What advice should I share with 6,000 graduates?
What could I wear to accent that huge black robe?
Those were some of the thoughts running through my mind when I read the e-mail inviting me to deliver the 2010 keynote speech at UC-Berkeley's commencement ceremony.
And what would my father have said when I told him the news? He would have loved this. Then the tears flowed. This was the first big thing that had happened since he passed away and I really wanted to share the news with him. He was like a big satellite dish when it came to receiving good news. He would usually say, "Really?! Get out of town!" Then he would use the Yiddish phrase "You've warmed the cockles of my heart." He would end with his arms opening wide and give me a big hug ... It made whatever it took to get there worth it.
In many ways, this invitation felt like the most important thing I had ever been asked to do. Like a culmination of all the things I had ever done ... risking, failing, succeeding. I had to prepare. I had always kept my eye out for commencement speeches around this time of year -- savoring good stories of people's journeys. I remember Steve Jobs's commencement at Stanford -- about his circuitous journey dropping out of college and then his rise and fall, rise and brush with death. Then there is Gilda Radner's hilarious commencement send up as her SNL character Rosanna Rosannadanna at Columbia University's Journalism School. (Especially since you see all the professors behind her speaking aghast as she ripped apart journalism and the post college life, exchanging uncomfortable smiles as they whispered and tittered to each other). Still after all of these years, Gilda's comic brilliance shines through and is perhaps the true precursor to Jon Stewart's "Daily Show." (Btw, Jon's Stewart's 2004 speech at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, is brilliant.)
After reviewing speeches that were wise, funny and all of the above, I started thinking, how can I think about this commencement differently? Here was a stadium full of the next generation. How could I engage them? My team at the Moxie Institute has done a lot of experiments online engaging people about social issues. A lot of these online experiments we do are like throwing spaghetti against the forever-receding walls of the Internet to see what works. What a great opportunity to try an experiment: let's ask the graduates what they think the future will hold. We had five camera crews at the event filming graduates before and after the ceremony. What we ended up with was better than we expected. Bursting with anticipation and hope and optimism about making the world a better place, these graduates delivered.
So after working and reworking my speech, with guidance and suggestions from my husband Ken, the big day finally came. I was as excited and nervous as I am sure the graduates were. Getting "robed" (putting the robes on with the chancellor and other professors) was ...well...our seven year old daughter who sneaked into the back room looked at all of us in these thick black robes said, "This looks just like Harry Potter."
Any added color to the robe indicates what school you went to before you became a professor. Several people asked me what school my multicolored, striped scarf represented. I happily told them, "The School of Paul Smith."
When I arrived on stage, the rush of Pomp and Circumstance started and the thousands of graduates walked into the stadium of 11,500, their proud parents kvelling and cheering. I became incredibly choked up. "Must hold it together" was the only thing running through my mind. My mouth got dry, I realized I hadn't eaten. Fortunately, after listening to 2,000 graduates' names and eating a protein bar, I was able to compose myself, get in the zone and get up there and tell them what I had learned so far.
Here's what I said.