Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Katie Couric Comes to Princeton

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. That's a major point Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book "Outliers." He writes that to truly master something, you need to spend at least 10-thousand hours doing it. Take Bill Gates, for example. He dropped out of Harvard and he still became Bill Gates...by devoting his every waking moment to building and understanding computer codes. The Beatles might have seemed like an overnight sensation, but they played together more than a thousand times before that famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. For them, it really was a hard day's night...night after night after night...for four years!

I'm no Beatle or Bill Gates, but I've learned the importance of hard work, as well. I was a desk assistant at ABC News in Washington where my major responsibilities were Xeroxing (hey, it was the dark ages!) and making coffee. When I moved to what my network colleagues referred to as Chicken Noodle News in 1980, I finally got a chance to do some reporting...and the President of CNN said he never wanted to see me on air again. It could have been demoralizing; instead I found it motivating! And rather than let the turkeys get me down... I just kept practicing. And I actually got better.

Next, don't be a hater. Princeton has taught you to think critically, to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism...and that's a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say. But you really must guard against the cynicism and nastiness that are so pervasive today, particularly on the internet. It can be a wonderful, powerful and equalizing tool, but it's also populated by haters and trolls. People think they can say or do anything online under the cloak of anonymity. Don't get sucked in...In his book, entitled "Snark", David Denby writes, "Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you in assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You've been admitted or re-admitted to a club, but it may be a club of the second rate."

Third, I have a message particularly for all you young women here today...or as Beyonce might say, all the single ladies. John Lennon, once wrote "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

I'm sure you are all graduating with big career goals. You may also have a dream of being married and having a family, and at some point the career may take a backseat. There is no more challenging, rewarding or important job than being a mom. I just want to say this--sometimes dreams of domestic bliss are interrupted by reality. People get divorced. People die. You need to protect yourself. I was very happily married to a wonderful man. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and nine months later, he was gone. I was a single mom with two very young children. This was not part of the plan. Luckily, I had a career and therefore the financial independence to support my children. Many women in my situation are not nearly as fortunate. And while I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, I want you all to be prepared for the unexpected and approach some of the big life decisions you'll be making with your eyes wide open.

And another thing you probably need to realize: It's not all about you. As you venture out into this big bad world, I hope you each find a way to make it better. As anchor of the Evening News, I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was there for a matter of days...not months or years. No matter what your opinion may be about the wars this nation is fighting, the men and women of the military are making sacrifices every day...and deserve our respect and support when they're deployed...and when they come home.

Never underestimate the contribution you can make. Its been said: "If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito."

So give something back. After all, you're graduating from Princeton! You are so lucky. And do me a favor...thank your parents or whoever helped you achieve this goal. Then, transform your gratitude into action...and give back to a world that has already given you so much.

When President Obama announced he was choosing Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court it was a reminder that the American Dream is alive and well...that a young Puerto Rican girl who grew up in a housing project in the Bronx could earn a seat in the highest court in the land. She congratulated the single mother who raised her to be a judge and her brother to be a doctor. Parents, your children, too, can achieve anything because you gave them strong shoulders to stand on and the tools they'll need to succeed. Remind yourselves of this when they ask if they can come home and live with you while they look for work!

We can finally burn the bumper sticker that says: "he who dies with the most toys wins." The truth is closer to the old Italian Proverb that says: "At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box."

What really matters in the end is how you've played the game of life...that you've lived it with honor, integrity and character... old fashioned qualities that never go out of style...whether you're a fan of Ella Fitzgerald or Lady Gaga.

Finally, take some chances. Get out of your comfort zone, even if that's extremely uncomfortable.

Mark Twain once wrote, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do."

When I left the safe confines of NBC News, a friend wrote me a note that said, "Boats are always safe in the harbor. But that's not what boats are built for." So sail away, even if the waters are choppy and the territory uncharted...you'll be amazed at what you learn about the world and about yourself...and through it all, cherish the handful of people you can always depend on to throw you a life preserver when you need it the most. And don't forget to wear sunscreen.

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