Advice

Mo Rocca to Sarah Lawrence Grads: ‘You’ve Got Time’

May 20, 2016

Mo Rocca is an American humorist, journalist and actor

Thank you, President Karen Lawrence, Chairman of the Board John Hill, Trustees, distinguished guests, faculty, proud parents and, of course, you, the graduating class.

You, the Class of 2016, and I share something in common: We’re all approaching a milestone. You’re about to enter the “real world”—well, except for those of you going on to grad school. (Yes, let’s hear it for delaying the inevitable!) And next week I’m attending my 25th college reunion. You think you’re under pressure?

I’m girding myself for an epic contest of “who’s doing better at life?” “Me, I’m great! Things couldn’t be better. I mean, really they’re perfect… Yeah!”

It’s an honor to be your commencement speaker and a happy coincidence since I’ve been giving lots of thought to what I’ve learned in the quarter century since I finished college.

Many people will tell you—as they told me—that time is of the essence. Many people will tell you ruefully that youth is wasted in on the young. Many people will warn you that in an ever more competitive economy the clock is ticking.

Well many people are wrong. You’ve got time.

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Some perspective: Your great-grandparents—and some of you may be lucky enough to have known them—survived the Great Depression and defended freedom during World War II, defeating Hitler and the forces of darkness, ensuring that their progeny could also enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s a very good reason the women and men of that generation are known in history as the Greatest Generation.

Well, I did some research, and it turns out that the life expectancy of that generation was just 54. Your life expectancy is 76. That means that you can take a deep breath, chill out—catch up on House of Cards and Narcos—and spend the next 22 years figuring out what you want to do—and you could still end up matching the achievements of the Greatest Generation.

Now, before any parents rush the stage to strangle me,let me explain.

Some of you may not know exactly what you want to do or who you want to be. Your brain may be whiting out from too much possibility. Or maybe you’re simply drawing a blank. You haven’t found your passion. Well there’s no shame it that. Quite the opposite.

Let’s talk about me: A few weeks after I graduated from college I walked into the living room of the house I grew up in in Bethesda, Md. My mother was chatting with one of my aunts. I love this aunt, but she’s kind of a know-it-all. Anyway, she said to me, “Well, Maurice, now that you’ve graduated, what do you want to do?”

And right then and there, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I did my very first Kegel exercise. (Yes, men have those muscles, too.)

“Well,” I stammered, “I don’t want to become a doctor because it involves too many more years of school. I’m not going to become a lawyer because everyone hates lawyers. I’m not going to become a model because eventually my looks will fade. I don’t want to be an astronaut because, even though I’ve got the ‘right stuff,’ I just don’t like Tang—ask your parents. I’m not going to become an Internet mogul because the Internet doesn’t yet exist—”

My aunt cut me off: “You’ve told us what you don’t want to do, Maurice. But what do you want to do?”

I knew I wanted to do something creative. Performing, presenting, it would involve writing. I didn’t know what it would look like, though. It would have to be my own creation, and probably a struggle to figure out. I was excited—well, excited and scared.

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So I did what most people do when a clear path doesn’t present itself: I moved to Japan to study Kabuki while teaching English to support myself. Eventually, I moved back home, earned money as a roller skating waiter, then made my way to New York, where I auditioned for musical theater, eventually getting cast in the Southeast Asia Tour of the musical Grease. Standing room only in Jakarta. I played Doody.

From Kabuki to Doody: Those were my first three years. They may seem random. But I was doing the best thing I think you can do when you don’t know exactly what you want: I was saying yes.

Then a great opportunity came my way: My friend Stephanie dreamed up a show for PBS about a Jack Russell Terrier who in his fantasy life becomes the heroes of classic novels. The show was called Wishbone. She asked me to move to Texas to write for it. Of course I said yes.

Writing on that show meant taking some of the greatest stories ever told—the books I was supposed to read in college but hadn’t and which I’m sure you have—and retelling each in a half-hour for kids, with a dog in the lead role. (If you watch the show, it makes perfect sense.) It was storytelling boot camp.

But something else important and unexpected happened during that time. To work on Wishbone, I had to move to Dallas—not the dangerously sexy Dallas of JR and Sue Ellen (ask your parents) but the suburbs.

Now nothing against the fine people of the Dallas suburbs. But the suburb I moved to was a sea of shiny pointy McMansions, everything new and frankly soulless. There didn’t seem to be much of an acknowledgment of the past. It made me sad, disconnected. And I began to wonder who lived and died before me in the place I was living.

Read more: Darren Walker: ‘Stand For Something’

So when I came back east, I started making a point of reading historic markers every chance I got. And I began reading American history. And then—strange as it may sound—I decided I wanted to visit the homes and gravesites of the presidents that you can’t remember were president: All the guys between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, lots of facial hair, a couple of them were knocked off by anarchists. Most of them live in Ohio.

This wasn’t anything anyone asked me to do. No one was going to pay me. I was just curious—about these sites, the people who visited them and most of all the people who dedicated themselves to taking care of these sites. So without any sense of how this might serve me in the future, I bought a one-way ticket to Indianapolis, rented a car and alone drove all over the Midwest visiting these very overlooked historic sites. Now when you visit Monticello or Hyde Park or Mount Vernon, you’re in awe before you even walk in the door. When you visit the President Benjamin Harrison house in Indianapolis, you’re probably there to use the bathroom.

But at the Harrison House—he was our 23rd president, renowned for being sandwiched between Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms—I met Wanda Wheeler. A 70-something-year-old woman in a Victorian gown who’d volunteered there for over 20 years. When I arrived she was about to take a group of fourth graders on a tour. I joined them. I thought, “They’re going to eat her alive.”

But Wanda was so enthusiastic, so passionate about “Little Ben” (that was his nickname, odd since he had a pot belly, and no it’s not fat-shaming if the person’s been dead for over 100 years)—that by the end of the tour, I wanted to sandblast Mount Rushmore and replace it with Benjamin Harrison. Her passion infected me, sold me on something I didn’t expected to care so much about.

I began to write about my experiences at these offbeat historic sites. But I couldn’t find a publisher. Still I continued on. And after meeting a man who cross-dressed as First Lady Florence Harding at the President Warren G. Harding house in Marion, Ohio, I brought a couple of my stories to The Daily Show. The executive producer there liked the content of my stories—but I think what she really responded to was my passion for the material. She hired me, and that’s how I began a career telling stories on camera.

There was no agenda when I set out on the road. It was just what your great-grandparents might call a “yen.” An itch I needed to scratch. There was no grand five-year plan.

Because five-year plans usually don’t work. You know who liked five-year plans? Josef Stalin. Not a great role model. Totally totalitarian. Kim Jong-Un, leader of North Korea, just unveiled a five-year plan. I’m not going to talk about politics here. But I think we can all agree that that dude’s a lunatic.

So be careful about calculating. Unless you’re a math major. (You guys should calculate.)

I admire the people with clear vision early on: the Steve Jobs, the Misty Copelands, Alexander Hamilton. Though let’s bear in mind how things ended for Alexander Hamilton.

If you don’t know exactly what you want, count yourself lucky: Your life will unfold like the best kind of story—one with plot twists, suspense, irony, hopefully lots of lovers (I’ve always wanted to use the word “lovers” in a commencement speech) and a happy ending.

Sure, you’ll be scared along the way. But just tell yourself what I’ve always told myself: “You’re going to be fine. If things don’t work out, you can become a typist.”

I’m glad I said yes to Wishbone, yes to Benjamin Harrison, yes to Doody. And next week, at my 25th reunion, when people ask me if I’m where I want to be, I’m going to say yes—even if I’m faking it.

O.K., that feels like an end of a speech, but it’s not. I have some other things I’d like to impart which don’t fit neatly into the theme of what I’ve just been imparting. Here goes:

If someone asks you, “What are you working on these days?” it’s O.K. to say “My personal life.” Because it does require work.

Be careful about taking career advice from people who are less successful than you. Too often their advice is not to go for it.

Do not take romantic advice from people who have been single for more than five years or divorced more than twice. (I’ve spent years calibrating this formula and I think I’ve finally got it.)

Do not share a wet dessert on the first date. It’s okay to say no. (Cheesecake is right on the line. It’s only moist—and yes, I know you hate that word.) Sharing a wet dessert is like sharing soup for your appetizer.

It’s never too early to ask yourself if what you’re pursuing has any real meaning.

Everyone I know who has given up a high-paying job for something they care about has never regretted it.

Negativity is only O.K. if it’s really entertaining. If you’re just going to sit around bitching you’re wasting everyone’s time.

How a person votes says less about a person’s character than you may think. What matters more is how a person treats the people closest to her or him.

Guys should not dye their hair or overly whiten their teeth. Just don’t. It makes you look embalmed. And I never want to hear the word “brotox.”

At your wedding—and I’m not telling you you should get married and I’m certainly not telling you whom you should marry—but at your wedding, please do not have heavy hors d’oeuvres and a sit down dinner. No one will want to dance. And please, have a DJ. Look, I think an all-girl Mariachi band is great. In theory. But you can have them for cocktails ahead of time, not on the dance floor. And if your budget is limited, first priority is booze. Your guests will be very unhappy if, after the ceremony, they enter a reception area with elaborate flower arrangements but no open bar.

If you’ve still got your grandparents, spend time with them. So many of the virtues espoused by people your age—being true to yourself, speaking your mind, not being overly concerned with other people’s opinions—are actually embodied by your grandparents.

Beware of the feedback loop of social media. Yes, it’s an audience, and the promise of instantaneous reaction can be tempting. But there’s so much to be said for keeping things to yourself, incubating and protecting them, rather than putting something out there that’s not ready to be put out there. Who you are, your voice, is not something to be crowd-sourced.

Write thank you notes. The very act of writing a thank you note makes you feel more grateful. And it feels great to get one. A thank you email is better than nothing. A condolence text? Totally unacceptable.

Read more: J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in The Moment’

I leave you now with two musical theater quotes:

First, from Sunday in the Park with George:

“Move On
Stop worrying where you’re going
Move On
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on
Anything you do, let it come from you–
then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”

As you journey forth, figuring out what you’re meant to do, who you’re meant to be, try not to be afraid. And don’t focus on what I call the real estate. Don’t think, “Well, she’s already done, I can’t do that. He’s got that covered, what’s the point?” It will be different, quite possibly better when you do it.

(Besides, after over 5,000 years of human history it’s not like anything is original.)

And lastly:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with strings, these are a few of my favorite things.”

That’s from The Sound of Music. Really it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a fun song that makes me happy. And isn’t that the whole point?

So congratulations to Sarah Lawrence College’s Greatest Generation 2.0.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’