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Forward Rebels – Isaacson speaks on collaboration and creativity

The Ole Miss community gathered yesterday to celebrate its latest group of graduates, with the help of commencement speaker Walter Isaacson.

All 15,000 seats placed in the Grove were filled, and the nearly 3,000 degree candidates present took their seats in a place of honor.

Prior to Isaacson’s commencement address, members of the faculty and staff were presented with awards and honored for their efforts. Chancellor Jeff Vitter also presented the University of Mississippi Humanitarian Award to retired U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran for his contributions to the state of Mississippi and the university.

The Humanitarian award has only been awarded three times previously, in 2001, 2003 and 2013. Cochran, a Pontotoc native and Ole Miss alumnus, is the 10th-longest serving senator in U.S. history.

“We’re all familiar with Sen. Cochran’s outstanding leadership,” Vitter said. “He is admired by his constituents and many people throughout our nation as a valued, wise and temperate voice in Congress. His legacy will continue to shape the state of Mississippi for many years to come.”

Vitter also recognized Cochran’s contributions to the university’s natural products research facilities. Cochran was unable to attend the commencement ceremony in person, but donated his congressional papers to the university’s modern political archives.

Following Vitter’s presentation, author, biographer, journalist and historian Walter Isaacson addressed the graduating class.

Isaacson is the former editor of TIME Magazine, CEO of CNN and President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has written several biographies of notable historical figures, some of which have been made into movies. Most recently, his 2017 biography on Leonardo Da Vinci was optioned for the big screen by Leonardo DiCaprio and Paramount Pictures.

In his address to the students, Isaacson spoke of the importance of collaboration, creativity, willful curiosity, compromise and diversity.

He also spoke about the things students might not have been told during their time as students.

“What we told you when you came here, is that it was all about your individual achievement,” Isaacson said. “What we forgot to tell you, is that when you get into the real world, it’s about collaboration more than just individual achievement. It’s about working collaboratively with others.”

Isaacson drew from his research of notable figures including Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs to illustrate the importance of creativity and willful curiosity. He told the story of a young Einstein who, upon receiving a compass from his father, became obsessed with learning why the arrow pointed north, although nothing was touching it.

While most people would have thought the compass was interesting and then moved on to something else, Einstein spent his entire life trying to learn why the arrow pointed north.

“What makes life enriching and makes creativity possible is curiosity for its own sake,” he said. “If I look at all of the people I’ve written about, the key trait is passionate curiosity.”

Perhaps the most significant underlying theme of the address, Isaacson said, is the importance of finding common ground and making compromises when needed.

Compromise, he said, is something the current political field is lacking. However, he charged the graduates with reminding leaders, and the rest of the world, that compromise is one of the original foundations of democracy, dating back to the constitutional convention. Embracing a diverse environment and the things to be learned from it, is something that leads to success for the whole, he said.

“Compromisers may not seem like great heroes, but they do make great democracies,” Isaacson said. “In our nation, we have a bad tendency at times, to self-sort. To go to our own end of the talk radio dial, or our own favorite places on cable TV or our own echo chambers in the blogosphere. It’s not about exclusivity in the real world – it’s about inclusivity. It’s about how many people you bring together.”