WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: President-elect Donald Trump and family pose at the end of the inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial January 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected tomorrow for Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.
Photograph by Aaron P. Bernstein via Getty Images
By Ryan Smith
January 20, 2017

Dear Donald Trump,

When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Stout, challenged us to write a letter to the president. That was February 1986. It was an interesting time. The Challenger disaster had just taken place, the Chicago Bears had just defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl—Jim McMahon and William Perry were legends—and we’d just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federally recognized holiday for the first time.

I can’t remember why I never wrote that letter to President Reagan, but today, I’m finally fulfilling that assignment by writing this letter to you.

Over the past year, we’ve heard your campaign slogan a lot. We saw it on those red hats. We heard it in your speeches. Everyone has come to know the phrase, “Make America Great Again.” And while I understand what you’re saying, I would suggest that making America great again is not nearly as important as making the experience of being an American great.

We live in an experience-driven world, after all. Where people used to collect things, today they collect experiences. The experience of being an American has long been something to be proud of. Here are five parts of the American experience I urge you to protect:

The best gather here

The United States has long been a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world. One of the main reasons: We surround ourselves with the best. Our country has a rich tradition of immigration that continues to the present, including the new first lady. Most agree that more needs to be done to make our borders secure while at the same time opening up visas to let the best and the brightest come and stay in America.

A visa should be stapled to the degree of every international STEM graduate. Instead, too many of the world’s best come here to get educated and we force them to leave the minute they graduate. That means we’re training some of the best in the world, but then sending them elsewhere to compete with the U.S. instead of making it possible for businesses to hire them here. That is not a great strategy.

We’re not held back by the past

Too many people across the world are held back by circumstances that are out of their control. To make the experience of being an American great again, we need to reinvigorate the American Dream and re-enthrone this country as a place of hope and opportunity for everyone.

America has to be a place where no one is held back by history or prejudice or notions of class. As you know, the most successful companies are meritocracies where people are rewarded according to the value they add. The American Dream is the ultimate meritocracy where people can achieve whatever they set their minds to.

But we can’t realize that experience of the American Dream unless we stand together—whether that is keeping jobs in Indiana and Kentucky, providing equal access to quality education, or ensuring that everyone feels safe regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. To make the American experience great, we have to be great to each other. And great leaders are the ones who set that tone.

When the chips are down, America will be there

Everyone has, or at least needs, a friend who they can call for help with anything, anytime. America is that friend to the world. We help others. It’s in our DNA. When the chips are down, people need to know they can rely on us, whether they have just experienced a devastating earthquake or they have hostile tanks rolling in. This reputation has taken decades to create, and only takes moments to destroy. America is at its greatest when we are helping others.

This is the same principle that makes the experience of being an American great. Americans can travel the world free of worry. When the chips are down, we know we can count on our fellow citizens and our government to run to our aid. It’s an amazing thing to have that level of confidence. We must never lose that.

It’s safe to speak one’s mind

While it’s too often taken for granted, the ability to safely speak one’s mind is an incredible freedom. Many dream of being a citizen of a country where they can say whatever is on their mind without fear of retribution. That’s part of what makes the experience of being an American so powerful. We can stand up for what we believe is right. We can engage in meaningful conversation and debate. And we don’t have to worry about being punished for it.

But that also means that we need to make it safe to say things that are unpopular. We need to be radically candid, which means being honest with people. But you don’t have to choose between being honest and being kind. You must be both honest and kind. In fact, that’s what it means to care.

Our country and our future is stable

Finally, the experience of being an American is great because we live in a country that is stable. We’re governed by the rule of law which grants us the freedom to invest in the future. We’re not worried about the banks failing tomorrow or the government taking over private business. We’ve been sheltered from extreme volatility.

 

For the American experience to be great, we need to maintain that stability. That’s what gives people the confidence to buy and companies the confidence to invest. That doesn’t mean we can’t be bold. We should be bold in the face of problems others have seen as insurmountable. No one ever reached new heights by only climbing small mountains. To truly make the experience great, we must be bold in the face of obstacles without wreaking havoc on the established order. That balance is one of the unique recipes to the greatness of the American experience.

This second-grade letter is 30 years late. We’re turning a new page in our history as you’re sworn in as president. As an American, as an entrepreneur, as a husband, and as a father, I wish for your success—not in making America great again, but in making the experience of being an American great.

Sincerely,

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics.

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