McKella Kinch
September 22, 2023

Harnessing Naive Optimism, Relationships, and Playful Anarchy: Mark Rober’s MIT Commencement Speech

Harnessing Naive Optimism, Relationships, and Playful Anarchy: Mark Rober’s MIT Commencement Speech

You might know Mark Rober from his Youtube channel where he makes science fun for kids, teens, and adults alike with his famous backyard squirrel obstacle courses, elephant toothpaste explosions, and porch pirate booby traps. 

Mark brought his signature humor and wisdom to his 2023 commencement address at MIT, and shared a few key pieces of advice that have guided him in his life and career from a mechanical engineer at Apple and NASA to becoming a Youtube star and speaker.

Watch the talk here!

Main takeaways: 

  • Embrace naive optimism
  • Reframe failure and challenges
  • Foster your relationships
  • Engage in occasional playful anarchy

These mesh really nicely with our Redmond practices and values in a lot of ways. Here’s why we love this advice!

The River of Life, Assuming Good Intent, and Failing at Super Mario Brothers

Here’s Mark’s simple advice that can change your life.

Embrace naive optimism

Mark says that “Sometimes it’s an advantage NOT to be the expert.” 

At Redmond, we don’t really work with consultants or “experts.” Many of our associates are doing work that has little to do with their college degree, if they have a degree at all. And many aren’t doing what they were hired to do, but what we later discovered that they’re talented at and passionate about.

Around here, we care more about aptitude and interest than “expertise.” Expertise can make you inflexible and locked into an established course of action because you think it’s the best or only way to do something. But naive optimism, also known as a beginner’s mindset, is far more interesting. It keeps you open to possibilities.

This kind of naive optimism also enables you to take leaps of faith and venture into the unknown. 

Mark compares life to a river. If you want to cross the river, you have to focus on the first few stepping stones. You test them out to see if they’re stable and you take those few steps. Once you’ve done that, you might see your next few steps and so on. You can’t see your entire route from where you stand on the shore. You have to get into it and figure it out as you go along.

We don’t know what lies ahead, and sometimes, we just have to start heading in the direction that seems right and see what happens.

“Cross the river one rock at a time, but do it with the naive optimism that it’s all going to work out. Let that be your North Star.” - Mark Rober

We love the idea of letting things unfold rather than trying to control everything to the nth degree. After all, no matter how hard we try to plan and predict the future, we can really only see a few steps out in front of us. 

This is why we don’t set hard goals at Redmond. Rather, we strive to be nimble and strategic with our thinking instead of making rigid plans that will be obsolete in a few weeks. We look at what’s in front of us, reflect on where we’ve been, and use that to make the next right choice. 

Passion for Contribution can also really help here because when you’re focused on being helpful, discovering your true strengths, and finding out what fills your cup, you’re less focused on being the “expert” and more likely to surrender to the journey.

We also love his idea of optimism, and believing that things tend to work out for the best. We call this “pronoia,” or the idea that the universe is conspiring for your highest good. Read more about this idea here! 

Reframe failure and challenges

When you venture out into the unknown, you’re going to fail sometimes. That’s just life. 

The fear of failure holds us back so often, and it’s tragic. The fact is, some things will work and some won’t. But when they don’t work, that’s not the end of the story (unless you let it be). You’ve just stumbled on something that didn’t work and that you can learn from. It’s no reason to quit or give up. It’s just a signal to pivot. 

Also, how we think about failure determines how we respond to it. (We love this story of a Chinese farmer that illustrates this point beautifully.)

In his speech, Mark talks about an experiment he did with 50,000 of his YouTube followers. He asked them to play a computer programming puzzle he made, but he didn’t tell them there were two different versions. In the first version, they didn’t lose points when they failed. In the second, he took away a few points when they made a mistake. 

The results? The players who didn’t lose the points attempted the puzzle 2.5 times more and succeeded 16% more of the time. When they didn’t frame losing as negative, they persevered, learned more, and found more success. 

Mark likens this to playing Super Mario Brothers. You’re going to get hit by sliding green shells, you’re going to miss a jump or fall off a cloud and restart the level. But losing and messing up is just part of figuring out the game, right? 

That’s how it is in the real world too. 

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from having fun or exploring possibilities. Let the journey be exciting. Messing up and starting over is just part of the game.

Foster your relationships

Relationships are some of the most fulfilling and important parts of our lives. 

At Redmond, our main style of work is collaboration. We do everything collaboratively. Our leadership is collaborative. We try to collaborate across teams and departments instead of remaining siloed. This is because collaboration is a far more effective way to work. It provides more perspectives, ideas, and strengths than we could ever get on our own or even within our own team. And to collaborate effectively, we have to foster strong relationships.

Our core values of Ubuntu and Occhiolism are crucial here, because in order to truly connect with others, we need to see each other and ourselves clearly and understand the nature of interdependence (Ubuntu). We also need to recognize that our perspective is limited in order to value the perspective of others (Occhiolism). Without these two things, we can’t collaborate effectively or nurture relationships.

Another practice that’s important to us (and that Mark emphasizes in his talk) is assuming positive intent. Humans are messy, but we’ve found that when we assume the best of others, it’s a lot easier to work with them.

“Humans are messy miracles. But the more you focus on the miracle, the more energy you have to work with the mess.”  -Dewitt Jones 

This is a great way to nurture relationships because it’s a lot easier to truly see and connect with people when you aren’t suspicious of their motives, and when you aren’t resentful. (Relationship experts agree that resentment is poison to relationships.)

Keep your relationships strong. Strive to see the best in others and get curious about strengths and perspectives that are different from your own. 

Engage in occasional playful anarchy

In other words, get in the habit of asking “What if?” and “Why not?” Explore the possibilities, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It’s okay to do things differently. Have fun. Be playful. Be yourself. 

Our society as a whole tends to devalue fun. Work is much more productive and noble, right? 

Actually…no. In fact, play might be our natural, most efficient way of learning and working.

"All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth. The highest form of research is essentially play." - “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe

Dr. Karyn Purvis, a play researcher, has also said that while it normally takes 400 repetitions of a task to form a new synapse in the brain (in other words, to make a habit), with “joy and laughter,” it only takes 12 repetitions. 

12, down from 400! Still think play is a waste of time? 

Play is our natural state of learning and growth. Children learn by playing, but we don’t grow out of our need to play. We just learn to ignore it.

A big part of what we do at Redmond is learn about our 3 Circles. One of those circles is what fills our cup, AKA what feels like play or flow. Though this is usually the last circle we focus on, it’s no less important than the other two. (It’s just easier to figure this one out when you’ve made progress on the first two.) Flow, enjoyment, and play are critical for happiness, creativity, innovation, and our overall well-being. When something is fun, we’re going to do it a lot more, which leads to more meaningful contributions over the course of our lifetime. 

When was the last time you played and had FUN? This could be a certain task or activity or even being with certain people. Start paying attention to when you’re having fun, and try to fit more of that in your life.


Mark Rober shares lots of great advice in this commencement speech. None of it is necessarily new. 

We’ve all heard that play and relationships are important, that we need to go with the flow, and that failure is part of the journey, right? 

Mark invites us to really consider these things and ask if you’re living them or if you just know them. (Though Mark Twain says “To know and not do is to not know.”) 

Take some time to Reflect on these. Are you taking care of your relationships? Are you seeking out play? How do you feel about failure and trusting the process of life overall? 

It’s worth thinking about.