Katie Couric gave this commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin–Madison+ READ ARTICLE
Thank you so much, Annie, Chancellor Blank, Wisconsin Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family members, friends, distinguished guests and of course, the class of 2015!
What a day! I absolutely love graduations, and I’m so thrilled and honored to be here as you literally commence, or begin, this new chapter in your lives. I know you must be feeling so many things right now: relieved, excited, sad, nervous; maybe a little bit sleepy, perhaps a tad hung over. But I hope most of you are feeling proud, lucky and grateful.
Proud that after four or five (or more) years of blood, sweat and perhaps a few tears, sleepless nights and sheer determination, you’ve done it! Whether that meant stressing through classes like O-Chem, Psych 101, Weather and Climate or coasting through others – ballroom dancing and Hans Christian Andersen, anyone? – take a moment, take it in, and give yourselves a pat on the back.
Lucky, because unlike so many people your age, you’re about to be handed a college diploma and that gives you a serious leg up. It translates to lower unemployment, higher paying jobs and a better safety net in a sometimes bumpy economy.
And lucky because your diploma is from one of the finest universities in the country. As a proud graduate myself of UVA, I know firsthand the enormous value of public institutions. They award 1.2 million degrees every year and 60 percent of the country’s bachelor’s degrees. State schools are the heart and soul of our nation, and we so need the brainpower that is ignited on these campuses.
So while the rest of the world – including our fiercest global competitor, China – is racing to imitate our public education system, we cannot afford to tear ours down… and I hope I’m saying that loud enough for the politicians down the road to hear me!
And finally, I hope you all are grateful, as Chancellor Blank said, because most of you would not be sitting here today without the love, support and generosity of your parents, family members or someone who truly cares… the people who cheered you on and kept you going… and though we already did it, let’s give them another round of applause.
Meanwhile, what a place! Whether you were trudging up Bascom Hill, rubbing Abe’s toe before that difficult and scary exam, staring out at Lake Mendota, letting your Freakfest flag fly on Halloween, heading to College (a.k.a. the library) to study (a.k.a. socialize), “Jumping Around” in Camp Randall, there are so many wonderful memories you’ll be packing up and taking with you along with your comforters, bulletin boards and shower caddies. Hashtag #blessed.
In fact, to get a taste of life here on campus, last night I decided I would repaint the town red… starting with a pitcher of Spotted Cow on the Terrace, followed by a burger at the Nitty Gritty. After I stalked Frank Kaminsky at the KK, I headed to Brats for dancing, cheese curds and of course, a few brats, and I topped it off with a slice of mac and cheese pizza from Ian’s. Well, luckily for me, Walgreens on State Street was still open so I could buy an industrial size bottle of Rolaids.
TBH, people (“to be honest,” parents), eating this way was never going to last forever. The loudest cheers I think you’re hearing today aren’t from your families… they’re actually from your arteries.
And what a year! Talk about ending your college experience on a high. I’m sure many of you will never forget that NCAA championship game: hearts in your throat, losing your mind in the Grateful Red or at the KK, Badger blood pulsing through your veins.
And by the way, it was clear to me that Justise Winslow’s finger deflected the ball, and that should have gone to Wisconsin! Duke may have won the game, but Frank the Tank Kaminsky and Josh “Captain America” Gasser stole our hearts. So thank you guys for an unforgettable tournament, and for being such fine human beings. (I stalked him, but I never met him, so maybe I will after my speech.)
And while we’re at it (I’m such a groupie…), let’s give a big shout-out to the football team for winning the Outback Bowl and the kickass women’s hockey and volleyball teams. Ladies out there… respect.
But even if you never wore a Wisconsin jersey, even if Bucky Badger didn’t pump up the crowd for you personally, everyone sitting here today deserves props for staying on course, getting to the finish line and setting your personal best.
Gee, I don’t want to leave, and I only got here yesterday! But unfortunately for all of us, we can’t stay in college forever. So: where do you go from here?
The world you’re entering bears little resemblance to the one I faced when I graduated in 19 – cough cough – excuse me!
We are in the midst of breathtaking, head-swiveling change, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution – and technology is the engine that’s powering it. It’s changed the way we bank, shop, drive or don’t drive, cook, commute, communicate, date, navigate, educate, translate – you get the picture!
“Disruption” has become the operative word, and it’s completely upended the American workplace. It’s shifted where we work, when we work, how we work and what we want from work. It’s given birth to thousands of new businesses and enterprises, and utterly transformed preexisting ones like medicine, education and, yes, journalism.
Like that Super Bowl BMW ad said, some big ideas take a little getting used to – thank God I had Allison to explain what Internet is back in 1994!
But as the first generation of digital natives, I can’t think of any group better suited, or better equipped to surf this unparalleled sea change than you. After all, you’ve gone from “Reader Rabbit” to SnapChat. You’re so good at going with the flow that adaptability has become part of your DNA and that now-almost-innate skill will continue to serve you well.
The notion of getting hired by one company, climbing the corporate ladder and retiring after 40 years with a gold watch and a pension seems as antiquated as Don Draper and the three martini lunch.
According to one projection, millennials will average 15 to 20 jobs before they retire and move positions an average of every three to four years. Today’s career ladder looks more like an Escher drawing. Which one do I choose? How do I start? Where will it lead me? There are 6,936 different paths that will be taken by you, the class of 2015.
But there are some enduring principles and timeless values that will guide you on your journey, whether you’ve mapped out your future or you’re still looking for directions.
Too often, graduates rely on serendipity to lead them to the right job… and end up stumbling into a career.
Now is the time to consider all the infinite possibilities with introspection, deliberation and thoughtfulness. Visualize the road ahead. Think about what excites you, what really gets your engine going. Engage in some real soul searching. Take a good, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. A fulfilling professional life can be found at the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at. And when you think you’ve discovered it, go at it full throttle.
Explore. Talk to people. Pick their brains. Do your homework. Finding the right work takes work… and time.
But don’t wait forever to find your bliss, or you may find yourself at 30 living in your parents’ basement eating microwave popcorn and binge watching reruns of “The OC.” And while it might be nice to have your mom make your favorite casserole or do your laundry, don’t wait too long to get going. As Einstein said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
In her book, “The Defining Decade,” Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist and professor at my alma mater, writes that 80 percent of life’s most defining decisions are made by the time you turn 35. And the first 10 years of a career has an exponential impact on how much money you’ll make in your lifetime. She says that your twenties shouldn’t be a developmental downtime but a developmental sweet spot.
A friend of mine asked his daughter, a recent college grad, “What is your best first job out of college?” His answer: “Any job.”
Get your rears in gear, and at some point take a job, even a less than perfect one… because it will teach you about responsibility, initiative, follow through, how to deal with a demanding boss or an annoying co-worker. It could lead to a better job, open your eyes to something else, or – just as importantly – tell you what you DON’T want to be doing.
So don’t drift through your twenties. Use every stop along the way as a chance to make an investment in the person you want to become.
But how do you distinguished graduates distinguish yourselves from the millions who will be pounding the pavement, just like you? My mom’s expression to her four children was, “Let ‘em know you’re there!” Needless to say she did not raise shrinking violets. You got to get out there and get yourself noticed. And that takes chutzpah, moxie… or cojones.
I guess that’s a good transition to my husband John, who found a way to rewrite the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
After he graduated from college, he applied for a job at a well-known investment firm. He made it through several interviews, but he did not make the final cut. So after he got that “thanks, but no thanks” phone call, he called the executive in charge of recruiting. He asked if he could come in and talk about why he didn’t get the job.
The man paused and invited John to his New York office. “Your academic record was strong, but not as strong as some others. You should have taken accounting and business classes… I’m not sure why you majored in history. You didn’t distinguish yourself as a leader.”
He told John all these things, and John listened to his critique, talked about the choices he had made and why he made them, thanked him and left.
When he got to the lobby, he realized he’d forgotten his raincoat. When he went back to retrieve it, he ran into that same recruiter who told him, “Hey, I was just going to call you. We’ve reconsidered. We’d like to offer you that job.”
John had the confidence to ask for that meeting and a genuine, sincere interest in hearing that kind of no-holds-barred assessment.
And for those of you who have already landed a job, you need to remember my mom in that situation as well. Let ‘em know you’re there, too, and have the confidence to contribute.
When I was 22, I was working as a desk assistant at ABC News. I knocked on the door of Don Farmer, who was a correspondent for 20/20, and presented him with a list of ten story ideas. I don’t think he actually did any of them, but I could tell he was a little surprised and kind of impressed. He noticed, and when he later moved to CNN to do a two-hour news show, he tapped me to be his associate producer.
Confidence, though, can easily morph into hubris. So make sure that moxie comes with a big dose of humility. Be humble enough to know what you don’t know. Every day you should be learning, observing, asking questions. Like “What more can I do?” Or “How can I help?” Consider no task beneath you. As Queen Rania of Jordan once said, “If you’re too big for a small job, you’re too small for a big one.”
Don’t be afraid to take risks. When I left the Today Show to anchor the CBS Evening News, I remember a note given to me by a colleague. It said, “A boat is always safe in the harbor, but that’s not what boats are built for.”
After 15 years of sleep deprivation, I was ready for a new challenge, and I jumped at the opportunity to be the first female solo anchor of a network newscast. I thought it was about time. After all, when I started in television some 36 years ago, women were mostly secretaries or production assistants. In those days, “harass” was two words, and not one. (That usually takes a minute to sink in.)
When I made the move to CBS, there were plenty of naysayers, both inside and outside of the network. Some claimed I lacked gravitas, which I later discovered is actually Latin for “testicles.”
While it wasn’t always easy being in the crosshairs, I gave it my all, and to this day I am very proud of the work I did, especially during the 2008 election.
So I guess I’m a poster child for putting myself out there. Because after CBS I decided I wanted to tackle serious issues on a daytime talk show – as if. But I’m grateful for that experience, too.
And feeling the terra firma of TV news shift beneath my feet a year ago, I decided to go to Yahoo and dive into the world of digital media. It’s exhilarating to transition to a new environment, where I can wear a hoodie and eat free Pop Chips, and learn new words like “matrixing,” “whiteboarding” and “iterate.”
I’m having a ball profiling global game-changers and innovators, producing explainers on everything from Benghazi to GMOs, and conducting in-depth interviews – a rarity in TV these days – with a whole range of fascinating people.
I’ve talked to John Kerry about ISIS, Ruth Bader Ginsberg about Hobby Lobby, the Fat Jewish about bacon and Steve Aoki about EDM. Who knew?
But decades out of college, I am still getting an incredible education! Because life is all about learning new things, and being open to new ideas, no matter how old you are!
Of course, the flip side of getting out of your comfort zone is that it can make you uncomfortable. And you can fall flat on your face.
But it’s amazing to me how many stories of success include one word: failure.
Experiencing setbacks, disappointments and, yes, failure helps you develop another essential skill. And that’s resilience.
My generation is often accused of over-parenting, overprotecting and overpraising. Guilty as charged. We want the best for you, but as a result, we had a hard time letting you fail… at anything. And although we’d like to continue to protect you, the truth is… we can’t. And we shouldn’t. The most supportive thing we as parents can do is remember that our job is to give you roots and wings. We need to clear you for takeoff and let you fly.
There’s undoubtedly going to be some turbulence. You will face painful setbacks, crushing disappointment, bruised egos and broken hearts. But as Winston Churchill (who incidentally failed the entrance exam for the Royal Military College not once, but twice, and barely eked by the third time) said, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.”
What’s another important ingredient to a productive life? Two words: hard work. That’s the secret sauce for success. So defy the stereotype that young people today are entitled and expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. You have to earn it. And you have to be patient.
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. Time spent leads to experience; experience leads to proficiency; and the more proficient you are the more valuable you’ll be.
When I interviewed Sully Sullenberger after he landed that plane on the Hudson, he told me something I’ve never forgotten. “For 42 years,” he said, “I’ve been making small, regular deposits into the bank of experience. On Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a sudden, large withdrawal.”
On that bitterly cold day in New York City, timing, commitment, hard work and experience all came together in the cockpit of USAir Flight 1549, and 155 lives were saved.
And under the heading of “The harder you work, the luckier you get…” When I decided I wanted to be an on-air reporter in the early ‘80s, I wasn’t ready for prime time. I wasn’t ready for any time. I was awful.
So awful that after my first live shot from the White House, the president of CNN called and told me he never wanted to see me on television again. (I know. Awkward!) I can’t say I blamed him. But I kept at it! And I got better. I went from local news to covering the Pentagon and by the time I was offered the job co-anchoring the Today Show, I was ready.
So work hard. And then work even harder.
That may mean giving up a Saturday, skipping that happy hour, waking up early. There may be days when you’ll say to yourself, “I can’t. I literally can’t even.”
But you can! You can even!
But a successful life isn’t just about what career path you’re on, or what milestone you’ve met, or what the numbers are on your direct deposit. Success is about becoming the kind of person you want to be.
In his new book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks talks about résumé virtues vs. eulogy virtues. In a companion column, he wrote, “We all know that eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than how to build internal or inner character.”
We spend so much time these days, I think, looking for external validation – with our carefully crafted Instagrams, clever postings, perfect pictures, counting our likes, favorites, followers and friends – that it’s easy to avoid the big questions: Who am I? Am I doing the right thing? Am I the kind of person I want to be? – the kind of honest self-examination that truly fuels personal growth.
After researching the subject, Brooks came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born. They’re the people who exude honesty, integrity, compassion and generosity.
I thought about eulogy virtues when my friend Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly a few weeks ago. As the tributes poured in, I noticed the fact that he was the CEO of a big tech company was almost an afterthought. “Caring and kind, a great mentor and role model… the sweetest friend,” people wrote. They talked about what an incredibly loving and supportive husband and father he was. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo described him as “one of the truly great people on the planet… of almost unimaginably remarkable character.” Journalist Kara Swisher wrote he was a mensch, adding, “That is exactly the word you would use to describe Dave: a Yiddish term that means a person of integrity and honor, a stand-up guy, someone to admire and emulate, a rock of humanity.”
Make no mistake about it: Dave Goldberg was a very successful guy. But his professional accomplishments pale in comparison to the loving words that flowed when they were describing him as a human being.
So I’ve just given you a lot of conflicting advice. I’ve told you to really think about what you want to do… but don’t overthink it.
I’ve told you to get out there and show them what you’ve got… but don’t be a show-off.
I’ve told you not to be afraid of failure… but that means you might fail.
I’ve told you the value of hard work… but the importance of working hard on your values.
But there’s one thing that truly has no flip side. No paradox. And that’s discovering a life of purpose and meaning, which is the crucial underpinning of that sometimes-elusive condition known as happiness.
Mine was born of tragedy almost 18 years ago. I had a wonderful husband, two healthy little girls who were one and three. Jay and I loved our jobs, each other and our lives.
Then suddenly, out of the blue, he was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.
He was 41 years old. What followed were nine months of reckoning. Searching for answers, searching for treatments, searching for hope. Searching, ultimately, for acceptance. Less than a year after that heart-stopping, life-shattering diagnosis, Jay was gone. And so was the future we had taken for granted.
It took time to regain my sense of equilibrium. But from the terrible abyss of loss and longing, I found my purpose.
As a TV journalist, I had a bully pulpit, and I knew I had to use it: to educate people about this number two cancer killer of men and women. Even if that meant getting a colonoscopy on the Today Show. And I knew I had to do more, by bringing scientists and cancer researchers, the unsung heroes of our nation, together to collaborate, not compete, so more progress can be made for all cancer. And that is our mandate at Stand Up To Cancer.
Among all the things I’ve done during the course of my career, I am proudest of my work as a cancer advocate.
Sometimes you find your calling… and in my case, my calling found me.
Muhammad Ali once said, “Service is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Giving back, caring about something greater than yourselves: that’s been ingrained in all of you today.
Take the Wisconsin Idea and spread it far and wide wherever you go. There are a world of problems just waiting for you to solve. Many will be around the block in your own neighborhood. And I have so much faith in you, because you’ve already shown you’re ready to tackle some big, messy issues.
You are the engineers of social justice. You’ve shown you care about what happens in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and Madison.
You’ve shown you care about gay rights, women’s rights and human rights.
You believe every child in this country should have access to a quality education. All people should be able to lift themselves out of poverty and have a chance to grab their piece of the American dream.
You care about the environment, and I know you’ll do a better job of protecting it than we have.
And as the most diverse generation in history, you will witness and embrace the dynamism and vibrancy of a pluralistic society: a beautiful patchwork of people, with unique perspectives but shared goals.
Keep asking questions. Keep demanding change. But remember: activism can’t truly lead to lasting, meaningful change without dialogue, even with those with whom you may disagree.
It goes by so fast. Just ask your parents, who are probably thinking about the day they brought you home from the hospital. I don’t want you to miss a thing.
Social media can be a great thing: giving voice to the voiceless, uniting people across the globe in a common cause. But proceed with caution. Constant connectivity can leave you feeling isolated and disconnected. Do not be seduced by the false intimacy of social media. Comfort and support can be found in online communities, but they cannot replace the humanity of real ones.
There’s no substitute for a real conversation with a real friend that requires real empathy. There’s no replicating a chance to take a walk with a grandparent who’s not always going to be there. There’s nothing like being in the moment, even when that moment isn’t captured or shared.
Life is too exciting and wonderful and intense and insane and just plain fun to have your nose buried in a screen for hours on end.
I used to tell graduates that no one on their deathbed ever said, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.” The 2015 version of that should be, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time on my iPhone.’”
And remember: words have power. Anonymity may be the new phenobarbital, and while digital snark – trolling, trashing, mocking and ridiculing, judging and hating – may make you feel temporarily superior, it hardens your heart and corrodes your soul.
So tweet responsibly. And while I’m on a tear: don’t text and drive. Seriously. No text is worth your life.
They say when making pancakes, painting a picture or giving a commencement address, know when to stop. So get out there, class of 2015!
Be bold, be humble, be brave, be resilient, be productive, be good, good to yourselves and good to each other. Be careful; be caring.
And even though you’ll be leaving Madison behind, know you’ll always be a Badger. And whether you like it or not… I’m now one too.
Congratulations, thank you, and On Wisconsin!
Katie Couric is a television journalist and news anchor for Yahoo News.
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