Matt Damon’s Commencement Speech to the Class of 2016 by Erick P. '17
Turn towards the problems you see
Matt Damon? The actor? I thought MIT Commencement speakers were always famous alumni. How did he become this year’s speaker?
It sounds like I’m being harsh, but I wasn’t the only one thinking those questions. Matt Damon was too. Yes, when he got up on stage, one of the first things he said was that he didn’t deserve to be speaking up there.
“Let’s just put that out there. I mean, I’ve seen the list of previous commencement speakers: Nobel Prize winners. The UN Secretary General. President of the World Bank. President of the United States. And who did you get? The guy who did the voice for a cartoon horse.”
Yet even though he didn’t have a college degree or a fancy job title, Matt Damon still had a story to tell, and it was one we can all relate to: the story of falling in love with a problem and wanting to do something about it. Most people know him as the MIT janitor from Good Will Hunting or as the astronaut from The Martian. But he also thinks about the world’s problems a lot, urging the graduating class to get out there and “do interesting and important things.”
Photo by Dominick Reuter, courtesy of MIT News.
To the MIT Class of 2016 and anyone else who was listening, he imparted the advice he got from Bill Clinton a decade ago: “turn toward the problems you see.” Matt Damon would travel far away from Boston get a look at extreme poverty up close. On a trip to Zambia, he became amazed at how clean water could change a person’s life. There, he met a girl who dreamed of being a nurse. Her village had clean water, unlike many other villages in the area. Because of this, she didn’t have to spend all day walking miles to get clean water for her family. Instead, she could spend that time in school and pursue her dreams. “Clean water – something as basic as that – had given this child the chance to dream,” Matt said. He continued learning about the enormousness and complexity of the problems that lie within water and sanitation. He was hooked and he wanted to do something about it.
It’s funny. As he was saying this, I was thinking to myself, “Oh well that one organization called Water.org is solving this exact problem on such a large scale.”
Then Matt Damon said, “And getting out in the world and meeting people like this little girl is what put me on the path to starting Water.org, with a brilliant civil engineer named Gary White.”
Oh. He started Water.org! The organization that brings clean water to over 3 million people. The organization that is really trying to tackle the roots of the problem through innovative sustainable solutions, not just the symptoms of it. Here he was tackling one of humanity’s largest crises, to which he said that if we want to solve such large problems, we must first look and engage with the world as is. To cover our blind spots, we need to confront the problems and get to know them before we attempt to fix them.
He also said that science can’t solve everything:
“But the truth is, we can’t science the shit out of every problem.
There is not always a freaking app for that.
Take water again as an example. People are always looking for some scientific quick fix for the problem of dirty and disease-ridden water. A “pill you put in the glass,” a filter, or something like that. But there’s no magic bullet. The problem’s too complex.
Yes, there is definitely, absolutely a role for science. There’s incredible advances being made in clean water technology. Companies and universities are getting in on the game. I’m glad to know that professors like Susan Mercott at D-Lab are focusing on water and sanitation.
But as I’m sure she’d agree, science alone can’t solve this problem. We need to be just as innovative in public policy, just as innovative in our financial models”
To solve the really complex problems, you’re gonna have to try a lot of different things. You’re always going to have some failures. Usually a lot more failures than successes. But always be listening, always be learning, and always be humble.