Office of Public Affairs

2017 Commencement Address by award-winning journalist David Brancaccio

Please enjoy the transcript of award-winning journalist David Brancaccio's Commencement address to the University of Southern Maine's 2017 graduating class.

Hi. I'm David. I’m from Maine and I eventually found a job. Trust me you will too. I feel I’m reasonably happy. It’ll work out for you, too.  Thank you very much.

If only we lived in a world where speeches went just 11 seconds. Oh, wait, we do. I tested it and my first line there is precisely 140 characters, the exact length of a Presidential Policy Initiative.  Fits in a tweet.

I want to thank President Cummings, the faculty and the board of trustees for this profound honor.  I also feel humbled, standing up here with Mary Bonauto, someone who works for the highest purpose, fighting for the rights and dignity of all people. When I co-anchored on public television with the legendary journalist Bill Moyers, he liked to remind us that our highest calling as reporters is to “speak truth to power.”  As an advocate, Ms. Bonauto is one of the finest speakers of truth to power.

As for my advice on this occasion:  people will tell you, if they’re being honest, that the secret to success may not be genius or hard work but being at the right place at the right time.

Photo of David Brancaccio deliving the 2017 USM Commencement AddressI stand before you today as a “master” of being in the right place at the right time. Before I offer proof, there’s something you need to know:  When it comes to Star Trek, I am, as we say in New England, a wicked fan. Captain Kirk pajamas, the Start Trek Annotated Encyclopedia, I have them all. This, even though my wife Mary has informed me reciting passages of Star Trek dialog does not make a person attractive to potential mates. I still proudly live and breath Star Trek. Now, back to my knack for being at the right place at the right time.

A while back, I was going around our newsroom in Los Angeles taking lunch orders. I was going to--I don’t know—not Chipotle, Taco Bell, I think it was. I’ll have you know I’m not one of these pompous anchormen where minions deliver my food. So, in the spirit of a democratized workplace, I went to forage for everyone. Twenty-five minutes later, I walk back into my newsroom, up to my eyeballs in Taco Bell, and one of our editors says the following words to me:

“Did you see him?”

See who?

He was just here, you saw him, right?”

Whom did I just miss?

Mr. Spock himself had just been there. Leonard Nimoy himself. He’d been in for a live interview.

I did NOT see him. Timing is everything.

And now a footnote to that tale.

Just the other day, I had the choice of going home to write a University of Southern Maine commencement speech.  Or I could keep working in our noisy newsroom in New York. I chose home. Next day, whom did I miss, right next to my desk, had I been there?

Dave Grohl of the Foofighters.   Dave Grohl, part of the Nirvana legend, stood right next to my desk with his mom, apparently. Timing is the secret to success, take it from me.

Now: I know some of you are feeling some minor or major trepidations about what life holds next.  I’m here to show you that if you’ve ever played a video game—and I know you have--that you are totally ready for so much of what the world slings your way. 

This spring I was reading a new novel.  The book’s called “The Nix.” Nix, N-I-X, which is a Scandinavian trickster. It’s by Nathan Hill, who’s being compared to the legendary New England novelist John Irving.  Irving, in turn, compares Hill to Charles Dickens, so this Hill guy is off to a good start, this being his first novel.

Early in the book, the antihero’s life has fallen apart (even though he’s a college professor, can you believe it.) This guy is spiraling out of control, up all night, every night, until he drops, battling orcs and elves playing online video games. One day, he finally meets one of his virtual teammates for a real drink in a real bar.  And this other dissolute video game fanatic, screen-name Pwnage, amid great handfuls of cheese-covered nachos, reveals the following piece of wisdom:

He says all of life’s choices can be understood from video games.  Everything, Pwnage tells the main character Samuel, is either an obstacle, an enemy, a puzzle or a trap. 

An obstacle to get around.

A enemy to vanquish.

A puzzle to solve.

Or a trap to avoid falling into, because once in a trap you probably can’t get out.

Let’s accept that thesis for a moment.  I want to use those gaming elements as a frame in the short time I have with you here. 

Number One:

Let’s start with a Trap.

One trap in life is short-changing yourself if you listen to the usual advice provided in commencement addresses like this one.  The thing people like to say is “Always Be True to Yourself.” Right?

I understand why the advice is popular.  Don’t let someone else tell you what you should become, follow your own passion. Fine. I get it. 

But here is where that otherwise decent piece of advice can also be a trap. If you are true to your current vision of the person you think you are now, this can keep you from trying new things that are outside of your field of experience or outside your comfort-zone.

I am subversively suggesting that you might try to NOT be true to yourself from time to time because the “you” in that word “yourself” changes over time. I know a young man who is an artist, he trained as an artist and is good at it. “Always be True to Yourself” suggests his career is now and always shall be artist. Well guess what? He’s since learned software coding and leveraged his artist’s talent in 3D visualization into a dream job as a Silicon Valley engineer building video games. Do not let others wedge you into a pigeonhole or force you to live your life the way they wanted to live theirs.  Instead, we should recognize that we are all permanently in a beneficial state of flux, and can try on new ways of seeing yourself, testing new areas of passion.  The self is an unexplored continent.

I tend to see myself as a journalist. But at points in my career I’ve been a rock ‘n roll DJ in San Francisco and an airborne traffic reporter in dinky a plane over Washington, DC. Who we are—who YOU are-- is evolving.  The closest answer I know to the question of “What is the secret of happiness?” is this: Find ways to keep growing. Don’t shortchange yourself by locking in limits. Hidden inside of you may be a musician, a traveler, an entrepreneur, even if you haven’t tried those yet. Don’t always be true to a precast identity. 

Number Two:

Now something else that can confront you in the gaming world and this world. The Obstacle. Something to avoid. 

What’s a key obstacle? In my experience, they’re out there: people who don’t believe in you.  Folks who are happy to inform you, “Kid, you’ll never make it in this business.” 

First year out of college I was applying for what I thought would be my dream job. It was an opening with the U-S government’s international news service, the Voice of America. I already had a few year’s professional experience on the air. I had studied international affairs with a focus on Africa, an area the Voice of America covered extensively. I went in for Part Four of a monster five-part application process and what have these people done? The examiners have ostentatiously left out in plain view an open folder with some of my previous results, my on-air voice test.  No way I could miss it, flapping out there in the breeze.  So I read it. And this evaluation of my on air delivery was, frankly, brutal.  Unprofessional, it said. Guy has not authority. One adjective suggested my voice made them want to retch.  Kid, you’ll never make it in this business. 

What do you do? Swerve. Just go around the naysayer.

I would later submit to this same Voice of America outfit a radio feature story I reported from California about the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Climbed around the bridge. Found an old guy who built it. And these VOA people wrote back saying my story was one of the best freelance submissions they’d ever heard.  I have to say that recognition was a turning point in my professional life.

Climb right around these people and move on.

Number Three:

We had the trap. The obstacle. Let’s now consider from the videogame world the Puzzle.

One great challenge you will face as you move from campus into the world is people trying to sell you on stuff that’s not true or not good.  I’m talking about propaganda or lies that can masquerade as news. I’m also talking about the promulgation of bad ideas or worthless stuff the pushers want you to consume. There’s a personal finance element here: the world is trying to get you to buy, when saving may be best. But manufactured lies is also a big problem for our democracy.

It appears that you are graduating into a world where some people have, essentially, weaponized social media.  They’ve turned this digital form of community in to a way to traffic in misleading or outright fraudulent information with a goal of influencing your voting behavior.

But I think you, the newly minted class of 2017, are a big part of the solution to these puzzles. By reaching this moment in this arena here in Portland on this day, each of you has mastered a superpower with the capacity to neutralize a lot of the hype, neutralize the propaganda, neutralize the misinformation. I’m talking about Critical Thinking.  When you wrote those papers or stood your ground in class, you were perfecting the art of tracking down sources, evaluating claims, building a case.

You know how your doctor can order a C-T Scan? You can do your own kind of “CT scan.” A Critical Thinking Scan.  I tested this the other day. I Googled the words “First Black President” and second link that came up—the second link--is a blog that ornatedly asserts that the United States has had seven black Presidents before Barack Obama, including Eisenhower and Abe Lincoln, whose mother, it claimed was from Ethiopia. The blog is followed by a list of comments from suckers who read it and thought it was legit. People who didn’t do a CT Scan. Who wrote this? What is their agenda? What evidence do they supply?  Is there further supporting evidence? Does the writer have standing to know of what they write?

The challenge goes way beyond political content. There’s the misrepresentation of health studies sometimes by companies with axes to grind. There is the perversion of science itself.  My timing isn’t always terrible at the office, by the way Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson came through last week and I did see him. You know his line: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.” But you, here today in this venue, are ready with the critical thinking skill. We’re counting on you to teach the CT Scan to others.

Number Four:

Lastly, in video games and in life you run into the Enemy, something that must be vanquished. The one I want to mention is the Enemy within. It’s the human condition that we are born short-sighted. Here and now, the present, shimmers in sharp focus, but the future is like a slippery eel submerged in a murky pond. If I remember right from my own graduation day (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth,) considering the future was like trying to discern shadows inside the vast dark cave of the unknowable. 

We all have this condition. Our brains are wired like this.

It has an obnoxious Economics 101 sounding name.

“Hyperbolic Discounting.”

Sociologists have found that our sense of the future rolls off almost immediately.  Everything beyond about three weeks from now is hazy and too often ignored.

Look, I acknowledge that I find a little annoying those perfect people whose To Do List on their smartphone contains their personal Five-Year Plan For Total World Domination.  I recognize that sometimes you have to play a little jazz music with your life, improvise and riff off an opportunity when it presents itself.

But we do need to consider the road ahead if we want to get somewhere. Maybe there’s a start up company you’d like to, in fact, start up; or, parts of the world you want to taste; art you are driven to create.

It goes beyond you and me. As a country and as a planet we have big stuff that needs to be addressed longer term.  Some of these challenges could destroy life as we know it.  Burning out our planet. Artificial Intelligence unbounded by ethics. You’ll have your own personal list. 

But how do we pay any mind to a future we can’t see that well?

I can tell you that scientists have been studying ways to be more clairvoyant. Research shows just sitting down and thinking about something fun in the future, like attending a friend’s wedding next year, helps shake the brain out of its present-today-and-tomorrow orientation and places you into a more future-oriented state.  Visualize that 2018 wedding, and then decide how much of your paycheck you’ll put into the 401k plan.

There’s also, I have to tell you, a terrifying mobile app, but I have to caution you about trying it on yourself.  An investment company called Merrill Edge lets you upload a full-face selfie and you drag a slider so the software digitally ages your face.  The idea is if you get to see a version yourself at age 50, 70, 90, you’ll do a better job planning for the future. I wish I’d never tried it.  I love the look of a mature face, but the image this thing rendered of me at age 90 looked like somebody had taken a David Brancaccio wax effigy and left it to melt on the radiator over night.

I want to share one last tool for vanquishing this enemy of short-termism.  It was the product of meeting one of the greats of American literature. I had the honor of doing the last long-form TV interview with the novelist and social critic Kurt Vonnegut himself. He was in his 80s, still a wild man.  He tried proposing marriage to my wife Mary. He looked into the TV camera and challenged the man who was President of the United States a couple of Presidents ago. He pulled out from his jacket pocket and read aloud what looked like some kind of political manifesto but it was a passage from the New Testament, the beatitudes. You know:

“Blessed are they who hunger/Blessed are the peacemakers”  Those beatitudes.

Vonnegut understood that just reading those on national television was a political act in modern America.

But then in the middle of that interview, Mr. Vonnegut had a suggestion that blossomed into a bit of an internet meme after we aired it on TV. He said to me, quote:  “What no country ever had is a Secretary of the Future and there are no plans for our children and grandchildren.”

Imagine, a Secretary of the Future in the President’s Cabinet, alongside the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy. A person to think about all policy and ask what are the long term opportunities or unintended consequences of our actions?

We recently resurrected Vonnegut’s idea for curing myopia in society. It turns out, corporations can have secretaries of the future. They call them Chief Sustainability Officers.  Our reporting also turned up a country that already has a Secretary of the Future.  Guess which one?  Yes, of course, Sweden. 

My challenge for you is next time you have the headspace--maybe on a long drive, on a hike, on a chairlift up the mountain or maybe that one day when your smartphone battery dies--use the time to ask yourself this: If you--you wonderful University of Southern Maine graduate—if you became the US Secretary of the Future, what would be your priority? 

We asked our radio audience about this and the ideas poured in.

One suggested a system for registering all newborns in this country automatically to vote. Interesting.

Another wanted a Secretary of the Future to figure out how we distribute wealth when robots and algorithms end up doing most of the jobs in America.

Others called on a Secretary of the Future to establish not specific policies but instead to promote broad values.  Why not use policy to promote compassion for people living in poverty or compassion for students paying for education?  Or foster cultural change so more of us can empathize and appreciate people who are not like ourselves?  In the last line of Vonnegut’s novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” a character speaks of the only rule he knows, quote:  “Damn it, you gotta be kind.”  That’s one guiding principle that makes the future a better place, one we should all follow. 

The rule everybody tells you for a Commencement speech is “Keep it short.”  So, here you have it. When it comes to the trap, the obstacle, the puzzle and the enemy, in short:

Don’t short-change yourself.

Beware those who sell you short.

Watch out for the short-con, fake being peddled as real.

And don’t be shortsighted.

Thank you for the honor. Thank you for having me.

And, above all: Congratulations, Graduates!