Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Best Commencement Address

A few years ago, in 1998 actually, somehow I heard this guy speak at a commencment address at Kenyon College. I wasn't there, I don't even know where Kenyon is. But I think I saw him give the speech on late night CSPAN or something (which I never watch.) But... I think this is the BEST commencement speech I have ever read or heard.
Graduation speeches have such power. Like SM said last week in CpR, this time of the year is filled with hope and expectation. New kids moving up to high school and middle school, kids graduating, college kids come home fresh from new experiences. And graduations... they are times filled with emotion, idealism, freshness, liberation. To be able to address youth during this time in their lives is always an honor and priviledge. I only got to do it once, a few years ago, speaking at another church's graduation dinner for a youth program they had. It was fun, because you are engaging so much promise and potential. And you have to be brief, but commanding.
Oops, as I was saying about this speech... In honor of the class of 04... I have pasted it here. It used to be available on the Kenyon website... But it's worth the full read.

Office of Public Affairs
Kenyon College Commencement Address
May 17, 1998
by Mark C. Rosenthal '73 President and Chief Operating Officer,
MTV Networks
As I was preparing my remarks the other day, I suddenly realized that you didn't want to hear necessarily from me, that maybe what I should do is get up here and say, "Hey, you guys have worked hard for four years. Looks like you need a little fun. So . . . here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers!"
Seriously, I really want to thank the Class of 1998 for inviting me to share this great occasion with you. I particularly want to thank you for not rescinding your invitation, even after I informed [President] Rob Oden that with two kids under four, I'm not hanging out a lot backstage with Marilyn Manson anymore. And since I am from the Class of 1973, I do feel compelled to promise you that my remarks won't be filled with what Cartman on "South Park" describes as "that tree-hugging hippie crap."
Twenty-five years have passed since I sat where you're sitting now, but the memories of
my time at Kenyon are still fresh. Like you, I was fortunate to spend my college years in a place where ideas matter. Like me, you will forget most of what you have learned here. And you will forget it before you even turn thirty.
You know, that's not as bad as it sounds. Because there is one thing you've learned here that you will never forget: how to think. How to use critical analysis to dissect and inspect what you read and what you see. How to seek out and discover on your own. How to be an individual instead of part of a herd.
The most memorable part of my Kenyon experience was really learning how to learn and learning that from great friends and teachers like Tom Turgeon, Harlene Marley, and the late Jim Michael; from Gal Crump and Bill Klein, Phil Church and Perry Lentz; from Peter Rutkoff and Harry Clor.
Now, smart people who know how to think on their own command a premium in any market. So for the sacrifices you've made to learn here, you will be repaid over and over again--though not necessarily in ways that you might expect now.
Kenyon is an iconoclastic place, and its graduates have blazed some unique trails through life. My college friends here went on to do some very interesting things, and while they've been successful, I don't think money was ever a motivating factor in their decisions. One friend, Murray Horwitz '70, became a clown with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. That was an extremely formative experience, and it prepared him very well for a second career--in politics. Of course, from politics it was
basically a straight line right into show business. He went on to write the hit musical Ain't Misbehavin' about the great jazz musician Fats Waller. And he now runs cultural programming for National Public Radio.
My Kenyon roommate, Greg Andorfer '73, majored in English and art history and went on to business school, but he ended up producing shows for public TV. He considered it a license to learn about absolutely anything that interested him. One of those things happened to be astrophysics. So he called up Carl Sagan one day to talk to him. And that's how the phenomenal series "Cosmos" came to be. After many years in television, Greg now runs the Maryland Science Center. My own path out of Kenyon also was pretty circuitous. I attended graduate school in drama, then went on to run several professional theater companies. I'd always been interested in marriages of art and commerce. I eventually found an intriguing one in an emerging new industry called cable
television. Unfortunately, the first place where I worked, a small unit of CBS that focused only on arts programming, decided there wasn't enough commerce to justify their investment. They folded their cable operation--and my job with it.
But I had seen enough of cable to believe in it. So I moved on to a place then called Warner AMEX Satellite Entertainment company, which turned out to be a precursor to the company I work for now, MTV Networks.
MTV Networks started in 1981 with MTV, but today it's a lot more. Of course, it's still MTV, which is now in more than 300 million homes in the United States and around the world, including mainland China and, as of September, Russia. It's Nickelodeon, the most popular channel for kids, on broadcast or cable. It's also Nick at Nite, and a new channel called TV Land, which is kind of like Nick at Nite on steroids (if you don't get it, call your cable operator). It's also VH1, Comedy Central, and a brand-new channel called Noggin, the first educational channel for kids, in a partnership with Children's Television Workshop.
The people who came to MTV back in 1981 were a diverse, rag-tag, motley crew. Some came from radio. Some came from magazines. Some came from totally alien fields entirely--the theater, packaged goods, retailing, advertising. None of them came from broadcast television, because traditional broadcasters would never hire them. But all of them came because they were challenged and intrigued by this new medium, recognizing that the most critical measure of success would be making a single brand stand out from what would soon be the rapidly proliferating competition of multiple viewing options.
That's something broadcasters never had to think about. The mandate of the broadcast networks was (and still is) to reach as many people as possible, with a broad-based mix of sitcoms, dramas, news, and sports. But at MTV we sensed that in an exploding television landscape, where people's options would soon increase tenfold, a paradigm shift was about to take place.
There needed to be a whole new notion of TV: not linear, not about story lines with a
beginning, middle, and end, not about plot and continuity, but about mood and emotion.
Until cable came along in the early eighties, people only identified with individual programs, rather that with a network. They might rush home to watch "Happy Days" or "Charlie's Angels," but a network itself had no "identity." As such, in the history of American television, no one has ever uttered the following phrase: "I feel like going home and watching a little CBS tonight."
In contrast, MTV was truly a "postmodern" network. It was never really about the shows. It was about one idea, twenty-four hours a day--a pop-cultural identity. But most of all, it was about the audience and about connecting with the audience in a unique and meaningful way. Today, people say, "I feel like watching MTV" and you know exactly what they mean.
Today, the broadcast networks are struggling after ten successive years of losing both viewers and their share of audience to cable. The number of sure-fire broadcast hits--the "Seinfelds" and "ERs" of their world--are down to fewer than a handful. And, although it's our dirty little secret, for those who keep score, MTV Networks will probably be more profitable this year than ABC, CBS, and NBC--combined. To be honest with you, that's actually a mixed blessing. Because we now run the risk of becoming the establishment. MTV has only gotten where it has by never becoming too complacent--by constantly reinventing itself--by celebrating each success with a resounding
"OK--what's next"--and by never taking ourselves too seriously.
So it is appropriate that, as someone who has been part of MTV Networks almost from the
beginning, I get to address you today. Because our whole company was created with your
generation in mind. Yours was truly the first generation to grow up with us right from
the start--moving from Nickelodeon as children to MTV and Comedy Central as young adults--and by the time you've settled down a little bit, I hope you'll be watching VH1. But while you were growing up with us, we were growing up with you. Over the last
seventeen years, MTV has become one of the most recognizable, yet polarizing, brands of all time, credited with setting trends in music, fashion, and youth culture, while simultaneously being held responsible for the entire decline of civilization as we know it. When it began, MTV was the loud, strident voice of irreverence and rebellion, of kids vs. parents (as in "I want my MTV!"); that tone was evident in the music, the programming, and even in the way the channel promoted itself.
But we've also laid down a lot of cultural landmarks for your generation, and we've sought to play a more socially productive role in your lives than anything television has ever attempted. In the past seventeen years, MTV introduced middle America to urban street music with "Yo! MTV Raps"; raised millions for famine relief with "Live Aid"; helped engage young people in the political process, culminating with the "Choose or Lose" campaign and the election of Bill Clinton; and in general tapped into the hearts and minds of a generation with news and specials that one could only see on MTV.
We've always operated as outsiders, challenging the conventional wisdom. We didn't know that it couldn't be done, so we just did it. We've been presumptuous. We've been obnoxious. We've been downright rude. And we've made mistakes. Many of them. But we haven't been safe. We haven't been predictable. We haven't trudged along a well-worn path to successful mediocrity. And we've never been afraid to fail.
Of course, MTV wasn't exactly the first to come along and challenge the established powers that be. That's a great American tradition. Harriet Tubman, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida Mae Tarbell, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Jackson Pollack, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Lenny Bruce, Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Curt Flood, Curt Cobain--the list is long and varied. Rabble-rousing is an American birthright. Despite a penchant for middle-class, middle-of-the-road homogeneity, America usually comes around to admiring--and rewarding--those who burn their bridges to convention and safety--and light up
the sky in the process.
Even in the fifties, when post-war prosperity first gave rise to a discussion of
"corporate America," and when the role model of choice was the company man--and they certainly did mean man--there was an explosion of creativity in American culture. There was be-bop in the air, beat poetry on the page, and abstract expressionism on canvas. Yet the counterculture of the fifties is nothing compared to what you and your generation have the potential to create in the next millennium.
As you take leave of Kenyon today, the world is being remade at a dizzying pace.
In America, entrepreneurialism and creativity are ascendant from Silicon Valley to Times Square. Around the world, opportunity has never been more plentiful, freedom never more genuine, and diversity never more possible. With your Kenyon education you are especially well prepared to seize this day.
You are prepared, in effect, for nothing in particular but everything in general, for the rigors of a life dictated by no one but you.
Before I'm accused of waxing too poetic, let me be blunt. None of you should try to come up with the next MTV. Don't make the short-sighted choice of riding the wave of a phenomenon that's already begun to crest or cloning an already successful formula. You shouldn't want to.
You see, what I'm trying to tell you is this: We don't need more copies. We need more
originals. There are originals out there in every industry. Some are fledglings. Others are just beginning to gain some traction in their respective arenas. Still others have yet to be born--they are ideas waiting to be discovered by people of passion and commitment and intelligence.
People who respond when the rest of the world is going left by going right.
People whose dreams matter to them and, later on, come to matter to the rest of us.
There are works of art, political programs, social causes, ideas, even entire industries that do not exist today. Yet before you reach your parents' age they will. And you will be the instigators behind them. You have to be. By default, there's no one else. You can create a "South Park."
Or a Broadway musical like Rent. Or a Netscape. Or a Yahoo. Or an Or a Hard Candy.
Or something we can't even imagine because the seed of the idea resides only in your head.
MTV was started by a group of people not much older than you are now.
Microsoft was started by a very stubborn nineteen-year-old who was convinced that the business school wizards at IBM and the Ph.D.s at Xerox were all wrong--and he was right.
These are perhaps extreme examples. Certainly Bill Gates is a very unusual case.
And the Microsoft narrative has now traveled full circle--all the way from anti-establishment to anti-trust. But regardless of the details, there is often virtue--and on rarer occasions, even gold--to be found in challenging established modes and means. To take--in effect--the path of most resistance. It's true in the arts. It's true in academia. It's true in teaching.
It's true in entertainment. It's true in law and medicine and other professions. It's true in business. It's true in public service.
I know that many of you in this class are going to law school. When you begin to study
the great Supreme Court opinions that have given shape and texture and context to so
much of American life, keep in mind how many of them are not the opinions of the
majority but of the Court's dissenters.
Of course, traveling against the traffic is inherently risky. It's much easier to go with the flow. What's more, your intelligence and education afford you a great many advantages when you remain--quite content, perhaps--in the mainstream. But please, please, please, don't get too comfortable yet. You can take risks when you are young that you will never, ever have the courage or capacity to embrace again. People of every age contributed to the civil-rights revolution in this country. But it was the young--people precisely your age--who drove that movement, who seized
history and turned it on its head by the power of their passion.
It's our job at MTV to know a lot about you. We know, for instance, that you are an
extremely hard-working generation. We know that you are the most inclusive, least-bigoted, generation in the history of America. You are truly a chosen group, entering the world at a time of unprecedented opportunity. The economic constraints and cultural straitjackets--those that have undermined the promise of so many previous generations--are falling before you.
You have youth, and you have an environment conducive to change. All you need now is an idea to believe in, the courage to pursue it, and the desire to never let up.
It's customary, I believe, for commencement speakers to encourage the assembled graduates in the name of their parents and families. "Make them proud of you," the person at the podium is supposed to say. "Make us all proud." With your permission, I'll pass. For starters, your families and loved ones are already visibly proud of you. They are absolutely smitten with you.
So the "make us proud" bit seems, quite honestly, a little redundant here today.
You see, we're looking for something more out of you. A lot more. Because we know who
you are. And we know what you're capable of. We know what you can do if you put your minds and souls to the test, if you project your passion and your commitment and your integrity into a world that always seems to run a deficit on the good things. We know what you can do if you think outside the box, if you challenge the norm and break the rules.
So not your families, nor I, nor Kenyon will be satisfied by feelings of pride. That's just not enough. Don't just make us proud. Delight us.
Surprise us. Shock us. Challenge us. Invigorate us. Astonish us. As a matter of fact,
astonish the hell out of us. As Cartman would say--"That would be sweet."

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