Press Releases

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin -- Remarks to New York University Commencement, New York, NY

(Archived Content)

Chairman Lipton and Members of the Board of Trustees; President Oliva; distinguished fellow honorees; deans and administrators; faculty; honored guests; and graduates of the class of 1999 -- their friends and families.

Thank you for this honor.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once gave the following advice to speakers. He said: Be sincere; be brief; be seated. Today, I will try to be all three.

You graduate today in a world starkly different, in many ways, from the one in which I graduated. It's far more interconnected. Information moves dramatically faster. The decision cycle is vastly shorter. Economies and people around the world are more closely linked than ever before. Decisions made in one capital can be felt across the globe. In the complex world of today, decision making has become even more difficult, but the fundamentals of decision making have remained the same. And, one lesson I can draw from my life is that effective decision making is the key to almost everything you will do.

When I arrived at college, I had never given much thought to how I made decisions. College began changing that. What first struck me was the skeptical atmosphere. Our professors' words weren't seen as unquestioned truths, but as starting points for criticism and thought. In my sophomore year, I took Philosophy I from a wonderful, elderly professor named Raphael Demos. His whole point was to show that every assertion ultimately rested on a basic principle that could not be proven. It could only be assumed or believed. That conclusion, together with what I learned in law school, fundamentally shaped the way I've made decisions ever since.

As I think back over the years, I have been guided by four principles for decision making.

First, the only certainty is that there is no certainty. Second, every decision, as a consequence, is a matter of weighing probabilities. Third, despite uncertainty we must decide and we must act. And lastly, we need to judge decisions not only on the results, but on how they were made.

First, uncertainty.

When my father was in college, he too had signed up for a course in philosophy with a renowned professor. On the first day of class, the professor debated the question of whether you could prove that the table at the front of the room existed. My father is very bright and very pragmatic. He went to the front of the room, pounded on the table with his hand, decided it was there -- and promptly dropped the course.

My view is quite the opposite. I believe that there are no absolutes.

If there are no absolutes then all decisions become matters of judging the probability of different outcomes and the costs and benefits of each. Then, on that basis, you can make a good decision.

The business I was in for 26 years was all about making decisions in exactly this way.

I remember once, many years ago, when a securities trader at another firm told me he had purchased a large block of stock. He did this because he was sure -- absolutely certain -- a particular set of events would occur. I looked, and I agreed that there were no evident roadblocks. He, with his absolute belief, took a very, very large position. I, highly optimistic but recognizing uncertainty, took a large position. Something totally unexpected happened. The projected events did not occur. I caused my firm to lose a lot of money, but not more than it could absorb. He lost an amount way beyond reason -- and his job.

A healthy respect for uncertainty and focus on probability drives you never to be satisfied with your conclusions. It keeps you moving forward to seek out more information, to question conventional thinking and to continually refine your judgments. And understanding that difference between certainty and likelihood can make all the difference. It might even save your job.

Third, being decisive in the face of uncertainty. In the end, all decisions are based on imperfect or incomplete information. But decisions must be made -- and on a timely basis -- whether in school, on the trading floor, or in the White House.

I remember one night at Treasury, a group of us were in the Deputy Secretary's Office, deciding whether or not the U.S. should take the very significant step of moving to shore up the value of another nation's currency. It was, to say the least, a very complicated situation. As we talked, new information became available and new considerations were raised. The discussion could have gone on indefinitely. But we didn't have that luxury: markets wait for no one. And, so, as the clocked ticked down and the Asian markets were ready to open, we made the best decision in light of what we knew at the time. The circumstances for decision making may never be ideal. But you must decide nonetheless.

Fourth, and finally, judging decisions. Decisions tend to be judged solely on the results they produce. But I believe the right test should focus heavily on the quality of the decision making itself.

It's not that results don't matter. They do. But judging solely on results is a serious deterrent to taking the risks that may be necessary to making the right decision. Simply put, the way decisions are evaluated affects the way decisions are made. I believe the public would be better served, and their elected officials and others in Washington would be able to do a more effective job, if judgments were based on the quality of decision making instead of focusing solely on outcomes.

Time and again during my tenure as Treasury Secretary and when I was on Wall Street, I have faced difficult decisions. But the lesson is always the same: good decision making is the key to good outcomes. Reject absolute answers and recognize uncertainty. Weigh the probabilities. Don't let uncertainty paralyze you. And evaluate decisions not just on the results, but on how they are made.

You've just completed an important milestone in developing your ability to deal effectively with the complex choices of the world in which you will live and work. By continuing to build on this foundation throughout your life, you will be well prepared for the great opportunities and challenges of the new century.

Congratulations and good luck.