May 17, 2017

Centenary’s Commencement Keynote Address

By Rita J. King, Futurist, Entrepreneur, Writer and Expert in Applied Imagination

Thank you for inviting me here today, Dr. David Haney, for your first commencement as the president of Centenary University.

Rita J. KingA commencement is the beginning of something new in your lives–your entry into the world of work. I specialize in work, in leadership development, and in helping teams achieve their goals. I’ve always loved hard work, and organizing groups of people to accomplish things together. I especially love organizing people to achieve things that they think might be impossible.

You are entering the world of work at an unusual time in our collective history. When you see with your eyes, you will notice that your country is polarized. You will see that the world is in conflict. When you see with your imagination, you will begin to realize that every person contributes to the reality we inhabit, and that the problems are not someone else’s to solve.

I was invited here today because I’m a futurist focused on imagination. This means that like any reasonable person, I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can finally transfer my consciousness into a fembot.

My first official job as a futurist came when the founding director of NASA Langley’s think tank offered me a position there.

I immediately accepted.

“But you don’t even know what the assignment is yet,” he said.

I wasn’t going to let that stop me. “I’ll figure it out later,” I told him, and I did.

The thing about him is that he is a scientist and an engineer. One time he gave a talk, to explain the difference between science and engineering. Science, he said, is the discovery of the natural world. Engineering, he said, is everything that humans create within that world. He pointed to a potted tree on the other side of the stage to use it as an example, but then he realized that he couldn’t tell whether it was real or not. That’s the world we live in now, and it’s only going to become harder and harder to tell the difference.

But I didn’t just become a futurist overnight. It was a very long road from my first job, at a general store in a small town. I didn’t realize you had to be eighteen to operate a meat slicer or sell lottery cards. Hunters flocked to the store because nobody told me it was illegal to sell them beer on Sunday morning. Part of the job was assembling the print version of The New York Times, section by section. Back then, there was only the print version, and assembling it turned my hands inky black. This was how I learned about the world, reading as I put the sections together, the arts, science, politics, business. It was also how I developed a passion for journalism.

I soon found an opportunity to try journalism out for myself. Some local officials were suspected of malfeasance in their budgeting practices, so I did some research on how investigative journalism worked, trained a band of teenage girls, and we relentlessly grilled the officials about their practices, on camera, and then aired the documentary on public access television. The greatest thrill of my young life was watching grown men turn beet red and start sweating while adolescent girls calmly asked one probing question after the next, demanding answers. We even did the math ahead of time so they couldn’t fudge their numbers or facts.

When you see with your eyes, you see officials exploiting their position of public trust. When you see with your imagination, you find ways to hold them accountable. When you see with your eyes, you get overwhelmed by the rules and systems of society, believing that they hold you back. When you see with your imagination, you want to understand those systems, so you can invent ways to improve them.

I had a couple of scholarships that helped, but I also put myself through college working at the dean’s office and working doubles all summer, waiting tables. I worked at a restaurant in Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a very big lake.

When you see with your eyes, you can’t help but notice that customers in restaurants are often rude and demanding, that the hours are long, that your feet hurt, that it is disgusting to handle other people’s dirty plates, and disheartening to see how much food we waste. When you see with your imagination, you realize that your customers are revealing many hidden aspects of human nature. When you see with your eyes, you start to wonder why you aren’t doing something more glamorous for a living. When you see with your imagination, you realize that each job reveals a new skill that you can add to your collection. The world is filled with hidden dynamics, and you realize that with effort, you can start to make the invisible visible.

When I graduated, I decided to drive from New York to California to become a screenwriter in LA. I already had experience waiting tables, so I figured I could do that until my big break came. Instead, my car kept breaking down across the Deep South. In Albuquerque, it finally died. I didn’t have any money left for repairs. These were the days before cell phones, so I went into a bookstore, broke, tired and disappointed that California seemed so far away, to call a tow truck. It was there that I heard people talking about how a company called America Online was opening a call center.

At that time, back in 1996, I had no experience with the internet, but I figured I should learn. So I did. I stayed in Albuquerque, which was not part of my plan for my life, and I worked at America Online. My eyes saw a huge building with fluorescent lights, filled with people sitting in rows of corporate cubes. My imagination saw that privacy and identity issues were going to emerge for society, and that we were going to start interacting very differently because of immersion in the digital culture.

My first big break came when I wrote a cover story about this experience and what I learned for a major publication. This launched my career as a journalist, a digital strategist and an ethicist on the impacts of technology on humanity, all from a $7 an hour job after my car broke down. When you see with your eyes, you can’t help but notice smoke rising from the hood of your car. When you see with your imagination, you start to realize that your expectations are a mirage, and that the curveballs thrown in your path are filled with possibility. Your eyes see what is. Your imagination sees what could be, in the future.

As a journalist, I took on the assignments that other people didn’t want. I sat through hundreds of town board, zoning board, planning board and school board meetings. From this I learned that there is usually a naysayer who dislikes any plan that anyone proposes for any reason, and they have taken it upon themselves to argue against progress at every turn. When you see with your eyes, you take these attacks personally, when they aren’t personal at all. When you see with your imagination, you recognize that you can invent a way to get around the obstacles that your eyes see, and that some patterns in human nature are very predictable.

For many years I wrote intimate stories about people’s lives for private use in families, so that they could understand one another on a deeper level. When you see with your eyes, you can’t help but be crushed by the stories of pain from holocaust survivors and people who have suffered the loss of loved ones to sickness, crime and calamities of all kinds. When you see with your imagination, the beauty and depth of a person’s resilience shines through. When you see with your eyes, you look for an escape path to get you away from such difficult conversations. When you see with your imagination, you understand that these people are teaching you how to listen deeply, and develop true empathy.

The work I do today with corporate leadership teams would not be possible without my experience learning to understand individuals and their fears, hopes, dreams and passions, on this most private level. Today, I co-direct Science House in Manhattan, with my husband, James Jorasch, who is an inventor and entrepreneur. Science House is a cathedral of the imagination. At Science House we say that innovation without imagination is directionless, and imagination without innovation is philosophy.

When Dr. Haney and his team visited us at Science House, I was struck by their genuine passion for reinventing education, and their deep awareness of the interdisciplinary skills demanded by the future. Many of the jobs of the future do not yet exist. I was also struck by the symbolism of the horse, a specialty of yours here at Centenary University. In fact, when I came for a tour, I got to pet a miniature therapy pony named Alexander the great who wore tiny, leopard print sneakers.

In ancient mythology, a pegasus is a horse with wings. The four feet on the ground symbolize stability, and the wings represent an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. The pegasus did achieve the highest honor, making it to Mount Olympus to live among the goddesses and gods. It is easy to focus on the wings, but the stability of the hooves is just as important. In conclusion, today, I want to say that success is a balance between having your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.

Even the simplest, most seemingly insignificant gesture can have tremendous impact. The pegasus scratched the ground with his hoof, and from this came the wellspring of inspiration that the Muses tapped into. The Muses are the goddesses of the things I love most in this world, including literature, science, the arts and memory.

The memory of this beautiful afternoon will begin to fade as real life takes over. Look around at the faces of your peers. Don’t just look at them with your eyes. Look at them with your imagination. This event is an inflection point in your life, a milestone that signifies that you are about to take your first steps into the future. And it’s happening at a time when the world is changing faster than it ever has. Look at the world, too, with your imagination, seeing it not just for what it is, now, at this fleeting moment, but for what it might become in the future, with each contribution that you make, each and every day.

What you do matters so much, in ways that you can’t see with your eyes alone. I speak for myself and the countless people whose lives you will impact with your actions when I say that we look forward to seeing what you create with your hard work and imagination.

Welcome to the future.

Thank you.