By David Axelrod
May 20, 2016

Thank you, President Arnold, for your generous words, to Bill King and the board of trustees and to all of you for the invitation to be a part of these ceremonies today.

It’s an honor to speak on a campus that hosted one future president—Abraham Lincoln—and graduated another—Ronald Wilson Reagan, who crossed this stage, well maybe not this very stage, but one just like it—as a member of the Eureka class of 1932. President Reagan was a man of strong views, not all of which I shared.

But I always admired his understanding that in a democracy, compromise is an essential requirement for progress. It’s a powerful example I wish many in politics today would study and follow.

I also know something about Eureka’s tradition: Founded by abolitionists before the Civil War; the first college in Illinois—one of the first in the country- to admit women and men on an equal basis. There is a lot of history here top be proud of.

But I’m most proud and really humbled to be asked to join you, Class of 2016, on what will always be an historic day in your lives. My main goal here is not to screw it up!

I know these passages—these watershed moments in our lives—are emotional for everyone involved. I’ve been there.

As a parent, you’re filled with pride. But, if you’re like me, you’re also wondering: What happened to that little boy I carried on my shoulders? Wasn’t it just yesterday we dropped him off for freshman orientation, a wide-eyed kid, filled with anxiety? Who is this confident young man, striding across the stage? Where did the time go? I blinked and he was all grown up. And it tugs at your heart.

It’s a bittersweet day for you graduates, too. On the one hand, it’s one of the great occasions in your lives—the culmination of years of effort and achievement. It’s a very big deal.

Take it from a guy who finished five incompletes and four courses in my final quarter of college. My graduation was nothing short of a miracle.

On the other hand, it’s also a day for painful goodbyes to friends, faculty, and this warm and embracing Eureka College community. I remember my heart aching for my sons as we packed up the car and drove away, their college days receding in the rear view mirror.

So it’s a great day. But it’s also a tough day.

Commencements are a beginning, but also an end.

And I know, Class of 2016, that as you leave here today with your newly minted degrees and friendships and experiences you’ll cherish for a lifetime; as this important chapter of your life recedes into the rearview mirror; it’s natural to wonder, “What’s next? What should I do now? What will my future be?”

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For the first 21 or 22 years of your lives, your path was largely plotted out for you. But now it’s up to you to chart your own course, which is exciting, exhilarating—and more than a little frightening.

I know that some of you have already made plans. You’ve landed a job, which isn’t always easy. Or you’ve decided to take your education to the next level. Either way, good for you! Go for it, full throttle.

But I’m also sure that many of you are still thinking; still searching; still wondering what that next chapter might be. And I want you to know, that’s O.K., too. You’re probably getting a lot of advice to find a job that pays well or lends some sense of stability. You may be feeling a little pressure and anxiety, as if you’re somehow falling behind each day you wait to plot out your entire life.

So here’s my advice: Resist that pressure.

Embrace the glorious fact that as you march out of here today and into the future, you are as mobile and unfettered and free as you’ll ever be to try things out; to find your passion; to chase your dreams.

I’m pretty sure that Ronald Reagan didn’t hear Hail to Chief in his head the day he walked across the stage to grab his diploma. I’m just guessing, but the idea of someday becoming President of the United States could not have crossed his mind. In fact, after college he became a radio announcer, calling Cubs games off a tickertape machine. He went to Hollywood, became an actor and, later, president of the Screen Actor’s Guild. His first political campaign, for governor of California, came 34 years after he graduated from Eureka.

So here’s the lesson:

Don’t even try to plot where you’ll be in 30 years—because there’s no way to know.

And that’s truer today than ever. The changing nature of our economy over the past couple decades means that the traditional career path my parents knew—the starter job, the ladder-climbing, the gold watch when you retire—that path is now largely defunct. Many of you will experience multiple careers—perhaps even before you turn 30.

Of course, you have the responsibility to support yourself, and someday, perhaps, a family. And the degree you’ve earned today will help you lead a more comfortable life.

But that’s no guarantee of a happy and fulfilled life.

As you set out on that next chapter, I urge you to pursue your passions; to chase your dreams, to seek the things that will fill your heart and soul and not just your bank account.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Easy for you to say, man, you worked for the President of the United States. You’ve made it.” And that’s a fair point.

But I assure you; like Ronald Reagan, I had no plan that would lead me to the White House or all the things that experience has made possible.

What I had was a deep interest in the world around me, in politics, in writing. So even while I was still in college, I took some time off from school, went home to New York City, and knocked on 75 doors until I landed a job at a little community newspaper so down on its luck that they probably would have hired any eager soul who was willing to work for the $50-a-week they could afford to pay. When I returned to school in Chicago, I parlayed that into another community newspaper job, and then used my mounting stack of clips to get an internship that became a full-time job at the Chicago Tribune.

That was where my real education began. As a young reporter, I was underpaid and overworked—and loved every minute of it. I would have put in 25 hours a day if I could. I spent the first years of my career working around the clock, covering all manner of murder, mayhem and maniacs—many of whom were actually elected officials. But by the mid-1980s, journalism was changing. The businessmen began to take over the newsroom. The emphasis swung from veracity to velocity; from reporting to receipts. Belt-tightening squeezed out the passion.

Just then, I was presented with a new opportunity…a new career.

Here’s what I learned: No matter how well you think you have your life plotted out, it tends to veer towards the unexpected. So I’m not suggesting you don’t write one of those five-year plans like you’re told to. I’m just suggesting you do it in pencil.

I say this because right around then, a politician I greatly admired named Paul Simon asked me to join his campaign for the United States Senate. All I’d have to do was give up a great title, a steady column I’d earned, and a bright future at the Tribune. And I said yes.

One of my editors told me I’d destroyed my career. My friends told me I was nuts. My mother wouldn’t speak to me. But my heart told me it was time to chase new dreams.

I ended up the campaign manager, overseeing a 20-something staff that included a young guy named Rahm Emanuel. He had a way with words, too—though not all ones I would share in a commencement speech. And together, a team of young campaign warriors helped our candidate win a victory few thought possible.

We so enjoyed it so much that I decided to open a campaign media firm with a friend from the Simon team. It was an audacious idea, considering that neither of us had ever made an ad – and that, as a young father, I was financially more desperate than when I was looking for my first job.

My wife Susan and I had no money and two young kids, one with a severe chronic condition—epilepsy—that required frequent hospitalizations and created frequent chaos in our lives. We didn’t know if we’d make it or not.

But Susan encouraged me, like the saint she is, and we leveraged everything we had on that crazy dream. Over time, we won some races and won some causes—but we lost some, too. I’ve worked for mayors, Governors, Congressmen, Senators and even a President. I’ve gotten to see how politics and government work—and sometimes don’t work—from the outside and the inside. It was an incredible journey, filled with wonderful relationships and rich learning.

And the wildest part—the part I never anticipated—was that it turned out to be a pretty good living, too. You see, chasing your passion doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take a vow of poverty. I’ve worked hard all my life, but I’ve never called what I do a “job.” I’ve never gone to work grudgingly because I am passionate about my work.

But along the way, I learned something else.

As rewarding as work like that can be, it’s no substitute for friendships and family and the unconditional love they bring. These are things that no job can offer. That’s the second point I want to make—don’t get so swept up in your trajectory that you break free from your anchors. Don’t focus so heavily on making a living that you forget to make a life.

My career path and my family life ran up against one another in 1992, when I received a call from the campaign manager for Governor Bill Clinton, who was closing in on the Democratic nomination for president—back in the days when public service seemed like a prerequisite for the job. They asked me to come to Arkansas to become the campaign’s communications director. It was, I thought, the dream job.

But by then, Susan and I had three kids, and our daughter was still struggling every single day with epilepsy. Susan would have stood by me no matter what, I think, but I knew they needed me more than Bill Clinton did. And I remembered something Susan told me as I started my firm: “Don’t be the one who misses out on your kids growing up. Don’t be that one.”

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That recollection made the choice surprisingly easy. I said no. I said no to a job that promised a very bright future. Because when I weighed it against what was most important to me, it wasn’t even a close call. The one thing you can always count on—the only thing—is the love of your friends and family. Whether you win or lose, rise or fall; succeed or fail—and we all fail, at one time or another; family and friends are our home base. That’s what’s most sustaining.

Ronald Reagan was a very consequential president. But what many Americans who were around then remember is the deep and admirable bond between him and his wife, Nancy. They looked at each other with a love even a pair of Hollywood actors couldn’t fake.

So even as you seek your passion, and wherever you climb, leave time and room for those precious relationships. Keep time for your family. Hold tightly to the friends you’ve made. They’ll guide you through this next step in your journey and beyond. And when you find that balance between making a living and making a life, all of you will be very rich, no matter how much money you have in the bank. You’ll be happy, whether you’re a public celebrity or merely one in your own circle.

My parting thought—and one particularly worth making here, given Eureka’s history, is this: Whatever you choose to do with your life, don’t withdraw from your obligations to the larger community; or lose faith that each of us has the power to change the world in ways small and large.

Because in the end, I believe the greatest long-term challenge we face as a country isn’t the economy or inequality. It isn’t the specters of war or terrorism or climate change, as pressing as those are.

It’s cynicism; that disgust that turns good people away from the public square and cedes the decisions that will shape the future to caustic bloviators on talk radio and cable TV, Big Money special interests and shortsighted politicians.

Robert Kennedy, who was one of my heroes, said, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present.”

So as you look at the world around you, don’t just accept the future you get. You have the power and responsibility to help shape it.

And as dispiriting as our politics can sometimes be, what I’ve seen in you gives me hope.

Because your generation refuses to succumb to that cynicism.

You volunteer in more ways and higher numbers than ever before. You engage in new and exciting ways that most of us don’t understand unless we have a 25 year-old assistant who can explain it. You’re anxious for us to get out of the way so you can heal our politics; our people; our planet.

One of the most inspiring aspects of my journey with President Obama was the essential role young people played in his improbable election. It was people your age who built a movement house by house, block by block, town by town. It was people your age who toiled from before dawn to past midnight, worked for free, gave up good jobs to help. It was people your age who possessed an enthusiastic idealism the likes of which I hadn’t seen in American politics in forty years.

When pundits and pollsters and cynics and skeptics said Barack Obama couldn’t possibly win; it was people your age who said, “Yes we can.”

And through those efforts came health reform that has meant coverage for 20 million more Americans; essential investments that helped spawn the renewable energy industries of the future and other steps to slow the scourge of climate change; an end to centuries of discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans, a new commitment to diplomacy as a tool of American power.

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It was people your age who changed the world—just as it always has been.

That’s why I founded the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, to encourage more young people to grab that wheel of history and steer. I wanted to inspire and be inspired by young people like you, committed to the world around them. It’s another exciting and unexpected chapter in my life.

So in closing, Class of 2016, all I ask is that, whatever else you do, engage in the world around you. Keep inspiring us, right now, today more than ever. Commit your hands to restoring the public faith. Because before long; it will be the public’s faith in you.

That’s how you’ll all be measured—as graduates of this institution; as citizens of this nation; as representatives of this entire generation—by the future you make. So make us proud!

Congratulations, Class of 2016. I wish you all the happiness and hope in the world.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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