University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign // College of Media Commencement Address // May 16th 2015
To journalism and mass communications graduates new and old, working in industries (and a world) defined by change.
Graduates of the class of 2015. Parents. Faculty. Friends. Thank you for having me here today.
As you may know, only ten years ago I sat where all of you sit now. Graduating from the University of Illinois College of Media (it was called the College of Communications then). Ready to embark on so many great things ahead. You are in the best seats in world right now.
I’ll talk about this in a few minutes, but in the ten short years which have passed, even more great things have happened.
I have this College to thank.
So, as you can imagine, I am truly, honestly, honored to be on a stage before you, here at a school which has been so meaningful in my own life.
I began my career in advertising, and after that I got to help build the fastest-growing company in history — helping take it from a small, risky startup, to a business worth over two hundred billion dollars today and serving almost 1.5 billion people around the world. Currently, I lead a team of marketers at another emerging tech company. There have been many lessons along the way, and surely many more to come. But at each step, since I left the chairs you sit in now, I have the lessons and education from the University of Illinois to thank, and particularly the college we are all a part of today.
One thing I did not learn here on this campus, however, is how to write a commencement speech. So bear with me. But that’s a little bit of what I want to talk to you about today: writing.
The graduates who surround you are graduates in Advertising, Agricultural Communications, Journalism, and Media Studies. None of those “appear” to be about writing. (Though I’m certain all of you who’ve just turned in your final papers feel that you now know a lot about writing).
But here’s how I think about that, and what I want to talk to you about today. Here is what binds all of you:
You hold the pen.
You write the history which graduates ten more years from now will read. You are more than reporters; you are more than cinematographers. You — all of you — decide history. Because you write it. You communicate it.
Everything we know of any war — will be made by you.
Every movie, which can set our cultural tone and inform our relationships; every newspaper article, every trade publication shaping the future and nature of business itself — all of these, and more, will be written by you, regardless of medium.
So you are not merely the writers of your final papers, the creators of your own resumes. You are the authors of our culture. Our world — indeed, your own children’s world — will be shaped by how YOU communicate about it.
You hold the pen.
Remember that, because it is both a significant honor and a massive responsibility.
So let’s talk about it.
When you begin your career in just a few short days (Monday morning is only about 35 hours away, guys), no one is going to tell you what I’ve just told you. Your managers and peers may not see that you are the one writing history. You may not. It takes time. But I want to challenge all of you with a few lessons I’ve learned in my own career. Because by the time people see you as the authors of history, you’ll have already written it.
So to get this responsibility right, you have to start today.
Lesson One. I learned this the hard way, and think about it daily. And it’s one word: change.
Change is hard. Change is also constant. I think if we were to read every single business or leadership book ever written, no single phrase would appear more than the phrase, “change management.” It is, I have learned, the essential challenge of leadership, and in many ways, the essential challenge of life itself.
As you go forward in life and in your career, you will do WORK.
In physics — I apologize, my husband is a scientist — work is a term with mathematical meaning.
Physicists measure work as, quote, “the displacement of the point of application in the direction of force.” Here’s the simplest way to put that: “work is done when force that is applied to an object moves that object.”
This is a perfect definition. Think about it. Because in your lives, you will do work. And by the very definition of work itself, your work creates change. On top of that, you will have coworkers, and competitors, also working. Change will surround you at all times, and if it doesn’t, that’s actually a bigger problem than change.
But change is hard, and we all deal with it in different ways. Personally, I’ve had a front-row seat to many of the technological changes which have shaped our culture since I last sat in your seat. My first boss wrote his senior thesis with a typewriter. He is no older than me than I am you. Facebook, when I first started working there, was a “silly website for kids,” and Gmail was still in beta.
Newspapers were profitable.
Today, anyone in your seats faces a future of uncertainty in media. And I want to tell you, that’s okay.
If change is hard, constant, unpredictable, and inevitable, that means you can’t plan on much. But you can prepare, because change is guaranteed.
So leave some room. Be ready for the world to change — be ready for everything that you have learned about advertising (as happened to me) to change by the time you are in it. If you’re ready for things to be different than you’ve expected, then you wont make the biggest mistake of all: you won’t close your mind. If you prepare for change, you can avoid the tragic pitfall of fighting it. As recently as 1999, a group of researchers predicted and advised that the newspaper industry could kill Internet news by never moving online. It took awhile, but we’ve seen how that turned out.
Resisting change by force has never — in the long tale of human history — ever actually worked in the long run. And much more importantly, the same is true of yourself.
If any of you tomorrow are doing what you wanted to do when you were a kid, then you allowed your career to be chosen by a five year-old. If, in 25 years, you see the world exactly as you do today, then you’ll have spent 25 years without learning anything. Meeting no one, experiencing nothing. It’s as impossible to imagine as it is sad if it were possible.
Instead, be sure to allow yourself to change. Build a life and a career, and a perspective that accounts for your ability to be someone you don’t know yet. Someone you’ve never met, but someone, who — I guarantee — you’re really going to like.
Lesson Two. Take me with you. Take your friends with you. Take your coworkers, your boss, your annoying neighbor with you. Everyone. As the world changes, as you change, as you succeed and see the future before anyone else — which you will do because remember it is written with YOUR pen — bring people with you.
A boss whose dissertation was written on a typewriter, is still a wise and experienced — and changing — person. A parent or professor who can’t imagine WHY on earth you would work for a magazine that has no physical presence: they are still meaningful advisors. Have grace.
Don’t reject a person or people as they struggle with change, or write them off as luddites, or call them stuck in the past. Bring them along. And do it at THEIR pace, on their terms. Help them see the future you see, help them succeed in a present which has changed faster than they did.
Do this for two reasons:
One, it will happen to you. I guarantee the world, or your company, or your family, or your friends, will eventually change in a way you weren’t ready for. You might not even see it. Or, if you do, you might not think you want it. But some of the best things in your life will come from having perspective change, or joining a loved one on the other side of change.
Here’s an easy example. Your parents — and indeed this College — have always helped you change and grow. They haven’t held your resistance or mistakes against you. They brought you through hundreds of changes, and you should thank them for it.
Everyone here who gets a congratulatory card in the mail today — those are cards to congratulate how you’ve changed. And if there’s money in those envelopes, whether or not you spend it on beer, that money is an investment in who you will BE — not who you are. Remember that, so you can invest in others. Remember that, so you can have your loved ones on the other side of change.
Two, remember to bring people with you because it’s the right thing to do. Help people with change because it’s nice. They need you.
When I think about the University of Illinois, I think about “good” people. I couldn’t get to my chair this evening without five strangers holding doors open for me. I was successful in school because both my peers and my professors wanted me to be successful. If everyone here looks to their left, the person beside you is a nice person.
We probably all take it for granted. But don’t. Because this is a big planet, and the nice people on it are a minority. Honor that. Stay nice. Help others. Bring them with you. I promise you, you’ll never regret it.
And this brings me to my final piece of advice for you.
Don’t be a jerk.
As I said in the beginning, YOU will be the writers of our culture. In addition to being a “good” person, in addition to bringing others along with you, gracefully, generously, and maintaining and developing your best self through constant change — while doing ALL of that — you will also work day-to-day with concepts like “truth,” “persuasiveness,” and “results.” And that’s a big deal.
In my work today, we have a saying, “good marketing is the truth well-told.” The same is true of journalism — media, communications, anything.
Any one of us can be a reporter — just observe stuff and share it. But to be a journalist, to take your vocation and your audience to heart, how will you tell the truth of what happened in a way that makes people want to read more? How will you tell the truth of what happened in a way that affects how people live their lives? How will you tell the truth of what happened in a way that compels entire governments to take action?
You have that ability. It’s a skill, and not a lot of other people have it. You have developed it and are here today earning recognition for that. Use it wisely, don’t be a jerk.
In advertising and PR, the same is true. In communication: what ACTION do you want your audience to take? You CAN make them take it. So ensure you’re doing the right thing when you persuade a person, or a business, or a culture, or a country.
And this will always sound a bit easier than it is. Because we all have low points.
You will, no doubt, at one or more times, be stuck in something you hate. It may be a role or job, it may be rejection for a role or job, it may even be a recession beyond your control, or even a physical tragedy. No matter what, you will struggle. And in your time of struggle, especially, you will need other people the most.
So don’t be a jerk.
In a time of social media, of increasing connectedness and tangible networks, it’s easier than ever to remember the people you’ve only met a single time. Which means it’s also easier than ever for them to remember you — good or bad. And it’s easier than ever to ask for a reference or referral. To share experience. And — maybe more important than anything — to ask for advice. To seek help when you need it most.
It is your integrity which will determine whether or not you get that help.
And so, Graduating Class of 2015, I’ll leave you with that. This speech is ending and you hold the pen now.
This world is going to change, and so are you. Be ready.
All of us are going to struggle as it does, and so will you.
But you are the people who matter the most, because you will tell those stories.
As we all move forward and experience the great, wonderful, uncertainty of life and the world, it is YOU who can write.
Not just our history and interpretation of it, but our instruction manual for living and loving it. You are the authors of all of our future. You will write the story of our world.
And, I, personally, cannot wait to read it.
Thank you for your time, and congratulations.