratulations to all of you and thank you.

Fight on!