eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s 2002 commencement speech to the graduating class at Tufts University offers some practical wisdom relating to systems thinking, diversity and self-sustaining communities.
To a large degree, life – like a software program — is a linear thing. We all face the temptation to freeze-frame the past, and project it into the future. As Pam said, the future doesn’t always follow a straight line. So as a software engineer, you learn to strive for a certain flexibility in design: You learn to avoid being locked in to a single solution – to build a platform that can be used for a number of purposes.
As a result, to the outside observer, a well-written program might look a little bit wasteful… Cluttered when it should be clean… With dots that defy connection… …Kind of like an education in the liberal arts. You know what I mean: When you design your course of study, you build in some lines of code the purpose of which is not immediately evident – a course in poetry to go with a course in physics, Aristotle’s Ethics along with algorithms… …And then, later, life takes a non-linear turn, and you draw on a different part of the platform for the new perspective you need. …
Which leads me to the last lesson I want to share today from my eBay experience. When you’re looking at the way a collection of isolated individuals coalesces into a community… When you’re trying to understand what makes a network work – what I’ve learned is that it comes down to this: Can the system embrace diversity? And not just accept diversity – but embrace diversity – as the value of difference.
To understand that what today seems odd, unnecessary, off-beat — maybe even outrageous – may prove integral to solving tomorrow’s problems. It’s a matter of finding the connections that make community – not just forging them, but finding them, because I think they already exist — and encouraging each individual to think from self to society to service.