News and Events
Keynote Commencement Address
by Tom Selleck
April 28, 2000
Hi there, you make me feel like I should say “hi guys.” I’m sorry that Coach Wooden isn’t here because, despite this wonderful honor, I wanted to share with him my true brush with greatness. When I went to USC, I played basketball, and Coach Wooden was coaching UCLA, and to be quite honest with you, come game time, I rode the pine—I didn’t play too much. The week before you were going to play somebody, the guys who weren’t going to play too much, ran the offense for the team you were going to play. And my brush with greatness was that I was Lew Alcindor, or currently known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And I wanted to tell Coach Wooden that having seen UCLA play at the time, I may have known their offense better than some of his players.
I should also tell you that I played two sports at USC—basketball and volleyball—and never in the entire time that I was there did we beat UCLA. Coach Wooden is an extraordinary man and a national treasure, and we all wish him well. But since he isn’t here, I’d like to wish the Pepperdine Volleyball team well in their match against UCLA tomorrow.
I am speaking to you as the only unlettered sibling, well heretofore, the only unlettered sibling of Bob and Martha Selleck. And as someone whose parents borrowed money to send him to college, only to see him leave the USC School of Business 12 units short of a degree to pursue an acting career, I want to thank you. My parents and my brothers and my sister are all here, and this gets me off the hook.
Actually my mom and dad were pretty supportive. Although I think they had to take a very deep breath, they reminded me, either in letter or spirit, of something that was so typical of most of their advice—and that is that risk is the price you pay for opportunity. And that while I was going into a business where there was much failure, failure really serves to be the lesson that helps you accept success.
When Chancellor Runnels told me of the honor that Pepperdine was bestowing upon me, he asked if I would talk to you on the subject of character. And while this is a subject that I certainly have addressed before—now see this is the exact spot, when I am trying to put my thoughts on paper, where my pen stops and I stare at the empty lines on my little yellow pad—well this is always followed by a postponement while I ponder how can I possibly talk about this stuff without sounding like I am pontificating? Well this cycle repeats itself over and over until the classic actor’s nightmare of being on stage and not knowing what play you’re in takes over—and that obliterates all other anxiety.
So first of all, any ethical person must be truthful. And I have to admit that in addition to being a doctor, I do represent an industry that, as my friend Herb Gardner in my favorite play “A Thousand Clowns” puts it, displays a philosophy of life somewhere to the left of whoopee. Add to that, the fact that while my industry is clearly nowhere near finding the cure for cancer, we still feel obliged to give ourselves awards for three solid months every year. Well, one might be tempted to say who does he think he is. One might even be tempted to be cynical. Well as Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” And since after all, this is my nickel, just hear me out. For having given you the commencement equivalent to a government-warning label, I would like to talk to you today about character.
Don’t get mad at me, because it was John Ruskin who said, “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” Now I know this is a time in your promising lives where you can’t really help but be consumed by what you want to do, but I would suggest to you that it is even more important and more appropriate to think about who you want to be. I think that how and why you do something is just as important as what you do.
Now I don’t want to lose you here, because herein lies the problem. See, everyone thinks he or she is ethical. No, I’m not kidding—everyone thinks he or she is ethical. And why is that? Well it’s because we always judge ourselves by our own good intentions. We mean well, so if we lie or mislead, it must be for a very good reason—otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.
Also, we tend to remember the time we sacrificed something we really wanted in order to do the right thing, or took a big risk by telling the truth—the problem is we all tend to squeeze these all-too-infrequent high moral moments for a lot more than they are worth. And while we may judge ourselves by our own good intentions, we are judged by our last worst act. If you don’t remember anything else I say today—remember that. Few of us are as good as we think we are. And none of us is as good as we can be.
In a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics on college students, 16 percent admitted they had shoplifted; 29 percent admitted they would lie to get a job—18 percent have; 21 percent would falsify a report to keep a job; 39 percent have lied to their boss; 35 percent to a customer; and a full one-third cheated on an exam. Now, if I were a politician, and did not want to injure your collective self-esteem, as if there were such a thing, I could at this point simply invoke the “I’m not so bad as long as I can find somebody else who does worse” theory—more commonly known as the doctrine of relative filth.
In 1998, a survey of high school students revealed that 47 percent shoplifted in the past year, 70 percent cheated on an exam, but, hey, only 92 percent lied to their parents. Now if we keep in mind that liars and cheaters just might actually lie on a survey, it is clear that—as my friend and partner and hero, the late Barbara Jordan said so eloquently and so often—there is a hole in our moral ozone and it’s getting bigger. But take heart, the survey has a error factor of plus or minus three percent. And anyway, it’s the economy, stupid.
Arthur Schophaur said, “It is with trifles and when he is off guard that a man best reveals his character.” This father comes home from work and sees his son working diligently on school project with this set of colored pencils that he doesn’t recognize. He says, “Son, where did you get those pencils?” And the son says, “Well dad, I took them from school.” And the father says, “Son, are you allowed to do that?” And the son says, “Well no, but dad, I really needed them.” The father looks at his son and says, “I am very upset, I’ve always taught you to be honest. Why didn’t you just tell me? I would have brought some home from the office.” Then he says, “You know I’m so upset with you, I think I am going to call in sick and go in and talk to your teacher.”
Gandhi warned us to be on guard against science without humanity; politics without principle; knowledge without character; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; and worship without sacrifice. We all have to abandon the notion that something is proper simply because it is permissible; or that something is ethical simply because it is legal. And that goes for lawyers—especially lawyers.
This large company was hiring a CEO, and the four leading candidates all worked inside the company, so the board decided to just ask each candidate a simple question. First, the controller was brought in and asked how much is 2 plus 2? He of course thought it was trick question, but he answered it anyway, “4—it is always 4.” Well they brought in the head of research and development, an engineer by training, and asked him the same thing. He answered, “It depends on whether it is a positive 2 or a negative 2, it could be 4, zero, or minus 4. So they bring in the head of marketing. And he answers, “The way I figure it, 2 plus 2 is 22. Well finally, they bring in the legal counsel. “How much is 2 plus 2,” they ask him. He looks around the room at the board, and replies, “how much do you want it to be?” In the words of Logan Piersall Smith, most people sell their souls, and live with a good conscience on the proceeds.
You know the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves after we have gotten away with it with everybody else. And do we pay a price for our character? Absolutely. But one way or another, we all pay the price—either we pay for our character or with our character. See, the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win it, you’re still a rat—that’s Lily Tomlin again.
You know, I must confess that I am a child of the 60s, and I have to tell you that we became literally experts at trivializing values by pointing out hypocrisy and double standards. In short, I think, we made it hip to be cynical. But hypocritical and duplicitous behavior shouldn’t really nullify our standards, but rather reflect on an individual’s character flaws. Who was it that said morality always stays the same, but immorality varies from generation to generation. I would submit that my pals and I may have thrown the baby out with the bath water because by the time I left college, it appeared that the only acceptable value was that it was wrong to be judgmental. Well non-judgmentalism is simply an exchange of moral blank checks. And cynicism is just a dishonest person’s substitute for conscience. So the next time you think, “who am I to judge”, please think a second time, because as a citizen of a free society, who are you not to? That’s why we serve on juries and that’s why we vote.
Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” In an age of virulent cynicism and toxic ideas, no active integrity or moral courage, however small, is wasted.
These two little girls are going down the beach, and they come around a bend and suddenly they see hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore and drying out. Well one of the little girls runs over to one the starfish, picks it up and starts running down to the water to put it back in. The other little girls asks her what she is doing. There are hundreds of starfish here, it isn’t going to do any good. Well the little girl looks down at the starfish in her hand and says, “It does to this one.
You know, we’re all appalled at acts of senseless violence that seem to occur with increasing frequency in our world. What’s happening? It can’t just be an exaggeration by a news media obsessed with creating need at the expense of their constitutional responsibility to shed light—although that’s part of it. It can’t just be our political leaders who have such a hard time walking their talk—although that’s part of it. It can’t just be the availability of firearms—guns were available virtually without restriction a couple of generations ago, and we didn’t have this violent culture. It can’t just be the record industry or the video game industry—although that’s part of it. It can’t just be my entertainment industry, who left to its own devices, would demand to broadcast, not just public executions, but naked public executions—although I regret to say we’re part of it.
I was haunted by a piece by columnist George Will that told of a 12-year-old boy who turned, and without warning, shot dead a 7-year-old girl because she “dissed” him by standing on his shadow. And what shook me to the core was that the act was clearly an act without conscience. Webster defines conscience as the awareness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions or character together with the feeling of obligation to do or to be that which is recognized as good.
The writer Flannery O’Connor wrote, “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” When a young man just out of the army nurses a grievance into rage and murders innocent people in an Oklahoma City federal building; when two teenagers, soaked in creature comforts, nurse their grievances into rage and kill their Colorado classmates; when a fatherless six-year-old, living in a crack house, steals an already stolen gun and kills a six-year-old girl because she stood up to him for spitting on her desk—they are all being pushed by an age that virtually celebrates unchecked impulses; an age that says everyone has flaws, and therefore, no one is worth emulation; an age that has replaced the ethical and moral principles essential to civilized living with terms like lifestyles and victimization and self-esteem, and any criticism is met with charges that all critics are phobic. Well I would submit to you that this age is pushing very hard against you and I would encourage you to push back. Quintin Hogg said, “Whatever else may be shaken, there are some facts established beyond warring, for virtue is better than vice, truth is better that falsehood, kindness than brutality. These, like love, never fail.”
Now I know the road to this point was, for some of you, much more difficult than others. I think the rather glorious result is that you are all here. And you know what, you are all dressed the same. Is life fair? Certainly not. But while life may not be fair, you can be. Do we have inequities and injustice in this country? Absolutely. But to those who choose victimhood instead of perseverance in this country of such obvious opportunity, I say, with respect, get a life. And until we are all, as a people, willing to say that it is wrong to lie, cheat and steal—period, we are doomed to seek authoritarian solutions to problems that should be resolved by discretion and choice, and we will all be progressively less free.
Edwin Hale said, “ I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do what I can.” In “A Thousand Clowns,” Herb Gardner’s character Murray Burns has been a father to his 12-year-old nephew, and when the government threatens to take him away, Murray laments, “I just want him to stay with me until I can be sure he won’t turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he knows when he is chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are. I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument. I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get a chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”
That is what I wish for you all. So have all the gratitude you can that you live in a country where you have the right to fail. A country where ideas are more important than ethnicity. And by all means, deliver yourselves to the uncertainty of the future.
I would like to thank my wife Jillie, who is here, for listening to this over and over again, and giving me some sense of coherence. I thank you very much for this honor. I thank you for listening to me and thank you, mom and dad.