Stephanie Ruhle’s Inspiring Lehigh University Commencement Speech
“Life is not fair. But it can be extraordinary.”
Lehigh University 149th Spring Commencement Address by Stephanie Ruhle, ’97
Thank you so, so much to the wonderful chairman Scheler, to President Simon, to trustees, including the great Joe Perella and Kevin Clayton; to faculty, including professor McIntosh who just wrapped his 50th year at this school. My heart goes out to incoming freshmen who will not get to experience sociology 101. It is part of what makes this school great.
Thank you to devoted parents, friends, but most of all to YOU our class of 2017.
When I arrived this morning, I thought about Lehigh in the fall, coming down to football games. And when I walked into the stadium, I realized, I’ve never actually been inside, which is not a knock on Lehigh football, but instead the highest praise to the tailgating prowess of this institution.
I am overwhelmed and honored to be here today. Lehigh commencement speakers have been governors, senators, iconic writers, successful business leaders. One of those huge business leaders in particular descended on Lehigh 29 years ago in his big, black helicopter with his name emblazoned on the side in gold. The chopper — may be he did it for the effect. Or maybe, unlike us, he couldn’t handle hiking up that campus.
I am sure he was not surprised to be extended this honor, but I was. When Chairman Scheler invited me to speak, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I am not the best alumni cheerleader. This is only my third time back on campus in 20 years because in truth I had a very tough time at Lehigh. I couldn’t find my place on the hill so much so that I went across the world instead.
As Brad mentioned, I studied in Kenya, Guatemala, and Italy. Through a Lehigh alumni, who’s here today as a parent, I got a summer internship in banking. And I knew work — work was when my life would start, I thought. So I scampered back to finish up and collect my diploma with the only two real friends I had at Lehigh.
When I was in your seat, I felt small and insignificant. But Lehigh didn’t fail me. I failed Lehigh. And it wasn’t my grades. It was the way I thought success was measured. But 20 years later with those same friends still by my side, now the godmothers to my children and sitting here today, I think, wow. Just one 20 year friendship means everything, and Lehigh — Lehigh gave me two.
Graduation is an important day. It is a significant achievement. But I have found that in life so much less is about special occasions and sweeping changes than it is about just trying to win the day. When you graduate college, a lot of grand life lessons will be thrown your way, knowledge bestowed upon you. People are going to say to you things like, now you must architect a life you will love. Or they’ll talk about the need to cultivate authenticity. I don’t even know what that means.
I say, don’t focus on the quest for greatness. Just try to be good. So I want to share with you a few small and seemingly simple rules that I believe can help you win the day. Open your mind. For better or worse, this diploma and your Lehigh education, as important as it is, as much as it is worth celebrating, does not define you.
We’ve become really attached to these big ideas and labels — Republican, Democrat, feminist, Alpha Chi Omega, mountain hawk, engineer. We use these labels to find our tribes, get comfortable and stick with them. And it is suffocating. Open your mind. We live surrounded by people who sound like us, vote like us, look like us, spend like us. We only get the news we want to and then scream into the social media echo chamber that is designed to serve us up information we already like.
Open your mind. Open your hearts, even just a little. Just because something doesn’t confirm your existing beliefs does not mean it’s a hoax. The smartest and most successful people I know are constantly evolving, always learning. It does not end with school. Fortunately for your parents, tuition does.
Seek out — that deserves a round. Seek out different perspectives. Maybe even change your mind. Just try to be good. How about this one? Be selfish. When the oxygen mask drops, put yours on first. It is the only way you’re going to help anyone else in this world.
Work life balance gets thrown aside. Don’t let it. Work life balance is not just a buzzy, self-help term that real business people laugh at. You need it. So take care of yourself and enforce the boundaries that make balance possible, or at least try to. So go to bed. For too long, we’ve believed that the most successful people are working 24/7. No. That’s wrong. That’s a recipe for burnout, and burnout hurts.
Be selfish because one day you’re going to lose a deal or a job just because you’re underperforming because you’re not sleeping enough. If your mother ever told you, nothing good ever happens after 10 — excuse me, 2:00 AM, she’s right. That goes for partying. It goes for working, and yes it goes for tweeting.
My moment of truth was in the backseat of a car service changing into a bathing suit for a mother son swim class while on a conference call for work. The car next to me pulled up, honked the horn, rolled down the window. And the driver said, hey, lady, you need a break.
I’d like to think I made his day. Be selfish. Do you have to do to exercise and eat healthy. You’ve spent the last four years hiking up a 45 degree incline every day, and pretty soon you’re going to be sitting for eight hours a day. So just get active. I enjoyed my very first fat chicken this weekend. It was glorious. But don’t eat like that every day. And just because you can have two scoops of ice cream on your chocolate cream pie doesn’t mean you should. Just try to be good.
I am not talking about a selfishness that means two scoops for you and only one for your guests — not that kind of selfishness, which brings me to graciousness. Be kind to people. Say thank you and be thankful. If you had a professor that meant a lot to you, let them know and not with a stock thank you card. Be kind. You don’t have to be rich to be generous and charitable. And don’t do it for the credit. You don’t need to be a billionaire with a namesake foundation. Do something good in your community, something that preferably doesn’t have a campaign or a hashtag. Start now and make it part of your lifestyle.
And pair every complaint with a compliment. What do I mean by that? For those of you who studied quantum mechanics for the last four years and at this moment, you’re thinking, geez, they delivered me a commencement speaker whose message is be good. Are you kidding me? I get it. You don’t like it? Take to Twitter right now. Hate on this. I’m used to it. But when you’re done, call your mother and say something nice. Or better yet, call mine. She really deserves it.
Be kind. Now listen to me. I know the word hazing resonates on this campus. Leave it behind you. It is not unique to Lehigh or even college. It’s pervasive. And I am begging you to stop it, and I know that you can. When you go to work, you might get assigned pointless tasks, expected to spend preposterous hours in the office for no reason. That is hazing. If you get treated badly for no reason, the worst thing you can do is repeat that behavior when you are lucky enough to be the boss. So just stop the cycle.
Be kind. In order for you to win does not mean someone else has to lose brutally. After 14 years on a trading floor, I was thrilled to go into TV and finally work with women. But it turns out that in finance there’s plenty of money to go around. In TV there’s only so many minutes on air. So when I arrived, there was no girl power party. And I just couldn’t figure out how to break in with my colleagues.
And I had a choice — count the minutes for myself or put all my energy into contributing to the team? Now to tell the truth, had I been 10 years younger, I would have been a sharp, elbowed beast. But I’ve learned. It’s pointless and painful. So I set aside screen time and the need for credit, and I just tried to make the best show possible. And soon enough, we were all rooting for each other, which makes for a good day. And when you pile up all those good days, that makes for a life of excellence.
Act with integrity. Integrity is misunderstood. We immediately think it’s just about upstanding morality. But that’s only a portion of it. It also means being whole and undivided. It’s about doing what you say you are going to do. Make an appointment at 5:00. Show up at 5:00. That’s an act of integrity. How many of you show up late for class?
Time to clean it up. As a journalist, I say every day my mission is to have an impact, not to plug a hole, not to elevate my status. Last year I came to NBC to do two things — to co-anchor the Weekend Today Show and have my own hour on MSNBC. Can you guess which one excited me the most? Do you know how much my mother loved seeing the Today Show? Do you know I like seeing it?
The Today Show is what it is — an extraordinary product. And it knows what it is. For six months, I was able to play a small part in it. But after I finished each show, I’d wonder, how much did I add to that? Meanwhile, at MSNBC, though a smaller platform, I knew I was having a real impact. I got to cover things that excited me and do it in a way that I believed in. We have a president who happens to be a New York business and media guy. That’s my lane.
I am in this for the impact. And I realized I didn’t need the status. What I needed to do was just try to be good. In your careers, you’re going to take on tasks that you think are beneath you. But that is no excuse to do a crummy job. You said you’re going to do it. Do it, and do it on time. Be the best damn food getter, coffee maker, note taker you possibly can because that is integrity. It is also, by the way, how you earn your next job.
I found out early on as a young banker my hidden talent as the most talented dinner reservationist in the greater New York City area circa 1997 to 2000 and getting the most impossible tables at the hottest places resulted in me spending hours with some of the most impressive investors in all of finance. How? By making all those dinner reservations, I made sure I had a seat at those tables.
No one gets a bigger assignment for bailing at the first one — the easy one. Just try to be good, which won’t always happen. So say you’re sorry. You’re going to screw up. It’s inevitable. No one has a perfect record. Last winter, I accidentally spread fake news. Especially right now, it is the worst thing a journalist could do.
Someone tweets at me that Fox News is having their Christmas party at the Trump DC Hotel. I didn’t plan to do anything with it. I didn’t even know it registered in my mind. But the next day, while covering potential conflicts of interest, I blurted it out — seven words that I found out quickly are not true. I spend hours and hours on TV dealing in facts. But for those four seconds, I was fake news.
So I go back on air, and I say I was wrong. I apologize. Now not nearly as many people wrote about my apology as they did about me spreading the fake news. But the people who matter, they cared because good people forgive you when you admit mistakes and apologize. If you break something, say sorry. If you flake on a commitment, say sorry. If you accuse the former president of the United States for criminal wiretapping and you’re wrong, say sorry.
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
Because people want to forgive you. We’re optimists. So clean your house, not your actual house. Trust me. I’ve been to those fraternity houses on the hill. They ain’t never gettin’ clean. But you can clean your conscience now. You do not want to leave this campus with rivalries or hard feelings like I did. It is a waste of time, and it will break your heart.
A good apology is like a gallon of ammonia on the floor of Theta Xi after a Beirut tournament. It wipes out all that nasty and unless you start the day new. We are all human, and we do bad things sometimes. Just admit it and try to move on. Try to be good because the truth is nobody is going to save you — not your parents, your friends, your spouses, your kids. No one. They can’t. Only you can.
And at work — I’m tired of hearing this advice. You hear it all the time — mentorship, how to get ahead, find a mentor, find a sponsor. That is the biggest load of millennial noise I have ever heard. Mentors are great to have, but they are not the key to a successful career. You are. Remember, mentorship is a relationship. It is a two-way exchange. People will get interested in you and your career when you demonstrate what you bring to the table.
If you add value and make yourself indispensable, you and mentors will find each other. It is about reciprocity. One-way relationships do not last. No one is going to save you. So leaving work at 5:00 PM to go to a networking event is not more important than getting your work done and done well. Before you go to an industry mixer and send the featured speaker an email asking if they’d like to get a coffee and be your mentor, I’m going to save you some time. The answer is no. That influencer already has a passion project, and it is not a 22-year-old who went to a school as great as Lehigh looking for a lifeline or a career hookup.
I get a lot of those emails, and I don’t actually drink coffee. But if you send me — or I’m going to say any one of us on this stage — a good idea instead of asking us for something, you’re going to get a response quickly. We need new ideas. We’re tapped out. You’re the next generation.
So the person that you should bet on, believe in, fight for and even kiss up to is you. I’ve never been the smartest or most qualified for any job I’ve ever had, and I’m talking waitressing, babysitting, you name it. But I know I’ve got the will to win. And I learned how to bet on myself and take a shot.
There are half a dozen bathrooms in office buildings across New York City where I have wept over promotions I didn’t get only to realize later that I never raised my hand for the job. This is an especially important lesson for women. Don’t ask, don’t get. And we know that women ask less than men do. You will not get a promotion just by doing a good job. Now is the time when you need to see around corners.
Which brings me to my last point, and I know. It is something you have heard a million times. But it is truer the day after graduation than it has ever been before. Life is not fair. In school there’s mandated fairness. The whole class takes an exam. The professor grades it. Class, study, exam, grade. Rinse, repeat. That is now over.
You’re going to have bad bosses, crummy assignments. How about parenting, marriage, in-laws? Hard. Life is not fair. But no one’s life is. So don’t waste your time counting other people’s apparent riches or wins. On that quest for greatness, we get stuck on these long term goals and obsessed with checklists — lists that take us back to those labels. I would only be happy if I had that job, that house, that spouse, a baby.
Or maybe — that someone, that commencement speaker I mentioned earlier. Maybe his list includes the biggest audience or the best ratings, to be the most popular, have the most votes, the most magazine covers — or like President Simon, to have the most Instagram likes. Or like you, to be king of that hill. But if you are convinced that it is all about the quest for money and power, then I challenge you, in the next four years, turn on the news any day — now I recommend MSNBC weekdays at 9 AM at 12:30 on Saturdays. [LAUGHTER]
But it doesn’t have to be. Turn on the news, and you will probably see coverage of someone with more money and power than most people could ever dream of. And you decide. Is that person fulfilled? Do they seem happy? So what happens? What happens when you can check off that whole list and still something’s missing? Then what? Depression is an option.
Or maybe that’s when you realize that those goals are just external ideals. They don’t yield fulfillment just because they’re the things you’ve been told to want the most. I just want to get through the day happy, honestly. I wish I could tell you otherwise.
Obviously that commencement speaker from 1988 was President Donald J Trump. And last week, he gave another commencement — and he deserves a round of applause.
Last week he gave another commencement address, and he said, no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly. When I was in your seats, I thought that Lehigh was really unfair to me. But I was wrong, and the president is wrong. It’s life, not Lehigh and not people holding the president accountable for his own words.
Life — life is not fair. But it can be extraordinary. I am deeply honored to follow the President of the United States speaking to the graduating class of Lehigh University at this school that, after 20 years, I’ve come to truly love and appreciate. And I truly wish the best for our president and his administration and our country.
And there is — [APPLAUSE]
And there is something he and I agree on. In President Trump’s inaugural address, he insisted that in America the power belongs to the people. I agree with him. So please take the power. Do not just resist. Do not simply follow blind. Use your power. Use your mind, your youth, and your voice. It doesn’t mean you need to solve all the world’s problems or achieve greatness one day. Use your power, and use it today. Make today a day of impact and just do something good. And, you, stop talking, in the green shirt, right there. No talking. It’s about integrity remember. [APPLAUSE] I also think you should wear shoes, but that’s just my opinion. [APPLAUSE]
So listen. You are going to need those eight hours of sleep. You need that healthy breakfast. Say you’re sorry when you screw up. Minimize your jealousy. Maximize your kindness. Open your minds. Take your shot. If you don’t, you can’t complain when somebody else does. These are my rules. These are scary times. But class of 2017, you cannot be scared. I wish you the best, best of luck. God bless you. Congratulations Great job guys. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. [APPLAUSE]