Hi everyone. While I, like all of you, I imagine, feel somewhat cheated out of a chance to congregate together on Folsom Field under a beautiful Colorado sky in the one of a kind city of Boulder. It seems somewhat apropos that a guy who delivers talks via the internet should be the inaugural speaker at the first virtual CU commencement.
I want to thank the students who thought of including me, Chancellor DiStefano, the faculty, and anyone else who had a hand in this. It is an unbelievable honor for me to be able to do this. Thanks to all of you.
As some of you know, I'm a podcaster and have been since 2005. It probably won't surprise you to know that I didn't study podcasting at Colorado. Back when I was in college, personal computers were still a really new thing and I actually remember going down to the CU Bookstore to see one. This was in 1986 I think, and if you had told me back then that I would someday be doing some sort of a show from my house, delivered to millions of people through computers and then on their phones? Well, I wouldn't have had a framework in which to process that.
I started college as a theater major at a school in Los Angeles before transferring to CU and changing majors to History. Both of those majors, by the way, as many of you know, fall into that dreaded category where people wonder what you will ever do in life to earn a living with it. When I was at CU, the History Department had this wonderful little pamphlet, I think it was green if I recall, called something like what to tell your parents about choosing History as a major. It was designed to give students some counterpoints when their parents said something like, what are you going to do with a History major? Be a high school history teacher? Which, first of all, is a great thing to be and I might not be here today except for some of those people. And yet, I can't help but notice that I use both my theater education, which I had thought for a long time was wasted class credit and hours, and my history education every day in my current work, every single day.
You couldn't have foreseen or sketched out plans for this in 1989, yet here we are. You can't predict how you will use your education. The world in which you will need it very well may not exist yet, but when it arrives you are going to be so much better off for having it than if you didn't have it. When I was here at CU, my advisor, History professor, and all around good guy Robert Pois told me about the German General, Helmuth Von Moltke The Elder who once reportedly said, in German of course, that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Boxer Mike Tyson made a similar point once saying that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. But folks, life is gonna throw some punches your way. You don't need me to tell you that. You've already likely taken a few. Life is all about the unexpected, right? You can have a plan for your future all laid out. Take the requisite steps towards your goal, do everything right, be on your way there, and then have some unexpected event like billiard balls caroming off one another on a pool table that sends you careening towards a completely different goal on a totally different life path.
My dad once told me, “If you could look back on your life from the end of your life and try to connect the dots that led you from where you began to where you finally ended up, you couldn't do it.” There are way too many strange detours and sharp, unexpected twists and turns that everybody encounters along their way. The way this current pandemic has completely changed everything we were doing before it happened is a wonderful life lesson in how quickly reality can turn on a dime. This will be one of those dots in your life trajectory someday that would have been tough to plan for. But the fact that you can't count on a fixed plan to be flexible enough to deal with all the unexpected things life will throw at you doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared.
I'm reminded of a line spoken by General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “In preparing for battle, I've always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” What you've been doing here with your time at CU is planning. Planning and preparing for a future that you can't anticipate. Mike Tyson may be right that your specific plans may go out the window after that first punch, but if you've trained well, learned your craft, become more aware, more seasoned, and more knowledgeable, you will have options you otherwise wouldn't have. You will have a better chance to roll with life's punches and maybe even land a few of your own because if you want to get to where you want to go, I'm here to tell you, you can't just play defense here.
You're going to have to take some chances in this life. In the Broadway musical Hamilton, the lead character sings or raps that he's not throwing away his shot. Too many people in life don't take theirs. Often it's because the important opportunities in your life aren't apparent until you've seized them. You can only tell how pivotal they were after the fact. I've often looked back on my life – the things I did that ended up altering the entire trajectory of my existence – and marveled at how close I came to not doing them. At the time, it wasn't clear that he was such a big deal. You just don't know until you try. I got my first job as a television reporter after sending an audition tape to a news director who told me explicitly not to send him one. The man said they had no turnover at their station and that there was no job to give me. The quality of the tape itself didn't matter at all. My stepfather, however, told me to send him one anyway. I was loath to do this because those tapes were expensive and I didn't have many of them, but I sent out the tape anyway and the news director called me a week later, said he had an unexpected rash of people quitting and how soon could I start? What if I hadn't sent that tape? I mean, I nearly didn't. My bemoaning the cost and effort involved almost cost me a heck of a lot more than a $20 videotape and some time. While I was a reporter, I did a news story one day at a radio station and I was struck with a random thought that maybe I should just drop the program director that I just met a little note thanking him. It didn't seem like a big deal either way; I could take it or leave it. I vacillated about it. I almost didn't do it, but at the last minute I just said, “What the hell,” and dropped the note in the mail. He called that week and said, have you ever thought about going to talk radio? Again, my life changed course completely in a positive way by something I couldn't have foreseen or planned for in advance and that I nearly didn't do.
While I was in the radio business I worked with a fabulous person who became my friend, but then a person who was going to leave and move to a bigger town. I thought about writing her a note and telling her I'd like to ask her out, but it seemed like something that might backfire, you know, workplace romance and all that. I remember almost chickening out. I was going to put the note under her windshield wiper and I went back and forth. Do I? Don’t I? I finally just left the note on the car windshield, walked away, and left it in fate's hands as I recall, thinking. Well, she read the note and decided to stay and she's been my wife for 20 years now and we have two wonderful kids. But what if I hadn't left that note? I mean, I almost didn't.
But in the connect the dots story of my life, the tape that that news director led me to sending a letter to a radio boss, which led me to meeting the person who would give him my whole current life. Oh yeah, it was my wife's mother who also first suggested I do a podcast about history. So if I don't send that tape to the news director who told me not to, I'm probably not talking with you here today. It is absolutely terrifying to me to think how thin a reed my whole life today rests upon. The worst part was that I had no clue that those things I almost didn't do were in effect: my shots. But getting your shot is only half the battle.
Once you get it, then you have to make good on the opportunity. This is where your years of planning and hard work comes into play. Getting, for example, a transformative job means nothing if you get fired soon afterwards for not being able to do it well, and most jobs require some basic foundation in skills and knowledge and then the ability to learn more. CU gave me both the skills to put myself in a position to be offered these gigs and the knowledge – not the specific knowledge of how to do those jobs. After all, I didn't study journalism, broadcasting or podcasting in school – but the lifelong ability to know how to keep learning. This is one of the most important skills you've gained through your planning. You were prepared to learn more. This skill will be your salvation. We live in an era where the ability to be a lifelong self-educator is absolutely indispensable, so regardless of whatever specific degree you've earned or what subject you majored in, what we're really celebrating here today is the culmination of this stage of your life's work in making you better able to deal with whatever comes your way – positive and negative.
You're going to be blindsided by events, both joyous and not, your entire life. What you've done by completing this chapter in your personal story is hedge against the future. You don't know what's coming. Who can? But because of the work you've put in, you have become a more formidable individual. A more formidable version of you will be better able to roll with whatever punches await, while also putting you in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way in life. Think about who you were when you started here at CU and think about yourself now that you've finished. You've done the equivalent of leveling up in this role playing game or computer simulation called “Life.” This impacts everything for the rest of your days in ways that will be both obvious and not. A more formidable you will be a better employee, boss, parent, and maybe even person.
You may not be able to count on your specific plans for the future. They may get derailed or you may fall in love with another path, but because of your efforts and hard work, you're going to be more prepared for all of it. And remember to take your shots along the way because you never know which ones are going to pay off until you're in a position later on to connect the dots of your own past.
With one exception, I can guarantee you that the shot you took when you applied to this institution is one you will never regret. I don't have to wait until the end of your life to tell you that. I speak from experience. Congratulations Buffaloes on radically improving your chances in life. Go make the world a better place. I am so proud of you all. Go Buffs.