The following is a copy of the University of Utah graduation commencement speech delivered by renowned alpinist Conrad Anker on May 3, 2017. Anker is a former student of the university who went on to pursue a climbing career that took him to remote mountains all over the globe. He has shared a rope with some of the most accomplished alpinists in the world, including Mugs Stump and Alex Lowe. In 2011 he completed the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin–a highly committing technical big wall on Meru (6310m)–with Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin. On May 3, The University of Utah awarded Anker with an honorary doctorate.–Ed.
…I never imagined that I would stand before a graduating class when I received my own diploma three decades ago. To be honest, I was likely dreaming of climbing mountains, which I did as often as possible between semesters here at the U. My father and mother held education in high regard and they expected each of my siblings and me to earn a college degree. Somehow I discovered climbing and a life outdoors. I had an urgent desire to travel the world in pursuit of mountaintops, ice covered faces and rock walls. My dad had a chance to practice patience as it took me seven years to get my bachelors degree between climbing trips. But he was supportive of all of my adventures and knew that education comes in many forms. To those of you who are graduating today, congratulations! You have finished a milestone in your life, one that will change who you are and help shape your impact on the world that we all share.
As I look around the campus and think back to what the U was like in the mid eighties, I’m compelled to reflect. When I was a student in 1987 there were 5 billion people on Earth. Today there are 7.4 billion. There were 242 million people in the United States and now we have over 322 million. There were 1.7 million folks here in Utah back then. Light rail was something that happened in Europe. Now there are 3 million people, a 44 percent increase in 30 years. Light rail now connects this valley, reducing congestion and improving air quality. There are far more students here at the U today, which is great thing as the more of us who are educated, the better our society becomes. But just as all of these numbers have increased, so too has the cost of tuition. The comparative cost of an education is up and climbing. Please remember generational fairness. You benefit from the education system before you are able to pay for it. Will that close the doors for some in the future? You can make sure it doesn’t. Be an advocate for education.
[When I was] a student, the U was leading, as it is today, in the field of medical research. I took pride in this even though my course of study was not medicine. For a student of the ’80s, the ’60s and ’70s were immediate. Stories of campus activism still permeated our thought. We were vocal regarding divesture from South Africa over the appalling policy of apartheid and its tenor for human rights. We took part in campus rallies and built a shanty shack to make a statement and raise awareness. Was the U the tipping point in this incremental yet monumental change in society? Not alone, yet collectively we were part of a voice for change. Having participated in that pivotal movement is still a meaningful part of my college years. Don’t be intimidated to speak out. To question and inquire is a basic tenant of learning and your education is a lifelong pursuit.
The University of Utah was established in 1850 and like all institutions of higher education; it encourages a drive for learning by the discovery, creation and application of knowledge. Each generation of students and faculty adds to the collective ball of knowledge with research and discovery. Professors do more than pass it on; they improve and clarify knowledge. The ability to understand information, distill data and make decisions is the single most important part of your education. Critical thinking, the one attribute we hope you have absorbed and will continue to use, is ever more important as society faces a daunting number of choices. Not looking at all the options can lead you down a maze of bad choices. This opportunity to learn also carries responsibility. You and your family have invested time and resources in your education. This is something that you want to see returns on. Not just in terms of a paycheck and material possessions, the hallmark measures of our nation, but how you affect and contribute to the betterment of society. How we interact with our fellow humans is the basis of society.
If we look at the age of Earth, some 4.5 billion years old, we realize how insignificant humans are. While we have made great strides, from composing symphonies to harnessing the atom to creating representative democracies to connecting people around the world, we are at the cusp of having and taking too much. Are there too many people on this small and increasingly fragile planet? How do we face this challenge from a practical, scientific, sustainable and philosophical standpoint? Understanding the predicament of our fellow humans and other species begets compassion, which will positively affect our actions and decisions. Be humble and avoid the trappings of entitlement. All of us gathered today have won the lottery of birth. Having had the opportunity to attend and graduate from this fine school comes with a degree of responsibility–you have the ability to make life better for all of humanity. If this is your prism through which you live in the world, you are on the right track.
Gratitude is the foundation of humility. No one deserves gratitude more than our parents and the people who have raised us. They brought us into the world, nurtured us as we matured and gave us our initial values. For my mother, in the audience today and my wife, along with all of the parents here, hats off to raising children to be good citizens of the world. Our teachers and mentors along the way have added to this foundation. For those who have planted trees from which the fruit they will not harvest, we owe deep gratitude.
Since graduating in 1988 I have pursued a life of climbing mountains with a singular focus. From Yosemite to Everest to the snow covered granite spire of Meru, the journey of self-discovery tied to adventure has been my calling. While emotional, the moments shared on the summit with a partner are fleeting and only half of the journey. It is co-operation that makes these expeditions possible and successful. The effective and enjoyable way that we get things done in society is through cooperation. Collaboration, inclusiveness, flexibility, and acceptance are the basis from which insightful and beneficial decisions are made. You will be asked to cooperate in all aspects of life going forward. Whether in a work place or a relationship, cooperation is essential to peaceful coexistence. Life is better with cooperation.
People ask, “Why climb?” In 1923, pioneering Everest climber George Mallory was asked this question about climbing Everest. He answered, “Because it’s there.” Mountaineering is a frivolous pursuit in dangerous, cold and constantly changing environments. There are no medals to win, no monetary rewards, no apparent gains or baskets of gold to be had. There isn’t even a cure for the common cold. You might even catch a cold. Yet the challenge of pitting oneself against the unknown embodies courage, determination and discipline. Goethe, the German philosopher stated, “Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success.” Goethe died in 1832 at the age of 82 yet his words are still relevant today and can be applied to any discipline you study and pursue. By facing your fears, by being willing to accept failure, you are courageous. Putting yourselves in a difficult situation and persevering forces you to dig deep and find the process to innovate. It builds confidence for facing hardship and being able to accept an uncertain outcome. We do difficult things because they are there. Adversity challenges the human spirit and we are better for it.
Reaching the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen took determination. Waking up in the morning with a singular focus and having a specific goal creates motivation. This defines determination. Whatever your goal is, and thankfully we have as many varied goals as there are people, the discipline needed to turn your dreams into reality is something that all of you are familiar with. That extra effort that you called upon to write your best paper, to find the answer to a tough math problem or to create a beautifully balanced piece of art is essential as you go forward in life. Discipline is the opposite of being lazy. How many greats in history have been noted for being lazy?
Laziness, the absence of doing anything constructive, is not to be confused with tolerance and reflective meditation. Patience is key to success. Our parents enveloped us with unconditional love us as we grew through the tantrum stages of life. They accepted us as adolescence gripped our minds and bodies. May we share the same understanding with our parents as they age. Adolescence and maturity are chapters in life that we all share. May we learn from them. While patience is an obvious asset in family life, it also plays a key role as you become a global citizen. Listening and understanding the other person’s point of view will help you to make balanced decisions. As life unfolds, you will be forced to make choices that seem daunting and monumental. Practice patience as you process the pros and cons when making decisions. Simply enjoy a walk when faced with a tough choice. Take a moment and unplug from this hyper connected world that we live in. When one climbs, it is imperative to focus precisely on each and every move. If you don’t, mistakes can have dire consequences. So, how many of you have checked your phone in the last 15 minutes? It takes self-discipline to be present and in the moment.
Life is about moments. The moment you were born. The moment you took your first step. The moments you took your first step and uttered your first word are precious to your parents. We have memories of the first day of school, the moment that we learned to ride a bike, played that first piano recital, attended your first dance, and graduated from high school. For the climbers here it might be that first 5.12 you inched your way up. Those moments are all unique. They comprise the milestones of life. The one milestone that we cannot escape is death. We do not know the circumstance or timing of how our life will end; yet we know it will. In the scale of time, a single lifetime is infinitesimal. What you do with this precious life is entirely up to you. We live in a free society, one that has greater opportunity than any other in the history of humankind. Find your inner path and allow it to guide you to be your best self.
Love creates life. The understanding and empathy that people have for each other, based on love is the single most basic of human needs. It is life affirming and nurturing. Love someone and allow yourself to be loved. Yes–it can be frightening and is certainly a risk. Yet what is life if not an adventure into the unknown? Patience, compassion, understanding, empathy, humility and cooperation will all make the sweet nectar of love and life even better. If you remove these basic foundations of being human, you will have a vastly different and more difficult experience. Give yourself to love and you will find opportunity and courage to address the daunting challenges that are facing the future generations.
When I was a student, a phone was something bolted to a wall. Today if it isn’t in your pocket it’s oddly retro. But in some ways, the good old days were better. When I was born in 1962, the atmospheric CO2 level was 319 parts per million. As a student in 1987, the global CO2 level was 339. Today, it is 410 parts per million. The last time atmospheric CO2 levels were this high was during the Pliocene era, over 3 million years ago, long before we existed. As scientists we recognize observational data. As critical thinkers we must understand how this intangible figure will have a profound impact on humanity. For the 150 million people living in coastal areas, there will be dramatic change in our lifetime. For those of us landlocked in the West, we are dependent on mountain snowfall to sustain our clean water. Globally nothing poses a greater threat than the resource-population paradox we currently face. How do we feed, shelter and clothe billions of people with a level of dignity that we are accustomed to? It’s only decent that what we expect for ourselves, we should share with the rest of humanity. This is the challenge of our carbon conundrum. How do we provide for an energy-intensive quality of life, for all humans, when Earth simply doesn’t have the resources? This, while frightening, is the creative opportunity for your generation. Solar, wind and thermal are growing and will become more important going forward. These are the obvious solutions we get to grapple with. As we transition from carbon-based to clean and abundant energy we have to address this challenge with innovation. Colliding trends are fundamentally changing how we interact with the physical world and with each other. Look for the trends and discover the opportunity that these collisions create. While the burden rests on engineering, research and the hard sciences, there is responsibility across the board that we all face. Knowing we have to address this challenge is our obligation to future generations. By seeking equality in governance and advocating for it in our communities we take steps each and every day towards a more prosperous human future. We will be able to care for the planet. There is only one planet and humans, regardless of origin, have the right to live without pain and suffering. To achieve this we need to identify our shared goals. Collectively we can find these solutions. Opportunity comes with responsibility. I have confidence that you will find the courage to persevere and the will to face those challenges and to bring about change.
Everything you have done in life has lead to this day. This moment in life. To this point you have been learning and absorbing knowledge. It is now your time to do. To do great things. I encourage you to approach life as the adventure that it is, and be present in each moment. Be patient, love freely, and care deeply for the people who share Earth. Respect the Earth. There is only one. Exercise discipline to maximize your positive impact on humanity and be grateful for the climb. Remember your past experiences are the foundation for your future. As we embark on life’s next voyage may we be reminded of the sailor’s adage: keep your eye on the horizon and hold fast.