Billie Jean King

Northwestern University Commencement Address - June 16, 2017

Billie Jean King
June 16, 2017— Evanston, Illinois
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I want to thank Northwestern University, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, Provost Linzer, Professor Woodruff and President Shapiro for this honor. For this honor is so amazing—I can't tell you.

Congratulations to all my fellow honorary degree recipients. To be in your company is very humbling, and it was great meeting you last night and I really appreciate everything.

I want to congratulate those families. You were really great up there when the president pointed out to you, and I want to thank so much that how much you've given to others to help these young people—and sometimes not so young—to graduate. So congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2017. You rock. [applause]

I've had so many people talk to me about this commencement speech, I cannot tell you. People have stopped me in London, they stopped me in Chicago, they stopped me in New York, they stopped me in the West Coast. I was at a play the other night, somebody came up to me during the intermission of the play. What is it that everybody knows I'm giving this commencement speech? It's amazing. I just figured maybe it must have been painted on the rock. Now it had to be painted on the rock. Or maybe it was Saturday Night Live. You know, Seth Meyers was here last year and I don't know. And SNL has more actors from Northwestern University than any other university, so it's got to be that maybe, I don't know. But it's a privilege to be part of the Northwestern community, a place where inclusion and equality are an important part of the culture.

You know, Deloitte did a study on millennials—which includes some of you—and shows that you are by far the best generation ever so far—ever—to deal with inclusion. I am telling you, it's changing and it's because of people like you. [applause]

I had a chance to talk with a few of the graduating students and I want to thank them for taking time, because it was during finals and I felt so bad, so I want to thank you for helping me prepare my speech today. And they told me they're really looking forward to the day when they are not measured by their GPA but by their contribution to a common goal. I thought that was great, just listening to them and learning from them.

I hope you will accept that challenge and bring all of yourself—this is really important—your mind, your heart and your guts to everything you do. You have to do it that way—leave your guts on the court, so to speak.

We're all part of the Northwestern family and I have a feeling we all bleed purple, especially today. It's my favorite color. It is.

The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. The late Coretta Scott King once said, "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation."

Today, it's time for your generation to win and to shape the future.

There are those who think life is a marathon. I don't agree. I think life is a series of sprints. You get to start over and over and over again, always adapting to the long and winding road in front of you. Along the way you'll have failures, but if you choose to see these failures as feedback it will help you plan your next step.

I'll explain. When I used to play, a long time ago, that game of tennis, that sport of tennis, the ball would be coming to me. Each ball is a new opportunity. I have to make a decision, so I have to accept responsibility. In less than a nanosecond, I have to decide where I'm going to hit it. If I hit the ball and it goes wide, I take in that information, I correct it my mind's eye, I delete it from my computer—my brain—and then I correct it and I enter that in my computer—my brain—so I am ready for the next time I get a similar shot that I can make that correction. So if you think it's feedback, not failure, okay? Just think about that—it's feedback, not failure.

You know, it's funny. They asked Warren Buffett and Bill Gates the same question, they said— and they were asked independently, they didn't know this was happening—"What is the most important word associated with doing well?" And they said, "Focus." Focus.

I want you to be mindful and pay attention. Listen to your body because health is wealth. Health is wealth. You may have fears about your future—what job will you have, where will you be in five years and 25 years. You don't have to have all the answers right now. Take a breath—breathe—but I hope you will not always just sit around and wait for the answers, either.

Women in this class may be the first generation of women to actually see equal pay for equal work in their professional lifetime. [applause]. A lot of things have to come in place to do this. I recently saw a new research that said all women—I mean all women, that means all women—in developed markets—will be the first generation to see the gender pay gap close. But only if this class of 2017 and your contemporaries make strategic choices and gain more digital and STEM skills, and if businesses, government and academia provide crucial support. This is absolutely vital. The earliest this will likely happen in developed countries is 2044, and for developing countries it could be as early as 2066. I was hoping I'd see this in my lifetime, but I don't think it's going to happen…anyway, what a bummer. [laughter]

Equal work for equal pay should not be a dream. It should be one of the freedom prize for your generation.

I'm telling you it's absolutely important to make this world better. A recent Harvard Business Review study also showed that men—you are so important. You will play such a vital role in the quest for equal pay. Male champions of the cause have learned that gender inclusiveness means involving all genders and the advancement of leadership roles for women. These male champions practice leadership that is inclusively focused, not self-focused, and because of that, everybody wins.

Last Sunday night, I was watching the Tony Awards. I don't know if any of you were. And I was so moved by the 23-year-old Ben Platt's acceptance speech when he won Best Actor in a Musical for "Dear Evan Hansen." He said, "To all the young people watching at home—don't waste any time trying to be like anybody else, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful." I loved it! So be yourself. Be your unique self.

Ed Woolard used to be the CEO of DuPont, and he and I have been friends for last twenty, thirty years. He became a mentor, and the one thing we always talked about is, what do what do you notice in people. We kept talking about this all the time, that people that have inner and outer success. Who are these people? What do they have? What do we notice about them? We just talked about it constantly. We came up with three easy-peasies here. Here they are, and not necessarily in this order. Relationships are everything—to yourself, to others, the whole…you know, you're smart—you guys can figure this out. Number two: never stop learning and never stop learning how to learn. And number three: be a problem-solver. Be a problem-solver. And we're always checking back in to see if we still believe these. But it can be other things.

Relationships are everything. Why did I come and speak here today? I came here because of relationships. Diane Donnelly Stone, who went to Northwestern. She won the NCAA doubles in tennis in 87 with Katrina Adams. She has been my executive assistant for 28 years, and Mike, her husband, played golf at Northwestern. So do they bleed purple? You bet. Mike was a top 10 golfer in the Big Ten…the top 10 in the Big Ten. Your first job very well may come from a connection of one of your relationships. But that's why I'm here—it's relationships.

The second one is never stop learning and never stop learning how to learn. Just make this a part of your daily life.

Be a problem-solver. Once you identify the problem, it's so important for us to always be in the solution. This is the area, I think, where true champions in life prevail. In coaching, I use a couple of key phrases: champions adjust or adapt, and pressure is a privilege. Christine Brennan, another alum of Northwestern, and I wrote the book "Pressure is a Privilege," and Christine is going to be inducted into the Northwestern University Athletic Hall of Fame in September. [applause]

Sometimes it's important to lead and sometimes you have to be in a supportive role, and you're going to have to be able to recognize the difference.

There's a great story about the CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff. It's an equal pay story, of course—it's about equality. Two women, Leyla Seka and Cindy Robbins approached him and said, "You know, I know you talk about equality, Mark, but it's not really quite." And he said, "Really?" He's pretty skeptical. He's like looking at them. "Really?" he said. "Well, show me. Show me the data." So they show him. He goes, "Whoa."

First of all, women and girls were taught not to ask for what we want and need, so Leyla and Cindy really had a lot of courage to do that, number one. Number two, Mark's a leader. He's all about inclusiveness. So he said, "I see that you're not quite equal. I will fix that." It was fixed immediately. Those are the things—because somebody had the courage to ask—that's what makes the difference.

Your happiness should drive your future. You can follow the money, which is not bad actually—money, money, money not's bad—but only if you never lose sight of your moral compass. Do not lose sight of your moral compass. If you do tiny acts of kindness every day, there will be a ripple effect of positivity, because it's contagious.

You will find happiness if you open your heart and your mind to those who are different than you. Be receptive to those who don't look or sound like you. These people will challenge you. You will learn from them. We are all immigrants. Every single one of us is an influencer, every single person. [applause]

And most importantly, we are all in this together. It is not what we can get out of life, it is what we can give to life that matters. [applause] That's my favorite thing of the whole speech. It's not what we can get out of life, it's what we can give to life.

Keep writing. I see 'em writing, or with your phones or whatever. [laughter]

I'm always looking for different poets or poems or things to say at the end. And I always keep coming back to this one, so you're going to have to forgive me, but it's a few words from a poet of my generation, Bob Dylan. [positive reaction from audience] Well, this is good.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you
May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young.

Dream big and go for it.

There's only one more thing. This is very exciting, because I know you want to go celebrate. I get it. We're going to be playing the "Philadelphia Freedom" song right now, and I'm going to have some help come up on stage. [speaking to people off-stage] Hello, come on kids, let's go. These are our tennis players who are seniors that are graduating. They're going to help me.

I met Elton John in 1973, and in 1974 we're going to a concert. He looks at me and says, "I want to write a song for you, Billie Jean." I'm like so embarrassed and I'm like turning red, and he goes, "What are we going to call it? What are we going to call it?" "I don't know. I don't know." Well, he'd come to watch me play with the Philadelphia Freedoms and World TeamTennis in 1974. He sat on the bench in his uniform. He used to cheer us on. He gave us a bad time. He says, "Why don't we call the song 'Philadelphia Freedoms'?" and he calls Bernie Taupin and he says, "Bernie, I'm writing a song for Billie Jean. We're calling it 'Philadelphia Freedom.' Write the lyrics—go." And then, you know, Bernie faxes the lyrics. Elton puts it in front of the piano. It takes him about 15 minutes usually to write a song. And that's how "Philadelphia Freedom" came to fruition. And it became number one, and then really importantly to Elton it became number one in R&B. That made his day. It made my day.

So I just want to give you some background. And we're going to hit a few balls into the crowd. We don't have that many because I don't have 20,000, or whatever we have here, so I just want you to know how much I loved being here.

Go, Cats! Go NU! Let's go!