The following is the speech delivered by Robert A. Iger, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board at The Walt Disney Company, during the 138th spring commencement at UT Austin, May 22, 2021.
Good evening! President Hartzell, Chairman Eltife, members of the faculty and staff, parents and family members, graduates. It is so great to be here, all together in one place!
To the Class of 2021, congratulations! You got through a year of quarantines, Zoom classes, masks, nasal swabs, and more take-out food than you thought you’d eat in a lifetime—and you’re graduating! That’s cause for a big celebration under normal circumstances, but this year’s commencement is even more special.
You know, I’ve thought a lot about what I would say to all of you tonight, which brought me back to my own commencement, 48 years ago…. and I quickly realized I couldn’t remember who the speaker was—I actually think only about 6% of people can recall who spoke at their graduation!
Fortunately, you all have phones with cameras, so there’s a chance, half a century from now, you’ll look back at photos and remember that it was me who spoke to you.
While I don’t recall much about that day, what I do remember is that, as a young college graduate, I had utterly no idea where my life would take me. I certainly never dreamed I would one day be asked to give a commencement address. So, to President Hartzell and everyone here, let me say, ‘Thank you.’ It truly is an honor and a pleasure for me to stand on these hallowed Forty Acres and be a part of this special day.
I also didn’t know I was going to have four children, one of whom is here, graduating. His name is Max, and he’s probably terribly embarrassed that I’m even mentioning him—but how could I not?!
I will simply say: he absolutely loved his time here at UT, and he even has a bit of a Texas accent – which is a good thing for a kid from California! He received a phenomenal education. His mother and I are very thankful for that. And he’s made a number of really wonderful friends, and I am certain they will remain connected for the rest of their lives. I’m also pleased to say that Max’s brother, Will, has decided to go to UT as well, and so we’ll soon have two Longhorns in the family, which we’re very excited about!
Today is and will always be one of those significant days in your life. In many ways it is an ending, but it is also a beginning, which probably feels a bit overwhelming for some of you.
There’s no doubt this is an extraordinary, somewhat unsettling time to be a young person starting out. There are tough challenges at the global and community levels, and no easy answers.
But, it is an exciting time, too.
Our world is changing at a faster pace than many thought possible. A lot has been disrupted, but so much has been created. There are new industries, new businesses, new and different jobs, and exciting places to find those jobs, like right here in Austin. We are immersed in invention and innovation.
These dynamic, rapidly changing times, even with the myriad challenges we’re facing, present great opportunity for your generation. And tonight, I thought I would share some advice, some lessons on how to make the most of that opportunity.
You know, the two questions I’ve been asked most often over the years are: “Who’s your favorite Disney character?” and “What is the biggest single factor that contributed to your success?” The answer to the first question is Tinkerbell, in case you’re wondering. The answer to the second is: boldness. And if ever there was a time to be bold, it is now!
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from my own experiences, as well as from mentors and friends is that the only way to accomplish meaningful things in life is by acting boldly. Being timid has never gotten anyone anywhere.
Of course, boldness is more than just not being timid. It means taking swift and significant action in the face of fear or uncertainty. It means standing with courage and conviction when confronted with tough or unpopular choices. It means having an unwavering commitment to honesty, integrity and doing the right thing. It means having a deep and abiding curiosity about people, places, ideas and the willingness to try something altogether new.
And being bold requires ambition and a willingness to dream big! When you are in your early twenties, as many of you are, there is no such thing as having dreams that are too big. Your possibilities are enormous. My advice—be optimistic. Be confident and have faith in yourself and your abilities. Believe your dreams are achievable, and don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.
You also need to be resilient. Fortunately, you’ve already proven you are, after getting through what has been an historically difficult year….and graduating!
All of these qualities – resiliency, ambition, curiosity, optimism and a willingness to dream big – will serve you well and enable you, not only to make the most of opportunities, but also contend with other challenges, including failure.
By the way, failure is not the end of the world, or even the end of the road!
When I was your age, I dreamed of being a network anchorman. And after graduating from college, I got a job at a small TV station as a weatherman and planned to work my way up.
Unfortunately, I quickly realized I was a terrible weatherman, and I didn’t have a chance at fulfilling my ultimate dream. So, at the ripe old age of 23, I decided to quit my job and do something completely different. It was a bold move—given that I had no idea what the future held. I ended up getting a job at ABC as a low level, and I mean really low-level production assistant….and not long afterwards, my boss called me into his office, and told me I was unpromotable, giving me two weeks to find another job!
My career was off to a bit of a rough start, it would seem! In my first two years, I failed as a weatherman and a guy I worked for told me I wasn’t good enough to ever be promoted.
Fortunately, he was wrong—I got another job…a promotion, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The fact is, there will be setbacks and naysayers along the way. So what? That’s life!
Nearly every successful person has struggled or failed at some point. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he founded. The guy who made the decision has since called it ‘one of the biggest regrets of his life.’ No kidding! Walt Disney was fired from one of his first jobs as a newspaper artist because the editor felt he “lacked imagination” and “had no original ideas.” Can you believe that?
Walt failed a number of times over the years, however – always the optimist – he never stopped dreaming big and being bold. And I’m proud to say we have continued his legacy. In fact, as President Hartzell noted in his generous introduction, we have been bold deal makers throughout my tenure. But, the heart of our boldness has always rested in our storytelling.
Some years back the talented people at Pixar pitched us a film about the very special cultural tradition of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It was filled with colorful characters, folk art and great, authentic music, all set in a textured, beautiful world. Then we heard from skeptics who thought it was narrow and so culturally dependent that it would never resonate globally. The opposite proved true. Coco touched people’s hearts everywhere it was released, because it celebrated the diversity of the human experience and the beauty and liveliness of the Mexican culture.
A similar situation arose with a film I know many of you saw, Marvel’s Black Panther, the film I’m most proud of. It was pitched by a talented Black director, Ryan Coogler, as a Black superhero story with a predominantly Black cast, and, once again, many believed it would fail. Of course, they were completely wrong! Black Panther was groundbreaking—a hugely successful film that became a cultural phenomenon, and a powerful force for good. One bold decision changed the way people see heroes, and had a lasting impact on the world!
So, no matter how you choose to contribute, whether through the stories you tell, the career you pursue, or the important changes you help bring about, our world needs your generation to be bold! To take on ambitious projects. To address the challenges facing us today, and not just on a grand scale. Just imagine if everyone in your generation did one bold thing, even something relatively small—the collective power of those millions of actions would be massive!
And if any of you doubt your power, just look at all you’ve accomplished here at UT! Look, for example, at the incredible work you’ve done in response to the most pressing challenge of our time, the COVID-19 virus. You have developed critical parts of the vaccine in your research labs, and you’ve played a key role in getting local communities, including underrepresented communities, vaccinated.
“What starts here changes the world.” You’re already doing it!
You leave here today arguably better able and better equipped to change the world than any generation before you—thanks to the amazing technological tools at your disposal, tools you are adept at using. Use them to construct rather than destruct. Build understanding, respect and tolerance. Be bold and fight the evils of hatred and contempt. Be a force for good in our world. And help to ensure all people have access to the kinds of opportunities that may lead to greater fulfillment, satisfaction and success. Be builders not destroyers of truth and civility.
And never, ever stop believing you can make a difference. As Steve Jobs said: “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
You know, one of the most curious things about life is the speed with which it passes. I know this is a hard concept for young people to grasp. But just think about how fast your time here at UT flew by. Here I am, at 70, and it feels like just yesterday I was 22 years old with big plans and a lifetime to accomplish them. Looking back, I could never have imagined I would have the incredible opportunities I’ve had over the years. It’s been quite a journey, one for which I am exceedingly grateful.
All of you have so much of life ahead of you. And while I’m exhorting you to be doers, to get out there and change the world, I also hope you enjoy the experience.
Sure, there will be tough days, perhaps some really tough days even.
But there will also be lots of good days, lots of great days. And tons of pleasant surprises….like meeting the love of your life, who most of you haven’t met yet. Or having children. Or discovering a passion. Or finding a great job, that leads to a great career.
As I reflect on my life, I hesitate to suggest I’d change much, because life has been really good to me. But I know this—if I could do it all over again, I would take time to appreciate things more.
It’s the equivalent of smelling the roses, but it’s more than that—it’s not sweating little things or getting mad at petty nonsense. It’s not about wasting time, but having license to be frivolous every so often. It’s that incredibly valuable ability to savor the beauty of your life, and all of the happy, fulfilling, and cool parts of it.
My sincere hope is that all of you will embrace life, embrace it enthusiastically! Enjoy the beauty of a summer day or the most delicious pizza you’ve ever eaten—I love pizza! Go for a spin on your bike, take salsa lessons, eat dessert….go to Disneyland!
And don’t just wait for these opportunities to present themselves. Be adventurous! Be curious. Try new things, especially things you never imagined you could or would do.
Most important, cherish the relationships you have with the people in your lives. Invest in those relationships. Coach your children’s soccer team, take a road trip with your friends…. and remember to call home and talk with your folks every once in a while!
I promise, you won’t regret a minute you spend with the people you love.
This may surprise you, but I would trade places with any one of you in a heartbeat and do it all over again. Life is an unexpected, exhilarating, fulfilling adventure!
So, my advice to all of you as you embark on that adventure: be bold. Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.
Dream big and be optimistic! If your first dream doesn’t come true, find another one, and pursue it with equal conviction!
And speak up! Speak the truth, even when it’s difficult for others to hear.
Help solve humanity’s most complex and pressing issues through your words and actions.
Use technology to heal, not to harm.
Be a force for good in our world! There’s so much that needs fixing.
And along the way, be sure to embrace life. Live it to the fullest, have fun, appreciate every single moment. And start now!
The brilliant essayist and author E.B. White wrote: “I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improve the world and enjoy the world. I encourage all of you to strive each day of your lives to do both.
Today is a wonderful, joyous, happy day. We’re grateful to be together celebrating your incredible achievements. We’re so very proud of all of you. Rejoice in this moment. Savor it. Congratulations to you all. Hook ‘em Horns!