Listen to Your Heart: Thomas Friedman at Williams College - 2005

By Sandy Chapman

Commencement addresses at universities across the country offer a wonderful opportunity for inspiration from the words of a diverse collection of individuals. One such source of inspiration was Thomas L. Friedman, the award-winning author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, and Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist.

In his 2005 commencement address at Williams College, Friedman talked about some of the lessons he has learned through his profession about getting through life. These include:

  1. Do what you love. High technology is flattening the world, making it possible for U.S jobs to be "downsized" or sent "offshore". To survive, you must be calculating. To make yourself irreplaceable, you must do a job that makes you untouchable. In other words, do work that you love. For instance, do work that relies on special skills or talents that are immune from outsourcing or automation (i.e. Michael Jordon or Barbara Streisand). Other ways to make yourself untouchable include doing highly specialized work (i.e. being a brain surgeon), doing work tied to a specific location (i.e. a hairdresser, chef, etc.), and lastly, being adaptable to changing times and industry needs.

In an anecdote about the specialness of teachers, Friedman relates a story in which a teacher, when asked what she makes (in the dollar sense) replied: "You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder, I make them question, I make them criticize, I make them apologize and mean it, I make them write and I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English….I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention."

  1. Being a good listener is one of the great joys in life. Friedman, a Jewish American foreign affairs columnist, remarks that the secret to operating for over 20 years in the Arab/Muslim world was in being a good listener. "It has never failed me. You can get away with really disagreeing with people as long as you show them the respect of really listening to what they have to say and taking it into account when and if it makes sense. Indeed, the most important part of listening is that it is a sign of respect… It's amazing how you can diffuse a whole roomful of angry people by just starting your answer to a question with the phrase, 'You're making a legitimate point' or 'hear what you say' and really meaning it."
  2. Learn how to learn. Friedman states: "The enduring skill you need in a flat world is an ability to learn how to learn. The ability to learn how to learn is what enables you to adapt and stay special or specialized….the best way to learn how to learn is to love learning. When I think back on my favorite teachers, I am not sure I remember much anymore of what they taught me, but I sure remember enjoying learning it."
  3. Don't get carried away with gadgets. On this, Friedman comments: "In this age of laptops and PDAs, the Internet and Google, mp3s and iPods, remember one thing: all these tools might make you smarter, but they sure won't make you smart, they might extend your reach, but they will never tell you what to say to your neighbor over the fence, or how to comfort a friend in need, or how to write a lead that sings or how to imagine a breakthrough in science or literature. You cannot download passion, imagination, zest and creativity—all that stuff that will make you untouchable. You have to upload it, the old fashioned way, under the olive tree, with reading, writing and arithmetic, travel, study, reflection, museum visits and human interaction."
  4. Being a skeptic, does not mean being a cynic. "Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Cynicism is about already having the answers—or thinking you do—answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, 'I don't think that's true; I'm going to check it out.' The cynic says: "I know that's not true. It couldn't be. I'm going to slam him.'"
  5. Call your Moma. Friedman: "For me, the most searing images and stories of 9/11 were the tales of all those people who managed to use a cell phone to call their loved ones to say a last goodbye from a hijacked airplane or a burning tower. But think of the hundreds of others who never got a chance to say goodbye or a final 'I love you.'

"Well, class of 2005, that about does it for me. I'm fresh out of material. I guess what I have been trying to say here this afternoon can be summed up by the old adage that 'happiness is a journey not a destination.' Bringing joy and passion and optimism to your work is not what you get to do when you get to the top. It is HOW you get to the top…"


Friedman, T. L., (2005). Listen to Your Heart. On the Humanity Initiative Web site (Voices Page). Retrieved June 22, 2007, from