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Celebrating the moment: a commencement address

Editor's note: NBC News' Lester Holt gave the commencement address Saturday at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and received an honorary doctorate degree. Here is the transcript of his address to Pepperdine's Class of 2012:

President Benton, with deep appreciation I humbly accept this honor. To the graduates, members of the faculty, special guests, parents and friends I extend my welcome and congratulations. I am so please to be able to address you.

Receiving this honor is humbling, but more than humbling, I must admit it is improbable.  Graduates, I never made the walk you are about to make to receive a college degree. I started working at an early age dj-ing on the radio when I was in high school. I went to college while managing to work full-time as a newsman. The career was taking off quickly, new and exciting opportunities arose and so I left school short of earning my degree. I headed off to San Francisco to chase my passion.

I’ve rationalized all these years that my career itself, covering events around the world, interviewing important people, pounding the halls of power with microphone in hand, has been worth multiple college degrees.  I won’t diminish my experiences, for it has been an unmatched education, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  But let’s face it. It is not this, for which you have all worked so hard these past four years. I am proud of you, and as I often do at college commencements,  I also feel a sense of awe looking at all of you. Even a touch of envy.

So then, what do I have to offer you?  Well, maybe some advice on breaking the rules, or on occasionally learning to drive against the traffic flow.

I can also tell you that hearing the word “no” is not always a bad thing. Having never asked the question, on the other hand, is.  The first time I applied for a job at NBC in New York I was 18 years old.  Hey, who knew they didn’t hire high school kids? OK I knew, but come on -- how many high school kids had the gall to ask? I still have the rejection letter, and every time I look at it it never fails to bring a smile to my face.  The way I look at it, it just took them 23 years to reconsider my application.

You know, in some cases it’s going to take that kind of gall and confidence to stand out among the crowded field of job seekers in this environment. When the class of 2012 started here, our economy was plunging into the depths of recession. And while you were busy studying here, the rules out there were changing. Including a lot of the rules about how one successfully enters the work force. The course of our economy almost dictates that many of you will have to drive against the traffic flow to find your way. You’ll need to tap your creativity, innovate or draw an unconventional roadmap to success.

How and why the doors of opportunity open when they do and where they do, has always been a mystery to me. In my case persistence got me to the door step of those first couple of jobs, but when it came to the door actually swinging open for me...??? Well, the reality is luck and timing are always our best friends. It’s not always about you.

The one thing you can control is whether you’ve got the goods to walk through that door when it cracks open. The skills and determination to embrace the challenge. To quickly learn the tasks and navigate the ladder, for which there are rarely written instructions.

On the other hand, when those doors don’t budge open at first, you’ll need to find and draw from a deep reservoir of confidence within you, to power on to the next door step, and if necessary the one after that, and the one after that.

The changing rules also allow us to re-imagine the definition of success.  When I left school to focus on making it as a radio reporter I didn’t know where it would lead.  As I said before, I was chasing a passion. Going into TV wasn’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking salary potential either, or even what my dream job was. I just wanted to embrace the craft. All I knew was that I loved the news.

As for all of you who are graduating today, rightfully basking in your accomplishment, the world is already demanding of you an encore performance. It wants to know “now what?”  “What’s next? “ That’s the conversation that surely follows this ceremony over the brunch table, and the conversation that has probably consumed you for the better part of this past year. From here, the old rules dictate that you quickly step onto the track of upward mobility and not look back. Happiness, passion and fulfillment are bonuses but not requirements.

Sometimes, however, in our single-minded pursuit of “what’s next?,” we fail to reflect on “what’s now?”  You’ve all got smartphones I assume, and you might be recording this now.  You are of course the generation of citizen photojournalists. Armed with smart phones you are ready to capture any and every moment and uploaded it onto Facebook well before my colleagues and I can get it on the air.

You are also a generation that remembers every detail of what it was like the first time you crawled your little diapered butts across the living room floor. The day you took your first steps, or when you melted-down on that first day of pre-school. Not because your early memories were so sharp but because you lived those moments through home video.

And so I’m curious to know if you will really remember this day? What it smelled like. What it looked like. The emotions and expressions on those around you. The sun beating onto your faces.  How uncomfortable those shoes are you have on. Or the hat on the person in front on you that’s obstructing your view?  Or will you remember it only through video clips on the 3-inch screen on your I-phone.  Are you living your reality through electronic viewfinders and 140 characters, or are you taking it in with your God given senses? You want reality programming? It’s all around you.  This is what’s now. Absorb what’s now. Breath it in.

My point of course is not about the downside of making videos. (I do that for a living).  It’s about making sure you don’t miss the scenic pull-offs on life’s journey just because someone’s in your face constantly asking “what’s next?”

More than 30 years in the business and now anchoring and hosting 3 major network news broadcasts and I still get the questions: what is your dream job? What do you want to do next?  I used to be able to tick off those jobs pretty quickly. Now my answer is very simple: “If this is as far as I got in my career then I would have been blessed with an amazing career and some amazing opportunities.”   And you know what? I could have said the same thing four jobs ago.

Don’t for a moment lower your expectations or your ambitions.  But don’t let them consume you to the point you become indifferent to the journey itself. Or to the extent that you fail to recognize how good you may have it at certain points along the way.

If I had any regrets about my own career path it would be those times I got so busy climbing the ladder, or so eager to step up to the next wrung that I forgot to pause and turn and appreciate the view around me. And those times I was so conditioned to see life in a video frame, that I didn’t allow myself to soak in those things you can only really see with your own eyes.

At NBC Nightly News we have a number of bright and talented college interns who are absolutely essential to our operation, and they attend the editorial meetings with the entire staff each day.  At the end of their internships, before they head back to school, we like to put them on the spot in those meetings by asking them the simple question: what have you learned? And so in that spirit, and in so much as I consider my 35-years in news my formal education, perhaps the time has finally come for my oral dissertation. Let me share with you the most important things I’ve learned along the way.

Number 1, when you strip away political and religious ideology, what unites us is far bigger than what divides us.  I’ve traveled the world and much of this country, and spoken to regular folks from Kabul to San Salvador, Beijing to Delhi, Tennessee to here in Malibu, California, and to a person, we all want the same things: To provide for our families, live unmolested and in a safe environment, educate our kids, and to be free. As you examine “what’s next,” and your own possibilities in life I ask you to consider: aren’t those the goals we’re all really chasing?

 Number 2, I have learned that we are an amazingly resilient species.  I have witnessed the horrors of war and crime, and countless natural calamities, and time and time again I have marveled at how people who have lost virtually everything -- their homes, their jobs, their communities, and even their loved one --  manage to pick themselves up, put one foot in front of the other, and do what they have to do to carry on. The take-away? You have no idea what you are capable of until you are truly tested.

And Number 3, I’ve learned that we have to meet each other half way. Every conflict I’ve ever covered has at it’s root the fact that no one is really listening.  The measure of a good journalist is often the toughness of our questions. But what I have come to know is that in life it is not the questions we ask, but rather our ability to hear the answers that truly enriches our understanding.

In conclusion, let me express my sincere hope that as you head down your career path, pursuing your passion and fulfillment, that it proves to be a deep, enriching and lasting education. Never stop learning. You’ll graduate from here today, but in life class is never really dismissed.

Class of 2012, thank you for your kind attention. Congratulations and may God bless you and keep you.