The award-winning journalist delivered Dartmouth’s 2017 commencement address.
President Hanlon, Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, fellow honorees;
Magnificent alumni including and especially my dad, Class of 1961;
My wife, Jennifer ... and with her in mind ...
Members of the admissions committee for the Dartmouth Classes of 2029 and 2032, who are right now for the first time hearing the names Alice Tapper, age 9, and Jack Tapper, age 7;
Friends of mine from the Class of 1991—Hillman, Scully, Haber, Kessler, Miller, Groq, Barts, Edison—most of whom I met 30 years ago this fall in the Choates, which I’m still not convinced is not a psychological experiment by Dartmouth Housing. They are here today, because if you want it to happen, friendships formed here can last for the rest of your lives;
And most importantly, you—glorious, brilliant, ambitious, determined members of the Dartmouth College Class of 2017.
A proud member of the class of 1925 once wrote:
“The more that you read
The more things you will know
The more that you learn
The more places you’ll go.”
This is from a book that probably all of you have received as a gift this week. And it’s true that the more that you read and the more that you learn, the more places you may very well go.
But while I revere Dr. Seuss, by necessity he left a few things out.
He didn’t tell you that there are a lot of unread and uninquisitive – but well-connected – heathen going very far and doing very well. In the real world, not only is the Lorax still battling the Once-ler—he also has to deal with the Once-ler's Super PAC. And his nasty, nasty tweets.
Dr. Seuss often depicted the world as he wished it, with endings that were just and lessons that were learned. But that is not the world you are about to enter. The world outside of Hanover can be cold. Not “walking from the River Cluster to Dartmouth Hall in February to make a 7:45 a.m. language drill” cold, but cold.
It has been said, “He who stays the longest learns the most.” Actually, that wasn’t actually said by anyone; it was once carved on the wall in the basement bathroom of Alpha Chi. But it is true! Though no doubt some of you after all are way smarter than I am – many of you, probably – especially you with the glasses in the third row—I have picked up a few things along the way.
“He who stays the longest learns the most.”
Wise words from someone who probably had his pants down.
I wonder if whoever took that little knife and carved that into the Alpha Chi basement bathroom wall ever imagined that one day it would be invoked in a commencement address?
Whatever the case, it has truth. It speaks to the wisdom one accrues merely by continuing to exist and paying a modicum of attention.
So, what tangible advice do I have to share, having departed from this campus 26 years ago?
First, let me offer the quick and easy stuff. OK?
Always write thank-you notes.
Be a big tipper.
Always split Aces and Eights.
Call your folks.
Invest in a good mattress.
Shine your shoes.
Don’t tweet, post, Instagram, or email anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing on the front page of The New York Times.
Be nice to seniors.
Be nice to children.
Never miss an opportunity to charge an electronic device.
Use two-step verification.
Shake it off. Shake it off.
Stretch before exercising.
Stretch after exercising.
Never play keno.
Never drink airplane coffee.
Never pay $200 for a pair of jeans.
Never wear jean shorts; and
No one has ever had fun on a paddleboat.
You can get that from YouTube later. Those are the easy ones. But there are a few harder-fought lessons into which I would like to delve a bit further.
The first one is about you, right now. For you, my dearest Class of 2017. Even if you have jobs or grad school lined up, you are no doubt stressing a bit about the question: What are you going to do with the rest of your life?
And my first serious bit of advice to you is: Do not worry if you do not know what you want to do with the rest of your life; it is OK if you take years to figure it out. Wall Street, Silicon Valley, law school—they ain’t going anywhere.
I did not become a full-time journalist until I was almost 29. It took me a little time to figure out where my particular qualities of annoying persistence, uncomfortable observations, and curiously rooted self-regard might best be suited.
Now, our society worships the prodigies. The Mozarts. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is a sobering thought to consider that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for twelve years.
But to measure success by how old you are when you achieve it is silly. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wasn’t published until Mark Twain was 41.
Do not stress if you have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life. View these years, where your responsibilities are relatively few, as a journey, as an adventure. Adventures are not seamless trips from point A to point B; they have ups and downs and obstacles. And every crappy internship, every rude boss, every remedial chore that makes you wonder, “Why did I bother working so hard to get into Dartmouth and graduate from Dartmouth?”—it is all part of this voyage.
Every step of my trip to this stage today taught me something and guided me to here. The fall after graduation, I went to film school. I could not have been more unhappy. Flash forward a few years, more misery in Washington, DC, as the worst public relations flunky in the history of relating to the public. These were periods of ennui, angst, sturm undt drang, and many other words only the Europeans could have come up with. I felt like a complete and utter failure.
All part of the adventure. Do not take these moments that you will someday soon experience as failings or even as wrong turns. Public relations and my ineptitude in it steered me away from the world of spin, but it also showed me how PR executives spin, which gave me insight into how to cut through it. And, more importantly, it was while supporting myself as a PR flunky that I began writing freelance newspaper stories.
And that led me to my first full-time job as a reporter at Washington City Paper, a tiny free weekly newspaper, with an editor who was like a one-man journalism school, who saw in me a young man who did not take mistakes and errors seriously enough and browbeat that attitude out of me. If I had not worked under that man at that free weekly newspaper, I would not be on this stage right now.
At the risk of sounding like Oprah, embrace this adventure. Throw yourself into it.
Now. How to get started?
You know how your parents used say when you were younger that the world doesn’t revolve around you? You’re about to find out what they meant.
Because, believe it or not, until now, crudely speaking, the academic worlds in which you’ve been safely ensconced have been all about you—your teachers and your coaches, professors and advisers, from UGAs to President Hanlon—they have been focused on not only your education but your experience and your personal growth.
You are about to leave a warm and nutritious womb. Freshman trips, freshman groups, sophomore summer, tea at Sanborn, the Phys Ed requirement, all the rest... this incredible support system, these teams of people whose job it has been to turn you into an adult with skills and smarts and tools – caring about your mixers, about your happiness, about your comfort, about your birth control needs, about whether or not you drink responsibly, whether you’re doing okay, making sure you go to the dentist. I'm sorry to say, that ends tomorrow. You now have to do that for yourselves, and for each other.
Now, my little baby birds, you are expected to fly. Coach. Last row, middle seat.
There will be no UGA down the hall in your first apartment, and if there is one, that's not really a UGA; that's just a creepy dude trying to get on your Wi-Fi.
Now I’m not saying you should be scared about what tomorrow might bring. The real world's a cool place. There are plenty of nice and kind people. There's live music, fresh juices, hotels that don’t charge for the minibar. But the real world, unlike what you've experienced here, is a place of transaction.
What does that mean? Practically speaking, it means you can no longer rely on people in positions of power to do things for you because they care about you. The people you’re going to meet whom you need to help you get a job, or an apartment, or a loan, or advice—the people to whom later you will point to and say, “Hey, she gave me my first break!”—those people are looking for something in return.
What is that something? It can be tricky to figure out. It might be your loyalty, your respectability, that you have a diploma from Dartmouth, your brains, your cleverness, or your politeness. Different people are going to want you for different reasons, but your first boss and every boss you ever will have will want something very simple: your hard work and your good attitude.
Now, the transactional nature of the world might sound harsh but it isn’t necessarily.
Put it this way: A screenwriter sells her idea to a studio. The studio wants to make her movie. They start conducting screen tests. In this parable you're, say, Vin Diesel. You audition. You have to. No one is going to give you that job out of the kindness of their hearts. They need to have confidence that you will be Fast and Furious. So they can sell $380 million worth of movie tickets.
But here is the exquisite bit of good news, for those of you paying attention: Now you know this; now you know that it all comes down to you figuring out what you can offer them. It's a lesson it took me several years to learn—maybe even more than that, maybe a decade or two—but once I did it was invaluable.
I joined ABC News in 2003. In the 2004 presidential race, I was not assigned a candidate to cover. I can still list the reporters who were, by the way. I remember every one of them. I got nothing.
So I did the only thing I could do. Complain? No. I worked so hard in those intervening years to establish myself as a good and tireless political reporter, so hard they HAD to assign me a candidate in 2008, for their own good. It worked, and in 2008 I was finally assigned a candidate. My goal then became to be the White House correspondent. And I knew, again, there was only one way I would get that job. I had to be so skilled and tough and industrious and vigilant that, if my bosses at ABC News made anyone else the White House correspondent, they would look like idiots. I had to force them to give it to me out of their own best interests.
Now, I've come up with a lot of bad strategies and made a lot of bad decisions in my life. I’ve made enough bad decisions to fill five other commencement addresses. But this was a good one.
Have something that they want. And show it to them—over and over, every day. Make them need you. Work twice as hard as the job requires. Make sure they know that you will show up and act like a professional, that you don't feel entitled to anything.
Make them hire you for their own good, not yours.
Now, a word on the inevitable rejections that may soon shower upon you like a monsoon. Dr. Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before he found a publisher. As a young man, Robert Frost, class of 1896, received a rejection letter from the poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly with the note: “Our magazine has no room for your vigorous verse.”
In other words: Not every expert is expert.
Quite a few of them are going to be wrong about you.
Some of them will be downright idiots.
When my classmate Shonda Rhimes first pitched Grey’s Anatomy to a room full of older men, they told her that nobody was going to watch a show about a woman who has casual sex and threw a guy out the night before her first day of work—that that was completely unrealistic and that nobody wanted to know that woman. Shonda sat in that pitch meeting and thought, “Wow they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the world right now.”
Forgetting the critical, financial, and popular success of the show for a moment, Shonda can't even keep track of how many young women have told her that they were inspired to become doctors because of Grey’s Anatomy.
There might be a lot of rejection. Most of it you should not take personally. People making decisions are often wrong. Even the faculty of Dartmouth can get it wrong! Connie Britton, Class of ‘89, perhaps the best known and most critically acclaimed actress to have ever graduated from Dartmouth College, was not able to convince the Drama Department here to sponsor her to send to the League Auditions.
David Benioff, Class of ‘92, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter and co-creator of HBO’s Game of Thrones, he didn't get into English 80—three times.
But some of the rejection you should take personally. Some of it will be because of things you could be doing better. Try to figure out what those things are. Because you always can be doing something better.
To be honest, this never ends. The best and most successful people are constantly striving to be better. If you think that at 48 I think I’ve got it all figured out, kindly allow me to disabuse you of that notion. And I can provide multiple sources for that scoop.
And I can do that because I know it's important to surround yourself with people who love you and respect you enough to tell you the truth. And it is important to listen to them. Many people you will see rise to a level of success on which it becomes difficult to find people to challenge them and their ideas. And whether politicians or generals, news anchors, or CEOs, that inevitably leads to their downfall.
Look at what's going on in Washington, DC, right now. Tell me there aren’t people you can think of whose own careers would not be improved if they heeded the suggestions of a tough but loving staff of critics willing to share hard truths.
At my job at CNN, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who challenge me every day. From the top, to the side, to the bottom of the ladder. They make me better by sanding away my worst impulses. Class of 2017, get people like that around you. No matter how high you rise, do not get rid of them.
You're going to have friends who are willing to criticize you, and maybe you don’t want to hear it, and your impulse may be to show them the door; but if you spend the rest of your twenties amidst only the sycophantic and the shallow, you will wake up at 30 with a friendship hangover worse than a month of Jägermeister shots.
You know, it’s funny what sticks to your brain. I haven’t looked at the autographs in my high school yearbook since they were written in 1987, but I know that there’s one in there from a girl named Kate. She praised me for my cutting wit, but she also cautioned me to be careful about how I wielded that particular blade. And though I spent much of the next 20 years ignoring that lesson, much to my own detriment, I still remember that advice 30 years later because she was right.
Advice can sting. Ted Koppel once pulled me into his office after seeing an embarrassing TV pilot I was part of and told me that it was OK to tell my bosses “No.”
Charlie Gibson once told me to stop sending such pointed emails, that I would get a lot farther if I didn’t share every critical thought I had every moment I had it.
These were not easy criticisms to hear. But they were right. These were important people investing their time to try to make me better.
These kinds of lessons aren’t fun. No one enjoys hearing about how much of a jerk they are.
So let me also say while I prepare you for those moments: Absorb the lessons. Adapt accordingly. But do not be too hard on yourself. And listen to yourself, follow the better angel we all have in us steering us toward ways to be our best selves.
On October 3, 2009, I was sitting in my wife’s recovery room at a hospital in Washington, DC, holding our newborn son. On TV I saw a news story: That day, an outpost containing just fifty-odd US troops had been attacked by up to 400 insurgents. Combat Outpost Keating was built at the bottom of three steep mountains, the reporter said, in a particularly rough corner of Afghanistan just 14 miles from the Pakistan border. It was an ugly and brutal battle. The deadliest for the US that year. Eight American soldiers were killed.
And as I sat in the room that day holding my son, hearing about these eight other sons taken from their parents, from their wives, I wanted to know why. Why would anyone put an outpost in a such a dangerous place?
And more importantly, who were these people that were risking so much and sacrificing everything – people to whom I really didn't pay all that much attention, to be honest. Sure, I covered debates over troop levels—ten thousand, forty thousand—but those were statistics; those weren't people.
So, against the advice of a lot of people I knew, I decided to write a book about the men who fought and suffered and prevailed and died in that battle, about Combat Outpost Keating.
Writing that book was a long slog. Many doubters; many skeptics. And yet I felt compelled to tell the story of these troops and their families, people part of a world unfamiliar to me at the time, the world of the US military, of duty and sacrifice. In some cases, the ultimate sacrifice.
Hearing the stories firsthand of these men and women made me realize how little I had accomplished in the service of anyone other than myself.
“My God,” I told my wife one afternoon after I had been visiting with two Cavalry officers, Dave and Alex. “My God, these guys are amazing, and I am nothing. I have risked nothing and sacrificed nothing compared with these men.”
“But honey,” she said, “you can tell their stories. You can tell their stories.”
The book I wrote, The Outpost, remains the professional work I am proudest of. It is not what has resulted in the most Twitter memes, but it is the most meaningful. It was the one least about me; and it may be one professional achievement, maybe, perhaps, that has a chance of outlasting me.
That which you end up doing in the service of something greater than you – even if it means that you feel lesser, humbler, even worthless by comparison – by honoring the humanity of others, that will allow you to get in closer touch with your own.
And this is the most important thing I can tell you today, Class of 2017. Don’t just work hard at your job; work hard at everything. Work hard at being a friend. Work hard at being a partner, at being a son or a daughter, at being a grandchild, at being a steward in your community, at caring about people who have never had a day like the one you’re having today. At being the best YOU that you can be, Class of 2017, all of you, A to Z, from the best Alexander Abate to the best Jonathan Zuttah.
There are going to be moments like this one – a celebration of hard work well done, surrounded by family and friends. And then there are going to be moments when you feel alone and adrift, misunderstood, and hopeless.
Maybe right now it looks to you like someone like me effortlessly went from your seat to this stage. Let me assure you, there was effort. There was effort and there was pain and embarrassment and rejection and humiliation. False starts and false turns and mistake after mistake after mistake. But that's OK. That's all part of the adventure, and yours starts now.
Members of the Dartmouth College class of 2017 – you are already great. Now it’s up to you to become even greater.
Be bold. Be smart. Be brave. Be true.
Go forth and rock.
God bless you; God bless your families; God bless Dartmouth College of Hanover, New Hampshire; God bless the memory of EBA’s; and God bless the United States of America.
Thank you for the honor of a lifetime.