Following Your Bliss & U-Turns

The following segment from Tom Freston’s 2007 commencement speech to the graduates at Emerson College contains four pieces of wisdom about ‘being in action’ that are timeless. This man built MTV and Viacom’s cable empire, was fired by chairman Sumner Redstone, accepted a $60 million severage package and is now helping Oprah build her new TV network while you travels to Afghanistan, Burma, Rwanda and beyond and works with Bono to reduce global poverty and AIDS. 

One. First and foremost: You’re going to want to be able to say that
– “but for Joseph Campbell, my life would have been one of quiet

And if you don’t know who Joseph Campbell is, don’t worry, I am
about to tell you. For those of you who have not read his books or
don’t watch a lot of PBS, he was a scholar, philosopher-guru, and the
author of the Power of the Myth who famously pleaded with students to “follow your bliss.”

I am under no illusion that anything I might tell you could improve
upon that. He believed that by pursuing the thing you love, you
actually put yourself on the path that has always been intended for you
and that you were therefore destined to succeed on that path.

Boy, there is so much truth in that! And sadly, most people never
get this guiding principle. I had my first Joseph Campbell moment on
the deck of a houseboat floating in Kashmir, India. I was on the tail
end of my year-long travel odyssey, still tormented with the question
“What would I love to do?”

Advertising had not been it. This time I did not want to settle for
anything less than true love. It was such a beautiful evening and,
looking out upon the incredible landscape, my bliss revealed itself to
me: I loved India! I felt so alive there. Even though I was just a kid
from Connecticut who had arrived on the subcontinent practically by
mistake, I felt this strong connection to the people. And somehow I was
certain I wanted to make a life there.

It seemed to offer everything I needed. Also, as luck would have it,
the recent introduction of the 747 and low air-freight costs created
all kinds of exciting import-export opportunities to explore. I took it
as a sign.

Now, in choosing Emerson and being more focused, most of you are
closer to your “bliss” than your average graduate at other colleges.
Use that advantage to your maximum advantage. You’re at a place in your
life where you can do any of a million things, but find what you can do
better than anyone else. You may have to bob and weave a bit — and you
may find yourself waiting tables at some point — but never settle for
less than what you love.

Everything good in your life will spring from this. Talent is the
gift God gave you and you have spent the last 20 years making that gift
your own. Each of you was lucky to receive it and from here on out, the
harder you work, the luckier you will become. Only true love can fuel
the hard work that awaits you. When Joseph Campbell said to follow your
bliss, I’m sure he meant: Don’t walk after it, but run.

So be prepared to sweat.

Two. You’re also going to want to say your path included a couple of sharp left turns. Or even better yet, an illegal U-turn.

Asia, travel and entrepreneurship, as it turned out, were just the
first in a series of blisses for me. As you may or may not have learned
about love by now, sometimes you change your mind and other times,
someone changes it for you. Then what?

I came home from India only to be professionally reincarnated. It
was a big blow to me, but I methodically sought out another “bliss” of
mine: music. It was something I knew a lot about, cared a lot about,
and had a passion for. Knowing I had transferable skills from my last
career, I sold my entrepreneurial track record to a young outfit that
needed entrepreneurs, MTV.

People often say that a bad event is a “blessing in disguise.” Trust
me, experience will teach you that some are unbelievably well
disguised. Everyone gets fired, or decides to make a radical change at
some point. Everyone suffers setbacks. Bad days await you, I can
promise you that.

But as careers unfold, you might just find you have another
“bliss…and it’s OK.” You are certain to change with time and there’s a
chance your bliss may evolve too. Not to worry: The skills you acquire
can always be effectively redeployed. You will look back on setbacks
and be grateful for a catalyst that came not a moment too soon.

Look at Al Gore. He won an election for the Presidency, only to
immediately be told that, actually, there was a mistake and he wasn’t
President after all. He got fired before he was even finished being
hired. But look at what he’s accomplished since then: working hard to
save a planet, for God’s sake, and even winning Academy Awards. Not to
mention that he also guest-starred on Futurama. Now that’s an inspirational career adjustment!

No. 3: You’re going to want to say that your passport is well worn
and filled-to-the-brim with stamps and visas. Because all those exotic
stamps from far away places are the kind of tattoos that you won’t
regret when you’re older. Travel is the best and probably cheapest
graduate school you can buy.

I learned way more from my travels than I ever did in business
school. My experiences overseas gave me the self-confidence and
international perspective to build MTV and Nickelodeon into global
brands early on. We were the first to do that.

A good adventure can change your life – and why would you put that
off? It’s too late for you people to drop out of college now, but there
are still plenty of things you can drop out of: Just get on a plane and
go. Travel early and travel often. Live abroad, if you can. Understand
cultures other than your own. As your understanding of other cultures
increases, your understanding of yourself and your own culture will
increase exponentially.

We, as Americans, have so much to learn here. We have a shockingly
low level of global awareness and familiarity and little idea of how
the world sees us. And those disturbing facts keep getting us into a
lot of trouble.

The flatter the world, the more you need to be globally attuned and
conversant. And you will find that the diversity of friends, interests,
and thinking that this will bring you will broaden your scope and
enrich your life here at home.

Fourth and last: Forty-years from now, you DO NOT want to say you
are still only listening to The Shins and Arcade Fire, or LCD. To do
that, you must very consciously maintain your curiosity, broaden your
interests and continue to follow the cultural flow wherever it goes.
Refuse to get too comfortable with what you already know. People’s
tastes and attitudes tend to freeze up in their late ‘20’s. There are
plenty of people my age whose cultural preferences were cryogenically
sealed in 1974. It’s amazing and it’s not pretty. Many guys my age are
still exclusively rocking out to Foghat.

What I have seen over my many years in the media and entertainment
business, where I know a lot of you are headed, is that the most
successful people – writers, executives, whatever – have many
interests, an encyclopedic knowledge about them, and an undying
curiosity about social trends and the endless parade of “next new

They are always growing.

So my advice to you: Stave off obsolescence and prolong adolescence.
Stay a young thinker. Read, listen to and watch everything you can.
Explore the corners of popular culture and the arts. And, of course,
these days you have to stay maniacally plugged in to the cutting edge
of whatever technology is taking your profession into the future –
otherwise you’re toast.

I know you just got done cramming for finals. But most of what you
have to learn in life is yet to come. At Emerson you have been immersed
to your eyeballs in the mix of today’s culture, and you have all
thrived. But it will become increasingly hard to maintain that edge as
you get older. Your responsibilities pile up. But learning is never the
wrong choice…those who stop learning are the only people who really
ever grow old.

Now, I don’t want to scare you but these guidelines I offer are to
be ignored at your own peril. If you don’t show maniacal passion for
something, if you don’t immerse yourself fully in the world by
traveling or living abroad, if you don’t stay curious, if you never
change your mind or develop a healthy sense of self-awareness, there is
a real danger that you might end up as the President of the United
States. [Bush was President when Freston delivered this speech.]

But if you take this very basic advice to heart – to follow your
heart and never settle for less, to reincarnate when necessary, to live
on our whole planet and revel in all of it and to keep learning always
– maybe you will have the kind of career and life that no guidance
counselor could have predicted for you.