CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta Delivers University of Michigan Spring 2012 Commencement Address – Transcript. This event took place on April 28, 2012.
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Thank you! And congratulations champions! I am really, really thrilled to be here.
Thank you President Coleman. Thank you Regents for this extraordinary honor. I am just thrilled to be in this place at this time.
And I want to start off by telling you that simply being here is incredibly personal for me. You see, not only was the foundation for most of my life conceived in this town, I myself was likely conceived in this town. Best bet is the 17th floor of the University Towers, though no one is talking for sure, it has been 43 years.
It’s the most amazing story though. My mom was driving through this town of Ann Arbor; it was the mid-1960s. She was a newcomer to this town and to this country. It was a test for her in many ways and a test for the people of Ann Arbor as well. One young man in particular. My mom was just a passerby with no idea how much her life was about to change. Ann Arbor wasn’t a city that she even knew, and almost by sheer cosmic will her car breaks down.
Now, let me paint you a picture. She is an immigrant from the other side of the world, undaunted, but also a little overwhelmed. There are no cell phones, no Internet, no friends, and really no obvious options, very little money and just a broken down car.
She went to the closest phone booth, and decided to randomly call someone, an Indian person whose name began in the As. Smart woman. I am not certain how far through the phonebook she would have actually gone, but turns out that was a moot point, because someone answered the phone after the first ring.
Now, as it turns out the person she was trying to call wasn’t home, but his roommate, her future husband, my father, was. I can only imagine how that conversation went. If there was ever a damsel in distress story, this was it.
My dad, who graduated from the University of Michigan Engineering School in 1967, was perhaps the perfect person to help her. You see, he loved cars and he loved the car that my mom was driving, a 63 Nova, but as we learned, he loved the woman driving it even more.
It is personal for me to be here, because my own parents met in this town, just a year or two older than you are now, wild-eyed with ambition and promise and impetuous and youth, dreamers they were, as so many of you are now, in search of something they never believed they could have, but they still wanted it.
Even today in too many places around the world, there is too much persecution and prosecution. People don’t dare dream of a free society, let alone a free education, free of rules and stipulations. People don’t dare dream of the opportunity to learn simply for the sake of being a more engaged global citizen. In many places, people don’t dare dream of living, instead of just existing.
My parents came here in search of a dream and have asked me to honor their dreams by simply doing my very best. Never letting a day of my life go wasted and waking up every morning with a sense of purpose.
They taught me something else that I would like to share with all of you.
Lesson number 1: Always Respect Your Elders.
There is no doubt that our parents seem to go smarter as we grow older, but truth is they also sacrifice an incredible amount to allow our lives to be what they are, and it is on their shoulders that we realize our greatest triumphs.
My parents are here today. I want to thank my parents and I want to ask all of you to do the same.
Thank your parents, your loved ones, your friends, your family, all the people that were here with you in many ways, worrying about you, worrying about your safety, worrying about to exams, maybe worrying about those tuition bills, worrying perhaps that you were homesick, and that you missed them, while all the time they were missing you.
Worrying as my parents did that I would be just another face in the crowd unwilling or unable to realize my legacy. Maybe worrying one day they would get a call they didn’t want, perhaps from President Coleman, or maybe even the Ann Arbor police. Sorry about that mom and dad.
Michigan graduates, I come here with the full knowledge that I am but a formality in an otherwise very busy, important, monumental day, so I want to do something for you that you may otherwise forget to do; something I wished I had started doing earlier in my own life.
I want you to right now, just take a moment; just stop, reflect, and take it all in. Take all of this in. We do not think of our lives in a linear way. If I ask you to tell me about your days as a University student, it’s unlikely you would start at the beginning and describe every moment all the way to the end.
We remember series of moments, memorable moments; and together these moments make up the meshwork of our lives.
So lesson number 2 graduates, make each moment count.
Don’t deprive yourself. Don’t impose too many rules. Every now and then eat a real omelet or a Raisin French Toast at Angelo’s, and when you do, enjoy every last bite. Have real ice cream at Stucchi’s, and know that you are indulging and savor it. And graduates, if beer is your thing, drink a real beer at Ashley’s, and if I see you out tonight, I will even buy you one.
Recognize the moments, graduates, as they are happening and make them memorable, make moments like this count. They make up the meshwork of your lives.
I had a moment just a couple of weeks ago. I was driving around in my car with one of my daughters on a nice spring day. She was in the backseat in her booster chair, and I was watching her in the rearview mirror, imagining and wondering what life had in store for her.
Suddenly she picked up my stethoscope and she started playing with it. She is just five-years old. I watched her closely, just very excited as I thought this was the moment that she decided she wanted to be a doctor.
I was going to describe this moment for years to come. She put the stethoscope in her ears and she started playing with it, and slowly brought the little piece up to her mouth, and finally she said, welcome to McDonald’s! Can I take your order?
The moments aren’t always what you expect, but it means so much to me to be invited back into your house, your very, very, very big house. I love this place so much. I have literally traveled all over the world, to every continent, more than 100 countries, and I love this place most of all. I love walking around this campus.
I love the architecture of the buildings. I love the old growth trees. I love the restaurants and bars. I love the conversations taking place on campus corners every time you visit. I love the relationship between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor, and I love all of you.
Now, admittedly, since I left Michigan, you have had three Presidents, the First Lady, and the Head of the United Nations as your commencement speakers, not bad, but I had something none of them did. I am a true Blue Wolverine. I am one of you, and I am at home today in front of you.
My understanding is there is about 50,000 of you out there, which is a bigger audience than we sometimes get on CNN, seriously. This really is my home though, and it was here that I started to learn what other people have spoken about, the Michigan tradition.
It was here that I learned what it means when we sing Hail to the Champions, when we sing Hail to Leaders and Best, and what it means to be a Wolverine. It’s a Michigan tradition, not just of excellence and scholastic achievement, but excellence in life.
It’s a Michigan tradition to take risks and in the process blaze new trails. It’s a Michigan tradition to always read the directions, but not always to follow them. It’s to always prepare, but to sometimes throw that preparation in the trash and allow yourself to be surprised, honest, and genuine.
It’s a Michigan tradition to make history and change the world, to be immortal, not as in living forever, but as in never being forgotten. It’s a Michigan tradition to above all else be a good and charitable citizen of the world, who never gets ahead by pushing someone else down, never, ever. It’s a Michigan tradition to be a true Blue Wolverine, and to recognize that from this day forward.
Lesson number 3, if you ever cheer for another team in competition with the Wolverines, then some 500,000 alumni will hunt you down, find you, and paint you maize and blue.
And by the way, if your future significant other doesn’t understand your zealotry, bring them here to this very big house.
So what does it mean to be a champion? What does it take to be the Leaders and Best? They are people who learn from their mistakes. I guarantee you they are not people who don’t make them.
Infallibility is not a virtue. They are not people who always know the right answers, but they know how to ask the right questions and are never embarrassed to do so. They never shy away from obstacles and instead show tremendous resilience in the face of these barriers, with the full recognition that we soar highest only when truly challenged.
Also lesson number graduates, in the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, champions always forgive their enemies, because nothing annoys them more.
Life moves fast graduates. It’s hard to believe that it has been more than 20 years since I sat where you are now. I started asking myself a question many years ago at a time when I was covering a war in a faraway land.
It was in the middle of the shamal sandstorm in Iraq and it was a day when we could not see our hands in front of our face. It was a day when we lost all of our air protective cover. It was a day that suddenly turned into night.
And I still remember this young lieutenant came running into our dusty desert tent. We are being overrun. I still hear his voice in my head and I still hear those shots that were so close. People started writing letters, they started writing notes, anything to be remembered in case they died.
And I was told to do the same thing, write the letter, put it all down on paper, make it count.
So I ask you graduates, right now, could you write the letter, to whom would you write, what would you say, summarize your life in a few short moments near its end. I don’t know what you would write and maybe you have never thought two seconds about it.
But lesson number 5 graduates: Make sure you can write this sentence, I am who I always wanted to be.
Today you may be a little scared and you may be kicking yourself for feeling that way, but don’t. The truth is I like to be scared, just a little bit. I have been shot at, I have been beaten, I have been starved, I have been humiliated, and all of that was just from my wife after our last boys’ weekend away.
My wife is here as well. She is the source of many of these lessons. No surprise, after all I married a Wolverine.
I think being scared is good, and I think the corollary is also true, never being scared is bad.
Too safe, too careful, not enough risk, not enough living, too much talking, not enough action.
I like to live on the border of being pushed harder than ever, doing the best work I have ever done, and being completely out of control. I learned when I was around your age that was the sweet spot for me.
Now, I am not talking about playing games with your life. I am talking about imagining things you never thought possible. I am talking about savoring it. When someone tells you, no, it can’t be done, because you know deep down you now have an opportunity to do the impossible.
I have been told no more times than I can count. I was too small. I was too dumb. I stammered too much. I lacked talent. I was incapable of understanding. I was socially awkward. I had too much of a Midwestern accent, and I sure did have a funny sounding name. I spoke too slowly I was told. After moving to the South they told me I didn’t speak slowly enough.
And though I had a hard time seeing it, each time I was inspired a little bit more, each time the accomplishment a little bit sweeter, each time I turn no into yes, it made me feel like I had lived a little bit more life than if I hadn’t.
So lesson number 6 graduates, do one thing every day that scares you, and in the process become the action hero of your own life.
There is something else that I have learned, graduates, as I have traveled the world. I have paid attention, not only to the stories of people in distant lands, but also the laws that seemed to govern our collective actions as human beings, and I know something now that I would like to share with all of you, and that is that hopes and dreams and aspirations are evenly distributed throughout the entire world, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
How else could you explain a young girl named Reshma, I interviewed her in a refugee camp in Pakistan after the floods, 20% of her homeland underwater, desperation running high, hardly any food, thick with misery and chaos, and I see this young girl sitting in a small tent doing her schoolwork. It nearly made me cry. She wants it even as the laws of the universe are conspiring against her; hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
A man named Deen in Haiti; I went to visit him after the earthquake. I had first met him just after he had both of his legs amputated. Come with me, come with me he shouted, and I watched him walk with his prosthetic legs over this bumpy Port-au-Prince Road. He grabbed this transistor radio, turned on the music, and started to dance in the sunlight. It was a moment, on his prosthetic legs, he wasn’t going to just walk, he wasn’t even going to just run, he was going to dance.
Lesson number 7 graduates; hope, dreams, and aspirations, they are distributed evenly throughout the entire world, but what is not is justice, opportunity, and working systems.
There is still too much injustice in the world, graduates, and I think we all need to spend more time thinking about it, addressing it the best that we can, and feeling compelled to act.
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to spend my life tipping the scales in favor of hope, dreams, and aspirations, tipping the scales, graduates, and I wonder if you will please help me do that.
Seven lessons graduates, and let me add two more.
Lesson number 8: don’t worry so much about the future.
Many of you don’t know for sure at 22 what you really want to do with your life, and I am still not 100% sure at 42. Don’t let money dictate your decisions, and remember what it was that made you happy before everyone else started trying to define it for you. You know what makes your heart swell, you know what makes your breath catch in your throat, you know what makes your chest tighten with anticipation, go get that graduates, you deserve that.
Also graduates, after today, lesson number 9, wake up with a sense of purpose.
The Japanese call it Ikigai; something to live for. Wake up every morning with a plan, a plan to contribute something to society. It may be big, it may be small, but make it count. A plan to be a better person today, maybe a better son, a better daughter, a better spouse, perhaps a better parent, to be better than you were yesterday. No days unwasted means having a plan to make it so.
Also, after today, graduates, especially after this day, ikigai will also mean being an even better friend. Today many of you have to say goodbye. You have got to say goodbye to this field, you have got to say goodbye to this big house, goodbye to this magical place at a truly remarkable time in your lives. You don’t get this time back, it’s gone, but the friends that shared this journey with you are still there, even though you won’t get to see them everyday.
Final lesson then graduates of 2012, lesson number 10, of the few touchstones that you hold close to your heart, place lifelong friendships right there at the very top.
Appreciate these friendships, nurture them, make them grow, and realize that as you get older, these friendships will become some of the most valuable things you have in your life.
Fly around the world graduates for the weddings of your friends, be there for the births of their children, and always answer the call in their times of need.
Thank you so much for having me in your house, and also in your home. And when you walk off this field today, you won’t just be graduates, you will also be champions, you will be the leaders and the best.
I salute you! I welcome your commencement into our faithful Michigan Alumni, and it’s worth saying this again, graduates, while you may one day forget this moment, I never ever will.
Go Blue! Love you!