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My advice to grads: Show up!

Whether it's a wedding you're invited to or a reunion that's come up or a job you want, you should show up for it with all the gusto you can muster.
Chris Mathews speaks at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 Spring OSU Commencement, May 4, 2014
Chris Mathews speaks at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 Spring OSU Commencement, May 4, 2014

Delivered at The Ohio State University commencement ceremony on May 4, 2014.

President Joe Alutto, members of the board, faculty, distinguished guests, parents and friends of the graduating class. It’s an enormous personal honor to stand here in this legendary stadium to mark this day of personal achievement and university celebration. So let’s hear it from the graduates--and everyone--for this historic turn-out and for the school you love, and especially for the proud parents who've come to cheer for you!

Let’s hear it for Ohio State!

Everyone in America and much of the world looks up to this great university, its high academic status, its distinguished faculty in so many fields, and, yes, its success on this historic field--all those contests, and triumphs which echo here today.

Beginning today, Ohio State will count high among those triumphs the 10,200 victories we honor here today. So, let’s hear it from all of us for the special people we came here to honor and celebrate: the Ohio State University Class of 2014.

Soon after getting the happy news of my role here today, I flashbacked back to my high school days cheering for Ohio State and your all-time star, Jerry Lucas. A couple of my friends even made the Buckeye team a classroom debate topic: “Resolved: that Jerry Lucas and Ohio State will win in the final four to become the NCAA champions.” 

Yes, even back then in Philadelphia in the early 1960s we were fixed on your rivalry with that university up north!

You graduates have, of course, fresher, far more personal memories, not the least being the triumphs over Michigan right here in the Horseshoe. 

By the way, you Buckeyes are not the only people who know about that Saturday when the famous Ohio State Marching Band did its incredible “Moonwalk” right here at half-time. Let’s hear it for the “Best Damn Band in the Land!" And, while we’re at it, let’s hear it for the women of Ohio State for their national championship rowing team.

But not only that, of course. There are the personal memories you take with you from here. You may say goodbye, for a little while, to Columbus, but not to those memories and friendships.

I’m here today, of course, to speak wisely about the future. 

So now, for a very few moments, I want to speak about what I’ve learned all these years watching this country’s leaders--not about the politics that so much divides this country, but for a cause that unites all of us here today: the future of these graduates we’ve come to honor, that they get off to the best possible start in life, that they make the right decisions, the right moves, find the best ways to show and put to use what they’ve got.

And, thanks to Ohio State and thanks to them, they’ve got a lot.

Don’t worry. As the great King Henry the Eighth of England told each of his half dozen wives, two of whom he had beheaded: “I won’t keep you long.”

As I said, I’ve spent the last 40-some years watching ambitious people in action. I’ve seen what success is built on at a personal level, about the smart habits leaders develop, how they teach themselves to behave with other people.

I’ve come up with a couple of important facts about the business of getting ahead in life. 

The first seems so simple. It’s what you 50,000 people did today: Show up!

All your life, practically every day of your life, you have to make the simple decision: do I go to the thing or don’t I go? Do I get dressed, go to the trouble, maybe risk getting out of my comfort zone?Or do I just go the other route--avoid the hassle and skip the thing?

The people here today--all 50,000 of them--made that choice.  Look out at this crowd today, graduates, and think hard about why they decided to do what they did. They went to the trouble of getting here today. Just imagine all the regard for you out there in those stands. 

Consider, if you can, all the respect and, yes, love, that’s in those hearts and faces here in The Horseshoe.

Think it doesn’t matter? Really? Every time you decide to show up (or not to bother) you make a statement--a simple but powerful statement, sometimes long-remembered. Was there a better way for those who care about you, about what you’ve achieved, than being here rooting for you?

Aren’t you glad your relatives and friends are here cheering and rooting for you? Aren’t you?

Think it doesn’t matter that the student body of this university is "known" for being out there on Saturdays when the name of Ohio State is once again on the line?

This is my first advice I offer you today because it can be such a make-or-break thing in life, this basic unspoken statement you make by the simple act of showing up.

When you get invited to a classmate’s wedding, do you go to the trouble? Do you find a way to get there? Or do you check off the little card that says “Regret”?

Think about what it’s like getting one of those “Regret” cards from someone you invited, with who you wanted to share your big day.

You’ll be having your class’s first reunion not too many years from now. Some of you will not be up for it. You may not feel you have anything to brag about. 

I say you’re crazy not to show up.

First of all, life isn’t like school. Life isn’t all SAT scores. And while we all learn the top-seeded teams don’t always win, the good news is that the top-seeded graduates don’t always win the personal victories in life. You’ll discover, I think, that the best thing about a reunion, the truly memorable part, is real friends catching up with real friends.

And just maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll connect with someone you had your eyes on here for four years but never had the chance with.  

First reunions are the great second-chance saloon. The drinking and excitement helps! You think?

What’s this doing in a graduation speech? Where’s this pep talk headed? Let me lay it on the line: it’s about life! 

I want you to build a muscle memory for those times when you have to choose between going to something--getting suited up--or skipping it. It may be an invitation from your mom to come home for the weekend. I wish my mom were still around to invite me home.

It may be an old friend you’ve been thinking about. Do I get in touch? Or do I wait for him or her to do it?

And, yes, it’ll be about going out and getting a job. Do you go and try to get an interview or do you dash off an email, attach a resume, and decide you’ve got things under control?

What do you think is the smart move, the winning strategy?

Again, it’s like that eloquent statement being made by the tens of thousands of people here today: they showed up!

Put yourself, again, in the other person’s shoes--the employer looking for someone to hire. What do you think? Is the boss likely to go for the person they actually meet, or the name they scroll past in their email? 

Get that in your brain when you decide to send off that email and say you’ve done your best.

It’s a hardball world you’re walking into. You’ve got to start thinking politically.

Nobody’s coming door-to-door, knocking on yours, inquiring what you are like as a person, checking out what you’ve got to offer, what dreams you have when you lay your head on the pillow at night. Nobody’s coming. If you want the girl or the guy or the job, you’ve got to get out there and make your move. To win the contest, you’ve got to get yourself out on the field.

Exhibit A: Ronald Reagan, our 40th president. He started out after college as a sportscaster for an Iowa radio station. He did the play-by-play for the Chicago Cubs.

He had another ambition: he wanted to become a Hollywood movie star. So he goes out to California to cover the Cubs in spring training--but with that second agenda in mind. 

He does it one year; nothing happens. 

He goes out a second season, and manages to bump into a woman he knew from back home. She gets him a meeting with her agent. The agent gets a producer to give him a screen test and the rest is history.

If young Ronald Reagan had not shown up in LA, I wouldn’t be talking about him here at Ohio State. 

Ronald Reagan kept showing up. When his movie career began to fade after World War II, and he faced the added humiliation of having his wife leave him, what did he do? He went right out and took every audition he could, even in the new medium of television.

Because he kept showing up, he got the break of a lifetime as the primetime host of General Electric Theater. We watched him every Sunday night at 9 and millions of us got to like him, maybe a lot more than if he’d stayed in movies. 

As I said, Reagan kept showing up. When he lost his race for the presidency in 1976 to Gerald Ford (that Michigan grad!) he walked onto that national convention stage and gave the speech of his life. 

Four years later, he was President of the United States. 

Bill Clinton is another case study. At the age of 34, he got beaten for re-election as governor of Arkansas. Everyone figured he was through. The people had gotten a look at him and had rejected him, dumped him from office.

How many governors get dumped from office and ever get the job back? I can’t think of one.

But, the next day, Clinton was out there campaigning, showing himself to the people, saying he got their message.  He ended up getting re-elected governor four more times! Again, the rest is history.

These guys aren’t perfect, not by any means, but they do have a lesson to teach. Faced with the choice of slinking off, sometimes after taking a huge personal hit, they show up!

You’re apt to face this choice again and again in life. Show up or don’t show up. Face the music or skip it and avoid the hassle.  

I showed up in Washington 43 years ago after getting back from my two years in Africa. I wanted to be a speechwriter for a senator, then maybe do the same for a president. That was the dream. 

After knocking on a lot of doors of congressmen and senators, I got the job that opened doors for me. I took a job moonlighting on the Capitol Police because it came with a daytime job working in a senator’s office. It got me in the door!

Why? Because nobody was going to call inviting me to come to Washington. 

And I can assure you, if there was such a thing back then, I don’t think an email was gonna do it. 

No. I had to show up personally with all the excitement of my ambition and make my case. As I said, I got to do it on the 200th door I knocked on.

You know, there’s an expression in broadcasting. It’s called “mailing it in.” It’s when you don’t really bring yourself to the job. People who “mail it in” tend to lose something when they do: their work address!

Another example: I went to a dinner in Washington 36 years ago this spring. It was one of those black tie dinners the television and radio people have each year. 

If I hadn’t gone I would never have met my my wife that night. I think occasionally about how things would have gone for me if I had decided to skip that event and missed Kathleen. Not well, I’m afraid.

It’s about being there when the lightning strikes. You never know when that’s going to happen.

Years ago, I had dinner with a guy out in Beverly Hills. Afterwards, he invited me to join him for drinks with another guy. That other guy and I hit it off. It was in the early '90s. A few years later, he was the one who got me started hosting a national cable show. I’ve been on every weekday night since.

I’m at MSNBC. He’s Roger Ailes, the founder and president of Fox News. And, yes, we’re still friends.  

So I’m a big believer in showing up. You dream of meeting the right person to spend your life with...a job opens up or some other want to be there when it does, not sitting home waiting to get a call.

When lightning strikes, you want to be there, right there in the room. You! 

Small point: People tend to give pretty short notice when they leave a job these days – maybe only two weeks. You want to be there when the boss looks around for someone to fill the position. Two weeks that window is open. 

The more places you show yourself, the more windows will open for you, the better your chances.

Now for the follow-up: Ask!

Anyone in business out there knows that every salesperson needs to ask for the order, just like you have to ask for the date--don’t you? 

Well, you have to ask for the job.  

I think about the President and how he got there. Here’s a guy who lost his run for Congress badly, got himself thumped by a guy who still holds that south side Chicago seat today.

No, you don’t hear much about this. Why? Because of what the man who is now our president did after he took that beating. 

He got in his car, with nothing but a map in the passenger’s seat (no GPS!) and drove out into parts of Illinois where nobody ever voted for someone like him, certainly nobody named “Barack Obama,” and got himself elected U.S. Senator.

The lesson? Not everybody’s going to say “yes” to you. Just don’t ever say “no” to yourself, ever.

Commencement speaker Chris Mathews receiving honorary degree from OSU interim president Joseph Alutto.

Some people are going to like you and some aren’t. When I was knocking on all those 200 doors in the U.S. Congress looking to get one to open, I had one guy tell me to my face he didn’t like my hairstyle--too long. This was the 1960s! He also didn’t much like my “way of speaking”--too fast. 

He said the people of his district might also think I’d brought some “ideals” back from the Peace Corps with me.

But then he gave me the advice of the century: he said politics, the politics of life, really is a lot like selling life insurance door-to-door, which is what he did for a living before being elected to Congress. 

He said you go to a hundred houses and you’ll get nine people to invite you back to make a pitch. Of those nine out of a hundred, three of them will buy the policy, which is enough to make a decent living.

He told me to keep looking, that someone would like me, even if he didn’t figure I was right for him.

So, bottom line: life and career is a matter of numbers. Some people are going to like you; some aren’t. It’s a lot like dating.

The important little secret of human politics is that the man or woman who does give you your chance will back you up later. “Hey, I gave that guy his first job!” I’ve seen it time and time again.

You see, when someone gives you a job, they’re making an investment in you, a bet on you.  People tend to double-down on that kind of bet. And this is precisely the way you have to think about it, at what many of you are facing right now. 

When you ask someone for a job, you’re not out there begging. You’re taking on an investor in you. It’s like when you applied here to Ohio State. You asked them to invest in you--and it paid off. Here you are getting your diplomas!

And so my wisdom today comes down to this:

  • Show up! Do everything you can to get in the door.
  • Show up for your friends. Don’t wait for a classmate to call you. You be the one to call up and keep the friendship alive.
  • When you see an opportunity, ask for it. Never say “no” to yourself.
  • And hang on to your values--honesty, loyalty, duty, basic goodness.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who’s up there on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, said something at a graduation at my college, Holy Cross, more than a century ago. He said politicians fall into two categories: those who mean well but can’t do anything, and those who are thoroughly competent but don’t mean well at all.

My hope is I can help the good people graduating today to catch up to the people who are forever cutting corners.

Let me end this way: I already gave you the bad news--that nobody’s coming to give you something, nobody’s coming knocking on your door asking what your dreams are.

The good news?

You're coming. You’re going at this with all the excitement and hope and, yes, the kind of butterflies all great competitors get before the big contest, with the gung-ho spirit that made this country, that is this country.

Thank you, all of you, for the honor of having me share it with you. 

Go Ohio State! Go Buckeyes!