Draw the line
Congratulations, FEU class of 2012!
Your generation is extremely lucky because technology has made you more powerful than the generations before you. Even though I’m much older than you, this is also my graduation year: the year I left traditional media to start a new media company called Rappler.
All around the world, the Internet is turning businesses upside down. Society is shifting beneath our feet. Last week, Facebook bought Instagram, a company that was a year-and-a-half old with 13 employees, for more than a billion dollars.
It’s a flat world today where a small start-up like Rappler can compete against established, better-funded newsgroups. It’s a world where ideas can come from anywhere around the world and travel in the blink of an eye. Ideas from you here in this room now reach decisionmakers in ways never possible before.
Managers my age are trying to understand a digital world that comes naturally to you. So you’re actually entering the workforce with an innate advantage: you don’t have to unlearn the baggage of the past, and you’re better prepared to take risks and discover this brave new world.
Technology has made you as powerful as your future employers. You’re coming of age at a time when your inputs are as valuable as those much older than you.
The virtual world is just like the real world – but faster with no boundaries. It’s a world where people, ideas and emotions travel through densely interconnected social networks. The Philippines, according to ComScore, is the world’s social media capital, and Facebook connects 845 million people around the world, the largest ever in the history of man. How many of you here have Facebook? That’s both a positive and a negative for you because I think it makes it harder for you to deal with the challenge that faced generations before you: how to build meaning into your life.
Meaning is not something you stumble across nor what someone gives you. You build it through every choice you make, through the commitments you choose, the people you love, and the values you live by.
For me, it begins with the choice to learn. Learn all the time. Learn all your life.
Learn from your successes, but more importantly, learn from your failures. When I was about a year older than you, I became a CNN reporter. Like most things in life, I stumbled onto this. I’m a behind-the-scenes person – a producer and director, but for whatever reason, CNN made me a reporter, and I was scared.
I still remember my first standup – the part where you speak directly to the camera. It was so bad my boss in Atlanta sent it back and told me to do it again. He said, “Put on a suit and makeup. You look 16. Your voice is too high. " I asked, "how do I change my voice?" He said, "drink brandy." Really, I thought? He said, "Speak with authority.”
To me it translated to “be more arrogant” – I had a pet peeve about a way of being on camera – that air of knowing everything hits me as arrogance. I didn’t want to pretend I knew everything because I didn’t.
Between arrogance and self-confidence
Over the years, I learned that being on-camera is the most unnatural way of being natural. It’s about self-confidence, but there’s a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. So I watched myself – you know how hard it is to watch yourself? - and I kept doing it over and over again until I was happy. I put in my 10,000 hours – that’s the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell said it takes to become an expert at anything. That’s the point when you start to create – when it fully becomes you.
Being a reporter shaped a lot of who I am today: the ability to walk in anywhere, make quick judgements, ask tough questions, speak plainly.
It all began with that moment of failure.
I wish you the courage to fail – because success and failure are two sides of the same coin. You cannot succeed if at some point you haven’t failed. I’m not the first to say this, but I can tell you I’ve proven it first-hand. You can’t accomplish anything important if you don’t take risks. And you won’t risk if you’re afraid to fail. So "fail fast. Fail forward. Fail better."
I’m very lucky to have lived through journalism’s golden age. I reported on Southeast Asia’s transition from authoritarian one-man rule to democracy. I had a front-row seat to history: Lee Kuan Yew stepping down in Singapore, the riots leading to the end of Suharto’s 32 year rule in Indonesia, Mahathir ending 24 years as Malaysia’s Prime Minister – so many more. From politics to economics to disasters, social upheavals and terrorist attacks, I was there.
I’ve seen the best and the worst of human nature. In West Kalimantan, I watched young boys playing soccer in a field. Except when I got closer, I realized the ball they were using was the head of an old man. That weekend, I saw 8 people beheaded and nearly threw up at a checkpoint where a man was eating a human foot like a drumstick while a decapitated head was on a metal drum next to him.
I saw 600 people buried in a mass grave and wondered where God was. I have been shot at and stoned. I’ve learned South Korea has the most painful tear gas. I’ve run for my life and used my body to shield one of our interns after we were caught between protestors and the military. I’ve learned it’s easier to risk my life than those of others who trust me.
I’ve learned my greatest enemies are boredom and complacency. When I stop learning or I feel like I’m on auto-pilot, I know it’s time to move on.
It took nearly 20 years of travelling the world for breaking news before my search for meaning pushed me to look beyond CNN. It brought me back home to the Philippines. It was time to stop writing about what other people were doing and build something again.
The role of fear
Six years heading ABS-CBN’s news group taught me how to manage Filipinos and how difficult it is to build institutions in this country. It gave me an up-close look at the problems of our society – the problems I hope your generation solves.
I learned people will try to coerce, manipulate, intimidate or threaten you to get what they want. Often, they have a lot at stake, big money, sometimes their lives. And you have to be clear about what you’re afraid of because those are buttons they will push.
Which brings me to the role fear will play in your life. Some people do their best to avoid what they fear. Even when I was younger, I felt that gave fear too much power, and in the process, it begins to define you. So I thought – well, what’s the worst thing that can go wrong? I’ll fail? Remember what I said about failure. Seek it out. Remember the phrase: what doesn't kill you will make you stronger? It worked for me. What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.
That’s why I believe it’s so much better to confront your fear than it is to run away from it – because when you face it, you have the chance to conquer it. In doing that, you define who you are.
I’ve learned that the worst fears are not what other people can do to you. What’s harder is when you are alone and answer the tough questions of every day life: What do you stand for? What do you believe in? How far will you go to stand up for what you believe?
Draw the line
This is your moment to draw your lines. When I was your age, I didn’t set out to fight corruption. That battle found me. The company I helped form in my 20s, Probe, began one of the first public battles against it. At the end of each program, we said Probe supports the fight against envelopmental journalism. Over the years, I discovered how endemic corruption is the root of much of what’s wrong in our country today. In ABS-CBN, I took a zero tolerance approach to corruption: both for our people and those who tried to bribe us. It started because I drew a line when I was your age.
This is your moment to draw your lines. There are some simple truths. The more you say no, the easier it becomes. The more you do the right thing, the harder it is to do the wrong thing. It’s a tipping point approach to building your identity.
My line in the sand was defined long ago – when the fiancée of one of my closest friends offered me $150,000 to do a story for CNN. It wouldn’t be traceable, he told me, and it would be deposited directly into my bank account. He gave the offer over lunch, and although I wanted to say no immediately, he held my hand and said, please take at least a night to sleep on it and think about it.
I was shocked. I didn’t even tell my friend. That night, I thought about it. But then reality stepped in. My sense of self is tied to being a professional journalist, and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I accepted the bribe.
I had drawn the line clearly, and I knew that accepting that money would make me a fundamentally different person. On this side of the line, I’m good. On the other side, I’m evil. On this side, I’m clean. On that side, I’m corrupt. It’s that simple.
Remember that evil people don’t think they’re evil, and corrupt people don’t think they’re corrupt. Corruption is endemic in our country because people rationalize it. They split hairs about definitions. It takes all of us to keep it that way or to change it. The only way it will change is if more of us take a stand against it and refuse to tolerate it.
This is the time to define your ideals because it only gets murkier the older you get. People will tell you “you’re naïve.” They’ll say “it’s the way things are done.” Don’t believe it when people say that. The choice is always yours. Choose to do better.
Which brings me to the last lesson I want to share with you today. You have to have the courage to say no.
Corruption will be significantly reduced if everyone in this room today said no. No to your friends who say it’s ok to do what everyone else is doing. No to your family. Because that is how corruption spreads. Through our social networks.
All of us like to be liked, but remember that being part of any group carries a price. Studies show that peer pressure actually distorts reality so be careful the friends you keep. People will do things as part of a group that actually go against their morals or even harm others.
We Filipinos believe in social harmony, SIR – smooth interpersonal relations, but I’ve seen too many people stand by while the group does bad things in their name.
Take responsibility for the world you are creating.
Let me end the way I began. Now more than ever, technology will give you more power, make you more interconnected. While that is exciting, I think it may make your fundamental search harder - the question we all set out to answer. How do you build meaning into your life?
I’ve given you some of the lessons I learned in trying to answer that question. In the end, you can put all those lessons into this one sentence. You build meaning by choosing what you commit to: whether it’s a cause, a religion, an ethical order, the people you love, the nation you are creating.
The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together in the unique pattern that will be your life. Do it with your eyes open and remember this self, sitting there, so you can remind your future self about the lines you draw now.
I made a vow to myself a long time ago when I was sitting where you are now: I would never say or do anything I didn’t believe in. I maintain a healthy distrust of herd mentality. I’ve kept those vows to my younger self, and everytime I face a difficult choice, I remember the lines I’ve drawn.
I think this is why I can stand before you at nearly half a century old and tell you it’s possible to live your ideals. You do not have to compromise.
Take a stand and change the world. We’re counting on you. - Rappler.com
(Maria A. Ressa delivered this speech at the 84th commencement exercises of the Far Eastern University, Manila, on April 18, 2012.)