Prepared remarks of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 129th Opening Convocation, Sept. 18, 2019
Thank you, Will, for sharing your story.
And to all of you, welcome to Stanford!
I know you’ve had a long day of moving, getting oriented, and learning your way around campus.
For me, move-in day is one of my favorite days of the year.
You all bring so much excitement with you to campus, from your energy and warmth as you meet the people who will become your friends in the coming weeks and months to the arguments that erupt over who was supposed to bring the mini-fridge.
It’s a really special day.
To our incoming first-year and transfer students, I am delighted that you made the decision to come to Stanford this fall.
Each of you will enrich our Stanford community and help us see the world a little differently.
You are what makes Stanford such a special place, and I look forward to meeting all of you.
And to all the family members and friends who join us today, I thank you for entrusting your loved ones to us.
I want to assure you that we will support and care for your students as they undertake the important work of intellectual exploration, personal connection, and contribution that will mark their time here at Stanford.
We are happy that all of you are joining our Stanford community today.
Lessons from Leonardo
At the start of each year, I like to give some words of advice to our incoming students.
This year, I’d like to do this through the lens of a historical figure who speaks to the spirit of a Stanford education.
That person is Leonardo da Vinci.
Earlier this year, I read Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo.
I also visited an exhibit at Stanford’s Green Library – next door to us here on the Quad – which is still here.
I invite you to see it.
Leonardo lived in Italy during the Renaissance, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries – in fact, he died exactly 500 years ago, in 1519.
Many of you know his masterpieces, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
They have distinguished him as one of the greatest painters of all time.
But you may know less about the achievements that transcend his artistic work.
He was an inventor, a scientist, an engineer, and a scholar of literature, anatomy, and architecture.
He was always exploring, always looking to know more – about a sweeping list of topics.
His interests ranged from determining the different techniques needed to paint reflected light as opposed to direct light, to understanding the mechanics of a woodpecker’s tongue.
Leonardo’s boundless curiosity across disciplines and his approach to combining the arts and sciences in his work made him what we consider, today, to be the quintessential Renaissance Man.
Now, the magnitude of his accomplishments can make them seem out of reach – easy to admire but hard to apply to our lives today.
But as I learned more about him, I realized there are several lessons and experiences from his life that are directly relevant to all of us, and that might be particularly helpful to you as you embark on your journeys here at Stanford.
First of all, Leonardo was relentlessly curious.
Because he was curious, he explored and gained knowledge of people, the natural world, and engineering.
He combined that knowledge with his artistic inclination and created unprecedented works of art.
For example, he believed that a deep understanding of anatomy would make him a better portrait artist.
He found that anatomical dissections could help him understand muscular structure and depict the human body more realistically, more powerfully.
He explored how light strikes the retina – the neural tissue at the back of the eye – and found new techniques to create an illusion of changing visual perspective in The Last Supper.
The notebooks he kept have been called “the most astonishing testament to the powers of human observation and imagination ever set down on paper.”
Because he made these notebooks, many of which survive, we continue to learn from his ideas and questions, from the lists and sketches he recorded on a regular basis.
So, I offer you this advice: Use your time at Stanford to explore, to be curious, with the enthusiasm and determination of a Leonardo.
Your college years are a unique moment in your life, when you have the opportunity to freely explore a broad variety of interests.
I encourage you to look beyond what you already know to unexpected paths and possibilities, and embrace learning outside the classroom.
Here at Stanford, you will have the opportunity to discover what’s exciting and new in every discipline and learn from leading scholars in each and every field.
You can explore your interests both close by and far from campus; for example, at our overseas programs.
When you prepare to enter the job market – some years down the road – you will find that employers are looking for graduates with unique experiences, knowledge across disciplines, and the ability to think deeply and understand varied perspectives.
Even better, these experiences will help you discover what brings you happiness and how you can combine and apply your talents.
So, be relentlessly curious, explore, and do take notes!
Be true to yourself
My second lesson from Leonardo’s life is that he was an individual.
Isaacson writes that Leonardo’s creativity stemmed from “his ease of being a bit of a misfit,” different from the stringent cultural expectations of his time.
Leonardo was vegetarian and left-handed. He was born out of wedlock, he was gay, and he held some views that were considered heretical – all of which created obstacles for him in 15th-century Italy.
But his individuality also meant that he didn’t let others’ opinions constrain his own thinking, and he was often centuries ahead of his time.
He envisioned flying machines, underwater diving equipment, and portable bridges.
Some ideas came to fruition in his day, some of them generations later, others we are still waiting to see realized.
Then and now, being original and unique can be difficult – but ultimately rewarding.
So, I encourage you to be true to yourselves and to celebrate your individuality.
Follow your heart and embrace your personality, like Leonardo.
Cultivate and express those qualities that are uniquely your own.
In our world and even in our university, you will sometimes encounter strong pressures to do what others are doing.
Resist the inclination to model yourself on the success of others or to focus on someone else’s idea of what you should be.
Be an original, be yourself, and also remember that you, with the ideas and personality that you possess, will contribute to this community in amazing ways.
Be a team member
A third lesson from Leonardo’s life is that, although he was an individualist, he also took advantage of the growth and opportunities that come from being a team member.
He was not a loner, but instead a genius who worked well with others and learned from others.
Beginning around age 14, he became an apprentice for an artist and engineer named Andrea del Verrocchio.
There, in one of Florence’s best workshops, he began learning how to convey a sense of motion and how to tell a story through his art.
He learned to use math and the “beauty of geometry” in the studio, which led to another one of his iconic pieces, Vitruvian Man.
This stunning, meticulous drawing, which I am sure you have all seen, depicts a man’s body, with arms and feet outstretched, within a circle and a square, in an intersection of art and science.
Not only did he benefit from others, he also added to his team’s success.
Many of Verrocchio’s works were a combined effort, and Leonardo made significant contributions.
Isaacson tells us that Leonardo “enjoyed the collegial and familial atmosphere” so much that, after he turned 20 years old and his apprenticeship ended, he continued to live and work in Verrocchio’s workshop for many years.
So, reflecting on these experiences, my third piece of advice is this: As you gain new independence and begin charting your own course, also take advantage of the joys and benefits of being a team member.
On the Quad today, you are among people with different backgrounds, identities, viewpoints, and ways of thinking who will open your mind and broaden your horizons.
Lifelong friendships begin here, many with peers whose stories are much different from yours.
So, I encourage you to connect with each other, support one another, and make room for new ideas.
Your social interactions will make you happier, help you accomplish more, and enrich each other’s lives – as well as our campus community as a whole.
Adapt and improve
A final lesson from Leonardo is the way he experimented and then strove – with great persistence – to continually improve his work.
You might not be familiar with his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of a prominent banker.
He completed it while in his mid-20s, and today we might call it a prototype.
Ginevra de’ Benci is a fine painting but is far from his best work. It does, however, show experimentation and hints at the genius that is yet to be realized.
As Isaacson points out, we see the early stages of many of Leonardo’s touches and innovative techniques – like Ginevra’s three-quarters pose, which was unconventional at that time; sfumato, which is a blurring of lines and blending of tones; and the facial expression with that tiny hint of a smile.
These features are all at the core of what would be on full display three decades later, in the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world.
It is also important to note that, despite his genius, like everyone Leonardo also experienced disappointments.
Isaacson writes that he “was not always a giant. He made mistakes. He went off on tangents. … Notoriously, he left many of his paintings unfinished.”
He was rejected for some treasured projects, and his notebooks include expressions of anguish.
But he wasn’t deterred when he fell short.
As you begin this fascinating new journey, my fourth piece of advice is to experiment and not let obstacles dampen your spirit.
Always try new things, and then adapt and improve.
Expect to have challenges and setbacks in the classroom and in your personal lives.
We all do.
Navigating them will help you persevere and improve.
And remember that success can take time.
As Will said just a few moments ago: “With hard work, you can accomplish more than you can imagine.”
And if and when you hit rough patches, be assured you’re not alone.
We will help you.
Your Resident Advisors and Fellows, faculty, professors, coaches, and many others are here to help.
In fact, our entire university is deeply committed to your well-being.
Although I believe each and every one of you is capable of producing masterpieces in your lives, you should not expect them to come right away.
But you can expect to start envisioning them here – and everyone here is excited to help you get started.
To the Class of 2023, I also hope each of you will consider how to use the knowledge you’ll gain to make your own contributions to the world.
You’ll find many opportunities here to make an impact.
For example, our Cardinal Service program can help you find opportunities that will improve the broader community and align with your interests.
That is one of many opportunities you will find here to effect positive changes in the world.
Before closing, I want to say a final word to the families and friends here today.
I know you’re feeling a mix of emotions this afternoon – the joy of seeing your student embark on this next, exciting step into independence mixed with some sadness about how quickly the time has gone by.
You have raised tremendous young adults.
Now we will be your partners in supporting them as they explore their interests and determine where their talents will lead them.
As the father of three children myself – the youngest of whom is now a senior in college – I want to offer two pieces of advice, learned through my own experience:
First, I encourage you to give your students the space they need to explore and make new connections.
But at the same time make sure they know that you will always be there for them when they need you.
They will still need you!
And to our students: I am so happy that you have chosen to spend the next few years with us.
I wish you Leonardo’s immense curiosity about the world and that you will find the opportunity here to explore everything that interests you.
I cannot wait to see the paths that each of you take and the wonderful things you will do at Stanford, and beyond.
Welcome to Stanford!