Delivered by Jonathan Haidt, at the memorial service at Columbia University, April 11, 2015


My father’s best friend from childhood was a man named Fred Stein. At Fred’s memorial service, 2 years ago, one of their mutual friends opened his Eulogy in this way: “We all have a Fred Stein story, and we all have the same Fred Stein story.” He then proceeded to tell the Fred Stein story, and everyone in the audience seemed to nod in agreement, and with the pleasure of recognition.

I really liked this opening, but you can’t use it for most people. You can only use it for someone with a big personality and a great deal of authenticity. It works best for someone so radiant that everyone who comes within a mile of him sees the same thing, day or night.

We all have a Bryan Turner story, and we all have the same Bryan Turner Story. It’s a story about how Bryan lit up our world and took us into the realm of possibility. Bryan came to us with an incredible idea –  some way to make a difference in the world. He was so inspiring and persistent that we found ourselves caught up and drawn into doing something big.

As we got to know him better, we were amazed by his humor, his discipline, and his sheer joy. He made us more hopeful about the future, and about his generation. Along the way he sent us videos, thoughtful notes, and book recommendations. Along the way he made us resolve to become better people ourselves.

My Bryan story is just a slight variant of the prototype. Bryan first emailed me in 2012 to ask about how to use moral psychology to increase empathy for the poor, then he invited me to write a memo for the UN, on how to use moral psych to help advance the millennium development goals. I worked hard to protect my time and not get swept up in his projects, but after he came to visit me in my office, I realized I had to grab this guy and get him involved in my projects.

I ended up inviting him to help me on a project, bringing together a bipartisan group of policy experts on domestic poverty. He did such a great job on that that I hired him to run my main outreach effort, EthicalSystems.org. It’s a collaboration of experts on ethics in organizations.

I didn’t have any money to pay him, but Bryan said he really wanted to work on that project, and he asked if he could fundraise to pay for the position. Isn’t that part of everyone’s Bryan turner story? If he sees a possibility, he sees a path as well.

So I went ahead and hired him, and he took the job, despite not knowing if there was money to pay him. Fortunately, the Dean at NYU Stern, Peter Henry, offered to pay Bryan’s first year of salary, given how central this project was to the mission of the Business and Society Program at Stern.

Bryan became our first executive director in Sept.  2014, and it was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where things go from black-and-white to Technicolor. New partnerships sprouted. He developed new strategies for engaging our collaborators, even new ways of running our meetings to motivate our team better. With Bryan at the helm, it didn’t seem grandiose or quixotic that we were going to improve the ethics of American businesses, by helping them to apply research from the behavioral sciences.

In positive psychology, we distinguish between three possible attitudes that people take toward their work: job, career, or calling. Bryan saw his whole life as a calling. He loved his work, and was so devoted to it that there was no line between his personal and professional life. As Bryan says in one of his videos: “its not work if you’d do it every day even if they didn’t pay you!” Bryan was so devoted to his work, that he even worked on the last day of his life.

As some of you know, Bryan sent a morning video to his family every day. In the last one, he says:

Good morning guys, I love you very much, I just went for a quick little jump, I’m auditing an object avoidance course, and then I’ll do a couple of hours of work, and then link back up with the other guys later, and then work a bunch later on tonight after sunset. So have a great day, I just love you guys so much.

I got the news of Bryan’s death while traveling in Asia with my wife, Jayne, and our children. Jayne was so fond of Bryan, and we were both in a state of horror for the first two weeks. But by the time we got to Tokyo, in late March, we could begin to reflect upon Bryan’s life and death a bit more calmly.

We arrived the day the very first cherry blossom buds were opening. Then we traveled south and West, so that by the time we got to Kyoto, the streets and rivers and parks were lined with luminous pink trees, and with Japanese people admiring the trees. The cherry blossom festival is a very special time for the Japanese. The blossoms are a symbol of spring and renewal, but they also symbolize the fleeting nature of life. The blossoms say: Be here now.  Savor the wondrous beauty before you. But do not get attached, for tomorrow it will be gone.

One evening, Jayne told me about a realization she had had while watching a master of Japanese floral design pruning cherry branches inside our hotel lobby. And a comforting thought occurred to her:  The universe did not take Bryan as a bud. We got to see the bud unfurl and bloom. We got to see him at his most luminous.  

Bryan left us to deal with our grief, but he also left us with guidance. He told us by his example, to be grateful. Be grateful for each other. Be grateful that we are alive right now, and that we have opportunities to make this world better. And he told us explicitly in his letter to friends and family: “Don't waste time being upset about my dying; be upset about the seven million kids that die every year and don't even get a chance to live. If you can, please use my death to advance sustainable development."

Bryan even told us specifically how he was planning to do that. Katherine sent me an email from last January:

Subject: What I'm going to spend the rest of my career on

To: Michael, Alison, Evy, Kate

Had an aha moment.  This isn't a scheduled break but I couldn't help myself. I'm going to spend my career on finding and applying insights from psychology to sustainable development problems. That could be an amazing work life. Excited! Love you!

And so, Katherine is trying to help Bryan achieve his goal, even after he is gone. Katherine has been working with Glenn Denning and others at Columbia to discuss how Columbia can become the leading center in the world in creating a new field: the behavioral science of sustainable development. Katherine is starting the Bryan Turner Memorial fund, a fund that will build on Columbia’s efforts and bring this new field to the world.

For example, the fund will support the creation of a MOOC, an online class so that anyone in the world who wants to promote sustainable development can learn about the behavioral science research that Bryan was so passionate about. And the MOOC will be augmented with a small grants program. The final project in the MOOC would be to propose a project that you could actually do to promote sustainable development, and the best few projects would actually be funded. Just imagine how many people that will draw in – how many future Byran Turners, who will be trained to see new possibilities, and then given money to make those possibilities real.

And so, in closing, I say again that we all have our Bryan turner story, and we all have some variant of the same story. It’s a story of how Bryan took us into the realm of possibility.

Robert F. Kennedy spoke from that realm when he said "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" But Bryan went beyond RFK. Bryan’s motto could have been: “I dream of things that never were, and ask How. Then I read 4 books, draft 3 memos, bring the right people together, inspire in them the feeling of possibility, and together we make it so."

Bryan dreamed of a world without poverty. He believed that we now have the knowledge we need to make it so. May we all come together, to support each other, support his family, and support his dream.