Keynote: Greg Van Kirk

Greg Van Kirk

Good evening.

I am extremely honored and even more so, humbled to be here with you.

I realized several years ago that when it comes down to it, you could define what I do in my career as being a problem solver. That’s it. And as graduating engineers you all have now gained essential knowledge to be problem solvers. Our world needs you to be problem solvers. When I graduated from Miami I frankly didn’t have the same problem solving knowledge that you do now. I gained the knowledge I needed over time, but most importantly I learned through experience.

I saw a postcard awhile back that said “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit and wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad”. To my mind, the bridge between knowledge and wisdom is experience. You now have the knowledge to be problem solvers, but to solve the great challenges you will confront in your careers and life, and the problems society needs you to solve, you need to gain wisdom. You need experience. There is no substitute. Although I certainly can’t give you that experience, you must proactively seek it out yourselves, I’d like to take the few moments I have here to humbly share two of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my own experience that will hopefully serve you as you continue on your respective learning journeys.

Years ago I was living in a small village in Guatemala and trying to develop a model to help first time women entrepreneurs sell reading glasses to people in remote villages in the developing world. 95% of people over 40 in the world need reading glasses and about the same percentage don’t have them. Think of the impact a simple pair of glasses has on a woman weaver who is 45 and at the top of her trade and can no longer put thread through a needle. It’s profound. So, I had a few pairs of glasses and went to two women I knew and who I knew cared deeply about their community. Magarita and Esperanza. After doing some back of the napkin math I asked them if they would be up for selling glasses for $3. I knew I could get them for about a dollar and that this would give them some margin to earn an income. And I thought $3 would be the most villagers would pay for them given their extremely limited resources.

After proposing my $3 price they spoke to each other a bit in their native language and then came back to me and said “Gregorio, we need to sell them for at least $5. $3 won’t work.” Why, I asked skeptically? Because, they said, if we sell them for $3 people will think they’re cheap. If we sell them for $5 people will think they’re inexpensive. At the time, charging poor people more money to get them to buy something sounded a bit crazy to me, but I begrudgingly went with their recommendation. And they were right. I was wrong. In the years since, thousands of women like Margarita and Esperanza that sold nearly 100,000 pairs of glasses throughout Latin America for $5 and up. So, in order to have low income people buy glasses you need to charge a higher price.

A few weeks ago I was in Egypt designing and testing a capacity building session for managers in a garment factory. The goal was to help them implement better healthcare practices for workers. For years professionals like me had been telling them how to do it. That’s the common practice. Bring the experts in to tell people how to solve their problems. It wasn’t working. During the training we flipped the methodology on its head and asked them how to solve some of the most complex healthcare problems that existed in their factories. Within three hours they solved the problems that the experts hadn’t been able to solve in three years.

What is it that these experiences and so many others like them have taught me over the years?

First, make your problem someone else’s opportunity. Being a wise problem solver doesn’t necessarily mean you are the one solving the problem. Put empathy in action and have the people closest to the problem solve it. It’s the only way to do it.

And second, to be a great fruit salad maker very often you need to do the total opposite of what conventional wisdom and, most importantly, your intuition tells you to do. This is true in work and in life. Within my team’s work we try to be intentional about this and call it the Costanza Rule.

What is this? Let explain. I date myself and the parents here may know this reference a bit better than the graduates. There’s a Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry are at the diner and George, who has been an abject failure at just about everything, says to Jerry, “Everything I have ever tried has failed. All of my instincts are wrong. So from here on out I’m going to do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do. He then goes to the counter and sees a woman he is attracted to. She turns around and he says something like “My name is George, I’m unemployed and I live with my parents” Her reaction - “How you doin?”

To be clear, please get a job and try to find your own place to live. Don’t miss the lesson.

Our instincts very often tell us to sympathize. Don’t. Try to empathize. This is how you understand.

We are prone to criticize. Don’t. Find the good and celebrate. This is how you find and create joy.

Skepticism gets you little, whereas trust makes the impossible possible and builds the relationships that matter in your life.

Don’t do the easy thing. Do hard things and push through your fears. It’s how you grow.

Don’t worry about the future. Be in the now. Reflect on wonderful things in the past. It’s how you appreciate.

If your instinct is to talk. Be quiet and listen. That’s how you give others voice and how great ideas are formed.

Don’t only pursue success. Test new ideas that are likely to fail. That’s how you learn and innovate.

And don’t wait for inspiration to get your hands dirty. That’s not how it works. It’s the opposite. It’s hard work that leads to inspiration. That’s how you find your passions and your purpose.

And later on if you are thinking about having another beer, maybe try a glass of water.

I’d like to close by just saying a huge congratulations to the graduates, to your families and friends, and of course to the leadership, administration and faculty here at the Engineering School. Well done.