“GMA” news anchor Josh Elliott gave the commencement speech at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut on May 19. Below is the text of his address:
It's an honor to be asked to speak to you, on a day that must've felt so far off, for so very long. I remember the haze of my graduation day, for which the night BEFORE my graduation was only PARTIALLY responsible.For almost two decades, you trudged to summer's beginning, knowing that the next year would be here, soon enough. And now, for a great many of you, summer will have a new name--LIFE. You've taken your last final...given your last excuse...procrastinated the last time, as you inhaled the Internet's innards for hours at a time, learning about everything else other than what that last assignment actually called for. Yes, for many of you, this is the last pseudo-requirement of your educational careers. Which also means that the vast majority of you have already stopped listening (except for those of you unlucky enough to be here in the front row--I appreciate it). So by all means, work your iPhones and tablets, for today, you finally get to say that, for most of you,you're simply putting your degree to work, and communicating.
I did so myself today, Tweeting congratulations to the esteemed graduates of the great Quinnipiac University today. It's a remarkable thing to have done--traversed two decades of organized education, that began before Google and Facebook--two places where homework deadlines would go to die. When you began in preschool and kindergarten, you still leaned towards Play-Doh and Crayolas. The idea of the then-boxy, clunky personal computer...as a student necessity? Never. When you were beginning your educational careers, we were still using typewriters--without irony. Now, technology isn't just fast and efficient and seemingly all-powerful, it's also cotton-candy light and flat as a board, whether it's the TVs hanging on our walls, or the iPads that make you wonder how we ever survived with just some...ANCIENT, FIRST-GENERATION iPhone, while we painted caves and hunted woolly mammoth. I think back to the days when you didn't begin spelling the word "book" with an"E-hyphen"...when libraries were buildings and not computer files...when the University of Phoenix would've actually been IN Phoenix...and I'm even more amazed at your accomplishment. For as the ability to deliver knowledge quicker and more thoroughly grew, so did the expectation that you' dbe able to consume more of it. So today...as you finally push yourself from the table, stuffed full of facts and figures and foreign languages...know what a staggering achievement it is, that you've all managed.
In doing so, I'd also like to acknowledge those who truly drew the collective short straw today--the wonderful graduates of the Schools of Health Sciences and of Nursing, who now must feign interest in a guy who struggles with the application of a Hello Kitty Band-Aid and think, Boy, these four years were DEFINITELY worth it. But believe me, it's true when they say it takes a village...if only because for every one of the village's medical professionals, there's also a village idiot, in dire need of you. To you, I can only apologize for my presence today, and ask that you...get out there and help save lives. And know that when you give ME THAT NEXT SHOT, I don't TOTALLY HATE you. No, that wears off by the time I'm done with my lollipop.... But to effectively treat fragile folks such as myself, of course, you'll have to rely on your years of education and training, but also, your intuition and sense of context and situation.
And it is IN THAT NEXUS that ALL of you, as you leave today and doff your ill-fitting robes and surely nurse your hangovers (if nothing else), are joined as one. Because there's one thing ALL OF THE THREE SCHOOLS represented here today have done together, in choosing the seemingly dissimilar professional paths you're about to walk. You've all decided to go into the BUSINESS OF BEING RIGHT, all the time. Whether you're going to work every day in a TV newsroom or a research lab, a PR department or a hospital ward, you will be bound by the need to not be wrong, ever. And while I promise that THAT IS AS SCARY as this little speech will get today, it's also a statement derived from fear. Writing this, I was terrified not just of being someone you'd look back and say, "The MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF MY LIFE and he RUINED EVERYTHING"...not just of boring you to tears or making you wonder how to get these 15 minutes of your life back...but also, it was the terror that I wouldn't adequately prepare you for the notion that when you finally start a life of paychecks and 401Ks and Casual Fridays, you've all chosen to do so in professions where either YOU ARE RIGHT...or you're soon unemployed, or worse.
Those of you who've chosen to exist in communications have made a brave choice. You enter a limitless world, with an insatiable need for information. As the sentinels or the seekers, you will require fortitude...for as media proliferates, the business models for for capitalizing it collapse in on themselves. Traditional media increasingly are portrayed as bogged dinosaurs, on their way to fossil fields...even as content--and access to it--multiplies exponentially. And that access, instantaneous and unchecked,just made your jobs both much more interesting--and far more difficult.
Social media have connected our lives, as we live them right this second, more dynamically and more completely than ever before. A world of smartphones and Twitter can become so many vast things, so quickly--a global candlelight vigil; the world's sports bar; a universal jury of our peers.People turn to them to celebrate together, and to mourn as one. Congressional hearings and Presidential press conferences and Papal elections are parsed and conducted there. And a world watches its tiny screens now, as a city sits under lockdown during the hunt for evil as twilight falls on Watertown, MASS--all captured in 140-character bursts. Kids even younger than yourselves experience Twitter as your parents (and yes, as I) did a newspaper. With unfathomable technology behind it, Twitter is the most nimble purveyor of information we've ever known.When was the last time you learned something new, from a newspaper, or even,given my gig, from a TV show? And now, when was the last time you learned something from your Twitter feed? Probably ten seconds ago, on your iPad, while I was up here blathering. But it's no less true.
But it's also where the new-world evils lurk, when information and technology are employed inappropriately...or really, when those doing so place a premium on the wrong things. It is THEN when that same media becomes anti-social...and worse, very dangerous. For news, incomplete or unverified or best-guessed-at, isn't news at all—it’s rumor and innuendo and a BIG FAT LIE, themselves the silent killers of the Information Age. You can delete a tweet--but really, you can't erase the exchange of information. Wiping away the fingerprint doesn't mean you didn't commit the crime. The access to information is only as good as the information itself.
Moreover, I'm struck dumb by the courage and conviction of a choice others of you here today have made--to literally hold life in your hands. It's a truly remarkable one--largely because, again, you are choosing a life where being wrong isn't an option. We in the journalism game assuage ourselves with the idea that "well, at least it's not brain surgery"--but for some of you, it might actually be. That's no small choice...and no minor responsibility.
So I urge you, regardless your affiliation with the information communicated...no matter where you are, on the chain of exchange--whether it's statistics from the ballfield or the lab; a politician's quote or a patient's daily dosage--PLEASE, PLEASE...BE RIGHT. It will be,forever...first and last...the only thing that matters--and maybe the one thing upon which you all agree, when you all return for your 20-year reunion, and hazily recall how lousy the graduation-day speech was.
And so, I come bearing a gift, albeit one that you can't exchange for something you'd really hoped for. It's actually more of an invitation--one offered after I thought these last few months about what on earth I might offer you, in a one-size-fits-all way, before you collectively make this world a better place, on this day when symbolically, everything is possible.
I offer you a simple, and as I've come to learn, wonderful opportunity. Namely, the chance to treat yourselves--whether for a year or two,or a last summer...or a few weeks, or even these next few hours...the chance to treat yourselves...TO A MISTAKE. You've earned it. If you sit here today wondering if that tassel is on the right side, YOU HAVE EARNED IT. The chance to take the road that's less traveled FOR A GOOD REASON. I want you to face even one QUESTIONABLE decision--and maybe get it wrong...AND TO enjoy it. Keep it clean, keep it legal, keep it safe--but MAKE ONE CHOICE others question, and ENJOY IT. You are ALL hurtling at warp speed toward career tracks of ABSOLUTE CORRECTNESS. So please...try a day-trip to the Land of PERHAPS, maybe a quick visit to The World of WHY NOT?
Lord knows I did. When I was YOU--fresh out of college, and sure I knew what was to come next--I thought for sure I was going to be a movie-studio mogul. I was going to run Hollywood, and make all the movies that all of you now want to illegally download. I was going to stay in my hometown of Los Angeles, and run the show. Sure, I'd written for the school paper,freelanced a bit, but that was, I thought then, just a way I'd passed the time.And so, I was on my way, ensconced in LA and living a life I thought I was supposed to live...when a dear friend entered the Peace Corps in Slovakia.After about a year, he was writing increasingly despondent letters, telling of being stuck in an Eastern European backwater. I thought, I'd better go visit him, cheer him up, assure him that he'd be back in LA in no time, just like me.So I took a leave from my job, convinced another friend to quit his job to go with me, and off we went, for three weeks that couldn't pass quickly enough.
Or so I'd thought. At least until the plane landed...and we began making a spellbinding way to the Slovakian-Hungarian border, where we found that our friend had been looking for sympathy, while he lived in Wonderland--a new life I'd never before conceived. And suddenly, those three weeks became two months. And suddenly, I was out of a job that wouldn't wait.And still...as we bid farewell, we didn't return. We just kept going...the other way.
And as our debts grew...and our parents screamed overlong-distance phone calls, we were told, in no uncertain terms, to GET HOME...to HURRY UP...to GROW UP. As I saw the world's wonders--the Parthenon and the Louvre and the Pyramids, Vatican City and the Old City of Jerusalem,the Roman ruins of North Africa and the cave dwellings of ancient Turks--my life was changing. Because I was ALSO seeing the slums of Cairo, poverty unlike any I'd ever seen...and the happiness of the Bedouin tribes along the Gulf of Aqaba, who had nothing and remain, to this day, the happiest people I've ever known. And as more months passed, and we heard the pleas from home to stop making the biggest mistake of our young lives, I was living in the Sinai mountains--falling asleep under a sky ablaze with more stars than I'd ever seen...poorer than I'd ever been and yet, finally...HOME. When I finally landed at LAX, penniless and wayward, I had only one thing to show for the biggest mistake I'd ever made. Simply, A REASON TO LIVE.
For under those stars, and in those slums, and standing atop a mountains overlooking the cradle of Western Civilization, I'd learned how wonderfully small I really was, how insignificant my successes and failures were--and how many stories there were tell, of the successes and failures of billions with whom we share this world. My reasons to live. I returned to LA,tried the Hollywood game...and found out that I didn't want to play it. And one move to New York City...and more than a decade as professional journalist,including my last two, spent in a sort of living heaven at ABC News...that trip remains the best mistake I've ever made.
It was something I thought about just a month ago, when I had to return to Vatican City--this time, for work. A few weeks prior, the Pope had retired--something that hadn't happened in almost 600 years. SIX HUNDRED YEARS, when my professional ancestors didn't yet have the luxury of a typewriter. I was there to see the final days of a worldwide momentum, as hundreds of thousands poured into Rome, come to see history. I was there on that rainy Wednesday, when so many of those thousands packed every spare molecule surrounding St. Peter's...there, when that smoke poured forth from the Sistine Chapel--which, despite all you're prepared for, one STILL can't quite tell if it's black or white because it's, ya know...SMOKE. And there, when a Jesuit from South America shocked one billion Catholics, and so many more, as we met Pope Francis. And while I wondered on national television what it might be like to become so intensely powerful and famous in a flash, as I stood dressed in a suit and tie and slathered with pancake makeup...I also couldn't help but think back to when I walked those same streets when I was YOU...T-shirt and shorts, barely able to afford a gelato, in awe of Michelangelo's genius inside that same Sistine Chapel. And in that moment, AS EVER, I remained thankful for my glorious mistake.
So, here's the deal, then: Without the great professors and administrators of Quinnipiac, with their experience and expertise and structure, mistakes are now how you will learn. You'll try things, not succeed,and hopefully, try them again. To think, you worked this hard...came this far...to be released into a world that sounds more like preschool arts and crafts. AS IT SHOULD--for when were we ever really happier than with a table piled high of colors and textures and POSSIBILITY--when we could make whatever we wanted, and so, BE whatever we wanted? Because as we arts'd-and-craft'd, we did so bound only by our imaginations, by our dreams--where mistakes don't exist, but rather...new choices, to be made.
So know this: the mistakes you make today, you make in thepursuit of of your dreams. I ask, then, that you love those dreams as I still do.I ask that you love those dreams as I now love my daughter, for they--like she--are what you have to live for. They, like she, are guiding lights and organizing principles--the things you choose never to forsake.
That's what I thought about just a few days ago, as I finished this speech, and my 4-year-old daughter Sarina sat at the same table and drew stick figures of herself, as a zookeeper and a soccer player and an astronaut. I thought about how much I loved her, and how lucky she was, to be whatever SHE wanted to be, three times in a single afternoon.
Welcome to that world. Or really, welcome BACK to it....