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Be Prepared to Test Yourself - Sixty Years From Now

Scott Pelley is a correspondent on the CBS News program, 60 Minutes. This is a transcript of his commencement address on May 9, 2009 to Texas Tech University in Lubbock.


Thank you, Chancellor Hance, President Bailey, members of the Board of Regents, distinguished guests and members of the faculty. The first piece of advice I am going to give you today is never follow Kent Hance to the podium.

When I came in today, the provost noticed my cowboy boots and I told him I had worn these boots to the White House once when I went to interview President (George W.) Bush. We were sitting there in the Oval Office and the president noticed my boots. I told him, “This is a pair of cowboy boots that even the President of the United States cannot obtain.” I showed him the boots I have on today, with the large red Double T on the front of the shaft. These boots have been all around the world and I believe the President was a little bit envious of them.

To all of you, Congratulations! Now, follow my lead. Guns up! Let’s get them up! Let me see them!

I have two teenagers at home and I can only imagine what this graduation means to your parents. Congratulations to the parents!

Now, as for you graduates, you picked a hell of a time to graduate from college. Did no one in this class take Timing 101? We know you’re all looking up here at us. You’re looking at my generation and your saying “Great. Thanks. Just when it was our turn, you broke it.” Well, we did break it. We are experiencing the worst economic collapse since my grandparents broke it in their generation. But the important thing for you to understand on this day of all days is that it is part of our American story. It is in our DNA that every time we break it, through fits and starts and tragedies, we always make Her better. It’s our history! America always improves. It is an unbroken record of improvement and now it will be your turn to help us make this next transition.

After all these years and all these classes, there is nothing standing between you and your diploma, but me. This is your last lecture and you should pay attention to this lecture because there will be a test. It’s a timed test. Sixty years, more or less. You will score this test yourself and you will decide where you will finish in your class of humanity. Let’s call you the Class of 2069. Like all standardized tests, there are various tricks to taking this one. In the next few minutes, I am going to tell you about a few of those tricks so you get off on the right foot.

The first and most important thing that you need to understand, Class of 2069, is that those easy answers – those comfortable seductive answers – are almost always wrong. I have known a lot of people taking their own test of humanity and I find that the people who are most successful are those people who go for the hard answers. People like Paulette Schank who is a nurse in the air force. I met Paulette at the Balad Air Force Hospital in Iraq which is really just a collection of tents in the desert. It is a main trauma center in Iraq where our most severely wounded soldiers and marines are taken. One day, Paulette and I were standing in one of the tents when a young marine about your age named Kenny Lyon came through the door, just off the helicopter. Kenny had been hit by a mortar and was bleeding from a hundred places. Three of his arteries were lacerated. The young man was bleeding to death right in front of our eyes. He went straight into the operating room. Five surgeons worked on Kenny all at the same time, two on his legs, two on his chest and one on his head. Three hours into his surgery, they were working feverishly to plug every hole in this young American but they ran out of whole blood. Kenny went through one hundred units and they didn’t have any more. Paulette Schank, through her surgical mask, looked up at the doctors in the operating room and said “I’ll get more!” Then she ran to the blood bank next door and she had the nurses open her veins so that she could give blood. They sent out a call to all personnel on the base and military men and women came running and lined up outside the blood bank and started giving blood. Pint by pint they passed that blood into the operating room by hand. Two hours later into the surgery, five hours in all, they saved Kenny Lyon’s life. As Paulette Schank was taking this test that I am talking about, she got to the part of the test that said “How to serve America?” and she wrote “compassion, daring and courage” as her answers.

Scott Pelley

Another person I would like you to know about, one of my favorite people in the world, is a guy named Paul Douglas and he is a CBS News cameraman. He will always be known as one of the greatest combat cameramen of his generation. Paul wasn’t always a cameraman; in fact he was a construction worker. He is a big, black Englishman who was living in London, working in construction when the economy faltered and he lost his job so he started driving a cab. Now Paul was always interested in television news but he had absolutely no training, no education, no experience, nothing. But he wanted to give it a try. So, everyday after the evening news he would pull his cab up in front of one of the main television networks and pick people up. As they would pull away from the curb, Paul would say “you know, I’m not really a cab driver. I’m an audio engineer.” He had no idea about audio engineering. By the way, this is a story about perseverance not about morality! So this goes on for several weeks. Paul says the same thing to everybody that gets in the cab and, sure enough, finally the network ran out of audio engineers and asked Paul if he could be the audio engineer on a live shot the next morning. Paul figured he could do that and as they were hanging up the phone, Paul said “Oh, by the way, what sort of equipment will I be using?” The guy said “you know, the usual, you’ll be using a Shure M635 mixer.” Paul said “alright,” hangs up the phone, shoots out of his apartment, goes to an audio store and says “Quick! Show me a Shure M635 Mixer and tell me how to use it.” He goes to the live shot the next day and does pretty well. One thing leads to another. He gets a job as an audio engineer and winds up being a pretty good one. So we hired him at CBS. But, when Paul came into the CBS Bureau in London, he began saying, “you know, I’m not really an audio engineer. I’m a cameraman.” Well, sure enough, Paul turned out to be not only a cameraman but a great cameraman, shining a light on some of the darkest places in the world. I was with Paul in Darfur when he documented the genocide happening there in Western Sudan and I was with him in Iraq when he was covering our troops. The thing is, when Paul got to that point in the test that says “stop here” he scratched it out and said “I’ll go on!” Memorial Day about three years ago, Paul was with U.S. troops on a mission in Baghdad when a car bomb exploded. Several people on the mission were killed and Paul was one of them.

This is one of the most important things about the test that I really want you to understand. I said at the beginning that it is a timed test. But the trick is you don’t know how much time you have so you have to come to the right answers early. If Paul had remained behind the wheel of that cab, he’d be alive today but that was not where his heart was and that is part of the message this morning. Do whatever makes your heart sing – whatever that thing is. Do that one thing that you would do even if they didn’t pay you for it. Do that thing and make your heart sing.

I got a great education here at Texas Tech but the university failed me in one important way. In all the classes and lecturers I attended, I left this university absolutely stupid about one thing. I must have been sick that day. No one ever sat me down and explained to me that my dreams were unreasonable and impossible. No one explained to me that even though I had been interested in 60 Minutes since I was 16 years old that there was no way I could work there. So leaving the university, unequipped with this bit of information, I just went ahead. After my first job interview I was turned down. At my second job interview I was turned down. Third, No. Fourth, No. Fifth, No. And I thought, “What’s wrong with these people? Where do they get these terrible human resources people?” They didn’t understand where I was headed. No one wanted to hire me. No newspaper, television station, television network that I worked for, ever wanted to hire me. I was not recruited by anyone. But that is the thing about hearing your heart sing. You know you found it when that song comes up and it drowns out every “no” that will be coming your way. You are going to be told no thirty-to-one, if you are lucky. They are wrong! You are not wrong! Because you are listening to your heart sing.

Now some of you are sitting there thinking, “Gee, Scott, I haven’t heard the song. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. The job that I am hoping for is not available right at this moment. What do I do?” People say there are no jobs out there.

May 2009 Commencement

But OH! There are jobs! There’s plenty of work to do and that is the challenge for your generation. There is so much work to do in this country. You bet there are jobs. There are jobs like the one taken by Marcy Van Dyke, a young woman about your age. I met her in Chad. She was working for the International Rescue Committee, one of the great refugee relief agencies working in the world today. And as tens of thousands of starving women and children were attempting to cross the Sahara Desert, Marcy was in an IRC Refugee Camp working in the medical tent. In the medical tent, there are starving babies, little tiny things that fit just between your elbow and your wrist. The medical personnel would hold them there for hours, skin and bones, just hours away from death, and take teaspoons of formula and pour it past their lips for hours and hours and hours at a time, with most of it running out because they couldn’t swallow very well. And they saved those babies one at a time.

There is work to do! There is work to do. When Marcy got to that part of the test that asked about intolerance and injustice, she answered “compassion and mercy.”

There are two American Marines in a mud brick hut on top of a hill in Afghanistan and they are training a hundred Afghan soldiers to defend their country and, by extension, to defend our streets. These guys work up there for weeks and weeks at a time without even a change of uniform. When they get to the part of the test that asks, “How to defend America?” they choose “sacrifice” as their answer.

When the question is freedom, the answer is courage! When the question is intolerance, the answer is justice! When the question is hunger, the answer is compassion! When the question is illness, the answer is mercy! When you get to the part of the test that says “stop here,” you cross that out and say, “I’ll go on!” When the question is fear, the answer is daring! When the question is “Who will?” The answer is “I will!” You are not descended from timid people!

It is such a joy for me to see all of you here embarking on this Great American Experiment – your version of the Great American Experiment. Is the country broken? Sure, it’s broken. But America is doing right now what it always does, providing its young people with endless opportunities.

In just a few minutes you are going to start taking this timed test, Class of 2069. Don’t settle for less than your dreams. That’s usually the first mistake on the test. If you haven’t heard your heart sing, do not settle! In a moment, we are going to hand you these diplomas and when you feel that hit your hand, I want you to understand that we are not handing you a piece of paper. We are giving you the ball. Run with it and make our country great!

Thank you so much! God love you all!