Winter 2017 Commencement Remarks: How to Choose Well

As prepared for delivery, Sun. Dec. 17, 2017:

Good morning, and welcome to the winter 2017 commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Congratulations to the new graduates, and a special welcome this morning to family and friends.

I also want to welcome and thank our guest speakers … Hollywood producers of some of your favorite hit shows who met as undergraduates here at UW … Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis.

Adam and Eddy – thank you for being here today!

  1. Introduction

Today we’ll confer just over 2,000 degrees upon our undergraduate, graduate and professional school students. Whether you have earned a medical degree or an MBA … a PhD … or bachelor’s degree … your credential means you are now part of an important and powerful group – the highly educated.

Just 7% of the world’s population holds a college degree – and less than 1% have earned a Ph.D.

December graduates are always an interesting group. Some of you took a little more time to reach this milestone because you incorporated an internship or study abroad to enrich your education and open up new opportunities. Some of you took a little less time because you focused like a laser on completing your degree.

And one person here finished his degree 50 years ago but was so needed in his new job that he could not stay to participate in the graduation ceremony. After a lifetime of work helping developing countries to grow and thrive, Luciano Barraza has returned to accept the Ph.D. in economics he earned in 1967.

Luciano is here with his proud family – please stand so we can recognize you.  Congratulations!

  1. Three questions

As we celebrate your achievements today, I know many of you are thinking about the multitude of choices that lie ahead. That can be little scary – even if you feel like you have it all worked out – because every positive choice eliminates some other possibility. You can’t walk through two doors at once (… unless you’re at that one entrance to Grainger Hall…).

Whether you’re deciding on a job, or a major move, or a graduate school program, or making more personal choices … say, whether to get married or have a child … there are three questions you need ask yourself – think of them as tools for helping you choose well.

First, what do you love to do?

The constant demands of school can make it easy to lose track of what you’re passionate about. The things you have to get done today can take all of your attention. But it’s important to spend some time thinking about what feels meaningful in the long run… what you want to be and do in your life…

If your first answer is “binge-watching Last Week Tonight” you’ll have to dig a little deeper.

If your first answer is watching the Badgers win the Orange Bowl at the end of this month… we’re all with you. But until you figure out how to add ‘Jump Around’ to your resume (and some of you just might…) – keep thinking.

When Matt Howard, Alex Wyler, and Eric Martell sat where you are sitting just a few years ago, they asked themselves this question, and their first answer was: “We really love ordering take-out.”

They met here as freshmen, so they had lots of experience. But they didn’t stop there. They then listed the things they didn’t like about the process – they couldn’t always order late at night, or get delivery from their favorite places.

With degrees in economics and computer science, they decided they could do better.  They co-founded EatStreet, which last year delivered food to nearly two million people in 250 cities around the country. Matt and Alex were just named to the 2018 Forbes Magazine ‘30 under 30’ list of rising stars.

And yes, they still love ordering Ian’s Pizza at all hours.

When you can name what you are passionate about, making choices about your career and your life will seem a little more straightforward.

Second, what are you good at?

Those of you earning bachelor’s degrees today might be thinking, “I’m not entirely sure what I’m good at.” And that’s OK. If we’ve done our job right, we’ve given you a foundation of knowledge and skills, and now your job is to build expertise.

I can’t tell you exactly how to do that, but I can tell you it’ll happen a lot faster if you focus on being present and productive.

Yours is the first generation to have been plugged in since you were old enough to press a button.

How many of you tried to look like you were paying attention in math class while you were feeding your Tamagotchi?

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I suspect quite a few of you. Hopefully that wasn’t just last week….

There was a time when we all thought multitasking was a great way to get things done – but it turns out most people really can’t do two things at once, and do them both well.

Just like your laptop, you will work a whole lot better when you unplug once in a while.

And whether you’ve achieved a level of expertise or you’re just starting out, know that the number one predictor of a person’s impact is not genius or luck … it’s how hard you try and how hard you work.

Thomas Edison patented 1,000 inventions you’ve never heard of before he created the phonograph and the light bulb. Thomas Jennings, the first African-American to receive a U.S. patent, spent many years experimenting with different formulas for cleaning clothes before he invented dry cleaning in 1821.

When you find that place where what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about come together, that is where your life’s work awaits you. Choose opportunities that put you there.

The third question to ask is:  where can you make a difference?

Each of you has been educated in the UW tradition of public service – what we call the Wisconsin Idea. I hope one of the things you’ve learned is that success means serving a cause bigger than yourself.

Let me tell you about two of today’s graduates who understand that lesson better than most. Corporal Matt Johnson and Sergeant Ross Gundlach came to us a little later in life than most of our undergraduates. They are both U.S. Marine veterans.

Matt was training with his unit in a desert in East Africa when he promised himself he would come to UW-Madison and study finance, so he could help businesses succeed.

Ross was serving in Afghanistan, working with a bomb-sniffing dog to clear explosives from the roads, when he promised himself he’d come here and study real estate, so he could develop housing for low-income families.

Matt and Ross and 19 more student-veterans are earning degrees today. We are thankful for your service, and very proud of you all. Congratulations.

I hope that each of you is thinking about how you can use your education to make life better in some way – maybe for one person, maybe for many.

If that sounds like a tall order, I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s easier if you don’t try to do it alone.

I hope teamwork and collaboration have been part of your education here at UW because we know that many minds are better than one for solving difficult problems … and because being able to play well with others is even more important now than it was in Kindergarten.

Whether you’re volunteering in the community or playing in a band or solving complex scientific problems, I hope you will continue to seek out opportunities to work with people you can learn from … and who can learn from you … to make a difference.


Before I end, I want to ask a favor. If you have your phone with you, please take it out now. We’re going to do one last (unofficial) portrait with your classmates.

I want every one of you to take a selfie or a picture with the classmates around you and tweet it and hashtag UWgrad. We’ll collect them and post at If you follow me @BeckyBlank, I tweeted a link to it earlier today.

While you’re doing that, Adam and Eddie are going to help me take a class photo from up here.

With your help, the Class of 2017 is going to have the biggest and best collection of commencement photos and memories we’ve ever created!

Thank you. Be sure and visit the website to see all the pictures.

Wherever your path leads you, I hope you will choose well – find work that you love, and define your success by the difference you make in the world.

Thank you for making this university a better place while you were here. Keep in touch. Let us know how you’re doing. I can’t wait to learn what you accomplish in the years ahead.

And remember to occasionally come back and visit. You will always be part of UW and I hope that UW will always be part of you.

Congratulations … and On Wisconsin!