2014 St. Francis University Commencement Address
It may be the most famous poem in America. It's by Robert Frost and it's called "The Road Less Traveled." You can probably recite a couple of lines.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both." Sound familiar?
"I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence / Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference."
It has been ages and ages, but I'm not telling this with a sigh. Thirty-five years ago, I walked out of the Stokes Center, looked at the roads before me and ignored them both. I bushwhacked a third road. I charted my own direction.
I didn't choose a career in business or the law, though I think both are admirable. I jumped into the low-paying, freewheeling, late-night, exhilarating world of grassroots politics.
Early in my career, when I heard then-President Ronald Reagan make an absurd comment about the "deadly" carbon dioxide released by the forests, I led a bunch of activists in a headline-grabbing "killer trees" protest in front of the White House.
A few years later I found myself in Texas working out of a dumpy, windowless office, organizing Texans for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Turns out, there weren't a lot of Texans for Dukakis. And in the end, there weren't enough Americans for Dukakis.
You see I've failed plenty. But I've had some triumphs too. I've lived a life I can believe in. And it was because I chose my own direction. I bushwhacked that third road. And that's the first little piece of advice I want to leave with you today: consider the unexpected. Seek challenges bigger than yourself.
Here's the second piece of advice I want you to wrestle with...
With every new advance in social media, it's becoming easier and easier to follow the mob. To think whatever your "friends" think. To stay isolated inside your own information bunker.
The experts call it the "filter bubble" -- we filter out everything that we don't agree with, everything outside our narrow set of interests, and we wind up in a bubble.
That bubble is dangerous. Dangerous for you and dangerous for our democracy. I urge you to break the bubble.
Today and next week and next month, as you journey forward in life, imagine a path very different than the one that is expected of you. Different than the one you expect.
Maybe, in the end, your calling will be what you always thought it would be. And that's fine. That's terrific . But first, imagine something different.
When I left St. Francis the most important thing I took with me was not my diploma or the lessons learned in class. The most important thing I took with me...were my friendships.
It is much easier for your generation to stay in touch than it was for mine. And that's great. I'm not going to stand here and tell you Facebook doesn't matter.
Actually, I am. Facebook doesn't matter.
It's fine to be voyeur -- to watch someone's canned, on-line version of him or herself from afar.
Being in someone's life takes much more than observing it. Being there for defeat is just as important as celebrating victory. Providing comfort in times of sorrow is as important as witnessing joy. Tragedies require love, in person if possible.
With us today is one of my closest friends in the world -- John O'Donnell, who graduated from St. Francis with me in 1979. He's here to celebrate with you -- and to make sure I don't tell any stories I shouldn't about our decades of friendship.
So, I won't tell you any of those stories. But I will tell you this. Ever since we left St. Francis, we have been there for each other. We have showed up announced and unexpected.
In 1991, I convinced John to leave the mountains of Colorado and come work with me at the Democratic media firm I had just co-founded in Washington DC. John -- my most conservative, most Republican pal. Why? I needed a friend, someone I could trust. He needed a way back East, to be with his dying parents.
We've had a great and meaningful run with our friendship. But here's what important. We don't agree on one political issue. Not one. But we used our friendship to burst some early version of the filter bubble. We've worked hard at what really matters in a friendship.
OK, so you're with me so far, I hope. You're resisting conformity, you're really there for your friends. You're working with your friends, perhaps, to resist conformity. That brings me to the last thing I'd like to share with you today.
You, me, all of us... are products of networks. You got here, in large part, because of your parents' networks, your community's networks -- they created the structures that shaped your choices, that allowed you to succeed.
Here at St. Francis, you've begun to develop your own network. And you will continue to build it as life goes forward -- fellow alumni, graduate school connections, people you meet at work, community leaders, organizations you join and the parents of your future children's friends will all become part of your network.
But it's not how big and powerful your network will be. It is how you choose to use it. Will you only use others in your network to pull yourself up? Or will you be generous? Will you continually reach down and help pull other people up? Will you catch somebody when they fall?
Will you be a real friend to the people in your network? Will you share what you've learned on that third road? Will you do the unexpected and make a difference in their lives?
I hope you will.
The digital age we live in is not going away, which is why it has never been more important to reject the closed, conformist mentality the Internet and cable news can foster. Be vigilant to this threat against your thinking. The threat to you living your life, your way.
Steer your lives away from the thoughtless and expected and create something genuine, human, purposeful and unexpected.
Congratulations to you and your family. And good luck on what ever path you choose to take... or create.