2012 Freshman Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center
(As prepared)

[Introduction and greetings from Jacqueline Mok]

Thank you, Jacqueline – for being here this evening, for bringing greetings from our Trustees, and most importantly, for showing this class how important they are to our entire Johns Hopkins’ community.

I also want to thank Max Green, the Orientation Executive Chair, and the entire orientation committee and its staff, who did a fantastic job with this year’s program.

Thanks finally to the Archipelago Project for helping us process, and to the Sirens and the All Nighters for their wonderful rendition of the national anthem.

I am thrilled to be here with our university leaders and faculty to greet the newest members of the Johns Hopkins community.

Welcome Class of 2016! And a big welcome also to our transfer students!

I know I said this to many of you when you visited our campus as admitted students, but it bears repeating: you are astoundingly intelligent and accomplished people.

Simply put, that’s why you are here. So, I’d like to begin this evening with a question just to build on the momentum of your freshman book read discussion and jump-start everyone’s brains after a week of barbeques and Playfair, in which the most difficult query you’ve fielded is, “Where do I fill my J Card?”

So here goes.

What do Coordinate Geometry, Post-its and CSI share?

The answer: nothing. I don’t mean “nothing” as in they don’t have anything in common. Rather, the common denominator between the three is that each one was created when an inventor was doing nothing – at least nothing related to the innovation.

Let me explain. Post-its, those ubiquitous office supplies, were the brainchild of a 3M scientist who came up with the idea in church. Angry that he couldn’t get his bookmark to stay in place in his hymnal, he envisioned a new use for a colleague’s low-tack adhesive. CSI would never have hit TV screens if a scientist hadn’t been on a road trip from Berkeley to Mendocino when, musing as he drove, it occurred to him how DNA could be amplified. That Eureka moment had exponential implications for identifying diseases and catching criminals – and proliferating TV shows.

And coordinate geometry? This may be apocryphal, but apparently philosopher Rene Descartes liked to stay in bed late into the day. One day while lying there, he figured out that he could determine the coordinates of the fly buzzing by his head by plotting its distance from the walls and ceiling. Thus was coordinate geometry – and misery for many a high school student – born.

But you might be wondering, why am I sharing this with you? What do these factoids have to do with welcoming you to our academic community, the community that will be central to your experience at Hopkins?

I share them because as you embark on what will surely be a thrilling and challenging academic career here at Hopkins, I want to talk to you about the importance of idleness.

That’s right: doing nothing.

Well, not nothing. But nothing planned, expected, or demanded of you.

Heresy, you say. Has this guy not heard of organic chemistry? I have signed up for all these courses. I have all these requirements. I have to line up my schedule so I can do that public health research project in Uganda my sophomore summer or be ready to apply for the internship on Capitol Hill as a junior.

Fair enough. But let me explain. I get it. Truly, I do. I have a daughter that I just dropped off at college last week – and I know the hours she logged getting through Physics. The nail biting over the SATs. And, most importantly, the effort to fit in coursework around an extraordinary docket of extracurricular activities.

So I know – you all planned exceptionally well in order to secure a place at Johns Hopkins. You have arrived here with extraordinary skills and astounding accomplishments. You are nationally competitive figure skaters and internationally ranked step dancers. You write children’s books, perform magic, and teach self-defense.

You will find a place here, no matter what your passion …whether it’s designing software to improve computer voice recognition or applying your interest in mechanical engineering to improve auto safety at the Baltimore Grand Prix.

And knowing this class, in true Johns Hopkins style, you will not be content to rest on your laurels.

But the rules of the game have changed between high school and college. Now, at university and in the years to come, you have the opportunity – and privilege – not only to do, but also to continue to create.

This summer, one of our graduates, a writer named Tim Kreider, took up this point in an opinion piece in the New York Times called The Busy Trap. In it, he argued against being busy for busy’s sake and extolled the virtues of being idle. He observed that, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is,” he wrote, “paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

So even as you delve deeply into your courses as you will have to this first semester, as you track down your professors at their office hours, or head out into the Remington or Waverly neighborhoods on the President’s Day of Service or text – endlessly – with your future life partners, I urge you to give yourself time to rest, to think, and in doing so, to explore unexpected possibilities.

For the truth is no one at Hopkins is ever truly idle. This is a community of individuals whose brains are working all the time, pondering, challenging, wrangling new ideas – whether they are leading a seminar or considering a particularly galling problem over their Capn’ Crunch French toast at the Blue Moon Café.

But in order to be truly creative, to arrive at the solution you seek, the breakthrough you desire, you must give yourself time to let your deeply engrained skills and finely honed minds coalesce around a new concept.

Sometimes this will be a new discovery, a new piece of knowledge, a new way of working. But just as likely – and perhaps more importantly – this discovery could be a new passion you pursue, a new path you take.

This can be exhilarating, but also a little terrifying.

You might have arrived here certain that you were going to be an astrophysicist only to be swept away by a seminar in poetry. You may have come here having logged thousands of hours as a runner on your high school track team, but find that you’d rather hang up your cleats for a chance to join the race to build a better way to deliver cancer drugs to patients.

Whatever direction your years here take you, I hope that you will seek out all that Johns Hopkins and our wider community has to offer. Connect with your classmates, professors, and our neighbors. Reach out to alumni mentors through the Bridge 5 program, which is dedicated to connecting your class with alumni five years ahead of you who can offer advice and support on how to navigate Hopkins and the world beyond when the time comes.

But do not lose sight of giving yourself idle time to absorb it all – and build a future you might never have imagined.

And knowing this audience as well as I do, I bet that for the last ten or so minutes that I have been talking, you have been doing some serious daydreaming. Not hanging on to each and every word I have spoken.

If so, that is ok. You are doing just what I asked of you, and we can jointly agree that my speech was a resounding success.

Good luck, and welcome once again!