Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High

Mellody Hobson gave this commencement speech at the University of Southern California

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What an amazing day! Congratulations to the USC Class of 2015 and to all those who celebrate and champion them!

I want to start by asking all the graduates to look up at the sky. Now imagine you’re 24 miles up floating in a lightweight capsule and it took a giant helium balloon over two hours to get you there. Now that you are there, the only way back to earth is to jump. Insane, right? Except in 2012, parachutist Felix Baumgartner put himself in this exact situation.

Felix could see the curve of the earth as he considered his next move. And if you watch the video, you hear his ground crew tell him to disconnect the two oxygen supply hoses attached to his pressurized suit. Moments pass. Felix doesn’t move. Finally, someone repeats the command: “Disconnect your oxygen.” So why did Felix hesitate?
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I think most of you know. In fact, I would say that sitting 24 miles up is not that different from where you are sitting today. Graduating from college is a major transition. You may be excited. You may be eager. And like Felix, you may also be scared. The world may look bigger than it ever looked before. And you feel smaller than you’ve ever felt before. Those of you graduating today know why Felix hesitated. It’s not because he wasn’t brave. It’s because you can’t be brave without fear.

So despite a racing heart and extremely sweaty palms, Felix did disconnect from his oxygen supply. He placed his faith in his preparation and his parachute. And just like you are doing today . . . he jumped into the great unknown.

Did Felix make it? Let’s leave him in free fall for now and come back to him. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be here—on solid ground—with all of you. I want to thank President Nikius for his kind introduction and congratulate my fellow honorary degree recipients. I also want to welcome the distinguished faculty and enthusiastic alumni of USC as well as all the proud relatives, and supportive friends.

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Today, we are all one big Trojan family. Now some of you were born into the Trojan family. Some of you chose the Trojan family. I married into it. I remember the first time my husband George Lucas showed me around campus. First stop was the film school. Obviously. Then we attended a football game.—Okay, not “a” game. THE game. Against “Westwood High.” Now I went to college back East where Ivy League football is mostly cold and boring. This game was neither. I cheered the entire time. I was amazed that your mascot was a real horse. Later, I learned that’s not the original Traveler and I thought, “What a nice tradition, but wouldn’t it make more sense to replicate Pete Carroll?”

I am truly grateful to now have my very own degree from USC. I cherish this honor as well as the opportunity to speak to you. Preparing for today made me think about my own college commencement 24 years ago. Our speaker was a highly-esteemed leader who spoke at length about . . . Honestly, I can’t remember a word he said. He may have actually divulged the meaning of life but I was so excited and nervous to be moving on that I couldn’t focus. And I didn’t even have texting as an excuse back then. It’s just my brain was going a mile a minute in anticipation of the next chapter. I’m sure many of you are feeling the same way right now. And so in 24 years, I give you permission not to remember anything I said . . . except three words. Come on, three words isn’t a lot. And they are:

Just. Add. Bravery.

Let me be clear about what I mean by bravery. To me, being brave means that even when you know an action could end badly, you still forge ahead. Now there’s supersized bravery—the kind that compels a relatively sane person to jump from 24 miles up. There’s also bite-sized bravery, which requires smaller but equally important leaps.

It was bite-sized bravery that compelled you to take that Applied Mathematics class. Or speak up in section when everyone agreed but you knew they were all completely missing the point. Or stick your neck out to support a friend in need—or even a stranger. Bravery was taking that last shot at the buzzer. Bravery was not one, but two women running for president of the USC student council.

Bravery allows us to push beyond the boundaries that hold us back from having the lives we want. For some of you, these boundaries may be imposed by your family. In this regard, I was lucky. I was the youngest of six kids raised by a single mom in Chicago. We didn’t always have enough money for rent, and when things got really tough, we would get evicted—which was a lot.

Okay, that’s not why I was lucky. Here’s why I was lucky. In spite of some harsh realities, my mother never gave up, and she made sure we didn’t either. Even when my childhood was filled with my mother’s brutal pragmatism—we also received her unconditional love and encouragement. What mattered most were the words she spoke almost every day when she said: “Mellody, you can be—or do—anything.” It was because of those words that I loved school more than anything and would wake up at the crack of dawn to study. I still do. And it was because of those words that I dreamed the biggest dreams.

I hope you also have your family’s support as you follow your talents and dream your own dreams. You might also need bravery to push past the boundaries imposed by cultural stereotypes. When I was a little girl taking public transportation to school, I doubt other passengers were thinking, “There goes the future president of an investment management firm with eleven billion dollars in assets.” They might have thought that if they’d spent five minutes talking to me. But I’m going to guess that expectations were not running high.

I hope we can get better at judging people not on assumptions and appearances, but on actions and achievements. And here’s the best way to do this: The same way I urged you to believe that you can be anything, I want you to believe that’s true of anyone and everyone.

You see, at college, you have a fair amount of control over your social interactions. You get to decide who to sit next to in class or who to room with . . . In the next phase of your life you probably won’t be able to decide who occupies the adjacent cubicle at work. You could be stuck next to someone who you have absolutely nothing in common with. And in my view, that’s a great thing.

It’s so easy to get trapped in a self-selected subset of humanity. And, yes, it feels comfortable; but it’s also confining. There’s a whole world out there. Why limit yourself to the familiar? Make an effort to step outside your circle. Do more than just accept diversity: seek out diversity. I promise it will make you more interesting, more informed and more understanding.

And there’s another benefit: when you have the courage to expand your world, you expand the entire world because tolerance scales. Person by person, we can end stereotypes and remove barriers to opportunity. Although this change begins with awareness, it doesn’t end there. We need action. And the way to move from awareness to action is to . . . just add bravery.

Which brings us back to Felix. After leaping into the great unknown, he went into free fall. All went well.

For seven seconds.

By the eighth second, Felix had accelerated to six hundred miles an hour, and began to spin. Violently. He was still in an uncontrollable spin when he broke the sound barrier. Turns out the most terrifying part was not the leap; it was not being sure that he could find his bearings and right himself.

Once again, Felix offers a perfect metaphor for post-college life. Each of you will head off on a unique path. You may have different goals, but there is one thing you will all have in common: it’s one hundred percent certain that every single one of you will face challenges. You will spin out. And you will struggle to right yourself.

And you know the best way to confront life’s inevitable struggles? I’ll give you a hint. It’s those same three words. Just add bravery. And that won’t always mean charging the hill, fist in the air. Sometimes it will mean not charging the hill.

This year, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma when people of all faiths walked for five days to the Alabama State Capitol to demand the passage of the Voting Rights Act. What is less well known—except perhaps to the American Studies majors—is that there were three attempts to get to Montgomery.

The first time, six hundred peaceful protestors were attacked with tear gas and nightsticks as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The second effort was led by Martin Luther King Jr. Once again confronted by hostile state troopers, Dr. King asked the marchers to kneel in prayer before crossing the bridge. When they rose, he told them to turn back. They were shocked. You see, sometimes restraint takes bravery.

Sixteen days later, with court-ordered federal protection in place, Dr. King completed the fifty-four mile walk accompanied by 25,000 marchers.

And now let’s return to Felix in his violent death spin. Fifty seconds into the jump, he was falling at 844 miles an hour—or as the Physics majors know—Mach one-point-two-five. Working systematically and using his years of training, he managed to slow the spin and gain control. How he did this is unimportant since none of us is likely to be in his position. But what we can all take away is this: when you feel yourself spinning out at supersonic speeds, keep your wits about you and rely on your preparation.

Five minutes later, Felix landed on the ground, safe and sound except for a few bruises and a slight case of whiplash—basically the equivalent of a fender bender on Exposition.

And I hope wherever you land, you too wind up successful, happy and proud to have done something unique. And if you can’t see a clear path to your dreams, I can offer three equations that will help you get there. It’s simple math that even the students who took the Selfie Class can understand.

Equation number one: Hard work plus bravery equals . . . success.

However you define success, set your sights high. Be a hard grader on yourself.

When I started in money management, I knew I was competing with people who were more knowledgeable and better connected. But the one thing I could do is outwork them. And I did. If I didn’t understand something, I’d ask questions. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d ask to learn. Most people don’t want to admit they don’t know something. I do. All the time. So, don’t pretend you know more than you do. In fact, I’m jealous of you. You’ve got years you can milk because you’re new. Make the most of it.

At the same time, don’t pretend you know less than you do either. My first day at Ariel, my boss and mentor John Rogers explained that I was often going to be in rooms with people who had huge titles and made tons of money, but he advised, “Don’t assume that just because you are new and young that you don’t have great ideas. I want them.”

Even if you don’t have that support from the top, I urge you to participate fully, not in a smug or cocky way, but with humility combined with confidence. Be willing to speak up and stand out. I know first-hand that this can be especially hard for women and minorities determined to fit in. I’ve seen so many young women hang back, adopting the attitude, “Tell me what you want me to be and I’ll be it.” A far better approach is to say, “This is who I am and I have value. And I hope you will accept it, but if you don’t, I’m still good with who I am.”

And no matter who you are, I promise if you focus on the work, success will come. Focus on the success and nothing will come.

Equation number two: Imagination plus bravery equals . . . creativity.

There are so few originals. I believe one of the greatest compliments you can ever receive is, “I’ve never met anyone like you.” Being unique starts with forming your own opinions. It helps if you reach for questions and push for answers. If you bring that attitude to your work, you won’t just advance, you will advance mankind.

USC has produced visionaries in every field including technology, medicine and, of course, the arts. I want to speak to the arts for a moment because they are near and dear to my near and dear. You see, this University has something no other school can match: the best film school in the country. This matters because all societies are held together by stories. From cave paintings to Star Wars, story-telling serves an essential purpose. Five centuries ago, the majority of people couldn’t read, so the Church relied on artists to turn the Sistine Chapel into a stunning classroom. These frescoes did more than give people something to stare at during long services in Latin. They were basically a 15th century highlight reel of Moses and Jesus Christ. The art instructed as well as entertained.

George wrote his movies not just because it’s fun to watch Harrison Ford travel through space with his giant furry co-pilot, but to teach the values of society. He crafted a story that offered a choice between being selfish and being compassionate. He took a stand and made his beliefs clear: that although the dark side can be more powerful and alluring, the light will give more joy.

Which brings us to the third and final equation . . .

Love plus bravery equals . . . happiness.

A lot of graduation speeches encourage students to be passionate about something. I want to discuss being passionate about someone. So now . . . I want to be brave and talk about love. For some of you, even the word might make you squirm. I get it. For a long time, I avoided the subject. Career. Business. Those were my priorities.

It took me a long time to be as brave in my personal life as I was in my professional life. That’s because to be brave in love means opening yourself up to the possibility of heartbreak. And like Felix in his violent spin, I feared a loss of control. I worried about being able to right myself.

Then I met George.

People talk about soulmates, I met my mind’s friend. And since I’ve always trusted my mind, when it said “Leap,” so did my heart.

* * *

USC has a rich history of brave graduates. Now it’s up to you to carry on that tradition. Your bravest self will be your best self.

Moving forward from this momentous occasion, I hope you embrace these words written by W.E.B. Dubois who co-founded the NAACP. In 1914, Dubois sent his teenage daughter to study in England. And here’s the advice he offered as she left on this exciting—and terrifying—adventure:

You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires . . . Deserve it, then . . . Be honest, frank and fearless . . . The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin . . . Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely.

So I say to you, as you plunge into your own adventure, take the cold bath bravely.

And as inspiring and important as that message was, Dubois did not end his letter there. He concluded with something even more important when he wrote:

“Above all, remember: your father loves you and believes in you.”

That is my hope for all of you: that you are brave . . . and that you are loved.

Congratulations to the awesome Class of 2015. Fight on!

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

Alan Alda to Grads: Everything in Life Takes Time

Bernard Harris to Grads: You Are an Infinite Being With Infinite Possibilities

Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World

Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead

Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves

Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us

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

Gwen Ifill to Grads: If You See Something, Do Something

GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech

Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again

Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

Natalie Portman to Grads: Carve Your Own Path

President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You

President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change

Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life

Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’

Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

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