Analogy and empathy

[Text of the “class address” I gave at our Fletcher graduation, which came right before an amazingly heartfelt storified riff by the incomparable Alissa Wilson.]

Class Address
Patrin Watanatada
May 22, 2005

Distinguished guests, faculty, staff, alumni, family, friends, and fellow students: it is an honor to speak to you today on behalf of my beloved colleagues, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy class of 2005.

Over the past two years, I’ve noticed that we members of the Fletcher community are fond of using the name of this institution as an adjective. For example: “Corporate social responsibility is a very Fletchery field.” “His MALD thesis topic on ‘The Role of Force in Post-Conflict Monetary Policy: A Rights-Based Perspective’ was so Fletcheresque.” “She’s totally Fletcher.” Naturally, that’s a compliment.

So, what is this mysterious property of Fletcher-ness? What does that lower-case f in the new orange-and-cream-colored flag logo stand for? Well, besides “Fletcher.” But you know what I mean.

The immediately obvious answer is “diversity”—intellectual, cultural, personal and professional diversity.

There is great diversity among the Fletcher community as a whole. Our class includes returned Peace Corps volunteers, investment bankers, diplomats, NGO managers, journalists, military officers, police officers, teachers, civil servants, business professionals, engineers, policy researchers and medical students. We even have a nuclear physicist.

And there is great diversity within individual Fletcherites. In our class we have not just one, but two, trained orchestral conductors—one from Taiwan who believes that most operas are related to politics because they represent the deep feelings of human beings, the other from Washington State who went on to work for a little online start-up called Amazon.com and is now one of Fletcher’s most passionate environmental advocates.

We have a lawyer from Kenya who discovered a talent for accounting and finance while at Fletcher and who plans to combine those interests by working in foreign investment law—and, by the way, she is quietly dedicated to her faith and to community service, and she happens to sing beautifully.

We have an economist from Japan who left his job at the central bank to study humanitarian assistance at Fletcher and who spent last summer evaluating the microfinance program in a refugee camp in Mozambique—and, by the way, he is also a motorcycle enthusiast and a competitive boxer.

We have a Lebanese-Canadian engineer and film buff who is making a transition into politics.

The diversity of our student body is certainly one of the great and distinctive things about a Fletcher education. But I think “diversity” doesn’t go quite far enough in explaining Fletcher. Diversity by itself is pointless without interaction and integration. Diversity is pointless without community to go along with it. And the power of Fletcher lies in that special combination of diversity and community—and yes, in that generalist, interdisciplinary, international, interactive education that is so powerful because it gives us the different perspectives we need to be better at two things that I would argue make the world go round. These two things are analogy and empathy.

There is tremendous power in analogy. Analogy is a process of discovery that involves taking insights achieved in one field, such as biology, and applying them to another, such as political science. It’s mapping patterns from the past onto the problems—and hopefully the solutions—of the present. And the more disciplines we’re familiar with, the more insights are available to us.

Equally, there is tremendous power in empathy, which is basically the emotional equivalent of analogy. The ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings or difficulties is often unfortunately dismissed as a “soft skill.” But ask any CEO dealing with angry workers or a diplomat dealing with a politically sensitive conflict just how important soft skills can be.

Two springs ago, shortly after we had all received our acceptance letters, I got an e-mail from a then-current Fletcher student from Thailand offering to answer any questions I had, so I wrote back and said I was trying to decide between Fletcher and another school. She replied with a thoughtful list of pros and cons, but she finished by saying: “In the long run I think both Fletcher and that other school you’re considering are more or less the same. But I love Fletcher people. It’s the BEST thing about Fletcher.”

I was intrigued, but I didn’t quite get it. What was a “Fletcher person”? What could different people from so many different backgrounds and so many different countries studying so many different things have in common?

Now, as we prepare to move on and out to the work for which Fletcher has prepared us, I think almost all of us would say the same thing to a prospective student: Fletcher is about the people. The students, the faculty, the staff (and a special shout-out here to our Blakeley RDs Trisha and Joey, Nela and Vlad, Jeni in the registrar’s office, Giovanna and Linda in Mugar Cafe, and Nicolas and Elba at Blakeley).

And what we all have in common is that greater whole of Fletcher-ness that emerges from the complex interactions, large and small, of daily life here at Fletcher. It’s in discussing the day’s headlines or last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives [NB: I don’t know why I said this! Don’t think any of us watched this show] over early morning coffee in the Hall of Flags. It’s in study groups preparing for multilateral negotiation simulations outside Ginn Library. It’s in office hours with professors, hashing out the connection between finance and climate change, or receiving advice on balancing work and family life and how best to make a difference in our individual spheres of influence. It’s in midnight chats over chocolate and tea in Blakeley Hall with roommates who could not possibly be more different from you, but who you love, and from whom you learn. And in such moments are planted seeds of collaboration that in five or twenty years may blossom into a renewable energy venture capital firm, a political campaign, or an innovative think tank.

I think it’s time to stop now and pass you on to our wonderful classmate and friend Alissa. So I’ll close by saying that while writing this speech, I had some help from Google. (You know—”how to write a speech”…) I came across the following piece of advice: when in doubt, quote Churchill. So I think I might do that.

In 1957, Winston Churchill said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” What being at Fletcher has given us is the ability to see further than ever before, through the eyes of people we never knew before, to vistas we never could have imagined before. And I know that our collective hope as a class is that we can take this new vision and translate it to action and a better world.

Thanks to our teachers, fellow classmates and all those who have made Fletcher such a place to be. Most of all, thanks to our families for giving us our original windows on the world.