Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Meredith Vieira is a journalist and TV host.

Meredith Vieira gave this commencement speech at Boston University

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Members of the Class of 2015, parents, President Brown, trustees, honored guests, faculty, friends…

I find it so fitting that Boston University started out as a school of theology because today parents are saying, “Thank you God. We thought this day might never come.” After years of hard work and sacrifice, they sit here behind you clutching their tissues while beaming with pride. And all they want in return is a simple hug, an “I love you, mom, dad. Thanks.” My youngest, Lily, graduates from Northwestern in a few weeks, and that’s all I want. So this is a good day to show your parents how much you really appreciate them … and to hit them up for a loan while they’re still vulnerable.
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I didn’t attend B-U, but I believe my presence here today is kismet. Let me explain. Last February, after six long years and one blizzard delay, the terriers took back what is rightfully theirs … the beanpot. Alright, here’s the kismet part: When my mother was a little girl she had a Boston terrier named beans. When I was a little girl I was forced to eat franks and beans every saturday, and they made me feel sick to my stomach. Which is exactly how I feel right now. Kismet.

You see, I don’t normally give speeches, especially ones which require offering advice and inspiration. Just the thought of standing up here gave me such agita that I originally said no. But the person asking was my dear friend and illustrious BU grad Andy Lack … the new chairman of NBC news and MSNBC. So in the end, I couldn’t resist.

And, by the way, I fully intend to remind him of this in a few months when my contract comes up for renewal because at 61, I need the job security.

So here I stand, a nervous wreck, worried I’ll say the wrong thing and you’re going to end up years from now drowning your sorrows at tavern in the square. Wondering where’d we go wrong. Oh yeah, it all started with that damn commencement speech. Or perhaps even more humiliating, you won’t remember the speech at all, much less who gave it.

But that’s the future, this is now. And if I’m nervous maybe you are, too. Maybe you’re anxious about what comes next, feeling the pressure to have all the answers, to get it right, right out of the box.

Listen, you don’t know what’s about to hit you. And that’s the great thing about life: How boring would the journey be if you already knew for sure the final destination?

Listen, you’re terriers. When terriers go for a car ride, they don’t know where they’re going. They don’t care where they’re going. They stick their head out the window and let the wind rush over them and enjoy the ride.

That’s faith. Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. I never intended to become a broadcaster. It wasn’t even on my radar screen. When I was a senior in college I was a lost english major. Really, I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I took a course in radio reporting a few months before graduation. A visiting producer from CBS news, after hearing my voice on tape, pulled me aside and to my utter disbelief told me I had a future in broadcast journalism and offered me an internship at WEEI. For whatever reason, mostly because no one had ever told me something like that before, I said yeah, OK. I took that first step, albeit blindly, and it put me on the path to where I am today.

So if you haven’t found a job or decided on a career path yet, don’t freak out. Don’t let fear or frustration, or the fact that others around seem to be all set, immobilize you. But do, from this day forward, open yourself up to possibilities you might never have considered. Step up, step out of your comfort zone, consider saying “yes,” even when “no” feels much safer.

I’m not suggesting it’s going to be easy. Your journey forward comes with some built in stumbling blocks.

When my radio internship ended, the news director kept me on as his secretary for a few months while I tried to figure out my next move. A short stint reading news headlines at a top 40 station in Worcester made me question what I was doing and why. And then came the offer to be a weekend television reporter at WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island, my home town. It didn’t matter that I had no on air experience. It was 1976, and I filled a quota. Women and African Americans were suddenly in hot demand.

That is, until we were hired. And then almost no one rooted for us to succeed. I learned pretty quickly that the only way to gain repect would be to out work everyone else, to actually earn what I felt I was entitled to. That ethic has served me well, and I highly recommend it.

The fact is, your generation also has an entitlement problem. Fairly or not, a large number of businesses don’t want to hire you because they perceive you to be self entitled, lazy, high maintenance and disloyal. As a mother of three twenty somethings and host of a show where 30% of the staff are millennials, I know that’s bull. Sure I’ve met some kids who are full of themselves, but numbskulls span all generations, trust me. Most of the young people I know are incredibly hard working and extremely motivated.

As for loyalty, that’s a two-way street. It used to be you worked for a company for 50 years before retiring with a sendoff dinner and a fancy gold watch. Somewhere along the way, employers began to see their employees as replaceable widgets. Maybe you’ve seen it happen to your mom or dad. Maybe you’ve seen them struggle to balance home life with an inflexible work environment. Maybe you want something more, and I don’t blame you. Companies can’t expect your loyalty unless they inspire it.

However, you’re not off the hook. There is still no substitute for hard work and humility. And if you want to get your foot in the door, it helps to get your fingers off your smartphones, look people in the eye, engage. You want people to actually like you, not just give you “likes.” Ultimately, your future is in the hands of humans, not electronic devices. Unless, of course, people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak are right about artificial intelligence, in which case, we’ll all end up the family pets to some android.

As for you graduates who already know what you’re doing next, who have it all mapped out, don’t be so sure. Life is famous for throwing curve balls when you least expect them. My first big one came on a Friday afternoon. After about a year at WJAR, I’d decided, you know what, journalism might really be for me. I was happily typing up a story when my news director called me into his office, told me i didn’t have what it takes, and fired me.

I drove to my family’s home, flung myself across my bed and sobbed. That’s how my dad found me. When I explained what had happened he asked me one question,”Do you think you have what it takes?” I said “Yes.” To which he replied, “Then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.” There will always be people putting you down. There will always be people rooting for you to fail.

The following Monday, I went back to work and confronted that little weasel—I mean my news director—and I told him I planned to succeed no matter what he thought. I may have also pinned him up against the wall, like i said, he was little, but he gave me my job back on the spot. And that’s great that he did, but that’s not the point of the story. The point is: You have to believe in yourself or no one else will. In order to swim you have to drown out the naysayers.

You’re all smart or you wouldn’t be here today. I imagine you all strive for success and will undoubtably find it. But when you do, you just may discover it has nothing to do with how much money you make, or how big a house you live in, or how prestigious your job might sound to someone else.

I thought I had found success in 1989 when, after several years in the business, I arrived at 60 minutes. I had just had our first son, Ben, and here I was at the only job i had ever truly coveted. I quickly became the media’s poster woman for having it all. Except the only thing I had was a constant knot in my stomach. When I was traveling the world covering stories, I literally ached for my child.

When I was home, I felt guilty not hanging around the corridors of CBS and chatting up my boss Don Hewitt. Eventually something had to give. I became pregnant with our second son Gabe, and Don and I immediately butted heads over which baby should take precedence, his baby “60 minutes” or mine.

I remember sitting across from him when I suddenly had a flashback: Several years earlier, while still single and working my way up the ladder I had grabbed drinks with a seasoned and respected female producer. After probably one too many, she confided in me that her biggest regret was never marrying or having children. Something she couldn’t admit publicly—it just wouldn’t look good—but she had given everything for her job, including herself.

Flash forward: Don probably thought I’d had one too many when I abruptly ended our heated conversation. I believe the words I uttered as I walked out the door were “I’m out of here.” Not very mature, but, that night I slept like a baby as the knot in my stomach unraveled.

The fallout was fast in coming. On the one side I had people, mostly women, who were furious with me for destroying their dream of having it all, for setting back the cause of feminism. On the other side were those who called me brave for taking a stand for motherhood. In fact neither entered into my thinking when i quit. I left because it was the right decision for me and me alone.

There’s a reason i’ve always loved Robert Frost’s poem “The road not taken” because I think he was on to something. Following the road less travelled really does mean making all the difference. Heck, I’m still forging my own way, trying to balance work and family.

Throughout your life you will have to set your own priorities, make your own decisions. They won’t always be the best or brightest ones. But that’s how you learn. And come to understand who you really are and what matters to you. I have to tell you, I’ve known plenty of people who have sacrificed their values for instant gratification. Do that enough and you’ll lose yorself. Only authenticity will keep your head on straight and your feet firmly planted. So don’t strive for somebody else’s notion of perfection. It’s an unattainable and ultimately ridiculous goal. Strive instead to be uniquely yourself. And, when in doubt, listen to your gut, because it already knows what you want to become.

We’re so conditioned to think in terms of the big job, the big salary, in the case of journalism, the big scoop, that we sometimes forget to see the big picture. That came into focus for me on the campus of another college, Virginia Tech, just days after the tragic shooting there in 2007. As co-host of the Today Show, i was part of the team sent to cover the story. It was during a campus candlelight vigil for the 32 victims when a young coed in tears approached me and asked if I would hold her. She was scared and needed a parent’s embrace. And because I had come into her home every morning, I was the closest thing available to her in that moment. As it turned out we held each other and cried together. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life that put everything else into perspective. “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

But I may be preaching to the choir here. In the past four years, you’ve all learned a great deal about perspective, both in and outside the classroom. You lost 10 fellow students in one calendar year. That’s not supposed to happen. It goes against the natural order of things. It’s never easy to face the fragility of life. You’ve been forced to confront it at a very young age. And as painful as it is, you leave this university understanding better than most that every day truly is a blessing, never to be squandered or taken for granted.

It was a BU graduate student Lu Lingzi who lost her life along with two other innocent people on a beautiful April day in your sophomore year while watching the Boston Marathon. I doubt you will ever forget where you were when those two backpacks exploded a few miles from here and knocked a city to its knees. But the initial hurt and horror gave way to something much more powerful. Boston Strong. You held each other for support and rose back up together. I may live in New York, but our city was a sea of Boston baseball caps in the weeks that followed. And when the Red Sox clinched the World Series that fall, the entire nation cheered. Yes, you bore witness to the worst of mankind. But you also experienced the best. And you will carry that with you forever. You’ve learned what it means to be resilient, to stand side by side against any adversity. You were part of Boston Strong, and it will always be part of you.

So now you’re off. And I have a few final words of practical advice. Don’t ever lose your enthusiasm. Don’t suddenly become self conscious. Don’t be that person who puts on a suit and takes off his glasses mid sentence like this because he thinks it makes him look smart. Trust me, unless you’re the incredible CBS correspondent Ed Bradley, who was really cool, or maybe a TV lawyer. It looks good for them. But with everyone else, it’s just affect.

Stay away from affects. Better yet, be the left shark. Remember last super bowl, when the Patriots won? You may be thinking of Tom Brady’s deflated balls right now, but i’m thinking of Katy Perry’s half time performance. She was on stage dancing with two sharks. The shark on the right knew every dance move and performed perfectly. But it was the left shark, the one who went rogue and danced to his own crazy beat, who stole the show. So don’t ever be a conformist for convenience sake. Or as Mark Twain put it, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

Be the left shark.

And while I’m on the subject of water creatures, there’s an expression they use a lot in the news business. “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.” Unless it’s been auto corrected (and then were all ducked!). The message here is pretty simple: Life isn’t all that complicated. Things are what they are. Don’t read into everything. Just do your best and try to do no harm.

So here are my hopes for the graduates of 2015.

When you take off your cap and gown today, I sincerely hope you have clothes on underneath.

But I also hope you realize that just learning to navigate college fosters a quality social scientists call “grit.” It means when you fall down, and you will, you will dust yourself off and keep going.

As you travel through life I hope you leave deep footprints behind, not as a result of all the people you’ve stepped on to get ahead, but rather as a result of all the lives you’ve lifted along the way.

And 20 or 30 years from now, I hope you’re sitting where your family is today, clutching tissues and beaming with pride, remembering your own graduation and thinking, you know that commencement speaker wasn’t half wrong, whatever her name was.

Congratulations and good luck.

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to Grads: ‘This Is the World We Were Born Into, and We Are Responsible for It’

Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

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