06/16/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Embrace Your Inner Nerd, But Do It With Empathy

It was an honor to be asked to give this year's commencement speech at Stanford, which proudly describes itself as "nerd nation." Bill and I were thrilled to become citizens of nerd nation, if only for one day. (It's true, I had no problem putting on the nerd glasses in this picture.) It was also a privilege to be part of such an important day for thousands of graduates and their families.


As flattering as giving the speech was, it was also nerve-wracking. It's a big responsibility to appropriately honor so many people who have worked so hard and who have so much ambition for the future. You have to make it relevant, which means making it authentic, which means making it personal. (Then try doing all that alongside your spouse!)

Bill and I thought a lot about what we wanted to say, and we tried to imagine what might be helpful to the graduates, and we came up with a speech about optimism... with a twist.

We talked about the times we felt least optimistic.

I talked about watching a young woman dying of AIDS, alone.

Bill talked about visiting a TB hospital full of patients with a less than 50 percent chance of survival.

We believe that it's these difficult encounters with other people's suffering -- ones that really do break your heart -- that channel the world's immense talent and energy and capacity for innovation in the most important directions. And ultimately, that's what makes us optimistic--the idea that humanity has not only the ability but also the desire to solve the hardest problems faced by the poorest people.

We urged Stanford's graduating class to be open to painful encounters. I said to them, "In the course of your lives, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it. Turn toward it. "

You don't have to be graduating to believe you can be that kind of innovator. We all can. Just embrace your inner nerd, but do it with empathy.