Commencement Address – Kathy Best
University of Illinois Springfield
May 11, 2013
(Kathy takes out iPhone, holds it up. slowly turns and films the people seated behind her and the audience in front.)
Thanks for indulging me. I didn’t actually go to my own commencement, so want to be able to share this with my friends on social media.
But you know all about that.
20 years and two weeks ago, the World Wide Web was born. And you became the first generation to grow up with the world at your fingertips.
Starting with that big screen on your desk and graduating to smaller, faster and cooler devices, you took for granted that you could instantly, effortlessly establish connections across borders and time zones.
You could follow real-time revolution in Egypt. Join global chats on climate change or the latest cancer treatments. Get instant images from do-gooder friends building hospitals in Guatemala or houses in Haiti.
Of course, most of you didn’t actually use your power that way. You LOL’d on Facebook with your all your friends when your cat coughed up a hairball. You personally added 400 You Tube views to Psy’s Gangnam Style video. And you checked in with TMZ daily for the latest on Honey Boo Boo and Mama June.
Tell me, Class of 2013, is this really the way you want to use your power?
I understand that having instant access to almost infinite information can be terrifying.
When I was sent to Washington, D.C., as a summer vacation-relief reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I almost drowned. Not in the Potomac, but in the tidal wave of information generated hourly by all of those government agencies, all those Congressional offices and all those interest groups.
There was so much coming so fast that I couldn’t keep up. I flailed in information overload. I didn’t know how to choose. I couldn’t focus. I questioned whether I was cut out to be a reporter. And I almost quit.
The only thing that saved me was my passion.
I loved telling stories. I loved connecting dots that others hadn’t. I loved explaining complex topics with elegant clarity. I loved calling out hypocrites. Exposing poseurs. Knowing things first and spreading the news.
I loved being a journalist.
And I was lucky, because that lightning bolt struck while I was still in college. Granted, I’d been there a couple of years, moving from pre-med to English to political science and even stopping briefly at oceanography despite being a thousand miles from the nearest saltwater.
I hope that brilliant flash illuminating your life’s calling already has happened for you. But if it hasn’t, remember this: What you are getting today is a college degree, not a life sentence to do only what that diploma says. This should be the beginning of your quest, not the end.
My passion to make the world a better place by asking questions and telling stories gave me the courage, despite my dismal summer, to come back to Springfield — to the Statehouse press corps – and get better. I looked hard at what I had done successfully, looked even harder at what I really wanted to do and gave myself permission to do it.
The writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell called this “following your bliss.’’ If you could identify the thing you were most passionate about and give yourself over to its pursuit, he wrote, “you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.’’
“Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,’’ he said. “and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.’’
This is a lot harder than it sounds. You have student loans to pay back. You have parental expectations to meet. You live in a world that measures success by the size of your paycheck. You have boyfriends and girlfriends and children who see you without really knowing you. You want the security of a stable profession; the comfort of a place you know.
I get that. But at 56 looking back to 26 and 24 and 22, I can tell you that if you fail now to follow your passion, you’ll walk right by some pretty damned interesting doors.
In my case, those doors led me from Sullivan, Ill., where my brother and nephew still run the family newspaper, to Springfield and St. Louis. Then Washington and Seattle. Then back across the country to Baltimore. And finally, back again to Seattle.
Yes, you could argue, this is evidence that I can’t hold a job. But in taking those risks and following my passion, I have had some amazing adventures.
I’ve covered or edited stories about an historic flood on the Mississippi River, a 6.8 earthquake in Seattle, Hurricane Katrina’s physical and social devastation, the revelation of a trillion-dollar boondoggle at the NSA. I’ve been inside the room in Washington, D.C., where the Supreme Court deliberates and twice at the table where Pulitzer Prize finalists are chosen. I’ve been to the far northwest tip of the continental U.S., where the Makah Indians held the first legal whale hunt in a century. And I’ve flown over snowy Iowa on a campaign plane singing Buddy Holly songs with other political reporters as we secretly hoped we would not share his fate.
I helped my newsrooms win some prizes along the way, including the first Pulitzer Prize for breaking news that specifically recognized real-time reporting using our website, Twitter and other digital tools to give frightened readers information about the hunt for a man who walked into a coffee shop and gunned down four police officers. I was the managing editor for digital news and innovation at the time, a job I took with very little Web experience but with a vehement belief that we needed to provide great journalism online to remain relevant – especially to readers like you who no longer get their information on dead trees.
I also met the man I love, following my passion for him across 3,000 miles to see where it would lead. We eloped to Italy, starting an adventure that continues today.
Frequent flyer miles are not a prerequisite for following Campbell’s advice. Your passion may take you no farther than your own backyard. And that’s OK.
The key is this: When you wake up each day, are you excited about what it may bring? When you come home each night, do you feel like you’ve made a difference? Because of the work you do, is the world a better place?
Technology has opened the world to you. The wisdom of the ages, once locked in libraries, can be accessed on your cell phone. And the experience of the crowd, once confined to your neighborhood, now extends around the globe.
Mine it. Own it. Follow your bliss.
As a very wise woman once told me, life is not a dress rehearsal.
When you walk out of this hall today and onto your global stage, know that this is it. Your one shot.
Give it everything you’ve got. Make sure, when the curtain comes down, that you’re exhausted – that you’ve wrung every last drop of joy and wonder and pain and awe from life.
Find your passion. And live it.