Shortliffe, Edward

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Speech

Please note: Speeches appear in the language in which they were delivered.

I am honoured and delighted to have this opportunity to say a few words to today’s accomplished and esteemed group of graduating colleagues.  And please do not take pause at my use of the word “colleagues” when addressing today’s graduates.  I have learned that it is the collegial relationship between professor and student, with each learning and benefitting from interactions with the other, that makes academia a remarkably demanding but rewarding and stimulating experience.  I applaud your accomplishments and trust you will leverage what you have learned here at the University of Ottawa and the Telfer School, along with what you will be learning in the future, to build careers and societal contributions that will make your parents, professors, and alma mater proud. 

It is customary for convocation speakers to send you off into the world with a few words of wisdom, but I am not sure that I have much to add to what you have heard at other graduations in your lives, and in the broadcast commencement speeches given by celebrities and world leaders; I promise not to try to sing a Whitney Houston tune!  Rather, I decided simply to try to leave you with one idea that will stay with you – a notion that may already ring true, but perhaps is currently lacking the contextual detail that I would like to offer. 

I address you not only as a physician, who was attracted to medicine by the usual notions of altruism and personal reward, but also as a computer scientist with a positive view of digital technology.  I am both a rabid user of today’s new and emerging technologies and a scientist who has contributed a bit to their capabilities and the directions in which they are headed – especially in medicine.  I am accordingly not here to rail against technology and its evils, although I can understand the concerns expressed by many of the observers who have negatively assessed its effects on society.  I will comment shortly on technology, however, and its influence within the context of the key point I will be making.

I was intrigued by a recent piece in the New York Times written by David Leonhardt, an editorialist with the paper, who commented on a concept he had learned from George Shultz, the former U.S. Secretary of State.  Evidently Shultz, who is now 94 years old but still active at the Hoover Institute in California, was known for insisting on what became known as his weekly “Shultz hour”.  He had found that he never had time for simply thinking:  quiet contemplation that allowed for strategic thoughts and creativity.  So he scheduled at least one hour every week – he actually put it on his calendar with support from his assistants over the years – during which time he would sit in his office with a pen and a blank pad of paper and simply think.  Everyone knew he was not to be disturbed.  That hour allowed him some time to think about what he was doing, what was working, where his efforts should next be directed, and whether current activities should be rethought or discarded.  Evidently many who knew him picked up on the idea of a “Shultz hour” every week and implemented it in their own lives.

I was subsequently reminded of remarks by my former Stanford colleague, Professor Amos Tversky, who once stated that, “the secret to doing good work is always to be a little underemployed.”  He argued that, “you waste years by not being able to waste hours”.  It is striking that such brilliant and accomplished people as Shultz and Tversky have recognized the importance of unprogrammed time.

Now I realize that you are all very busy, and I suspect that will not change just because you have now completed your degrees.  Being busy seems to be a characteristic of the modern world, with people trying to cram much more into each day than their ancestors ever would have considered.  I am sure you have occasionally heard the “humble brag” from others who have shared just how busy they are and how much they are doing.  Yet I suspect you will also recognize from personal experience that constant activity is not particularly enjoyable as a way of life, and it may not even be particularly productive.  In this context, a bit of so-called “laziness”, where you refuse to be constantly on the go and take some time for yourself and for contemplation, may help you to maintain a sense of well-being while, paradoxically, enhancing your sense of being productive.

I remember that during my doctoral work at Stanford in the 1970s, I was dealing with a particularly vexing issue.  I had developed a scoring mechanism for dealing with uncertainty when simulating medical reasoning by computer.  One of my committee members was unwilling to accept a solely ad hoc scoring method, even though it seemed to work.  He asked, “What are these numbers you are using?  How do they relate to conventional probabilities?”  I have subsequently been grateful to him for his insistence on this matter, but at the time, it required me to think long and hard about what I was doing.  I discovered that sitting at a computer and programming or writing was not getting me anywhere.  Instead, I scheduled a hot mid-day bath every day back at my apartment, locked myself away with the door closed, and soaked – and thought.  By the second or third session I found that I had to bring a pad of paper and pencil into the bathroom with me so that I could capture some of the details of the ideas that were forming.  Ultimately, it was that series of hot baths that allowed me the creative time to formalize the model I had developed and to be able to offer my committee members the answers that they were demanding.

And this is where today’s technology comes in, because it has amplified our tendency to be busy all the time.  There was a day when a long airplane flight was a great time to think on your own.  Today, the airline’s entertainment systems or our own portable machines often demand our attention while we are traveling.  We may use an entire cross country trip to develop the slides for tomorrow’s talk at a conference, seminar, or sales briefing.  As a New Yorker, I often find myself on a subway, where essentially all passengers are staring at their smart phones, usually with the ubiquitous white earphone wires trailing down to the device from their ears.  Even when two people who are traveling together board the train, I find that they often focus on their phones rather than on conversation with one another.  We know it is common for people to reach for their phones the moment they wake up, taking in a barrage of news, tweets, emails, and social media photographs.  The technology is essentially always there, always available, and too often grabbing our attention.  It affects sleeping patterns and is influencing and distracting people, from the very young to the elderly. 

Leonhardt points out that our minds can be in either “task-positive” or “task-negative” modes, but not both at once.  When task-positive, we are active, doing our work, conversing with others, reading social media postings, following the news, and so forth.  But we tend not to be planning, thinking strategically, or being creative until we set aside time for our minds to be in task-negative mode.  The Shultz hour is an explicit recognition that this is the case.  Those private, sacrosanct times are what we need, whether planning academic papers, policy approaches, personal relationships, or new business opportunities.  Recall, for example, Pierre Trudeau’s famous 1984 “walk in the snow” that led to his decision to step down as prime minister and head of his party.  On a personal note, my wife and I have learned that we need to take a week’s beach vacation if we are facing a major life decision, such as a change in jobs.  We turn off our minds to the daily distractions and can openly discuss trade-offs and creatively focus on the planning and decision process.

If you think back, I suspect you will recognize that you have already made use of such spontaneous task-negative opportunities.  We sometimes joke that we wrote a paper in our heads while taking a shower, or planned life events by taking long walks in solitude.  If you find it is hard to squeeze a Shultz hour into your schedule, that may be a strong indication that you need such time! 

So, as you move out into your careers, or to future education, think about scheduling a weekly Shultz hour, or equivalent.  Put your phone in a drawer for a few hours every day.  Try not to fall asleep and awaken every day to a laptop, tablet, or smart phone screen.  Take care of yourselves, your minds, and your ability to set aside the tempting and often overwhelming distractions of the day.  It is worth the effort and can enhance both your personal and professional lives.

I again thank you, the University, and all others who have joined us today, for your attention and for the wonderful welcome you have extended to my wife and me here in Ottawa.

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