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  • I'm kind of overwhelmed. I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of the college to make this possible,

  • I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of my colleagues, especially Andrew and Katherine,

  • who must have essentially had a whole other job. When this started it was kind of like

  • the Mickey Rooney movie Let's Get Together and Put On A Play, and the presumption was

  • in five minutes we would have the product and that turned out not to be quite true.

  • And no matter what burden arose, no matter what obstacle appeared, they found ways to

  • solve every problem with great cheer and good grace to make this day possible, and I really

  • just can't put into words what it has meant to me. In addition, it has been a Rashomon-like

  • day, do you all know what I'm referring to? Even those of you who haven't started shaving

  • yet? So Rashomon is this movie about different people who all witness the same scene, and

  • see very different scenes. Well what I have heard today depicted is pieces of my life

  • that I find close to unrecognizable, because even though they all happened, my interpretation

  • of them is dramatically different from the interpretations that you have been given.

  • You've been given the impression from everybody that I somehow had this incredible influence

  • on the work and life of the people with whom I have collaborated. I've been the teacher.

  • My own take on these collaborations, and I mean this with complete sincerity, is exactly

  • the reverse. All I can see in these interactions is the ways in which each of these people

  • have taught me things that I didn't already know. I came to Swarthmore remarkably ignorant,

  • although I didn't think I was, and the interactions I've had with colleagues, many of whom you've

  • heard, have educated me. And I feel like I have learned a lot more from them than I've

  • taught them, so I think basically they've been telling you a lie, and I'm going to try

  • to sort of straighten that out. But actually, occasions like this encourage people to look

  • back, nostalgia is a nice thing if indulged in in extremely small doses, sort of like

  • hallucinogens, so I think I have permission to indulge a little bit of nostalgia. But

  • I'm going to do it because I want to make a point. I don't have a low opinion of myself,

  • I really don't, but as I look back on the most impactful, formative, meaningful, and

  • rewarding experiences of my career, almost all of them without exception were the result

  • of extraordinary good fortune. I made the most of my opportunities, but I had little

  • or nothing to do with creating any of those opportunities. They smacked me in the face,

  • and I take credit for recognizing that they were opportunities, but not for creating the

  • conditions that made those opportunities possible. It's apparent to me that - I teach classes

  • in decision-making, where ostensibly part of the point is to teach people how to make

  • good decisions, and wisdom, which essentially, part of the point of which is to teach people

  • how to make good decisions, but it's apparent to me that virtually none of the important

  • decisions that I have made in my life conform to any idea at all about what is rational

  • or what is wise. And I'm going to sort of give you a quick summary of why that's true,

  • and then try to connect it to something that I think is actually more significant than

  • just my idiosyncratic history. I moved to Yonkers from the Bronx in the 7th grade, Yonkers is

  • just north of the Bronx, the Bronx is just north of Manhattan, which is where I thought

  • civilization began. I thought it ended in Brooklyn, apparently that's changed. So I

  • moved in 7th grade and almost immediately I met Myrna, you have heard Myrna mentioned

  • several times, many of you know her, not all of you do, I would like it if Myrna and also

  • our older daughter Alison and our oldest granddaughter Ruby stood up and face the crowd. They differ

  • principally on the basis of age and height. So I met Myrna almost immediately and she

  • essentially immediately became my best friend. Then she became my girlfriend, which took

  • a lot of work on my part, and then she became my wife and the mother of my children. She's

  • always been my toughest and my most sympathetic critic. Every time I give her something to

  • read, her aim is to find a way to help me make it better, to find a way to help me say

  • what she know's I'm trying to say, that the first pass hasn't been eloquent enough to

  • make clear, and this is true even when she disagrees with me. Sometimes. So she's always

  • been my sounding board with the exception of this talk. And that actually scares the

  • crap out of me. So anyway, she became my best friend and the question is why? Was it because

  • I was a rational decision maker? Did I see how intelligent she was? Did I see how empathetic

  • she was? Did I see how kind she was? Did I see the fierce moral core that kind of defined

  • her existence in the world? The answer is no. No to all of those things. I was attracted

  • to her, this is the God's honest truth, because she was the first girl I had ever met who

  • loved baseball. And more specifically, loved the New York Yankees. So, the one marriage

  • that everyone is bragging about, that I have had - and, you know, I'm willing to take credit,

  • that's a real achievement - but I had it because she liked the damn Yankees, she liked Mickey

  • Mantle. What kind of reason is that to form a life partnership? So we went through school

  • together and I applied to college, I applied to six colleges, I assure you I applied on

  • the basis of zero information. The school I was dying to go to was Columbia because

  • I went to a gathering of high school newspaper editors there and completely fell in love,

  • it was my romantic image of what a college should be, I knew nothing about what it was

  • actually like to be a student there. I applied to six colleges, and I got into one. It's

  • true. The only place that took me was NYU, which had a little Swarthmore-like campus

  • in the Bronx, and so I cleverly decided to go. I'm willing to take a fair amount of credit

  • for that decision. So I took psychology as a freshman, and I didn't have any idea what

  • psychology was. I don't even mean that I thought psychology was Freud. If I had known that

  • much, I would have been sophisticated. I knew nothing about what psychology was. It fit

  • into my schedule. I know that no Swarthmore student would ever choose a course for that

  • reason. So anyway, my Psych 1 teacher was a guy named Phil Zimbardo, you've heard his

  • name mentioned already once. Those of you who don't know about him, he's a legendary

  • Psych 1 teacher, probably a third of the students he taught ended up wanting to do something

  • connected to psychology, and he completely captivated me. And so I went from being a

  • complete ignoramus about psychology to being a huge fan of psychology, but that wasn't

  • enough. My aspiration still was to be a writer. And I took another course that used to be

  • required, Freshman English Composition, which was designed to teach you how to write, and

  • the first papers I turned in in this course I got Ds. This is sort of the drill, they

  • give you low grades at the beginning to basically humiliate you so that you think you actually

  • still have something to learn, and gradually your grades go up even if your writing doesn't

  • get any better. But I didn't know that, so what did I learn? I learned psychology is

  • incredibly exciting and I don't have what it takes to be a writer. And if I hadn't had

  • both of those experiences, the odds are pretty good I would not have pursued psychology.

  • So I don't think I deserve a whole lot of credit for that. These were the circumstances

  • that confronted me. So I started taking psychology and Zimbardo's not the only star. There's

  • another star in the department, some of you may be familiar with him, his name is Alan

  • Schneider. He taught me psychology. He taught Myrna psychology. Myrna spent two years working

  • in his lab, and then we recruited him to come to Swarthmore when the NYU campus that he

  • taught at, and I studied at, closed. So that's how I became a psychology major. Time came

  • to go to graduate school, I only applied to two, and I had no interest in one of them.

  • So I got into the other one, and I went to the other one, and it happened to be Penn.

  • I chose Penn for the wrong reasons. I won't tell you what the reasons were because I don't

  • want to insult people, but I chose Penn on the basis of bad reasons but it turned out

  • it was a spectacularly good decision. Because of the unbelievably vibrant, alive, big question-oriented

  • atmosphere that was present there when I started. Psychology was in a period of turmoil in the

  • late '60s and early '70s, there were these received truths that psychologists thought

  • they understood and all of them were being turned upside down and everyone there was

  • open to changing their view of what was important, what was interesting, and what knowledge counted

  • as. This was a tiny window of time. Psychology was closed-minded before, psychology has become

  • awfully closed-minded after, but in the period in the early 1970s it seemed as though everything

  • was possible. And I happened to be at the most intellectually engaged institution in

  • the country at exactly the moment when the people there were as intellectually engaged

  • as it was possible to be. None of this had anything to do with any rational decision

  • I made. I was smart enough to appreciate it, I was certainly not smart enough to make it

  • happen. Nonetheless, even though Penn was exciting, I was doing this ridiculous work

  • teaching pigeons how to do stuff in little boxes. And for those of you who aren't aware

  • of it, the world was falling apart in the 1960s, or at least it seemed to be, and there

  • was some hope that the next world would be a lot better, and I decided that I was really

  • doing something that was essentially akin to intellectual masturbation when I could

  • be out there doing something that improved the world. So I decided to go to law school.

  • And I talked to the folks at Penn about starting law school part-time while I finished my Ph.D.,

  • and at the end of two year's I'd have a year's worth of law school and I'd have my Ph.D.

  • done, but the plan was to get a law degree and then go defend political radicals from

  • oppression by the police and other oppressive agents of the state. That was the plan. But

  • Penn said, "full-time or nothing," and so I said to myself, "all right, I will rush

  • and finish my Ph.D. and then start law school full time." And that's what I did and that

  • was the plan and in that year, as has been mentioned, I TA'd in a Psych 1 class taught

  • by Marty Seligman. And I discovered something that I had been completely oblivious to while

  • being in graduate school, which is that a significant part of what one can do as an

  • academic is teaching. And even if putting animals in boxes is frivolous beyond belief,

  • teaching students is anything but frivolous. And it transformed my aspirations for myself

  • when I appreciated that I could conceivably have some hand in changing the world by continuing

  • on the path that I was on. I wish I could say that I knew in advance that this was possible.

  • I didn't, it was an accidental discovery that I was clever enough to appreciate when it

  • smacked me in the face. But my good fortune doesn't end there. Myrna was a graduate student

  • a little bit behind me in progress, we were going to have the two-body problem if I applied

  • for jobs. And it turned out that a good friend of mine named Joe Bernheim, who taught at

  • Swarthmore College, decided that he also couldn't stand spending his life putting animals in

  • boxes and watching them do silly things for food, so he quit to go to medical school.

  • He quit Swarthmore to go to medical school, and the job opened up. When did the job open

  • up? Exactly when I was ready to apply for it. And so I applied for the job. Did I think

  • it was the best possible job? I didn't think. What I kind of thought was "it is a good enough

  • job. Swarthmore is a good place." I knew that it was a good place, it was such a good place

  • that I didn't apply because I knew I would never get in. So I applied for this job and

  • only this job and I got it. And so it is true not only that this is the only job I've ever

  • had, it's the only job I have ever applied for. And that probably makes me close to unique.

  • So it was only several years after I was there that I discovered, not that Swarthmore was

  • a good gig, but that for me it was the perfect gig. It was the perfect job, it was the job

  • designed with me in mind. I sure as hell didn't know this in advance, but I was clever enough

  • to see it when it became apparent to me. I, as you've heard various people exaggerate,

  • I'm a lover of ideas, I'm more an experimental philosopher than I am an experimental psychologist,

  • as my colleagues in the psychology department will almost certainly tell you. And Swarthmore

  • not only allowed that, it encouraged it. It encouraged me to talk, to operate, at a level

  • of idea and abstraction and not only at a level of empirical laboratory detail. So I

  • was able to cultivate what was, for me, the natural and fulfilling approach to studying

  • the things that I was interested in. There's virtually no place else in the country that

  • I could have done this kind of work in this kind of way without paying a very significant

  • price. At Swarthmore, not only do you not pay a price, you actually get all kinds of

  • accolades showered on you for seeing the big, as opposed to the small, picture. But in addition,

  • as Schuldenfrei told you earlier, I was teaching a class on Skinner and Schuldenfrei was teaching

  • a class on Skinner, mine was actually based on what Skinner actually said, Schuldenfrei's

  • was based on what Skinner would have said if Skinner had been a little bit more consistent

  • and self-aware than he was. But there were these two students, these two wonderful, interested,

  • and interesting students, Kathy Purcell and Nancy Sato and they were taking both of our

  • classes and they would go to his class and hear X, and they would go to my class and

  • hear not X, and then they'd go to his class and hear Y, and they'd go to mine and hear

  • not Y, and they couldn't stand it anymore. And they finally said "listen, you two have

  • to talk to each other." And we did. And it began a conversation that's now 45 years old.

  • It has been thrilling all the way through, and occasionally not only thrilling but also

  • productive. I think that - I don't mean this facetiously - I think that the sort of deep

  • approach that I have taken to my work in the last 35 years is more influenced by the interactions

  • that I've had with Richie and Hugh Lacey than pretty much anything else. Ken Sharpe described

  • some of this in detail and so did Hazel Markus. The idea that human nature is something that

  • is shaped, not essential, came out of my interactions with Schuldenfrei and Lacey, and they got

  • it largely from their reading of Marx. So it transformed my life to be able to work

  • with these people but it happened only because there were two aggressive, interested, and

  • interesting students who demanded that we leave our damn offices once in awhile and

  • talk to one another. Several years later I was on sabbatical at Harvard, and I was taking

  • classes in economics, and evolutionary biology, and my plan was just to teach a course in

  • this stuff. That was my only plan, I had no grander aspirations. And Dan Reisberg, who

  • you've heard from this morning, invited me to give a talk at the New School. I'm sure

  • Dan doesn't remember this - maybe Dan does. And I decided that instead of giving my usual

  • talk about pigeons and boxes, I would actually sit down and think about what I'd been studying

  • this year and give a talk about the relation between economics, psychology, and evolutionary

  • biology. So I started sort of organizing my notes, and when I was done, it was a hundred

  • and fifty pages long. So I did not give a hundred-and-fifty-page colloquium, but I did

  • decide maybe this should be a book. It had never occurred to me to write a book on this,

  • but I had basically written two-thirds of a book, so I submitted it to my publisher

  • and that became The Battle for Human Nature. It was certainly not anything I designed and

  • once again I was clever enough to recognize the opportunity when it smacked me in the

  • face. It was the first real book I write. I don't count textbooks as books. Marty Seligman

  • invited me to this gathering of young and less-young people to launch positive psychology

  • in Mexico, and we took turns talking about some of the things we were working on, and

  • I gave a talk about choice and the downside of too much choice. And Marty made a casual

  • remark that I'm sure he doesn't remember having made. He said, "I'll bet that's not true of

  • everybody." It had never occurred to me to ask myself that question. It launched what

  • became the research that Andrew and John and Sonya and Darren and I did, identifying people

  • who want the best versus people who want "good enough," and making the argument that the

  • choice problem is really only a problem for people who have these absurdly high standards

  • and always need to get the best out of every decision. A casual remark made by Marty is what launched

  • that whole line of work. I didn't plan it. I didn't engineer it. I didn't rationally

  • construct it. All I did was take advantage of a good idea when somebody smacked me in

  • the face with it. So that's how my life has gone. I gave a talk about this work at some

  • small conference in New York, a guy came up to me afterwards and said "I run a conference

  • called TED, would you like to come and talk at TED?" And I said, "What's TED?" And he

  • told me what it was, and I said "what the Hell, that sounds like fun," so I went and

  • gave a talk and nobody knew what it was back then. And then a few months later they launched

  • this website, and YouTube got born, and all of a sudden everybody on the planet has seen

  • me wearing embarrassing shorts and a T-shirt. By the way, I just want to - this is a digression

  • - I was invited back a few years later to give a talk on wisdom, and this time everybody

  • knew what TED was, including me. And Myrna, bless her heart, gave me one piece of advice,

  • and that was "don't you dare go there looking the way you did the last time." So I actually

  • went there looking more like this. You don't know what kind of effort it takes for me to

  • dress like this. And so I gave my talk, and afterwards, I don't know, twenty-five people

  • came up to me and said "I was so disappointed you weren't wearing shorts!" They thought

  • this was a kind of right-on, power-to-the-people statement. I guess one of the things it shows

  • you is that you can't win. So, you know, my life has really been one fortunate opportunity

  • after another. People who have known me for a long time, if you ask them, I think that

  • if they are being honest with themselves they will tell you that the brief narrative I have

  • given you is really the truth. I'm not trying to be falsely modest, I have been incredibly

  • lucky and smart enough to take advantage of good luck when it has come my way. And this

  • has made me an extremely happy person. And it's made me an extremely happy person for

  • reasons that some of you might not appreciate. And that is - there's a wonderful paper that

  • was published about three years ago, asking what happiness means at different points in

  • history and in different cultures. And the astonishing finding, it certainly astonished