Commencement 2017 Remarks

Dean Lloyd B. Minor


Graduates, parents, significant others, families, and friends: it is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you to the 2017 commencement ceremony for the Stanford University School of Medicine. I want to extend a special welcome to the loved ones who traveled here from near and far. Your encouragement and sacrifices have helped our graduates reach this remarkable milestone, and we are so grateful that you have lent them to us for the past several years. Because of your support, they have been able to wow and delight us with their contributions to our community. To the graduates, congratulations! You made it. Today you close one chapter and start another, which will mean beginning a new life and, for many of you, moving to a new place.

This marks my fifth Commencement as Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and I find this a bit daunting. In past remarks, I’ve tried to share guidance and wisdom based on all I’ve learned over the years. What new idea could I share with you today?

The shortest distance between two points is always under construction.

I was lost in thought about this on my way to a meeting recently, driving down Campus Drive directly behind you and along the Clark Center, and then down Quarry Road. This route, which runs through the many exciting building projects taking place at Stanford Medicine and the University, is not, shall we say, conducive to deep reverie. But as I stopped in front of the barricades to listen to the drone of bulldozers and concrete mixers and gaze up at the towering cranes, the final insight I want to share with you came to me: The shortest distance between two points is always under construction. 

I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there more pleasant ways to get around campus than through Stanford construction zones? Wouldn’t I have been better off taking a ride-share? And could this really be the parting gem of wisdom that the Dean of Stanford School of Medicine is going to leave us with?

I’m here to tell all of you that this axiom is more layered than it sounds. As soon-to-be School of Medicine graduates, you are likely also superb planners — and your life, like a construction project, will not turn out exactly as you think it will. Having an idea of what you want and how to get there is important, but knowing how to adapt to and embrace changes in plan is just as crucial.

I know that living the “under construction” life can be frustrating, even painful. Once we have a great idea in our heads about who we want to be and what we want to do, we want to get there as seamlessly as possible. But when you call a taxi, a Lyft or an Uber on your life, you miss out on the good stuff: the challenges and opportunities that help you become who you long to be.

While the 19th century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t have ride share mobile apps, he expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Now I don’t think Emerson was promoting misery, and I do wish you the utmost happiness and fulfillment all your days. What I believe Emerson means is that if we pursue a path we think will bring us the most pleasure in the easiest possible way, then we paradoxically won’t find the happiness we’re seeking. After all, the path of least resistance is a poor teacher. As anyone who has managed a construction project knows, embracing hassles, mistakes, and uncertainties is part of the inevitable process of building something new and better than you originally had in mind. If you allow setbacks to transform you and shape you, you’ll achieve more and become stronger than you ever thought possible.

And in order to figure out how to be useful, we must listen to the diverse communities around us, learn about their needs, and then take action. Doing so makes no promises on our comfort, security, and leisure time — in fact, choosing the untrodden path almost guarantees that you will encounter resistance and hurdles galore. Even if you come up with what you think is a great solution, you must be prepared to be challenged, and listen some more. Receiving feedback from those who disagree with us is the only way that we construct ourselves — that we figure out who we are and what we stand for. They do call it constructive criticism for a reason.

You must also accept that you, too, are “under construction.” Once I realized this myself, I found my life enriched with more opportunities than I could have imagined, and I grew into a better physician, leader, scientist, and person. When I was a young otolaryngologist, a series of patients came to me with an odd constellation of symptoms: one man said he got dizzy when he sang in the shower, and another said he could hear his own eyes moving. The symptoms didn’t make any sense; in fact, other physicians had told them (and me) that it was all in their heads.

I had to take the harder road of challenging this assumption, listening carefully to my patients, and working collaboratively with colleagues to think of possibilities that no one else had thought of yet. I would eventually discover that the issue was indeed all in these patients’ heads — but not in the ways others had supposed. They were suffering symptoms arising from tiny holes in the bone overlaying the top balance canal of their inner ears. I first described this syndrome in 1998, naming it superior canal dehiscence, and developed a surgical procedure to cure it.

That was one of my first steps into leadership: a step that occurred because of opportunities that were opened up to me by the patients and physicians whom I had the fortune to encounter. This experience reminded me that success cannot be defined exclusively in terms of my plans and efforts but must include the opportunities that, often unexpectedly, have opened up to me.

Another of those opportunities came my way in 2012, when I faced a big move — physically, in that it was across the country, and professionally, as it involved leading an academic medical center in a position I hadn’t held before. While years ago I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d be standing here speaking to you as Dean of Stanford Medicine, I can tell you that this unplanned decision is one of the best I’ve ever made.

Most importantly, once we accept that our lives and ourselves are works-in-progress, we can participate in building a better world. In a few moments you will hear from someone who has consistently shown us how this is done. Augustus White was the first African American to graduate from the Stanford School of Medicine. Throughout his career as an orthopedic surgeon and scientist, Gus inspired countless other underrepresented minority students and influenced medical leaders to invest in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Gus understood that our profession is under construction, and he devoted his life to building something better. He knew that the best things come to those who are willing to take the uncertain path through construction, rather than follow the well-trodden paths.

In that same spirit, Stanford Medicine is building something new, too: a totally new kind of health care called Precision Health that predicts, prevents, and cures disease — precisely. This is not going to be easy, but we know the world longs for proactive and personalized care that keeps people from getting sick in the first place and focuses on all facets of their well-being. And, fortunately, we have you to help us build better futures for people around the globe.

As Stanford School of Medicine graduates, you are well-prepared to build not only great lives for yourselves but also for others, wherever you end up and whatever you do next. When I lived on the East Coast, it was often said that there are two seasons: winter and construction. At Stanford, we see construction all year long. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing; it may even be part of what makes our graduates better prepared to thrive in the real world, where virtually nothing goes according to plan.

When your “under construction” path gets difficult, picture the faces of those surrounding you here today: your family and friends as well as the professors, colleagues, and mentors who have supported and guided you this far. One of those people for me is my wife Lisa, who has encouraged me through every unplanned step of my journey. Lisa once gave me a box that’s inscribed with this quote attributed to Lord Chesterfield: “In order to discover new oceans, you have to have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Graduates, may you see every challenge as an opportunity. May you always remain true to yourself and your values. And may you find the courage to embrace the journey and the unknown and untried in your “under construction” life.

Dean Lloyd B. Minor