Norman Badler

Commencement Address

College of Creative Studies

University of California at Santa Barbara

June 11, 2017


Thank you, Chancellor Yang, Dean Foltz, and the faculty and staff of the College of Creative Studies. Congratulations to all the graduates, and their families and friends here today.  It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to return to UCSB and speak to you at the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the College. 

Though it was hardly yesterday, I still remember being in that first class in Mathematics led by Professor Max Weiss.  There were just four of us in the class.  Max looked at us and said that he had never done this before, so he wasn’t sure what to do. So he pointed to one of us and said “Go up to the board”.  It was quite an interesting road to travel from that point onward.  I would love to relate to you the twisty-turning path that I took to graduate.  But suffice to say that the generous requirements of the College allowed me to graduate even though I took a quarter off to work as a computer programmer – a relatively rare skill in the 1960’s -- at a nascent research lab near Mission Santa Barbara.  For the curious, I’ll refer you to my webpage which lists a number of quotations, anecdotes, and coincidences that offered many of those educational twists and turns as well as unexpected pathways after graduation.

So rather than recount those facets of my experience, I want to take another tack today. For five years at the start of this millennium I was the University of Pennsylvania Engineering School Associate Dean.  I’ve had to listen to quite a few Commencement speeches. One of the seemingly favorite phases I’ve heard repeated many times is “Follow your passion!” But the missing piece to this advice is always how to find your passion in the first place.  If you’ve already found it, that’s truly wonderful and I commend you and hope you can indeed exploit it.  But after working with students for over 43 years, more often, it seems, people don’t have enough time or experiences to unilaterally discover their elusive but essential passion.

So today I thought I would approach this issue through the lens of the key concept in the College’s name: creativity. No, I don’t want to try to define creativity per se, but I do want to consider how to elicit it.  Although my comments are not intended to be purely autobiographical, I can’t help but draw some examples from personal experience.

Early in my research career I started studying facial expressions.  That lead me to a famous modern psychologist, Paul Ekman, who made many interesting observations on deception and emotional displays.  Ekman identified six facial expressions that were uniquely recognizable across many cultures. He called them universal expressions of emotion: they were surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, joy, and fear.  Of course, there are other emotions, but let me stick to these universals and allow me the liberty to attempt to link these with a notion of creativity.  Consider a situation that causes you to have an emotional reaction.   Surprise is a reaction to unmet expectations.  It may give you a new view, but of what already exists and not something that came from within yourself. Sadness, like depression, often suppresses behavior rather than triggering it. Disgust precipitates aversion and withdrawal from a situation. Anger may cause action, but often blinds too, as the old saying goes.  Joy is great, but mostly makes you want more of the same. So that leaves fear. And my thesis is that it is fear that often triggers passion and creativity; passion, because the mind and body must become powerful to break the emotion, and creative because responsive actions may not come from rote or typical behaviors.  Yes, in my personal experience some of my own most creative moments were engendered by fear.  Let me give you just a couple of examples.

One of the first arose during my Junior year in Creative Studies Mathematics. I had married another CCS student, Virginia, right after my Sophomore Physics final, and had to work for the summer. I took a job cleaning student apartments in Isla Vista.  Let’s just say that it was an interesting experience with lifelong memories.  However, when Junior year was over and I was again faced with a summer to earn a living, I could not stand the thought of cleaning apartments again.  In a last ditch attempt to mitigate fear and capitalize on my major, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book under “Mathematicians”.  There were two companies listed and I made interview appointments. The second one was with Kramer Research, as a computer programmer.  Wow, something I might be able to do with my education!  This turned out to be life-changing in many ways, not the least of which was the mentorship of my benefactor, Henry Kramer, who hired me on the spot mistakenly thinking I had responded to his UCSB ad for a mathematics grad student. 

Another example happened the first year I was the Penn Engineering Associate Dean. Let’s just say I was not enthusiastic about having to sit through the entire set of University commencement activities every year.  To be truthful, I was scared to death of having to endure the boredom, the interminable roll-call of names, the need to stay awake!  During an administrative meeting discussing commencement planning, at a bathroom break, the idea came to me about how to alleviate my fears: each student would have a webpage displaying their name, major, and a personal message, so that not only me, but everyone in the audience, would have something to look at the entire ceremony, including the 99.9% of the time that their graduate was NOT on stage. This concept was implemented by my younger son David and another student. Today that company, MarchingOrder, run by my son’s colleague, is responsible for graduation ceremony displays in many American colleges and universities.  All because of fear.

I recently discovered a relevant quote from the famous physicist, Marie Curie, who said: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” If I may be presumptuous enough to amend this, I would say “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be deemed a challenge to one’s ingenuity, and a call to engage and to change.”  Perhaps therein lay the keys to passion: the psychology of emotions, the physiology of survival, and the need to take action through whatever talents and skills we need to draw upon. So from my perspective, creativity is often the impassioned response to fear, the need to make a situation meaningfully better for oneself -- and others.

So what about my passion?  It wasn’t cleaning student apartments, though I learned a lot about logistics and tackling novel situations.  It wasn’t even mathematics, where at best I was rather mediocre.  And in the memorable words of my CCS Mathematics mentor, Max Weiss, “I was the only person he’d met with no ambition.”  In computer programming I was good, but there were many who were better than I.  But I discovered eventually, as a computer science professor, that my passion was challenge: challenge that triggered awareness of the unknown, the consequent fear of meeting that challenge, and the passion to bring my skills, my past, and yes, others, to address it.

So on this occasion of your graduation, your most pressing fear may be about your own future. Seize this opportunity to exercise your creativity, rise to whatever challenges present to you, and make that unknown future your passion.

Congratulations, and thank you!


© 2017 Norman I. Badler, all rights reserved