Editor’s note: Matt Dowd, an ABC News analyst and special correspondent, is the commencement speaker at the University of Texas, Austin. His speech has been shared with readers. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.
Thank you Daron, professors, faculty, and staff. I am honored to be here with the 2017 graduating class, and to your families and friends who have supported you.
A little background of my story, because understanding others stories and sharing our own story is a way to pause long enough to listen and learn.
Before I had the good sense and luck to move to Texas 32 years ago, I was born one of 11 children in an Irish Catholic family in Detroit where faith, fun, and a little dysfunction were common place. My parents were Republican and I grew up in a very conservative home. When I was 12 years old Watergate occurred and I became fascinated. I watched the hearings daily and I was entranced.
One branch of government was attempting to hold the most powerful person in the world accountable. The judiciary did their part ensuring that the laws were adhered to and justice was followed. And as important, a free press, mainly Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, doggedly followed this story day in and day out to try and uncover what was going on when many weren’t paying attention. It was then I decided I loved politics and wanted to pursue it as my professional purpose in life.
My first vote was for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and I became a Democrat in college. I worked on campaigns at all levels – as a volunteer or “intern,” as a lowly paid worker, and at times a full-time job. Later on, through personal relationships and respect I had for then-Governor Bush of Texas, I became a Republican. I worked on his two campaigns for president, becoming his chief strategist in 2004. I had reached the height of my profession.
Along the way I started a few businesses as an entrepreneur, and through much turmoil in my life and much reflection having lost a son and a daughter and having my oldest son serve two tours of duty in Iraq, became disenchanted with both major parties like many Americans today and jettisoned a career I had built for more than 30 years. I am now a vehement independent.
I come here not in a narcissistic or arrogant way to tell you what to do because of how smart or successful I might be, but to humbly relate to you some things I have learned along the way that might possibly help you in the bright future that is ahead for each of you. I learned through this journey called life it was my losses and hurts that taught me the most, not my victories.
I brought two books today that I believe are important to touch on and reflect at this moment in America and our world.
The Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the Bible.
The second paragraph of the Declaration states in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
We are in a time of historic-accelerated change, incredible disruption, a loss of faith and trust in nearly every institution, especially our federal government, and a crucial inflection point of who we are as a nation. I know many of you are concerned, scared, frustrated and possibly angry as you look at current events. Very valid, however, I think this is an incredibly exciting time in America, and I am actually hopeful and optimistic because I know we have faced times like this before in our history, and we came through these because of leaders like you who stepped up to rebuild and repair what is broken. And put country over party.
I am sure you all are aware of Abraham Lincoln’s speech in 1858 when the country was going through immense change and was polarized and divided and seemingly broken. In fact, eight years before Lincoln’s speech, Sam Houston, the founder of Texas, spoke of a nation divided.
Each of these great leaders was actually quoting from the Bible, the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”
So what do we do? The first thing we must do is to diligently pursue the truth wherever it leads, something I trust you learned here at the University of Texas. We are at a time when the health of our democracy is in serious question. We can’t seem to come together as a nation for the common good. We attack each other, we don’t listen, we put on a red or blue jersey and refuse to build consensus. We have become tribal, and anywhere communities are tribal, democracy has a hard time succeeding. To thrive we must get to the common good, but first we must have a common set of facts.
Some people look at the truth in an absolutist way – it is black and white, there is no listening to others, intentions are questioned, and there is a belief that the truth always was, is and always will be and there is little openness to others. Other people are relativists saying there is no truth – your truth is your truth, and mine is mine, so there is no point in trying to discover the truth. I believe the search for truth is a paradox. In an uncertain world, they’re are truths to be discovered. But it is a lifelong pursuit and it can be incredibly difficult at times.
And in that journey we have to examine our own biases and our prejudices. We each have them. You and me. We get them from where we were born, what color our skin is, what sex we are, the families and faiths we were raised in, and yes, even the college or university we attended, and now graduate from.
It is imperative we look at ourselves in reflection and contemplation before we take action to understand our own biases, so that we can search for the truth as objectively as possible. And then not just consume information from sources that merely confirm our own biases. Technology today with multiple cable channels, the internet, blogs, etc allow us to stay in our silos and not see other viewpoints or aspects of the truth that disagree with us. That spells for trouble, and an increased tribalization of the world.
Holding the Bible here, I think of the Ten Commandments, which gave people for thousands of years a guide to moving through life in a just and loving way. I want to relate to you today, not Commandments, but Ten Commitments that I suggest we each try and live as we move out into our missions of making this planet a better place. Though I know your parents would probably still like me to mention honoring your father and mother, I am going to go in a slightly different direction than the stone tablets Moses carried down from Mount Sinai.
1. Let us pursue meaning or purpose before we pursue happiness. It is through finding our authentic mission that we will find joy and happiness. And a life of mission is not without pain or hurt, but it is one that will touch your heart and soul. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
2. Your mission will be found in your frustration. As you watch the news or listen to others, what makes you frustrated or angry? What upsets you in a profound way? That is a signal of what your mission should be.
3. Money and power are not wrong in themselves. It is how we use those things that determine whether they are constructive or destructive for humanity. Like fire or water, money and power can warm us and our fellow humans, or light the way, or satisfy our thirst, or they can destroy like a wild fire or a flood.
4. Chose love over fear at every opportunity you can. At each important point in life, you will have a choice between responding to love or fear. Choose the path of love.
5. Make choices of overwhelming joy. Much of your life happens to you, and you don’t always have a choice. Those choices that you do have, like your purpose or profession, or who you are in relationship with, make sure it is so over whelming that it moves you. Don’t do 50 balance sheet analysis or you will end up feeling hollow.
6. Integrity matters, in your personal life and in leadership broadly. As Gandhi said, you will find joy when what you think, what you say, and what you do is in alignment. That is integrity.
7. Pursue diverse sources of information and knowledge. Get out of your silos. Too often I look at the bookshelves of leaders, and those shelves are filled with information that is 90 percent one area or one subject. Push yourself to examine truths in all aspects – politics, business, philanthropy, spirituality, and even sex.
8. Think big, and act small. All too often we don’t set a big enough goal for ourselves and we are satisfied with accomplishing too little. And we also don’t see the incredible power of acting in the smallest circles of our life to bring about real change.
9. We can only bridge the divides in our world if we figure out and bond with people on shared joys and sorrows. You can’t break an emotional connection someone has with a president or a party or a policy with a rational argument. Relate to people first in the depth of their joys or sorrows.
10. Finally, let us recapture faith and patriotism in this country. It has been held captive for too long by small groups of people who only define it in a limited and judgmental way. If someone tells you that in order to love God or your country, you have to hate someone else, they are neither a patriot nor a person of faith.
Those are my 10 commitments, what might yours be?
I would like to end with the last words from the Declaration of Independence: “With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
We each have the opportunity to follow the lead of our founding fathers of this great republic, and make a new America. Whether it is through government service, politics, business, or social entrepreneurship, we can become the 21st Century founding fathers, mothers, sons and daughters of an America that works for all. We each have the power to reform and recreate our nation like others before us did, and we are in a unique moment where Americans are hungry for it, and we have the ability to do it.
I am excited for what you might pledge your Sacred Honor to, and what you can do for Texas and America. Thank you and may God Bless and keep you.