Special Feature: Commencement 2010

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Michael Wilbon's 2010 Commencement Address

Alumnus Wilbon encourages graduates to leave comfort zones, pursue passions

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June 18, 2010
Produced by Matt Paolelli

Greetings and congratulations to the Northwestern University Class of 2010. You all have to be the last people in America to have a commencement exercise. Hello, it's almost July. The University of Florida's SUMMER school graduates started full-time work last week. What you don't know is that it took Morty Schapiro all this time to find a commencement speaker.
 
By now most folks know that Christiane Amanpour, well, had something come up. But, trust me, there were a few turndowns before the powers-that-be arrived at me...When Blagojevich said no, it got a little embarrassing.
 
A standard requirement of the commencement speech is relating advice through the use of anecdotes and quoting famous people. Presumably, the more famous the person, the more memorable the experience is supposed to be...which means you guys got screwed. 
 
Anyway, this all got me thinking about my own graduation from Northwestern exactly 30 years ago...30 years ago last Sunday. To be candid, I couldn't remember who my commencement speaker was. Thank God for the Internet, specifically for Google. I typed in "Northwestern University Commencement Speakers" and there, from the University Archives, was the official list...dating back to 1892. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the early speakers, but when I scrolled down to 1980 -- and this was one of several periods when each school had its own speaker -- I was rather stunned to find that the 1980 Class of Medill DID NOT HAVE A COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER. Maybe somebody forgot. Maybe Christiane Amanpour was off covering conflict and bagged us...
 
At any rate, this is my revenge. 
 
Today marks the beginning and the end of a lot of things...including four years of receiving advice, and I'm sure most of it wonderful advice. I'm one of those people who knew when my parents dropped me off at Sargent Hall -- and believe me, it was a dump then -- that I was about to begin the four most important and most enjoyable years of my life...and they were. I know from my own professional and personal experiences that you, as a group, are as well prepared as any and better prepared than most to leave Evanston and be damned successful, by any measure, at whatever you want to do. So my advice is offered with all that in mind.
 
What I hope you'll do more than anything, starting today, is pursue your passions. That's not something folks invested in higher learning dwell on a lot, given that schools necessarily spend so much time trying to get students to think rather than to feel. I'm one of the fortunate ones, who even here as a student understood that I could marry my passions -- writing and sports -- and carve out a career based as much on my day-to-day obsessions as my academic talents. 
 
Yes, you can pursue passions professionally and in further educational endeavors. But it requires you to honestly assess what you love, what moves you...to give into what you want to do and what you're good at instead of holding fast to some notion of what you ought to do or have trained to do. I don't think there's been a day since I left Evanston when I woke up dreading going to work.
 
To do that, most of us have to open ourselves, specifically our minds, to possibilities. Make yourselves available...to people you wouldn't naturally be coupled with. Find conversations you normally wouldn't enter into. I was lucky that the man who gave me my first big professional opportunity, a man named George Solomon who as sports editor of The Washington Post hired me to begin work the day after graduation 30 years ago, never allowed me to settle into a professional comfort zone. Just when I began to love covering college sports, he moved me to the Major League Baseball beat, then professional football. When I thought I had that beat conquered and had developed sources and relationships with coaches and executives and league officials, he moved me to the professional basketball beat.
 
Because each experience helped me become a better reporter and more confident about the next journey, I learned to force myself to do things I didn't want to necessarily do...to travel to places I didn't think I wanted to go, to take on projects that initially didn't appeal to me, to forge relationships I wasn't sure I needed, to bear being uncomfortable for a minute in order to better find out what I might like, what I might do well. Like fear, being nudged outside one's comfort zone can awaken feelings we didn't know we had.
 
Actor Alan Alda said something I wish I had written: "You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can only get there by hard work and risk, and by not quite knowing what you're doing. But what you'll discover will be wonderful."
 
The important word in that, to me, is risk and having the nerve to take it. Certainly, it's not easy to do in difficult economic times when there are very real issues to confront like finding a viable job and paying back loans in the years immediately following college. But it's the willingness to take calculated risks, difficult as they are to define, that often enable us to create opportunities for ourselves, and the successes that follow.
 
Twenty-four hours ago I was covering the NBA Finals, Game 7 in Los Angeles, specifically. And one of the themes sounded by both coaches, the Lakers' Phil Jackson and the Celtics' Doc Rivers, was that anything as rewarding as a professional sports championship is, and should be, difficult to attain. And even somebody as accomplished as Kobe Bryant said immediately after beating the Celtics last night that this was the sweetest triumph of his career precisely because it was the most difficult to achieve, and to that point he had sobbed very real tears.
 
I guess that's my way of segueing into talking about the difficult times you are joining in progress. Every generation has something. The men who came along just before me had the stress of being drafted into war. When I graduated in 1980 there was double-digit inflation, lines at gasoline stations that wrapped around the block and the job outlook was bleak. The list of graduates who made their way impressively from the Class of 1980 is a long and distinguished one. It might be difficult for most of you, yes. Then good. This is a competitive world you're about to step into, but you enter it with the best weapon this culture can arm you with these days: a damn good education...among the best, really. Because you walk into difficult times properly prepared, the triumphs will be many and that much sweeter.
 
What concerns me more is that you find the ability to adapt to these times. Another line I wish I'd written was uttered by that noted philosopher Mike Tyson. It's a compact but powerful line, like Mike's punches. He said, and I quote: "Everybody's got a plan until he gets hit." Just remember, you're going to get hit. It's real life taking a shot. And the tingling sensation is less likely to be a busted nose than the excitement of mixing it up...the thrill of realizing that you can take the blow, even a standing eight count, and be none the worse for wear. Sometimes you can even take a mighty swing in return...And connect...
 
Thanks and congratulations to all of you.