Thank you Senator Spilka for that very kind introduction. Thank you President Flanagan, the Board of Trustees, Framingham Board of Selectmen. And—congratulations to the class of 2013. Fabulous, guys! I gotta say, from one state school grad to another, you’ve done a good thing here. You can do a lot more. I’m really happy for you.
I want to say, too, class of 2013, as you’re heading out into the world, as with any new journey, it can be scary. No more lunch time with Edith. No more ice cream from Mad Willie’s. And hardest of all—no more emails from Dean Stoops. But seriously—as you head out, I know that some of you are very worried about graduating into a tough economy. Some of you are concerned about finding a job. And some of you are working hard to persuade yourself that moving back in with Mom and Dad is almost as good as having your own apartment.
I know it is hard out there, but I have high hopes for every one of you. And I mean that—every single one of you. I have high hopes because even at this time of transition and in this hard economy, you’ve already done something really tough: You’ve stuck it out, you’ve pushed yourself, and you’ve graduated. Hurrah!
It was a smart decision. A good education is a foundation for a better future. People who graduate are more resilient financially and they weather economic downturns better than people who don’t graduate. Throughout their lives, people who graduate are more likely to be economically secure, more likely to be healthier, and more likely to live longer. Face it: A college degree puts a lot in your corner. And in just a few minutes, you will have one.
So, whatever comes your way, you’ve got the right start. And you got that right start by planning carefully and working hard toward a specific goal. In fact, you got here today by following the advice of about a zillion teachers, aunts, uncles, cab drivers, bartenders, and everyone else who told you: set a goal and stick with it.
But on this beautiful day, this last day before we turn you loose into the world, I want to make a pitch for something else. Among all the goal setting and perseverance, I want to talk with you about something different. I want to talk with you about being open to the unexpected, about making room for the improbable and the unlikely.
I know why I’m here. It isn’t my fashion sense, or my ability to tell a good joke. I was invited here today because I’m your senator. What does that mean? Well, for some of you it means I am the person who kept sending you emails, asking for money. For others, who were out partying too late last night, I’m the person standing between you and some more Gatorade. For others of you, I’m the person you’re wondering, will she finish up in time for me to hit the Bruins game. And the answer is…maybe. Listen closely.
In any case, I’m here today because I’m your senator. But the funny thing is, I never planned to get into politics. If you don’t believe me, try to find a political consultant anywhere in the country who will tell you that the best way to get elected to office is by becoming a professor and pick fights with CEOs of big banks.
No, I spent pretty much my whole career as a teacher. After I graduated from a commuter college – which back cost $50 a semester – I taught in an elementary school. I thought I had my life all planned. Two years, one baby and one move later, I decided to go to law school, thinking I could be a trial lawyer. I thought I had my life all planned. Three years and another baby and another move later, I became a law professor, teaching bankruptcy and eventually writing books on the economic issues facing middle class families—and I was sure I had my life all planned.
Then, one day, I got a phone call. It was the mid-1990s. I had been teaching law for about 15 years. The phone rings and it’s a former congressman who had just been appointed to head up a commission to rewrite the bankruptcy laws. He wanted to give some help to families that were in terrible financial trouble. He thought I could come to Washington and help him. I thought he was crazy. I had a job. I was sure about what my job was. My job was to teach classes, do research, write books – period. I didn’t know anything about Washington politics – and frankly, I didn’t want to.
Then he offered me a deal. If I would come up with a few good ideas, ideas that would really help families, he would figure out the politics and turn them into law. I really didn’t think I could stand the politics, but he pushed, and I decided to try.
For me, this first trip to DC ended up being about fighting for families that were getting squeezed out of the middle class – and taking on an army of lobbyists who were working for big banks. For me, it was about the optimism that if we work hard and work together, we can make a difference that really matters. As it turned out, I had the honor of fighting alongside Senator Kennedy and many others in Congress who were trying to protect families who were hanging on by their fingernails. One fight led to another – bringing some accountability to the bank bailouts, setting up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and now, representing the people of Massachusetts.
So here’s how I see this: the congressman made an improbable offer. He brought me into a fight that changed my life. It’s been tough, but all in all, it made me a believer in the incredible power of trying the unexpected.
Class of 2013, all the planning and all the preparation in the world can’t prepare you for the many twists that are coming your way. Just today one of you may meet the guy you will marry – or the guy you will divorce—maybe both. You can’t predict it all. People will tell you to plan things out as best you can. They will tell you to focus. They will tell you to follow your dreams. They will be right.
But they will also be a little bit wrong. Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected. Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to entertain improbable opportunity that comes looking for you. And never be so faithful to your plan that when you hit a bump in the road – or when the bumps hit you – you don’t have the fortitude, the grace, and the resiliency to rethink and regroup.
The openness to the improbable, the ability to get out of your comfort zone, to rework a plan, to consider something new—this is part of the American spirit that has made our country great. Not far from here, nearly 400 years ago, Puritans and Pilgrims landed on the shore of a land they knew nothing about. They had left everything they knew—by the way, with no ability to call, text or email anyone they left behind—and they set across a giant ocean to start something different. Surely no one had spent a career planning that trip.
Almost 250 years ago, not so far from here either, a generation of people who had been born as colonists, who had lived as subjects of the world’s most powerful empire, decided they were going to get rid of monarchy and create a democracy, a form of government that had barely been seen on this Earth since the ancient world. Unexpected? You bet. And at the time, their success was deeply improbable, but they did it anyway.
And keep in mind, it was not one of the elder statesmen of the 19th century who freed the slaves and won our great civil war. It was a newcomer, a country lawyer who was best known for debates that occurred during his Senate campaign that he lost.
It was not a diplomat that won America’s first Nobel Peace Prize. It was Teddy Roosevelt, who had been well-known for wanting to take America into war and leading the charge up San Juan Hill, but left himself open to making peace.
And it was not one of the dynastic families whose favorite son ended World War II, rebuilt Europe and set the strategy for the containment of the Cold War. Nope—it was an ordinary fellow from Missouri, who, after serving in World War I, came home and opened a haberdashery. I don’t think anyone in this country predicted or planned where he would go.
These are the stories we know from our political history, but our country is filled with stories of the unexpected. People like Ruth Graves Wakefield, class of 1924, who ran out of baker’s chocolate one day and improvised with broken pieces of chocolate bar, and in the process invented the chocolate chip cookie. Go get ‘em! People like Caitria and Morgan O’Neill, who after the tornadoes in western Massachusetts in 2011, created Recovers.org to help communities with disaster recovery. Or people like your classmate, Rob Wheeler, who wasn’t supposed to run the marathon but did, and ended up a hero with a friendship forged in the heat of tragedy.
Throughout our history, we have seen people who abandoned their well-constructed plans when an opportunity opened up or a challenge hit them. As a country, this spirit has been one of the drivers of our success—the willingness to take risks, to innovate, to adapt as our plans don’t quite work out as we expected.
So to all of you who have always known exactly what you wanted to do when you grow up, go get ‘em. Good for you. But for everyone else, the people with plans, the people with no plans, keep a little space in your heart for the improbable. I promise—you won’t regret it.
Congratulations, class of 2013.