Christine Lagarde at WC Commencement: What Comes Next?

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Editor’s Note: Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director was Washington College’s Commencement speaker on Saturday for its 234th graduation ceremony. Here is her remarks in their entirety.

Thank you, President Bair, for your very kind introduction.

Your leadership of this school – especially your commitment to alleviate the burden of student debt – is a model for higher education. You are a trailblazer in your own right, and your passion for Washington College is inspiring.

President Bair, Board of Visitors & Governors, faculty, and administration, thank you for this honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. I am proud to be your most recent alumna!
Graduates – it is a privilege to be here with you, the class of 2017!

To your families, your friends, your professors – congratulations. No student can get here on his or her own. This is your moment to celebrate as well.
I would like to begin by posing a question.

Has anyone here seen or listened to the Broadway show Hamilton?

As a former Finance Minister, the idea of a musical focused on the life of a Treasury Secretary is appealing to me. I hope this is the start of a global trend!
In the musical, a question is asked that seems particularly appropriate to raise at graduation. In one scene, King George quizzes General Washington right after the end of the Revolutionary War – and sings these lines…

Don’t worry! I will not sing them! But I may ask WACapella for some help.

So, the King sings:

‘What comes next? / You’ve been freed / Do you know how hard it is to lead ?’ [1]

It is an intriguing question – What comes next?

I imagine that from the time you were young, just like my two sons, you were asked some version of ‘What comes next?’

When you are in middle school, people ask if you are excited to start high school.

In high school, people – and by people, I mean your parents’ friends – ask what college you will attend and what your major will be?

In college, other people – usually your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents – ask what job you will have when you graduate – or, perhaps, if you will go on to grad school?
If so, what school? Law, medicine, business? Trust me, the questions do not go away.

1. Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

We are all asked the difficult question of ‘What comes next’ at various stages in our lives.

What I would like to suggest to you today – and I will share a little of my own story to illustrate the point – is that it is ok, in fact it is often wise, to say ‘I don’t know’ when someone asks you, ‘What comes next?’

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is one of the hardest things to do in life. At the IMF, my team never wants to tell me they do not know – although I can tell if they are guessing!
We have all been trained from a young age to have an answer at the ready. But the reality is that the answer is not what matters most – it is knowing how to find the answer that is key.
Your education – this wonderful, complex, classical, liberal arts training – has given you the foundation you need to begin to solve the puzzle of ‘What comes next?’
In what ways?

The first is your skills – your academic experience has taught you how to think critically. It has opened your eyes to fields of study you might never have otherwise explored and to diverse voices whose opinions will help shape your world view.

The second is your values – your time at Washington College, and the legacy of Washington himself, have instilled in you the importance of public service, of serving others before serving yourself.

Finding the way to apply your skills, and keep them in line with your values, is the question in front of you. And if you can answer that question, you will have also begun to answer the question of ‘What comes next?’

2. Your Skills – Learning How to Think

First, your skills. You have surely heard the critique of a liberal arts background; that the training does not prepare you for the ‘real’ world, where a student educated in engineering and coding is far more desirable than one who can recite Aeschylus from memory.

As the child of a classics teacher, I take some personal offense. As a lawyer, who now leads the International Monetary Fund, I can tell you this criticism misreads the evolution of the economic landscape.

The future, your future, is one where technology, automation, and artificial intelligence may eventually supplant humans in a variety of tasks – from retinal scan payment systems to machine-made hearts and lungs to, one day, perhaps, even robot lawyers. Of course, some say lawyers are robots already – but that is a different conversation!

Two-thirds of today’s children will have jobs which have not been invented yet. [2]Studying Aeschylus, not to mention a little Sappho, Brontë, and Dylan – while cultivating an interest in design – is what allowed Steve Jobs to see the Walkman and dream of the iPod. This renaissance education is your comparative advantage in the years ahead.

Many of the founders of this country, who were lawyers, businessmen, and farmers by training, could also recite orations from Pericles by heart. Those polymath skills not only gave their revolution historical context, it informed the society they hoped to build.

Your school embodies their vision and has instilled in you a love of knowledge. Success for your generation requires a commitment to life-long learning and an understanding that today is a milestone in your education, but it is not the end.

The truth is that college has taught you how to learn, not what to learn. Many of the most valuable lessons have come from outside the classroom. You have done more during your four years than study music, history, theater, literature, and science.

And no, I am not just talking about the ‘War on the Shore.’

I am talking about developing empathy and perspective. These are the in-demand tools of the future. And Washington College has trained you well.

In your four years, you have shared late nights at the Miller Library and long weekends by the Chester River. In those moments, I hope you have had your ideas questioned by your peers and gained insight from their life experience.

There is an old proverb: ‘ Only a fool wants to hear the echo of his own voice.’

Remember that maxim as you go forward into your first job or on to graduate school. If everyone in a room agrees with you, you might be doing something wrong. Seek out those who disagree with you, learn from them, and try to understand their world view.

When I was 17 years old, I left France, my home, as part of a scholarship program designed to bring people from different backgrounds together. I attended Holton-Arms School in Maryland. To be completely candid, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. But I learned more about France in my first year in America than I had learned in sixteen years of studying French history and literature.

I had to step away to gain perspective. I interned on the Hill, answering phones, opening mail, and translating correspondence for constituents who spoke French. Every now and then I felt a bit like Tocqueville – an intrigued French observer of American democracy.

I realized that, to help someone solve a problem, you must understand how she sees a problem. I took that lesson with me – from my practice as a lawyer to serving in the French government.
It is a perspective that I brought with me to the IMF, where our 189 member nations are united by the idea that through cooperation we can maintain economic stability and prosperity for the world.

Needless to say, my career didn’t prepare me for every aspect of this position. Nearly every day on the job, there is something new. A new crisis, a new acronym, a new ‘on the one-hand, on the other other-hand…’

I almost feel as if I am back in law school – I read all the time, ask questions, challenge assumptions – and learn.

As Abigail Adams once said, ‘ Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence .’ Learning does not stop at commencement, it begins anew, and requires a ceaseless curiosity about the world.

This is the gift of your college education, and this is the training which will pay dividends throughout your life.

3. Your Values – Public Service

And yet, the training by itself is not enough. How will you use your training?

This brings me to my second point: values, and specifically the value of public service.

Public service comes in all shapes and sizes. It encompasses far more than working in government. It might mean volunteering, community activism, or joining a parent-teacher association.
Public service is about applying your values no matter what job you have. For me, one of those values has been gender equality. It is something that I have fought for my entire life.
Okay, another question. How many of you have gone on a job interview recently? That’s good – I hope it went well! I am sure your parents hope so too.

So, I will tell you my own first job interview story.

When I was coming out of law school I interviewed at a law firm in France. The conversation went well but towards the end one of the interviewers told me I could never become a partner at the firm. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Because you are a woman,’ he replied. Well, I walked out of there and never looked back.

And then, what did I do? Believe it or not, I asked myself, ‘What comes next?’

I took a deep breath. I thought about my training as a lawyer and about my values. I was determined not to let this experience hold me back. But I was also under no illusion about how difficult the journey would be.

Eventually, I found a law firm that promoted diversity and creativity. I joined Baker McKenzie in 1981. Later in my career, I changed my working hours so I could have Wednesday afternoons off to spend more time with my son.

At first, it did not go over well with some of the partners. But the partners adapted. I became a partner myself. The culture shifted. In 1999, I had the honor of becoming the first female chairman of the firm.

But what was true in 1981 is unfortunately still true today. In many countries, women are either prevented from entering the workforce through legal restrictions, or they are discouraged from working by expensive childcare and inadequate maternity leave. I asked myself, what role could the IMF play in helping solve the problem?

At the Fund, we see ourselves as firefighters – providing financial assistance in times of need so nations can help their citizens. We also see ourselves as doctors – checking up on countries and guiding them to improve their economic health.

Thinking outside the box, our talented economists began showing member nations that women’s economic empowerment could reduce income inequality and help all businesses succeed.

Progress is slow, but we are making a difference. So far, we have done gender-related work in 22 countries. In our new program with Egypt, for example, we are exploring ways the government can increase funding for public nurseries and improve commuter safety. The goal is to provide women more opportunities to find employment.

I am proud that gender equality is now a mainstream part of IMF analysis and I am grateful for the intelligent, dedicated women and men with whom I have the honor to work every day.
President Bair, I know you share my commitment to gender equality, and it is a part of your life’s work. I was so pleased to learn that Washington College is planning a major celebration to mark the centennial of the passage of the 19 Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in this country.

4. Applying Your Values

This is what I mean when I say you must take your values with you. Whether your career is in the private sector or in government, public service is a calling, not a job description.
By choosing Washington College, each of you has stood up and said that public service is important in your life. The values of this institution come directly from Washington himself; his example serves as the inspiration for your honor code. You have made a promise to help others and now you must follow through.

Think about what matters most to you – is it climate change? Homelessness? Improving education? Whatever it is, fight for it.

· If you are entering investment banking, find out how your company’s philanthropy is being managed.
· If you are trained as a nurse, find out how your hospital assists people in the community without health insurance.
· If you aspire to be a journalist (god bless!), use the power of the pen to investigate how your city is rebuilding its public transportation system.

Do not be surprised when you meet resistance. If you pursue public service with zeal, you will inevitably run into skeptics throughout your professional life.

But, as Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, once said, ‘ I have an almost complete disregard for precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better .’

The lawyer in me hesitates at Ms. Barton’s disregard for precedent, but the rest of me appreciates her point!

Do not be limited by what has or has not been done before. Become creative champions for your values in ways large and small throughout your career!

Constantly look for opportunities to make progress in every position you hold.
Allow me to give you one minor example, from this speech, actually.

This morning I have referenced the Greek poet Sappho, Charlotte Brontë, Abigail Adams, and Clara Barton.

Having informally surveyed other commencement addresses, I realized that far too many quotes come from famous men, and not nearly enough come from famous women. So, we are beginning to shift the balance today!

You see, you never know when you will find an opportunity to promote the values you believe in.

Conclusion – What Comes Next?

Let me conclude by returning to the music of Hamilton.

Immediately after King George asks ‘What comes next?’ he presses the point by saying:

‘You’re on your own / Awesome / Wow / Do you have a clue what happens now ?’ [3]

Well, Washington and his countrymen were not on their own. And they had an idea about what would happen next. The same is true for you, the students of Washington College.

Remember that you do not have to answer the question of ‘What comes next?’ right away.

Take a breath. Be confident that you have the foundation to find the answer.

Trust that your training and your values – along with the support of your family and friends – will guide you, and serve as a lighthouse in the journey of your life.
That has been true for me, and I trust it will hold true for you.

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