Prepared text of the 2015 Stanford Commencement address by Richard Engel
Following is the text of the address by Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, as prepared for delivery at Stanford University's 124rd Commencement on June 14, 2015.
Thank you President Hennessy.
That was quite an introduction, and first off I’d like to recognize your recent announcement. After more than 15 years, your leadership, fundraising, connections and decision-making has made Stanford what it is today. You made it successful and most of all you made Stanford the place where every student in America wants to come. This school and all of us owe you an enormous debt of gratitude.
And to you the graduating class of 2015, what an entrance!
This is the first time I’ve been back on campus since I graduated, and if you have to come back to visit, this is the way to do it. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out and today is a celebration. It’s a celebration for all of you. Savor this moment. Take it in. Put it in your pockets and if you are ever having a bad day, take it out again. You have the most exciting part of your lives ahead of you. You are about to leave this place and take a leap into the unknown, and that is the most fun thing to do in life. You are about to start your adventures. Don’t be afraid. Take the leap. Take it every time.
When I left here, I took a leap and moved to Cairo. I left just a few weeks after my graduation. I had no job lined up, no contacts, I spoke no Arabic and I had about 2,000 dollars in my pocket. I packed two suitcases and left on a one-way ticket. I wanted to be a journalist and I thought the Middle East would become the story of my generation. The Cold War was over. The US was the only superpower left standing. In this new dynamic, I figured the old cultural and religious conflicts of the Middle East would once again bubble up to the surface. It was a gamble, but why not gamble? This is the time in your lives to gamble. You are all here today because of years of hard work and discipline. Stanford isn’t really a place for slackers – that would be Berkeley – but hard work is overrated. Breaking rocks is hard work too. So is a Stairmaster, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. This is the time to make a big bet and see if it pays off. An inspired guess can be far more valuable than years of toil.
When I got to Cairo, it was dirty and crowded, but I loved the unknown of it all. I loved that I was trying to figure it out on my own.
I rented a very cheap apartment: 100 dollars a month. Everyone told me I was wildly overpaying. It barely had any water. Some of the windows didn’t have glass in them, and the roaches where big and fearless. One of them actually made eye contact with me. I’d never seen that before. And when I approached it, cautiously, it didn’t back away. It was as if I had pulled the world’s worst housing draw number. But there was this wonderful feeling of community when I arrived in Cairo. I remember the first time I pulled up to a traffic light in a taxi. It was hot and the driver was eating an ice cream cone. There was a police officer standing on the corner, and the taxi driver without hesitation reached out of his window, and handed the policeman his cone. The policeman took a big lick and handed it back to the driver and we drove off. I thought, you wouldn’t see that in New York. It all seemed new and different.
I tried to make contacts, to ingratiate myself into the community, so I invited this man over to my apartment for dinner. He was a poor local journalist who knew a lot of key political players. He brought his young son along, who was about 7 or 8.
I wanted to make a good impression, so I went to the best market in Cairo and bought these expensive ravioli. It was going to be the big deal of the night. I spent all day cooking and making sauce and when I served the ravioli, the boy immediately started crying and whining. He was telling his father he wanted meat. He thought he was going to out dinner, with a foreigner no less, and there would be meat. His father was very embarrassed and told him, ‘just eat your potatoes. Can’t you see this man is very poor? You’ll get meat at home.’
Within a short time of my arrival, I started being followed by the police. The intelligence officers were easy to spot. One was actually wearing sunglasses and a black leather coat in the middle summer and sort of trailing me, darting behind buildings. The intelligence services would bug my phone, but badly. I could sometimes hear them coughing in the background. I’d try to talk to them and they’d hang up. I didn’t let it bother me. Sometimes you have to roll with it, put yourself in situations where you don’t know what’s going on around you and let your brain sort it out. That’s the fun part: the constant learning, the new sensations, the new place and the new risks. And that is what all of you have to look forward to after today. Classes are over. Now is the time to travel, to explore, to take chances, to fall in love easily and often, to seek out all that is beautiful and inspiring and romantic. Now is the time to do that one thing you really want. Be careful of course, don’t be naïve, but if you don’t take risks and go outside your comfort zone, you won’t continue to expand your minds. My adventure, my risk after graduation was to go the Middle East to try to build a life there.
I chose the Middle East because I thought it would be the place where I could ride the train of history. I wanted to be a journalist because I thought it would allow me sit in the front car of that train, standing shoulder to shoulder with the conductor, taking pictures and asking questions, poking around the engine rooms, instead of just standing on the tracks, watching the train pass me by.
For most of the last 20 years, I’ve been riding that train through difficult patches of track. Mostly, I’ve been reporting on wars. I don’t do it because I like wars. In fact, I hate them more with each one I cover. I hate the suffering. I hate the violence, but I go because war is revealing. Like scientists smash atoms together to understand their components and maybe even the universe, war exposes everything.
If you want to understand war: think of a car crash. Imagine a bus slamming into a car at an intersection. It’s not a pleasant thought, and I’m sorry to put it in your heads today of all days, but stay with me for a second. In that terrible moment, you can see every range of the human experience. Maybe someone is dead. Maybe someone is injured. Is an ambulance coming? If not, why not? Maybe you see someone in the street rushing in to help. Maybe someone else is running away, pushing people down as he escapes. It’s all right there. The horror. The heroism. The twisted machines. The courage and the cowardice. Lives changing, intersecting and ending all in a single climactic moment.
Now imagine two nation states (or, as is just as likely these days, two ethnic or religious groups) smashing into each other. That’s war. Everything is laid bare. I go to warzones not because I like violence, but I hope by watching the crucible, and fearing it, maybe we can understand our humanity a little better and perhaps even improve our societies.
Watching wars hasn’t been easy. I’ve been accused of being a spy. I’ve been deported, arrested and kidnapped. I’ve been shot at, a lot, and seen the rise of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. The train of history has been bumpy as it has rumbled through the Middle East. It still is. And yet, even after all this, I still can’t find the secret Safeway. I saw it once, then it disappeared like a mirage.
(For the parents out there, the secret Safeway is a supermarket, which, because of an odd configuration of exits and roads, is difficult to find. In fact, some students went there a few weeks ago and haven’t been heard from again. We’ll send their diplomas in the mail.)
My biggest gamble was in Iraq. It was back in 2002. The Iraq war was about to begin. I knew it was going to be a transformative event, but I couldn’t get into Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s regime was only giving out a few visas to reporters and I couldn’t get one. But the regime was giving out visas for “human shields,” people, preferably Americans, who were willing to go to Iraq and I kid you not, volunteer to be human shields for Saddam’s regime. I thought, I’ll get one of those. The idea was for us – the shields – to chain ourselves to Saddam’s oil facilities or runways to make it more difficult for the US military to bomb. I had no intention of being a human shield, but it was the only way I could see of getting into Iraq. So I took 20,000 dollars in cash, strapped it to my ankle, went to Baghdad and began my short career as a human shield. It was very short. I immediately went into hiding and didn’t show up for my human-shield responsibilities. I waited for the war to begin, moving from hotel room to hotel room. I was waiting for the train to rumble through Baghdad, and boy did it ever. It hasn’t stopped.
Now all of you have to decide what your adventure is going to be. You have to figure out where the train of history is heading next and where you can get on it. And if you can do that, if you can guess the train’s next station, I guarantee you will be successful.
The journalists here will know where to go. The entrepreneurs will know where to invest. The artists will know what to comment on. The scientists will know what to invent. So truly, today, or maybe once you sober up tomorrow, go somewhere and think about these big questions and then, when you’ve decided where the train of history is heading – get moving and get onboard.
I have a few suggestions you might want to consider. I believe three things will shape your times: massive urbanization, climate pressures, and communications technology. They are already coming together to make a very explosive cocktail.
Take Cairo again. There are now about 18 million people in Cairo now. It’s poor. The infrastructure is crumbling and now, with smartphones, everyone can communicate and commiserate. What happens when Cairo grows to 25 or 30 million and the air is even more polluted and communications are even more advanced? Will it be more or less stable? I think it will be more volatile, and the same can be said of dozens of other big cities. I suspect there will be a growing tendency for fast revolutions with short fuses and for strongmen to emerge, promising stability in exchange for their citizen’s rights. It’s a Faustian bargain. Beware of it. You are in for a rough road, but in the end, that’s part of the excitement too. The unknown awaits and you all are in the best position of anyone in the world to experience it.
You now have a fantastic degree. You have youth in abundance and there’s nothing else worth having. You have smarts. So don’t squander it chasing the mundane allures of money and comfort. Please don’t go get desk jobs. Try something new, and then try it again. And finally, never forget to be amazed.
I was in Libya a few years ago covering the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, who may have been the strangest person I’ve ever met. I was in Tripoli, broadcasting the news, but what viewers at home didn’t see was that as the city was falling to US-backed rebels, I slipped away with my team for a little break. We escaped the mayhem of the war to visit the ancient city of Subratha, which is right on the Mediterranean coast. There was no one else there – not even a guard. It was silent except for the splashing of the Mediterranean. We let ourselves into the archeological park – this abandoned ancient city – and wandered around. Sections of the ruins to Gods long since forgotten were actually submerged underwater. We stripped down to our underwear, climbed onto some of the column bases, and dove right off of them into the water. It did wonders for us. I felt completely rejuvenated, as if the water was a fountain of life. The war in Libya no longer seemed to be about Qaddafi, or NATO or the bombs. I felt connected to the ancient land. I felt connected to history. I felt like my gamble to see the world close up and try to understand it as best I could had finally paid off. After the swim, we went back to work. Our bosses hadn’t missed us. We got away with it. We stole a drink of inspiration from the middle of a war.
Always look for opportunities for inspiration. Never miss a chance to see something new or to live your life all the way up. You have eyes to see, legs to move you and hands to grab, so use them to grab life by the neck.
Technology is wonderful and powerful and efficient, but there’s no app for inspiration. Don’t let a four-inch screen narrow your vision. Open your eyes so wide that you let the entire world come in.
Thank you, Class of 2015, for letting me talk to you for a few minutes. You have so much to look forward to.
And finally, before you leave today please thank your parents. This is a very special day for them as well.