Abraham Verghese implores Stanford School of Medicine graduates to listen to their inner muse

“Honor the wisdom, the universe of knowledge that lies untouched within you,” the physician and novelist told the newly minted MDs, PhDs and master’s degree holders.

Abraham Verghese at the 2024 Stanford School of Medicine graduation ceremony.
Steve Fisch

I’m really honored to be speaking here today. To the graduates: I hope you can feel our joy, our pride, in this moment, this ritual. I want to say on your behalf: Thank you to the parents, the friends, the siblings, the children, all of you who came to support them and who made their journey possible. Let’s give them a good round of applause.

I’ll be honest. As honored as I am to be asked to speak, it’s challenging to give a commencement address at your own medical school. There is no flight I’m going to catch when I’m done from here; come Monday I’ll have to be back on the campus, back in my office.

I’ve been at Stanford for 16 years, and when I come to work, I alternate between two parking spots. The first is the Stock Farm garage, and so the walk to my office brings me along the Discovery Walk. For family and guests, the Discovery Walk is an outdoor art installation that stretches the length of the front of the medical school campus. It comprises 22 rectangular boxes on which you often see groups of students having their lunch or working on their tans.

Each box has graphite panels, 347 of them, each with a narrative, a story in both photos and text commemorating a milestone in science in the last 150 years and pairing that milestone with a parallel scientific discovery at Stanford.

Over the last 16 years I’ve read pretty much every panel. I love the Discovery Walk because it’s science history in the form of human stories of progress, ingenuity, creativeness and perseverance. It’s a living history because on the medical school campus alone, we have seven Nobel Prize winners. On the larger campus, there are 20 Nobel Prize winners. Believe me, if you don’t feel like an imposter when you work here, then you’re either a bona fide legend or you’re a legend in your own mind. But I have no doubt that among the groups seated here today are the very people who are going to change and advance science very much like the pioneers described on the Discovery Walk.

The other place I park is near the Cantor Museum, and so my walk takes me past the outdoor Rodin Sculpture Garden, a place that’s in a sense the very opposite of the Discovery Walk. It’s one of the few permanent Rodin displays in America. To me, Auguste Rodin’s technique today feels as revolutionary as it must have in his day when he jettisoned the smooth classic surfaces of traditional sculpture for a brute unfinished look in his larger-than-life human figures. Some of those figures have an edgy and restless spirit that seems to seethe within.

What do the Rodin sculptures and the Discovery Walk have in common? Well, clearly years of hard work, many failures before the breakthrough for the artist and the scientists. But what intrigues me is that so often the artist or the scientist describes one moment, a spark of inspiration, a glimpse of what might be on top of the bedrock of hard work. The breakthrough led to a new way, a new formulation, a new understanding that changed everything. To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, “The trouble with you is the trouble with me, got two good eyes, but you still don’t see” — until that moment of insight, that bolt from the blue as an artist or scientist when you do see. Progress in science is never linear. In one of these moments, science or art springs to a new, new level.

There are many examples of these “eureka” moments in science and in art. There’s Einstein on a slow trolley in Bern passing the town’s clock tower and imagining what that clock might show compared with his own watch if his trolley were traveling at the speed of light. You have Kary Mullis, supposedly conceiving of the PCR test which, as you know, revolutionized biology, courtesy of a past or recent acid trip. Then we have Dmitri Mendeleev struggling to arrange all the chemical elements in nature in some logical fashion but failing until, as he says, “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.” What he wrote down was the periodic table that all of you are familiar with.

Writers speak of similar moments as the muse coming to visit. It’s illogical, unscientific, but I’m a believer. Sadly, the muse speaks rarely and never when you want it to. For the muse to speak you must apply your posterior to the chair day after day, year after year, reentering the dream of your novel, pushing it forward. You’re perceived as antisocial and, to be honest, the perception is correct. You strain the patience of everyone around you. You wallow in self-pity. You wave your despair like a flag. But with luck, a few times in those long years, the heavens open up, and the muse speaks.

The memories I will cherish the most with my recent novel, The Covenant of Water, are without doubt the external validation that came from readers. Things were happening and continue to happen that I had only dreamed about. One morning last year my phone rang when I was still in my jammies. The voice on the other end claimed to be Ms. Oprah Winfrey. It took five minutes of me intensely cross-examining the caller before I realized, to my everlasting embarrassment, this was indeed Ms. Oprah Winfrey, and it was her inimitable voice — a memory for a lifetime.

But I shall treasure equally the four or five moments in this 10-year journey when I suddenly saw a major character was going to take a very different route from the one I had planned. Or the blessed moment seven years into writing the book, when I suddenly saw the ending of the book, and it was completely different from the ending I had plotted. I saw it so clearly, and once I did, I could go backward and forward, and I could fix every sentence to point to that end.

You live for those rare, unwitnessed moments when the words emerging on the page feel like they’re not yours. Yet, they are yours, but from some part of you that you can’t explain except with inadequate words like these. Such moments bring to mind Carl Sagan’s statement that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” But the particular universe I’m speaking of is the internal universe, our subconscious. And what you glimpse in those ephemeral moments of insight is the truth, a truth living inside you. The truth about how the world is, how people are.

Recently at a book festival, I heard Paul Lynch, author of the Booker Prize-winning Prophet Song, say, “The writer’s job is to tell the truth about the world, to uncover a hidden seam of knowledge. But first,” he said, “You must encounter your own truth without which you are lost.” Graduates, I repeat: “But first, you must encounter your own truth without which you are lost.”

Which brings me to my heartfelt advice to you, the graduates: In progressing in your chosen field, the journey is external with milestones such as the one today, this wonderful moment. But it’s also an inward journey to find your own truth. That truth lies inside you. Call it your innate intelligence, your “I.I.” You don’t need to pay OpenAI or ChatGPT or anyone for it because they cannot deliver your truth, and it turns out you’re already subscribed. You were subscribed to this innate intelligence when you were born. To tap into it requires you to be attentive to you. You have to be quiet, you have to be still and you have to be ready.

But the world conspires against us, seducing our attention to everything outside of us. So many of us begin our day instinctively reaching for our phones, an act that I think is as damaging as reaching for a cigarette--I speak to you as a fellow sinner. A few seconds after waking up, our consciousness is hijacked by text, emails, alerts, the voices of the external universe, and we become blind to the inner universe, deaf to our own voices.

The recent past has taught us that every “time saving” device — email, voicemail, texts, the electronic medical record, WhatsApp, what’s next — every one of these saved us time . . . but for just a millisecond before the exponential growth in our use of these tools made us create more work for ourselves, more busyness. Busy, busy, busy! My colleague at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Baba Shiv has a great line. He says, “Busy is the new stupid.” Busy is the new stupid.

Hermann Hesse, the author of Siddhartha, writing in 1919 to a dispirited young German in the aftermath of the Great War, said, “If you are now wondering where to seek a new and better God, you can only find it in yourself. No prophets or teacher can relieve you of the need to look within.” Graduates, I repeat, no prophet, no teacher, no app, no hack and not even the golden calf of AI can relieve your need to look within to your innate intelligence.

How do you do that? You know how. First, you give yourself permission to be alone with yourself, which seems to me the biggest hurdle. Give the time you supposedly saved back to you. Sit quietly, or take a walk, or write without stopping for 20 minutes. Pray, meditate formally — whatever you want to do. You won’t get a profound insight every time, but you will come out with a better sense of self and better able to see and pursue your own goals. Your outward journey has just reached a beautiful moment today, one that this ritual with all its pomp and ceremony is designed to make unforgettable. But your silent inner journey has no celebrations and yet it’s equally precious. Honor the wisdom, the universe of knowledge that lies untouched within you. Get unbusy long enough to honor yourselves every day. Graduates, your muse awaits you. Thank you very much.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers