By Rebecca Suhrawardi
For a few hours last Wednesday afternoon, NYU’s Skirball Center became an epicenter of ideas, leadership, and inspiration as The Fragrance Foundation hosted its inaugural Foundation Talks.
People from diverse industries and occupations filled the theater, from the Student Senate of New York’s famed Trinity School, to the CEO of department store Barneys, all came to see the lineup of impressive and inspirational thought leaders presented at the talks.
The keynote speaker, on whom this piece will focus, was the 42nd President of the United States, President Bill Clinton. He was followed by Caryl M. Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF; creative professional, graphic designer and typographer, Stefan Sagmeister; and Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader on education, creativity, and innovation.
The President was received with a standing ovation, and even fellow speaker, Stern, tweeted, “So moved by President Clinton.”
“I forget, you know, once you get to really lower Manhattan,” he joked, “It’s like crossing the whole state to get down here.”
He was on stage for the next hour or so, and discussed the issues with the world as he saw them, which were presented alongside his ideas for solutions.
“I think the world’s problems basically fall into three baskets,” he said, “It is entirely too unequal, it is too unstable, and it is not sustainable because of climate change and the destruction of local resources, including the soil, the water, the fishing stocks of the world and many others.”
“In spite of everything that China has done moving more people out of poverty than ever in history, there are still 125 million people in China living on less that $1.25 a day,” he said of the rapidly developing nation.
“Inequality is rampant, it’s also present here in America,” Clinton added, stating that there are several more countries in the world now that have more social mobility than the US does.
“The second problem is that the world is highly unstable in ways that are apparent,” he told the crowd, “Just think about how fast the financial crisis spread from America all over the world. Look at all the troubles you see internally when you get rid of an autocracy in a country with a lot of diversity. I mean, look what happened in Iraq. Iraq has more Shiite and Sunni Muslims than other minority groups, but when the Shia won, having chafed under Saddam Hussein for so long. They didn’t have an inclusive philosophy.”
The last topic he tackled was climate change. “We simply cannot continue to grow on the energy resources model that characterized the industrial era,” he urged, “So we are in a race against time, and no one knows when, to use the Malcolm Gladwell phrase, “The Tipping Point” will be reached.”
He told the audience the solutions to these issues lie within their own responsibility, the responsibility of every citizen to build up the positive forces of independence. He also added the role of NGO’s to help fill the spaces in society where governments fail to reach. “Look at all these gaps in our society, you have got whatever the government can provide and whatever the private sector can produce, and there are still all these people out there in need, so we are going to try to fill that gap every year.”
He went to speak of anecdotes personal to his life, about Nelson Mandela, who he said had the “uncommon decency” to get in touch with Chelsea, his daughter, every time Mandela visited London where she was studying, and also the moral standing to get the people who were his opponents to behave in a positive and constructive way by allowing them space in Mandela’s post-apartheid government.
The most important book Clinton said he read last year was by Nobel-prize winning microbiologist, E.O. Wilson, from whom he learned that there are only four species that have endured through trial after trial which destroyed other species, and they are: ants, termites, bees, and people, all of whom have in common the ability to cooperate.
“Although as people, we also have consciousness and conscience, and so we have the greatest potential and greatest problems,” he said. In the end, Wilson believed, we will choose cooperation over conflict, challenge over denial, a shared positive future over a shared negative one.
And with a clear directive to the audience, the President closed his speech. “Our job, every one of us, is to define the terms of our interdependence. To build up the positive and reduce the negative.”
A short question and answer session followed with the President of the Foundation, Elizabeth Musmanno, where he gleamed more wisdom:
I always tell them [young people], get caught trying, don’t be afraid and do what you believe in.
Every major mistake I made in my life I made when I was too tired.
Everybody’s got a story and everyone is interesting.
Be charitable to other people, and nobody should be judged by the worst moment of their lives.
Over the long run, you might be repeatedly disappointed if you trusted people, but over the long run it would come out in the wash, and you wound up way ahead.
A lot of these people with self-made stories, like a bunch of bull. Everyone got help.
I think it is a big mistake to undermining the importance that we all feel, we need to feel like, you know, in those early years we are the most important person in the world to somebody.
If you are not careful, you spend all of your time doing what you want to do and not enough time listening to what other people think you ought to do, and you can become isolated.
There are very few people on their deathbed who say, I wish I spent three more hours at work.