rolf nordstromGPI President and CEO Rolf Nordstrom was asked to share a virtual commencement address for graduate students from the University of Minnesota’s famed Humphrey School for Public Affairs who focused their studies on science, technology, and environmental policy (STEP). Rolf shared some thoughts about the challenges before us, leadership, and pursuits beyond happiness. You can watch and read his remarks below.

Virtual Commencement Speech for University of Minnesota Humphrey School STEP Graduates, May 2020

Hello Humphrey graduates. This is Rolf Nordstrom coming to you live from the Great Plains Institute’s world headquarters, which is currently on my front porch. I am so very honored to have been asked to share a few words with you on this momentous, and I know this gets overused but I think it’s appropriate here, even historic occasion. Nothing like graduating in the midst of a global pandemic to set your class apart. You couldn’t have settled for a themed party?

I know it’s probably daunting for you, but you know, the first thing I want to say to you is “Thank you” because none of you would have attended the Humphrey School if you weren’t interested in making the world a little bit better, better than you found it. In truth, there has never been a time in history, I don’t think, when the world needed that impulse to contribute to the common good more than now. If the Coronavirus has taught us anything, it is just how connected and interdependent we are on this very small planet. Even if we don’t always treat one another that way. It’s become a vivid reminder, hasn’t it? But despite our differences, we’re actually just one species and in the end we will sink or swim together.

So having been in your shoes many years ago, do I have any words of wisdom for you on this day to go with this gray hair? Well, I guess you can decide whether or not they are wise or not, but briefly, here are my top three thoughts for you as you metaphorically toss your caps in the air.

Beyond Pursuing Happiness
Number one, have a core set of values and a core purpose beyond your own success. You know, the happiness research to date suggests that the founding fathers actually had it wrong. What brings happiness is not the pursuit of it, but instead, happiness comes from pursuing something that’s meaningful to you.

Lead for the Near-Term as Well as the Long-Term
Number two, whatever your profession, do your part to usher in a more just and circular economy, it’s probably something you’ve studied. How do we use energy in water and materials in the same elegant closed loop cycles that we find in natural systems? And how do we treat one another better? I mean we’re invited to be kind of reductionist and specialized, but what we really need is leaders in every discipline who think about the economic, environmental, and social implications of all the decisions they make both in the near-term and the long-term, and I know this is something that the Humphrey School excels at.

Embrace Imperfection While Improving It
Finally, maybe the single most important characteristic we all need is the ability to hold in our minds the imperfection of the system we’re a part of while still trying to improve it. It’s a paradox that we’re all stuck in. And to not let the state of the world either crush your spirit and feel like we’re doomed or make you cynical and purely self-interested, sort of a “who cares” so that you give up on making things better. I think it’s useful to be reminded that everything, everything about our human crafted systems was somebody’s idea or invention and the fact that human societies have changed so dramatically over time is evidence that the current model of progress isn’t fixed or immutable. In short, we can choose for the world to be more one way than another, which I know is why you went to school at Humphrey in the first place, and this is where you all come in. You can still be a light in a sometimes dark world, even while remaining six feet apart.

So get out there, graduates. Congratulations! And all the best from everyone at the Great Plains Institute. Well done!

You can read Rolf’s insights on how the US can build back a better clean energy economy following the COVID-19 pandemic here. Keep up to date with GPI news by signing up for our monthly Better Energy newsletter.

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