Students Urged to Find Their ‘Unique Value Contribution’

At UM’s New Student Convocation, award-winning journalist Thomas Friedman gave freshmen a look at the world they now live in.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 21, 2014) — Most of them won’t graduate and start their careers for another four years, but the more than 400 University of Miami freshmen who packed the BankUnited Center Wednesday got some sage advice on what it will take to advance in the workforce that awaits them: an ability to find their “unique value contribution.”

The advice didn’t come from a UM career counselor, but a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who told the students that they will have to do more than merely find a job. “To retain that job and advance in that job, you will have to invent, reinvent and reengineer that job more times than you can ever now image,” said New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, delivering the New Student Convocation address as another school year got underway on UM’s Coral Gables campus.

In a lecture delivered in the trademark style of his op-ed pieces, Friedman told students they’ll be remembered most for attending college during a time when “the world entered the second half of the chess board” in three critical areas: the market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law, the last subject being a term named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore that states overall processing power for computers will double every two years.

“And when you enter the second half of the chessboard, you start to get some really funky things,” explained Friedman, noting everything from self-driving automobiles to computers that can win at Jeopardy and defeat grandmasters.

His words fascinated not only students but also hundreds of parents who were in attendance. Wednesday was one of the biggest move-in days at UM for incoming freshmen, and the New Student Convocation, which UM President Donna E. Shalala described as “a sneak peak at what’s to come,” was open to the mothers, fathers, and other relatives who descended on campus this week to drop off their children.

Friedman didn’t disappoint them. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author noted that while his 2004 book, The World Is Flat, which analyzes globalization in the early 21st century, addressed the first half of the chessboard, it was published when Facebook didn’t exist, when “4G was a parking space and Skype was a typographical error.”

The world, Friedman explained, has become much more connected in the last eight years. Phone calls can now be made from the top of Mount Everest, he said, and residents of Gaza are tweeting advice on how to stage demonstrations to people in Ferguson, Missouri, the site of recent unrest over the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer.

But what does being more interconnected than we’ve ever been in human history mean for a generation of students who use smartphones that are more powerful than the Apollo computers that sent the first human to the moon? What changes will students see?

“It’ll be great to be a consumer,” Friedman told them. “You can get any good or service in the world at the absolute lowest price.” But it will be a difficult world to be a leader because “every leader today is in a two-way conversation,” said Friedman, noting that the president of China, Xi Jinping, must, in effect, discuss his political and economic policies with the 400 million Chinese who use Sina Weibo, the country’s primary blogging site.

Friedman told students “average is over.” Every employer, he said, now has access to “above-average automation, above-average software, above-average robotics.” Students must find their “unique extra.”

Some of Friedman’s best advice for students came near the end of his lecture when he talked about “How to Get a Job at Google,” the title of his recent New York Times op-ed for which he interviewed Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations for the American multinational corporation specializing in Internet-related services and products. Among the advice Bock shared with Friedman during that interview:

• Grade point averages and test scores are not all that important. Google executives are interested in general cognitive ability to solve problems.

• They also look for “grit” in potential employees. “Did you finish what you started?” Friedman said.

• The best thing to do in a job interview is to show what you’ve accomplished with what you’ve learned.

Friedman urged students to challenge themselves to develop the analytical skills many employers now look for. He answered students’ questions to close out his talk.

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Before delivering the New Student Convocation, Thomas Friedman was interviewed by UM student media.

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