Katie Couric’s 2011 Boston University Commencement Speech
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Thank you so much, President Brown, and congratulations to the class of 2011!!!!!
I’m incredibly honored to be sharing a stage with such a distinguished group of honorees. Nina Totenberg, your work on NPR has inspired me for years; Dr. Ahmed Zewail, a scholar and humanitarian…I can’t wait to chat about femtochemistry with you; Jacques Pepin, whose name is not only fun to say but is as renowned for his charm as he is his cuisine; Frank Stella, a creative genius and an American treasure; And my friend, Vicki Kennedy who’s taught us all so much about courage, public service and her late husband’s legacy.
As I look out on all your faces…young, wrinkle free faces (damn you), full of accomplishment, relief, hope and fear…some bright eyed about the future, some bleary eyed from too many shots at T’s Pub last night, I have to be honest, I’m really jealous.
And to all you parents….as the mother of two daughters, 19 and 15, I’d like to say…God Bless You. And your children would like to take a moment to show their appreciation by giving you all a standing ovation! (Come on, everyone, give it up for your parents, they gave up a lot for you.)
I’m also honored to be speaking at a university with so many illustrious graduates…from Martin Luther King, Jr, which shows this school’s progressive roots and its commitment to social justice….to Howard Stern…and I’m not exactly sure what that shows. And I’m very happy to be speaking at BU instead of my safety school…BC. Just kidding, Boston College! Please don’t send me obscene tweets!
I’ve only been on this campus since yesterday but I already feel like an honorary Terrier. At first, I thought, really? A terrier? But I’ve learned Boston terriers are happy-go-lucky and friendly, highly intelligent and tenacious. I can work with that…I’m just glad you’re not teacup Yorkies.
And to really get into the spirit, I visited a few of your favorite haunts. I heard if you try all 50 beers on tap at the B-U pub you get knighted and receive a personalized mug. (Hold up the mug) Done and done. By the way, nobody told me it’s supposed to take all four years. I did it at brunch. You guys are lightweights.
Then I headed over to Trashford but there were too many freshmen so I walked to Tavern in the Square. I know that isn’t what you really call it, but I don’t need another reason to be on Page Six this month.
Finally, what’s better after a night out than a West Burger? It’s a grilled cheese AND a burger in one, smothered in barbecue sauce. Jacques Pepin just fainted. No, Jacques, it’s not listed in the Michelin guide….but it’s mighty tasty.
And what better nourishment for this new chapter in your lives?
This day marks the beginning of a wonderful and exciting journey for you. And like the Natasha Bedingfield song says, your next chapter is still unwritten, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. And I can relate to that.
I leave after five years of anchoring the CBS Evening News with a feeling of immense pride and accomplishment. I have had the privilege of working with some of the finest journalists in the business. From our coverage of the historic 2008 presidential election (and certain interviews included therein)…to our award-winning series on children and the recession…to standing in Tahrir Square as the people of Egypt said “no more” to oppression…I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
When I accepted the offer to be the first solo female anchor of an evening news program, I knew there would be challenges. I was safely ensconced in the world of morning television where I enjoyed a successful 15 year run on the Today Show. But I was ready for a change. I soon discovered the lofty notion of getting out of your comfort zone can actually be, well, very uncomfortable….but I also knew it was the only way to grow. And these five years taught me more about people, perspective and myself than I had learned in the previous 49.
So, as Sheryl Crow would say, “A change will do you good.” And adjusting to the change happening at warp speed all around us is the only way to survive.
In 1994, I didn’t really know what the Internet was. I thought the “at” symbol meant “about.” (Thanks, YouTube for that embarrassing moment.)
Today, I can upload my own photos to Twitter from my blackberry. By the way, my handle is @katiecouric if you happen to be tweeting this right now.
I also hosted a weekly webshow and live Facebook chats. At a time when a lot of people in my business feel like a dial-up modem, I think I’m becoming broadband. At least if I’m right about what that means.
Today is just the first of many graduations in your life. Your college days may be over, but the learning…and preparation continues.
I have often found comfort and guidance in listening to the experiences of other people who were at turning points in their lives….so, I collected their stories for a book called “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives.” From Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, to Chelsea Handler…from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to designer Vera Wang…I convinced 116 of the most accomplished people to contribute their words of wisdom…gleaned from a lifetime of taking chances, taking hits, finding their passion and, most importantly, finding themselves.
And now if you’ll all reach under your chairs, I have a surprise for you.
I’m kidding!!! Who do you think I am, Oprah? If you want the book you have to buy it. All of my proceeds go to Scholarship America, by the way. But because I like you, I thought I’d share some of my favorite pieces of advice…and how they’ve resonated in my life.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Anna Quindlen, wrote, “Fear not…carry your courage in an easily accessible place, the way you do your cell phone or your wallet.”
Whether you call it courage, chutzpah, or, as my dad does, “moxie,” it’s an essential ingredient for success.
It was 1979. I had just graduated from college myself…and I knew I wanted a job in TV news. I had a stack of resumes that probably hit the circular file as soon they were opened. There was no “Linked In”…and I was feeling locked out.
After a few months of hearing nothing but crickets…I thought I could sell myself better in person.
“Operation Delaney” commenced.
One morning I put on my best “dress for success” outfit…which back then pretty much meant you looked like a flight attendant…and I asked my mom to drive me down to the ABC News Washington Bureau in our cream colored Buick station wagon.
When I got there, I asked an imposing security guard if I could see Kevin Delaney, the deputy bureau chief. After he stopped laughing, I made a phone call from the lobby….to Davey Newman, then the executive producer of World News Tonight.
Here’s how it went: “Hello, Davey? 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.”
Cut to me, in the ABC newsroom, being personally delivered to Kevin Delaney’s door. Better yet, cut to me with my first job in television.
Today you may need more than a cute back story to land YOUR first job. I’m sure this is not a newsflash: It’s tough out there. A lousy job market and intense global competition can make you feel like, “My Life, Mylanta!!!”
But all the bad economic news in the world ignores one irrefutable truth: YOU are not a number or a statistic.
You are, as the line from the poem Invictus goes, the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.
Plot YOUR version of “Operation Delaney.” Find ways to set yourself apart.
On my webshow I interviewed Ellen Gordon Reeves, the author of the wonderfully titled “Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?” By the way, that answer is sometimes. But she suggests some pretty practical approaches, like getting your own business cards made up before you’ve even landed a job so you have your contact info readily accessible if you meet someone on the bus or at a ballgame. She also says make sure your email address isn’t Hot Mama at hotmail dot com. And she cautions against sending a resume into the black hole of cyberspace…writing, “stop looking for a job and look for a person.” Oh, and, like, stop, like, talking like Miss Teen South Carolina…such as.
My mom raised my two sisters, my brother and me with this simple advice: Let ‘em know you’re there. I’ve adapted that to “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman asked, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” She obviously was not involved with Spider Man the Musical.
You WILL get discouraged, but don’t let it defeat you.
As Morgan Freeman (who starred as Mandela in Invictus) writes, “The surest way to lose at any endeavor is to quit.”
And don’t take no for an answer…that includes the voice in your own head.
Davis Guggenheim, the documentary filmmaker who wrote and directed “Waiting for Superman,” offered this piece of advice: Don’t listen to can’t.
In a similar vein, Matthew McConaughey shared a childhood memory of working in the yard with his father, and saying, “Dad, I can’t start this lawn mower.” His father taught him to never use those two words, and replace them with these: I’m just having trouble.
“Can’t” was a dirty word for my parents, as well.
I would love to be able to tell you that my career was kismet, that the moment I sprang onto the scene I rode a rocket to stardom with Katy Perry’s “Firework” playing in the background. That only happens in music videos.
In fact, my first on air appearance was an unmitigated disaster.
It was 1980, and I was at CNN. I had stayed up all night practicing in front of the mirror with my hairbrush. It was VERY Jan Brady. My task was to preview the President’s schedule from the White House lawn. In the commercial break I could hear the two anchors talking about me. “Who IS that?” One asked. “I don’t know but she looks like she’s 16.” I sounded even younger as a squeaked out, “President Reagan is beginning his day with a meeting in the Oval Office with his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The president of CNN called the assignment desk and said he never wanted to see me on air again.
I was devastated.
As Linda Ellerbee once wrote, “Sometimes you’re the pigeon, and sometimes you’re the statue.” Sometimes being the statue provides you with a much needed dose of humility.
After what can only be described as a magical run on the Today Show, I moved to CBS News in 2006. It seemed like every thing I did those first few months was put under a microscope. TV critics wrote about my clothes, my makeup, my hair and even the way I held my hands. Some said I lacked “gravitas,” which I’ve decided is Latin for “testicles.”
One common theme in my book is that setbacks are inevitable. Just ask any successful person. You WILL screw up…and you will be let down. It’s how you handle that adversity that will define who you are.
I am very lucky to have a strong support network around me. My parents are thankfully still alive, my friends and close colleagues keep me focused on what matters, and my daughters are a constant reminder that there is something bigger than television, and more important than my career.
I refused to be defined by external voices. I focused on the news and not the noise, and things got better.
But there may be days ahead when a crash course in self confidence won’t be enough.
Filmmaker M. Night SHA-muh-lahn offered some thoughts on grief. He writes, “I have the urge to protect myself and not feel sadness…this would be a mistake. Sadness has been misunderstood. Sadness is the soul recognizing change.”
I would add that loss is another kind of graduation.
My late husband Jay Monahan used to say I was born on a sunny day, and in 1997 there were clear skies and I could see forever, or at least I thought. We had two beautiful daughters, who were one and 5 at the time, I had a fantastic career, and a wonderful, intelligent husband.
Then, everything changed.
In April of that year, Jay was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Every day during his nine month battle I marveled at his extraordinary strength, courage and grace. And every day I felt like there was a vice around my heart.
On January 24, 1998, Jay died.
Suddenly, I was a single mom and a member of a club I never anticipated joining, certainly not at that age. I was a widow. It was so strange.
But I took solace in a quote from Thomas Jefferson, “The earth belongs to the living.” And I had to go on living. I had two daughters to raise and family and friends who needed me.
And, a job that I loved which thankfully provided me a way to turn my grief into advocacy.
I had a built-in bully pulpit which allowed me to educate the public about colon cancer and try to prevent other families from enduring the heartache ours had.
My on-air colonoscopy and my efforts to raise awareness about colon cancer screening sparked a 20% increase in screenings…which translated into many lives saved. They called it the Couric Effect. I call it the Jay Monahan Effect.
I have interviewed presidents and world leaders, celebrities and authors…and even Lil Wayne, who told me, “I’m a gangsta, Miss Katie.” But despite my proximity to fame and power, I am proudest of the work I have done on behalf of cancer research. In addition to my work with colon cancer, I am one of the founding members of Stand Up 2 Cancer which has raised 180 million dollars for scientific dream teams whose mandate is collaboration.
And, I’ve learned that doing good…feels good. You are young and naïve enough to believe that you can change the world…and the beautiful thing about youthful idealism is…YOU CAN.
You can start an organization like my friend John Wood did…called Room to Read. John was a big wig at Microsoft when he took a trip to Nepal to clear his head…but ended up filling it with new dreams. He found a school with a dirt library devoid of books. The headmaster told him “We are too poor to afford education in Nepal…and until we have education, we will always be poor.”
John said that simple statement taught him more about global poverty than any fancy academic report ever could. He decided to build libraries in the world’s poorest countries and now is the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world, creating 10,000 libraries serving five million kids.
As Biz Stone wrote, in exactly 140 characters, “Think about what is valuable before thinking about what is profitable. And know there is compound interest in helping others…start early.”
But saving the world, or at least improving it, can also be accomplished one day at a time…one person at a time. As the writer Annie Dillard put it: “How we live our days is of course, how we live our lives.” Enough simple acts of kindness add up to a life well lived.
Just ask Betty White. I recently interviewed the red hot Golden Girl, going stronger than ever at 89.
“What’s your secret?” I asked her.
She could have said regular exercise, or moderation, or anti-oxidants. Instead, she told me:
“I think maybe I learned it from my animal friends. Kindness and consideration of somebody other than yourself not only makes life more interesting, but it keeps you from getting too focused on yourself, and that keeps you feeling young.”
My friend Kevin Clash, who’s known by the preschool set as Elmo, found a way to turn other people’s happiness into a career. He writes, “Nothing is sweeter to me than watching a child with just a diaper on coming up to Elmo for a hug. I remember one little girl who actually pulled Elmo off my hand and walked away with him, holding Elmo like a baby.”
In giving joy, Kevin has gotten so much back in return.
It reminds me of that old Jimmy Durante song, “Make someone happy. Make just ONE someone happy…and you’ll be happy, too.”
And nothing made me happier than getting YOUR questions via Twitter and Dean Elmore’s email. Call it Commencement 2.0.
Joseph Juarez asks: What’s your take on Social Media and its impact on American culture and society?
Well, Joseph, it’s hard to believe that just six years ago YouTube hadn’t launched…and there was no Twitter. So much has changed and transformed the way we live….seemingly overnight.
The fantastic thing about social media is it has given everyone a voice.
At the CBS Evening News, I began asking for viewer questions and comments on Facebook and Twitter and incorporated them into the broadcast on stories like the Gulf oil spill and the revolution in Egypt….and it enhanced our coverage.
But the terrible thing about social media is…it’s given everyone a voice. The appalling lack of civility online and the offensive behavior of haters and trolls can seep into the mainstream and poison the water. And as a society I worry that we’re in danger of needing to attend a Betty Ford clinic for our addiction to handheld devices. A sort of PDA-A.
In March alone, Americans spent more than 53 million minutes on Facebook, or about 12 minutes a day. That doesn’t sound awful until you realize we spend an average of 9 minutes a day involved in spiritual thinking or reflection and just 18 minutes exercising.
Social networking is no substitute for being social. A virtual life is no substitute for really living.
Joseph, DM me if you liked my answer!
Jenny Zipper asks: What is the worst advice you ever got?
Ironically, Jenny, it involved a zipper. I’m kidding! Actually, I had a job interview once at an adverting agency. It was pouring down rain and I showed up soaking wet with mascara running down my face like Jason’s next victim running through the woods of Camp Crystal Lake. When the head of personnel told me I should go to business school, I had a very mature response: I started to cry. At that point she told me softly, “Maybe you should consider getting a job closer to your parents.” I didn’t follow that advice. But I’ve used waterproof mascara ever since.
@Mike of the Greco tweets: If we can’t all get jobs, can we at least have the secret to getting better looking everyday?
Oh, quit it some more, Mike of the Greco! Like Betty White, this glow comes from nothing more than the kindness I learned from my animal friends. No, not really, Mike…wear sunscreen and don’t skimp on the moisturizer.
Jennifer Fleser asks: Despite all of the terrible things going on in the world, what people or experiences give you the most inspiration, motivation, or hope for the future?
You’re right, Jennifer, there are a lot of bad situations in the world…and I’ve had to report on many of them. The thing that always strikes me, though, is that the most unthinkable tragedies tend to bring out the best in people.
There were the Belgian doctors of B-FAST who established an emergency medical clinic within a day of the earthquake in Haiti. While the world around them was crumbling, their courage, dedication and selflessness amazed me.
At the height of the recession I met a man in Cleveland who had been a steel worker…a single dad raising his son. After being laid off (like many other auto parts employees there)…he decided to go back to school and graduated with a nursing degree. Through hard work and a willingness to reinvent himself, he turned his life around.
And the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords isn’t about one insane gunman. It’s about the incredible will to live and the fierce determination to heal in the face of overwhelming odds.
Thanks for your questions. I think we have some budding journalists out there!
Now comes the tough part for me, that final line, the big finish. Do I leave ‘em laughing? Do I quote Thurgood Marshall? Do I ask to be played off with a little Journey, like “Don’t Stop Believing?”
I think instead I’d like to share one more quote from my friend Anna Quindlen.
In her book “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” she writes, “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they would come to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as 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.”
Here’s MY best advice to you: Find the joy. When you feel it, let it wash over you. And take a moment to appreciate it. It’s been said that feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.
Be grateful for the people in your life, for waking up feeling good and pain free, and for the stretch of road ahead that’s so full of possibilities. And even when you encounter bumps, keep going and don’t look back…hey, that’s why the windshield is so big and the rear view mirror is so small.
And, God, have fun. It’s going to be a fantastic ride!
Congratulations, everyone, and good luck!!!!!!!!