Williams College Commencement Speech

(Paul Guillotte/iBerkshires.com)
As I promised on Friday, here's the speech I gave at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass yesterday:

Thank you President Schapiro, and good morning everyone — dedicated faculty and staff, proud parents and, of course, graduates! I am honored to be a small part of this very big day.

Having heard so much about Williams and Williamstown from my brother-in-law Jim Batchelor — class of '72 — and from my sister, Clara, who left Smith to spend her junior year here (mostly because of Jim), it's as beautiful as they've described. It's no wonder Thoreau said after visiting here in 1844, "it would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain."

And after doing a little reporting, I've learned a lot about this school and its legitimate bragging rights as a college of firsts — the first to sponsor a scientific expedition, the first to build an astronomy observatory in America.

And Williams was the first school in the country to adopt the Oxford tradition of sporting caps and gowns at graduation — an effort to make the class more egalitarian. So it's because of Williams that hundreds of thousands of graduates this time of year will be sporting this figure-flattering, dress-it-up, dress-it-down ensemble.

And Williams, no doubt, is the first and last school in the country to adopt a purple cow as its mascot. I'm sure this bovine bruiser instills a tremendous amount of fear on the football field.

But I guess it doesn't matter, because I've learned that for the past three years the Ephs have been No. 1 nationally in both athletics and academics. By the way, I've got a hunch it might happen for the fourth time when the final Director's Cup standings are announced next week. (Aren't you impressed I know that?)

And when it comes to your mascot, who am I to mock you? At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, it's the Wahoo, a fish capable of drinking twice its weight — which, in retrospect, seems pretty appropriate.

First of all, congratulations are in order. And something else is in order, too. Please be sure to say two simple words to your parents after today's ceremonies: thank you. Thank them for their emotional — and financial — support. In most cases, it is because of them that you are here.

While it may be graduation season all over the country, it's important that you realize the vast majority of your contemporaries will never see their names in a program, or their diplomas on a wall.

Only about 28 percent of people your age earn a bachelor's degree. Almost half the people who go to college never graduate. So being here today is a major accomplishment, of course, but it's also a real privilege.

The world you're about to enter is so dramatically different than the one in which I graduated back in the Paleolithic era — you know, 1979.

Though you were raised on cell phones and Google searches, the way technology is transforming our lives is astounding.

Twenty-two percent of college students actually write their own regular blogs. MySpace has more than 67 million active members. The average American home has 26 different electronic devices for communication and media. Europe now has more cell phones than people. And today's average desktop has more computing power than it took to send men to the moon.

When I graduated, the first cell phone network was just getting set up in Japan. The year most of you were born, the first mobile phone call was placed in the U.K.

Today, 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have their cell phones with them 90 percent of the time. And Americans send 18.7 billion text messages every month. (I think my 15-year-old daughter may be responsible for 18.6 billion of them!) And the average child now spends 10 times more of her day staring at a computer or TV screen than reading a book.

While it's wonderful to have the world literally at our fingertips, the tsunami of information at our beck and call has the potential to drown us and actually make us less informed.

Is this technology leading to a kind of intellectual ADD that's increasing our breadth of knowledge but limiting our depth? Surfing the Web may be fast and fun, but sometimes pursuing knowledge requires you to go in the deep end — and not just dip your toe in the shallow water.

Technology is changing the way we get information — and changing the way we live and work.

Today, upward mobility requires constant mobility and availability. Working 9 to 5 is as obsolete as the old Dolly Parton song. So is working for one company for 30 years and retiring with a healthy pension and a gold watch. Between the ages of 18 and 40, the average American holds 10 different jobs.

So your generation faces a tougher environment, and tougher competition, than ever — and not just from Amherst graduates. (Everyone knows you can beat them!) The challenge is to beat the investment banker from Bangalore, the software programmer from Prague, the manufacturer in Manila.

Add to that the shadow of terrorism that's lurked since 9/11 and this unstable, interconnected world has never been a more complicated place — or, in many ways, a scarier one.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could tell you today. I've read plenty of graduation speeches.

One speaker — who became a big shot despite never having gone to college — told the graduates before him: "You've just wasted four years of your lives." Somehow I didn't think that was a good approach.

Russell Baker gave a particularly famous speech at Connecticut College entitled, "Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than It Already Is."

So what can I say today that might give you a helpful sendoff into the world? I came up with seven suggestions for the class of '07 — simple lessons that apply even in this increasingly complicated world.

No. 1: I highly recommend you all become members of the two-H club: hard work and humility. I read a book last year called "Generation Me" with the following subtitle: "Why today's young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled, and miserable than ever before."

The premise of the book is that this generation — those born in the '70s, '80s and '90s — have been raised by parents who taught them that they were special from birth just because they are, and not based on accomplishment or achievement.

In other words, self-esteem without portfolio. And they were told they could be anything they wanted to be.

But against the backdrop of the complicated, competitive world I just described, their high self-regard, high expectations, and sense of entitlement have set them up for frustration, anxiety, and disappointment.

As one social scientist put it, "this is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities." Ouch!

I guess my first piece of advice better be: "Defy labels." But there is something instructive here. There is no substitute for hard work, for doing well at the job you're in. When I made coffee and Xeroxed and distributed newspapers at ABC News, I thought my life was over. But I did it, I didn't complain and along the way, I learned a lot and was ready when a bigger job was around the corner.

These days, I'm told that attitude is so '90s.

The executive producer of the CBS Evening News said his biggest problem with young people is their hubris — those who think that after six months, they should be made full producers when they have neither the experience nor the expertise.

One CEO told me that if his company's youngest employees simply did what they're told and did it well, they'd automatically leap into the top 20 percent of their class.

In fact, a writer in Fortune magazine last month bemoaned the, "25-year-old colleague with two tattoos, a piercing, no watch, and a shameless propensity for chatting up the boss" and wondered "what is it with that guy?"

She went on to describe him as "at once a hipster and a climber, he's all nonchalance and expectation. He is new, he is annoying, and he and his female counterparts are invading corporate offices across America."

In that same article, another generational researcher sniffed, "this is the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world."

So no matter how much potential you think you have, a little humility will serve you well — and help you focus on doing your best in the job you've got, rather than plotting to get the job you think you deserve.

No. 2: Be passionate. Do what you love, even if you don't love it every minute. I knew I had to be a journalist because I'm deeply curious about the world. I love to write, and I saw that when properly practiced, it's a profession that can help galvanize an often- complacent citizenry, and make a difference. Think about Edward R. Murrow on Joseph McCarthy, and Walter Cronkite on Vietnam.

I decided to pursue a career that made me excited to get up in the morning. And that excitement sustained me through the long hours and the inevitable failures and disappointments.

When Steve Jobs was fired at age 30 from Apple Computers — the company he had started in his parents' garage — he said it was devastating to be a very public failure. He told the Stanford class of 2005 that he even thought about "running away from the valley."

But, he said, "something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over." In retrospect, he said, getting fired freed him to enter one of the most creative periods of his life.

You'll also be good at what gets you going. Don't settle for less — but be smart about your choices. According to a survey of 75 business leaders with Stanford MBAs, the most important predictor of success is self-awareness.

That means knowing — and accepting — your own strengths and weaknesses. In other words: Look at yourself honestly, understand your passions, your skills, your temperament, and your limitations. If you're a square peg, no matter how hard you and others try, you're just not going to fit very well into a round hole.

Pursuing something you love should be the first thing on your post-graduate to do list. But too often, that's not what drives young people as they look at their life goals. According to a recent survey, many say their top two priorities are, (1) being rich, and (2) being famous. Believe me, it's not all it's cracked up to be. And I know Williams grads are smarter than that.

But thanks to self-made YouTube productions, and so-called reality shows like "The Apprentice" and "Survivor," fame, even the fleeting Sanjaya-type, seems easier to attain — and more seductive than ever.

The proliferation of celebrity magazines makes Lindsay Lohan's latest stint in rehab seem more important than what's happening in Darfur.

The kind of fluff that accosts us on the newsstand may seem like harmless fun, but it should also come with a warning label that says it can rot your mind and distort your values.

As for the No. 1 goal in that survey: wealth, it comes back to passion. Remember, Bill Gates started Microsoft loving computers, not loving money.

I've interviewed hundreds of extremely successful people … and among those who are rich and famous; the vast majority made money and became prominent not because they pursued riches and fame but only as a side effect of doing what they love.

In fact, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has spent decades studying happiness, and he found that cash and contentment are almost completely disconnected.

Sure, having money gives you one less thing to worry about, but don't look to it as a magic bullet. Dr. Gilbert says that once your basic needs are met, the old adage really is true: Money can't buy you happiness.

Winning the lottery won't even give you a more positive outlook. According to Dr. Gilbert, six months after they hit the jackpot, lottery winners are only about as happy as they were before.

Happiness has much more to do with your basic constitution, your outlook on life, and loving what you do.

Whatever you do, don't choose a career that makes you say, "My job, Mylanta."

But to land that dream job, you'll need something else, which brings me to lesson No. 3: persistence.

When I was trying to get my first job out of college, I had my sights set on landing that entry-level position at ABC News in Washington. After weeks of calling and getting nowhere, I asked my mom to drive me to the bureau in our family's cream-colored station wagon and wait for me in the car.

I walked in the building and asked the physically imposing security guard if I could speak to the bureau chief. He asked if I had an appointment and when I said, "not exactly," he had a pretty good laugh.

Then I asked to use the phone in the waiting area, dialed the operator, and asked for David Newman, the executive producer of World News Tonight. Luckily, he picked up his own phone.

"Hi Davy," I said, "you don't know me, but your twin brothers Steve and Eddie went to high school with my sister Kiki, and I live down the street from your cousin Julie."

He listened patiently as I rambled on. After convincing him that we went way back, I asked him if I could come up and poke my head in the bureau chief's office. I think he was so befuddled that he said, "sure." I introduced myself to the bureau chief, who seemed impressed by my moxie and resourcefulness. I watched as he found my resume and moved it to the top of the pile, and I was hired two months later.

But let me just add: There is a fine line between persistence and being straight out annoying. Working someone's nerves too much won't get you very far.

I do know of countless examples, though, of persistence paying off both in getting the job you want and getting your goals accomplished.

My friend Tammi in Miami (it sounds like a sitcom) was desperately seeking a job in public relations with the Florida Marlins. After many unsuccessful attempts to make contact, she decided to burn her resume onto a baseball bat. Needless to say, she hit it out of the park.

When the students of Lehigh University wanted me to give their commencement address several years ago, I had a lot on my plate and wasn't sure I could do it. One morning, a whole slew of Lehigh kids showed up on the plaza at Rockefeller Center with signs saying, "Please Katie, speak at our graduation!" I committed then and there.

Persistence is critical. Being creative and persistent is even better.

The fourth quality that has served me well is resilience. And I know all of you will have to summon it at some point in your lives. As John Lennon wrote: "Life is what happens ... when you're making other plans." You will inevitably face disappointment, loss, and struggles that are, at this moment, inconceivable and impossible to predict.

I never could have imagined, in a million years, what happened to me. It was April 1997, spring was in the air, Ellen was coming out of the closet, and my healthy, handsome, hard-working husband, Jay Monahan, was doubled over in pain.

We went to the doctor and in a span of six hours our lives changed forever. Jay was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Our daughter Ellie was 5, and Carrie had just turned 1.

Through the next nine months, as I witnessed Jay's hellish journey through chemo, radiation, and the ravages of cancer, I was both inspired and in awe. His strength, his humor, and his uncommon grace will stay with me forever.

After Jay lost his battle, I knew I had to do something. Given a platform like the "Today" show, I thought it would be morally irresponsible not to educate millions of people about the No. 2 cancer killer of men and women in this country. If caught early, colon cancer has a better than 90 percent cure rate — but far too few people get screened.

After a series on colon cancer and my up-close and personal on-air colonoscopy (by the way, I feel very close to all of you now) — colon cancer screenings increased 20 percent, and medical researchers have actually called this "the Couric Effect."

If that is my legacy, and in absentia, Jay's, then I will feel that in addition to raising my two girls and being a devoted daughter to my parents, I have left a small imprint on the world by helping some people I'll never meet live longer, healthier lives.

On such a happy occasion this story may be a real "buzz kill." But I want you to be prepared to reach down deep and find the inner fortitude you'll need after disappointments big and small and the painful losses that are an inevitable part of life.

The subject of disappointment brings me to my fifth point: Be fearless. Have the courage to take risks. Go where there are no guarantees. Get out of your comfort zone. even if it means being uncomfortable.

The road less traveled is sometimes fraught with barricades, bumps, and uncharted terrain. But it is on that road where your character is truly tested and your personal growth realized.

There will be times when many of you will be tempted to play it safe. I could have stayed at the "Today" show for the rest of my career, but decided to take a leap of faith and accept the challenge of being the first solo woman anchor on an evening news broadcast. I have no regrets.

At times, it hasn't been easy. Unrealistically high expectations, unprecedented scrutiny, and what sometimes feels like a Greek chorus of naysayers rooting for me to fail — all of that has definitely tested my mettle.

But I have never felt stronger or more confident. And I know that I would have regretted not taking this chance of a lifetime. I hope that, when you feel it in your heart, you will also take a leap of faith and go for it.

You may have heard this before, but Theodore Roosevelt once wrote something that bears repeating: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcomings.

But who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Courage will be required of you on many fronts. Have the courage to seek the truth, and speak the truth, to stand up for the underdog, and to stand up against intolerance — even if yours is the lone voice doing so.

Have the courage to trust your gut and your own moral compass — your innate understanding of right and wrong. Have the courage to love fearlessly and unconditionally, and don't compromise that love because of pride or insecurity. And have the courage to accept that you're not perfect; nothing is, and no one is — and that's OK.

My sixth point is often the one that takes the longest to learn — although your generation seems to have gotten a head start: Helping others is more rewarding than helping yourself.

Dr. Gilbert, the Harvard happiness expert, has studies that prove that generous people are also happier people. And while I'm far from perfect, I know that whenever I've made the choice to serve others — whether it's raising money for cancer research or helping an old lady across the street — I've never regretted it.

People get involved in causes they care about. And you should never stop caring. In fact, give a damn. I use that harsh expression for a reason. When my sister came here for a year in 1970, it was the height of the anti-war movement, and student protests against Vietnam were taking place on college campuses across the country. One day, after she graduated, I was looking through a scrap book she kept, chronicling her college experiences as only a nerdy little sister would.

And I vividly recall a button from that tumultuous time that read: "Williams gives a damn." My points is: Keep caring about the environment, about politics, about the poor and disenfranchised, about women's rights.

Speaking of girl power, you female graduates have a particular responsibility to continue the work of the courageous women who started the feminist movement … no matter what path you take.

And remember, if you decide to stay at home and raise your children, it's a noble profession and important work. But before you give up your economic independence, make the decision with your eyes wide open.

And, by the way, support your sisters out there. As my friend Susan Estrich, a lawyer and political activist, said, "there's a special place in hell for women who don't support each other."

And never stop caring about others. Elie Wiesel once said, "the opposite of love isn't hate, the opposite of love is indifference." Hold on to the wonderful idealism you have about the world, and your ability to change it, for as long as you can, and if possible, for your entire lives. Tune out the cynics who tell you that you can't.

If all of these points fail, I highly recommend a couple of shots of Patrone with a Red Bull chaser. I hear it can really get you going! Just kidding!

Now the two most highly anticipated words in any graduation address: in closing ...

My seventh and final lesson is: Find the joy. Life goes by in an instant. In this fast-paced, crazy world, slow down enough to appreciate and revel in the many things you will experience — a baby's smile, the beautiful symmetry of a cherry blossom, the embrace of a comforted friend, the spectacular palette of a desert sunset.

In her "Short Guide to a Happy Life," Anna Quindlen wrote: "life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won't happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them and to live, really live."

And in a world that seems increasingly snarky and judgmental, be kind — be kind to your friends, be kind to your family, be kind to yourselves. And remember, just as you are, everyone really is just doing the best they can.

When I look out at you 559 graduates, the word that keeps popping into my head is "promise" — both definitions; not just promise meaning potential, but the other definition as well, promise as in a vow or pledge.

My fervent hope for each of you is that somehow your boundless potential will merge with the promise you make to yourself to strive for your unique definition of success … whatever that may be.

And while you're creating your definition of success, let me leave you with Ralph Waldo Emerson's. He said success is:

"To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;

To find the best in others;

To leave the world a little better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;

To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded."

Thank you very much, and good luck.
  • Katie Couric

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