Freston: Follow your bliss, but leave room for U-turnsMay 28, 2009: 12:24 PM ET
Here's part two of Tom Freston's 2007 commencement speech at Emerson College. In yesterday's post, the former Viacom (VIAB) CEO shared the story of the sudden turn in his storied media career. Here Freston explains the first two things "you're going to want to be able to say you've done if ever you are called upon to impart wisdom upon the young."
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 desperation."
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!
Tomorrow, the third and final segment of Tom Freston's speech: two more mandates for life, and a warning about what could happen if grads don't follow his advice.
For more on Freston, read Pattie's exclusive profile in the February 16 issue of Fortune, "The Most Wanted Man on the Planet." Freston built MTV and rose to be CEO of Viacom, only to be dumped by Sumner Redstone, Viacom's chairman, on Labor Day 2006. More recently he's been trotting the globe - Afghanistan, Burma, Rwanda; helping Oprah build her new TV network, OWN. He's also working with U2 frontman Bono on his mission to reduce global poverty and AIDS.