Question Everything. Keep Learning. And Always Order the Special.
What a day! A glorious day. A perfect day for a graduation. It's a day of pomp and ritual and silly hats. What more can you ask for on a spring Saturday in Greensburg?
Here's the truth. I've been nervous about giving this speech since I first got the invitation from Dr. Boyle. Full of trepidation, to put it mildly. Maybe because I think I haven't been to many commencements since my own graduation from high school. I graduated from college but did it in December and didn't ever go to a ceremony like this. And I want to be worthy of this event.
But I try not to turn down unexpected invitations. You probably heard that Kurt Vonnegut died last month. Well, I often think of something that he wrote in his book called Cat's Cradle. [Vonnegut was one of my heroes, and few books are as easy and fun and terrifying as Cat's Cradle. And if you don't know it, get a copy.] It includes a religion that Vonnegut invented, or a character in the book invented, called Bokononism. Bokonon is the character. And one of the tenets of this religion is that "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
I've re-interpreted that to mean "travel" in any sense, even just 35 miles from Pittsburgh to Greensburg. I now rephrase it as "Unexpected invitations are dancing lessons from God." That's really why I'm here.
And, of course, soon after I said yes to President Boyle, it was announced that that other school nearby would have the President of the United States there as its commencement speaker. No pressure there. No matter what you may think of the guy… that's calling in the big guns. The President of the United States. I just make programs for public television…
But here we are. It's a landmark day in so many people's lives. Congratulations to all you students who have done it: gotten your degree. You will soon have what the Wizard of Oz told the Scarecrow was more important than a brain: a diploma. Congratulations also to all you connected people who've helped make all this possible: families, professors, and teachers, and role models. Friends. I'm guessing most of you who aren't wearing a silly hat know at least one person who is.
These are people here who today are marking the completion of this phase of their education.
But it's just one phase. I can see that most of you are annoyingly young. But what is youth if it’s not the need and the will to learn? And so I’ll take the moment to offer some bits of advice.
Take advantage of your youth. Do lots of stuff. Goof off. I know that I'm not that different than the guy who graduated from college 32 years ago. And I'm warning you: just a moment from now, you will turn around, and it will be 32 years since your graduation. And you want to fill those years with exciting and worthwhile experiences. And keep your education going, filling in the gaps. Oh, you’ve learned a lot here at Seton Hill, but I’m guessing there are some details you’ve missed.
Gaps in education make me think of a story that my cameraman Bob Lubomski told me.(Bob happens to be here today, but I didn’t plan that.)Bob has a million stories. One of my favorites is about a trip after he got out of the Army. He and a buddy decided to spend some time out west, driving to Vegas and Palm Springs and such, celebrating. They had some wild times I’m sure as they headed toward the Pacific, and one night after some big time partying, they tried to follow a suggested short cut, an “unexpected travel suggestion.” And they ended up lost, somewhere in the desert, and pulled over to the side of the road and decided to sleep for a while in the car. When they woke up the next morning, Bob's buddy says, "Wow. Where are we? Which way do we go?" And Bob says, "Well, I don't know where we are, but the sun's over there, so that's north, and we head north till we find a left turn and that'll point us toward the Pacific."
And the buddy says,"How do you know all that?"
And Bob says, "Well, you know, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West."
And the buddy says, "Every day?"
It was just one of those gaps, one of those days that guy was absent from grade school.
But at least he was still asking the questions and learning. There's tons that we all don't know -- even if we have a degree.
Now I don't want to waste your time with a lot of advice. I think the best advice in life is simply two words: Question everything. Be skeptical. Don't blindly accept what anyone tells you. Reconsider. Think. How can you know what is the truth? But you've been in school for many years now. You know that questioning everything is crucial. It's what education is all about. Educated people don't agree with everything they hear on TV. They don't agree with everything they read. They question. Everything.
I think some of my nervousness today comes from questioning all this. How can I be of help or interest to you students? Should I have sat down as soon as I said "Congratulations?" Why exactly did you invite me to do this?
Well, the truth is, I have an interesting job. And when I think about my job, advice and graduation, I think of my dad. I was very lucky. And I wish you luck. I was lucky because when I graduated from college, thirty-two years ago, my dad told me to wait for the right job. And he helped pay my bills till I found one that I really wanted. I don't want to put a damper on the day, but I remember the 6 months after I graduated as the worst days of my life, trying to find my first real job. I wanted to work in TV. No matter what you’re interested in, you may be in for some of the same. Good luck. Work at it. Wait as long as you can. Wait for a job you want, doing at least some of the things you've learned to love while you've been in school. Or at least a step toward things you love. No one below the age of 30 wants to hear that you may have to pay some dues before you get to do exactly what you want to do, but it often works out that way.
But I wish for you a job as good as the one I now have, a job that comes with a built-in educational component. My job forces me to learn new things constantly. It's a job that changes all the time, and a job that lets me meet and talk with new people in ever changing environments: from Kennywood to coal mines, hot dog shops to cemeteries. I know there are people who hate their jobs and who hate getting up in the morning, but not me, and not most of the people I work with. I wish you the luck and the perseverance to find your way to such a situation. Now, I remember another bit of advice my dad gave me: In a restaurant, especially at lunch, always order the special. Now this may seem like frivolous advice at a graduation, but I think it's really the kind of common sense reminder that sometimes gets forgotten in the course of formal education. Food is important and powerful. It's often the start of good conversation, pleasant times and strong friendships. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English writer, once wrote that a person who doesn't pay attention to what he eats probably won't pay attention to anything else either. Order the special.
While I was in high school, one of my teachers, Dr. William Switala, gave our class a bit of practical advice that I've remembered ever since. It was this: Always be reading a book. His point was that reading was one of the things that elevated us humans above the other animals. He didn't mean that you had to be constantly reading, but rather that you should always be in the middle of at least one book, maybe two or three. And when you finish one book, start another one right away. I've done that ever since. And I encourage you to do the same. Don't watch so much TV. Turn off the computer every now and then. But always be reading a book.
I'll tell you: it helps to read the newspaper every day too. On-line if you're so inclined, but the actual paper is still an amazing bargain. Full of information and opinions and stuff you might need to know. I'm often looking for articles that include a bit of local history because many of my programs deal with life and history in western Pennsylvania.
And my next bit of advice has to do with the Pittsburgh area, western Pennsylvania and young people like most of you. My advice: Get the hell out of here. Even if it’s just for a month or two. Get out of this world for a while, especially if you've been here for years. Go on a trip. If you haven't ever really traveled anywhere, go now. Leave this country. Check out Afghanistan! [Note: Seton Hill University honored Dr. Thomas Gouttierre, one of the country’s foremost experts on Afghanistan, with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the commencement exercises for which Sebak served as speaker.]
See what people think of America and Americans from a distance. If you have already been places, go somewhere new, some place you've never been. Go to Paris. Hong Kong. Australia. Prague. Go to Buffalo if you've never been there. Go somewhere. See everything. Spend some time in a coastal city. Global warming may change all of them sooner than we think. As far as I'm concerned, Pittsburgh is a pretty wonderful city, for lots of reasons, but there are other wonderful places elsewhere too. You can come back. Lots of people do. Me included. Remember: "Peculiar travel plans are dancing lessons from God."Be sensitive to those opportunities.
I love Pittsburgh, but I loved living in South Carolina for 11 years too, and I went to school in North Carolina, and I lived in France for a year when I was 20. I wouldn't give up those experiences for anything. The truth is though, getting out and about gets harder as you get older and you start accumulating baggage. For most of you, now is sublime. Go. You may eventually come back and love this part of the world for a whole new set of reasons, but it's good to see things and gather some experiences while you can. Take a hike.
And while you're out and about, talk to people. I took a course in Journalism once, and my teacher, Bill Emerson, at the University of South Carolina, had written an essay about “The Importance of Small Talk.” You know, just shooting the breeze. Telling jokes. Interacting with people. Playing around with folks. The way you treat people every day -- the cashier at the grocery store, waiters and waitresses, the dry cleaner, the people at the coffee shop, guys at the gas station -- that's not trivial. All that's very important because it's an everyday manifestation of your personality, and that may be your most important work: creating your personality. Your small talk reveals a lot about how you value and appreciate your fellow human beings. Of course, your family and good friends are very important, but don't discount how you treat the rest of the world. Make good small talk.
And remember you're not alone. Appreciate the people who have helped you and who help make you the person you are.
Now because I've worked for a while in public television in Pittsburgh, of course I knew Mister Rogers. He gave a lot of commencement speeches, and he had this good trick, this gimmick, where he'd ask people to pause for a minute and think about the people who helped you get here. People he called, “those who nourish you at the deepest part of your being ... anyone who has ever loved you and wanted what was best for you in life." He'd say, "Some of those people may be here today. Some may be far away, some may even be in Heaven, but if they've encouraged you to come closer to what you know to be essential about life, I'd like you to have a silent minute to think of them." Well, I'm not going to give you Fred's silent minute, because you’re probably doing it already. You can do it anytime. Think about parents and family and the people who've helped you get to this moment in your life. People who helped financially or spiritually or intellectually. Everybody can do this, and we don't do it enough.
You know, I mentioned my dad earlier, and I should have mentioned my mom. And all they taught me. I mentioned a couple of teachers. There were many. The people I traveled with. Kurt Vonnegut, my cameraman Bob, even Mister Rogers himself. Think of the people who have helped you get this far, and, as Fred would say, "Imagine how grateful they must be that at this extra special moment in your life, you're remembering them with such thanksgiving."
Before we go,let me recap. Remember all the people who have helped you. Make good small talk. Travel. Get away for a while. Always be reading a book. Order the special. Try to find a job that makes you happy and ready to get up every morning. And, most importantly: Question everything, including everything I've told you today. Your education is not over. And tomorrow the sun will rise in the east and set in the west…
How odd it is to hear myself saying some of these things. But how wonderful to have this opportunity. Thank you. And congratulations again. You’re educated, off to seek your fortune. The best of luck. Find a future where you continue your education. Where you learn the proverbial something new every day.
And when your buddy looks at you and says “Every day?”
You can say “Every day.”
My time is up. Your time is just beginning. Congratulations.
Rick Sebak, producer, WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh, served as commencement speaker at Seton Hill University on May 12, 2007. Sebak is the creator of wildly popular documentaries that consider various aspects of modern American life and the unexpected charms of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. Sebak has produced 19 individual special programs that make up the Pittsburgh History Series, including "Kennywood Memories," "Pittsburgh A To Z," "North Side Story," and the much imitated "Things That Aren't There Anymore." PBS stations around the country rebroadcast Sebak’s programs because audiences respond so favorably to his blend of Americana, places and personalities. Sebak received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Seton Hill on May 12.