Nobel Laureate, UA Alumnus Urges Grads to Chase Dreams

May 12, 2012
From the left: Phil Pinto, UA assistant professor of astronomy and physics; Brian Schmidt, UA graduate commencement speaker and Nobel Laureate; UA President Eugene G. Sander; and Joaquin Ruiz, executive dean of the UA Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science. (Photo credit: Rebecca Ruiz McGill/UANews)
From the left: Phil Pinto, UA assistant professor of astronomy and physics; Brian Schmidt, UA graduate commencement speaker and Nobel Laureate; UA President Eugene G. Sander; and Joaquin Ruiz, executive dean of the UA Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science. (Photo credit: Rebecca Ruiz McGill/UANews)
Brian Schmidt, a UA alumnus, spoke during the graduate ceremony on May 11. (Image courtesy of Arizona Athletics)
Brian Schmidt, a UA alumnus, spoke during the graduate ceremony on May 11. (Image courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

Brian Schmidt, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics and is a 1989 graduate of the University of Arizona, shared the following words during the UA's Graduate Commencement Ceremony on May 11.  


President Eugene G. Sander; Jacqueline Lee Mok, senior vice president and provost; the Arizona Board of Regents; Dean Joaquin Ruiz and the College of Science; family members, colleagues and friends of today's esteemed 2012 graduates of the University of Arizona: congratulations!   

Just over half my life ago, in 1989, I was here at the University of Arizona, sweating in my black gown in 107 degree heat, attending the undergraduate commencement ceremony. My thoughts were not so much on the future, but rather the present, being rather amazed by exactly what my fellow undergraduates were, or as the case might be, were not wearing underneath their gowns.

Ah, but the graduate ceremony is so much more civilized. The cooler night air, hoods for our gowns, more tickets for friends and family, and I am guessing, a lot fewer tortillas.

So it is my job this evening to talk about your future.

We live in a time of great change, and the degree that you are receiving and the knowledge and skills that go with it are the best insurance you can have for the future. 

We cannot know the future, and this uncertainty leads many of us to sell our future short. Conservatism makes us unwilling to take on all the possibilities that the world presents. My central message to you this evening: Be willing to chase your dreams.

Most of you have worked on your advanced degrees because you are doing something that you genuinely love. Never apologise for doing something you love. If there is one thing that will allow you to do great things, it is ensuring that you are doing something you love.

For me, I started my studies in astronomy because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I saw astronomy as completely impractical – and certainly something I was unlikely to ever get a job in – but I saw it as a platform to get educated by doing something I loved while I figured out what I was really going to do in life.

By the time I had received my Ph.D. in astronomy, I, like most graduates, was worried about somehow juggling my wife's career aspirations and my own, the prospects of raising a family all while knowing that the future was uncertain.

I certainly was not thinking about Nobel Prizes. But I knew I loved astronomy, and that for me was a dream worth chasing.

If there is anything I have learned in the 23 years since my graduation ceremony, it is that chasing your dreams requires patience and persistence.

And I have seen many talented people get derailed in their lives.

The most common problem is loss of confidence. Life is a confidence game – it is almost impossible to succeed without self-confidence. But essentially every successful person I have met has lost their confidence at times in their career.

For me, it usually is only a few days, and I am able to move myself on. There is no magic solution to regaining confidence, but when it happens to you, remember, it happens to everyone – I usually find that thought helpful. If you find yourself in this state for months, get help. You are literally throwing away your life if you don't.

The other way that people get derailed is through bad things that happen to them. Let's be clear. Bad things happen to everyone.

Over your career you will be maligned by colleagues, treated unfairly by your supervisors and passed over for promotion by your employer. You will be ignored, unjustly blamed and you will have bad luck.

It is in your interest to move on and forward with your life when this happens. Of course, anything illegal should be reported to the relevant body – but let the relevant body deal with it. Pursuing justice yourself will only distract you from what you really want to be doing. Rising above adversity will earn you respect from your colleagues, complaining about it, even when completely justifiable, will not.

No matter how much bad luck you experience in life, ultimately the only thing you can do about it is to move on as best you can and chase your own dreams. Take solace in the fact that, at least in my experience, time wounds all heels.

As you move forward with your lives, I hope all of you will continually evaluate your situation. If you like where you are headed, then go forth with enthusiasm and confidence. If you don't, then please, please have the courage to change your life so as to do something that you want to do. Life is about living, and you only live once.

And when I say life, I mean life, not career. Work is an important part of life, but achieving a balance between home and the office is a pre-requisite for happiness for most normal people.

So yes, there will be times when you need to work uncomfortably hard to reach your goals, but this should not be the norm. Spending time with your family is not a sign weakness; it is the sign of a happy and balanced individual.

I am telling you this now, because there will be people in your future, intentionally or not, who will try to make you feel guilty for having a life. I would be lying to say to you all that I have always had the balance right – the last six-months for example. But I know I need to change, and I will. Make sure you get your own life-work balance right.

I came very close to leaving astronomy in 1997. I finished fourth for a position in Australia, and on a visit to CalTech for a faculty position I decided that my wife and I would not be happy in Pasadena, so I removed myself from contention for this job, despite not having another one.

In the end, three people turned down the position in Australia, and I was able to complete the work that led to the Nobel Prize. Such are the twists of fate that are part of all of our lives. And if all three people hadn't turned down the job, well I wouldn't be here talking to you today, but I would still have been happy, which is ultimately all that really matters to me.

Now when I say chase your dreams, I do not mean, "Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead." Any worthwhile aspiration includes the risk of failure. Indeed one of the biggest worries for me about winning a Nobel Prize is that I will not be allowed to gracefully fail anymore. All plans need to have a Plan-B associated with it – an acceptable place to land where you can regroup and figure out where to go next.

And this is where your degree is a bonus. Many people have the misguided view that an advanced degree limits your future – that if you, for example, have a thesis on Bose-Einstein condensates, it means that it is the only thing you can study, or if you have received an M.D., you must be a doctor, or that your musical arts degree means you must work in music. 

But understanding that your degree gives you a huge amount of freedom is incredibly liberating – no matter what you want to do in life. For me, it meant I was willing to move overseas to a place where my wife and I could both get interesting jobs and put all my efforts into a large but risky project that I was passionate about.

But I always knew I had a Plan-B, which was afforded to me by the broad range of skills I received as part of my studies. That plan was to get a boring job, which would pay the bills while I figured out something else I found inspiring to do. Knowing that outcome was the worst case for me meant I could chase the expanding universe without distraction while not having to worrying if things didn't work out.

When I look back at my life so far as a scientist, the most fulfilling time for me was working with all my might to do the experiment that eventually lead to the Nobel Prize, tracing back the expansion of the universe through time. Hoping to figure out if the universe was slowing down enough to eventually crash back onto itself in the future. This was before we had any idea that the universe was accelerating. It was not making the discovery itself, it was not receiving a prize, it was the journey that stands out in my mind. 

And so I hope there is a lesson in this for everyone. Happiness lies not in achieving your dreams, but rather in chasing them.

So have a passion for what you want to achieve in life, then create a vision for that passion and go for it. Who knows where it will lead? It really doesn't matter, because if you enjoy what you are doing, then you have achieved happiness, and that is what I wish for each and every one of you into the future.

Congratulations, graduates. Chase your dreams. Be happy, and you will do great things.