John Legend to Duke University grads: Don't submit to 'zero-sum thinking' to get ahead

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Multi-platinum selling singer, actor, producer and philanthropist John Legend delivered Duke University's undergraduate commencement address on Sunday, May 2. He also received an honorary degree.

In 2018, Legend became the first Black man to achieve the coveted "EGOT" status after having earned Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. He is also a vocal criminal justice reform activist.

In his speech, Legend acknowledged the difficulties that the class of 2021 have faced as they completed their degrees during a global pandemic.

"Your class lost a lot: some lost job offers, some lost loved ones, and all of you last a whole year those little moments that make college so special," he said. "I feel your pain. You've lost something that you won't get back. I won't sugarcoat that. It sucks."

He also suggested that this past year may have taught the class of 2021 an important lesson about the importance of interconnectedness.

"The fact that you're here today, graduates of one of the world's greatest universities means that you've had to approach life with a certain competitiveness," he said, mentioning his own experience academically competing to graduate second in his high school class, attend the University of Pennsylvania and secure a job in management consulting.

"But over the past year, you were forced to pause, to see yourselves not just in competition with one another, but in community with each other. Anyone getting sick was a risk to everyone. We all had to slow down, social distance, cover our faces, stop filling our days with maximum productivity and simply keep each other safe, keep each other alive, care for one another. And this perspective you gained will serve us all, because while that competitive drive that got you here can be an incredible gift, it can get in the way, too."

Legend shared that he hoped the class of 2021 would realize the harm of "zero-sum thinking."

"America's story has always been marred by efforts to exclude, to dominate, to subjugate, to keep certain groups of people with no voice, no power and no opportunity — workers, women, indigenous people, Black people, immigrants, the LGBTQ community. All because of a fear that if those people did better, somebody else would have to lose," he said. "But the miracle of our story is that as we expanded opportunity, in our best moments, we proved that those fears were unfounded. When more people made more money, rich business owners didn't suffer, they got more customers. Prosperity increased for everybody."

He ended his speech by stressing the importance of love.

"Once we recognize our interdependence, our mutuality, it's clear that love is precisely what our society needs."

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