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WGU Commencement Address from Ken Jennings
WGU Commencement Address from Ken Jennings
Western Governors University
<p>WGU Commencement in Salt Lake City, UT on August 3, 2019. All-Time "Jeopardy!" Champion Ken Jennings delivered the WGU Master's Commencement Address.</p> <p>Transcription of video:</p> <p>Scott D. Pulsipher: I'm now pleased to introduce our commencement speaker, Ken Jennings. Ken Jennings is an author, a computer scientist, and a record breaking gameshow champion, gaining hero status in 2004 when he won 74 games and $2.52 million on "Jeopardy!" [Applause] And we learned that that record nearly got beat recently, but he still holds it. </p> <p>Today, Ken writes a weekly quiz based on the previous week's news on Slate, and publishes Connections trivia puzzle online and in Parade. He has co invented the trivia games: "Can You Beat Ken?" and "Quizology" and has published three books: "Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious Competitive Compulsive Word of Trivia Buffs," "Map Head: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks", and "Because I Said So: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids." </p> <p>He lives in Seattle with his wife, Mindy, his son Dylan, and daughter, Katelyn, and a small, excitable dog named Chance. Please welcome, the Michael Jordan of trivia, Mr. Ken Jennings. [Applause] </p> <p>Ken Jennings: Thank you, Scott. I feel like you shouldn't even mention Michael Jordan in this building. Am I wrong? Karl Malone of trivia, maybe. Good morning, everybody, how do you feel? [Cheers] Have you guys ever had one of those dreams where everyone's wearing the same outfit except you? I'm like having that in real life for the first time right now. </p> <p>Well, I'm glad you're excited. You should be excited. You have done something remarkable today. In earning this degree, you have transformed yourself in a way. You have reinvented yourself, and in many cases you've done it against long odds, at great personal cost, and with great personal sacrifice. Sure, you had the resources of this unique and unconventional university. You had the support of your devoted faculty mentors. I hope you had your own support system as well pulling you through family, friends, loved ones. Let's pause one more time to congratulate them as well. I know a lot of them are here today. Please remember to thank them today, they are so proud of you. [applause] You guys are going to get clapped for many times today, you'd better get used to it. </p> <p>But listen, reinvention it's hard. It's not just that it takes a lot of hard work to turn yourself into a new person with new abilities – as you all have done but it does. It also takes courage. Sacrificing and stretching to trade in one life, one viewpoint of yourself in for another, that's scary. I want to talk to you a little bit today about reinvention, just to put your accomplishment in perspective. </p> <p>Here is my own reinvention story. In 2004 I was a fairly unhappy computer programmer living right here in beautiful Salt Lake City. Actually, 15 minutes south of here in Murray. Wow, Murray in the house? [Chuckles] For those of you don't know, Murray is pretty much the same as Salt Lake City, people are a little older and the Costco is a little bigger. That's about the only difference. </p> <p>So why was I unhappy in 2004 in Murray? It was my own damn fault. As far back as I can remember, the main thing that I was good at was knowing stuff. Koala fingerprints are pretty much identical to human ones. The real name of "The Skipper" on "Gilligan's Island" is Jonas Grumby. The longest word ever to name a billboard number one hit? "Bootylicious." Utah is the only U.S. state with an official state cooking pot. Does anybody know what that is by the way? Well everybody knows, the Dutch oven, that is correct. You guys have control of the board. [laughter] And if you are from Utah, and you did not know your official state cooking pot, shame on you! [Laughter] What kind of a citizen are you? Now you know.</p> <p>As a kid, as this kind of weird kid, I would run home every day from the school bus in time to watch "Jeopardy!" which came on at 4 o'clock where I lived. I never missed "Jeopardy!" But I never took that obsession with knowing stuff all that seriously. I certainly never had a guidance counselor tell me that it was a career. </p> <p>So in college I studied English. I liked to write, and I liked to teach. I hoped maybe I'd be a writer or an English teacher someday. But then the spring that I graduated, I got engaged. And then I got worried. Those are often two things that go together, by the way, as you may know. I was worried that I was not going to be able to support a family doing what I loved, on this vague idea of maybe being a writer or a teacher. A friend told me a joke, "What's the difference between an English major and a large, pepperoni pizza? At least the pizza can feed a family of four." [Laughter] I know, right?! Don't tell your friend that. </p> <p>So the whole enterprise started to seem a little bit shaky. Instead, I Went to work for a friend's little Internet start-up, as was the style at the time, this was the year 2000, as a computer programmer. And as it turned out, there were only two problems with this. Number one, I didn't enjoy computer programming, and number two, I was not any good at computer programming. I'll bet there are people her today graduating with Computer degrees. Am I right, anyone? Computer degrees? Make some noise. See, any one of you people could've had my job because I was terrible at it. </p> <p>You can probably see, sitting there from your comfy seats, what I had done wrong. I had made a bad decision out of fear. I was afraid that the things that I was good at, the things that I loved weren't good enough because they didn't seem safe. Or they didn't seem easy. I hadn't believed in myself. </p> <p>Last night I emailed my wife, Mindy, and I asked her if she remembered some of the ideas that I had been throwing around, around this time, to try to figure out my life and start over. She sent me this list. </p> <p>Number one: Quit my job, become a free lance web designer. Number two: Take the foreign service exam, join the State Department, move to Romania or someplace like that, stamp visas in a U.S. embassy. Number three: Start a business painting murals for elementary schools and children's bedrooms. I didn't even remember that one. Number four: Apply to law school. Wow, you can see how desperate I was, right? So I was all over the place. At the end of the list, by the way, at the end of the list she wrote, "The funny thing is, you never did anything about any of them, you just complained." [Laughter] Thank you, honey, I appreciate that. That's very helpful. She's not wrong though. I did not actually do any of those things. </p> <p>As it turned out, spoiler warning, I lucked out. On a whim, one weekend I drove down here from here in Salt Lake, all the way to LA with a friend, and tried out for "Jeopardy!" We both passed the test. We were so happy. A year later I was sitting at work, and the phone rang. "Ken, this is Bob at 'Jeopardy!' We want you to come be a contestant on the show in three weeks." Three weeks? He added, "Oh," and the last thing he said on the call was, "Oh, by the way, you know about our recent rule change, right?" </p> <p>Now I was a 30-year-old dad with young kids. I was not watching "Jeopardy!" every night. In college, you watch "Jeopardy!" As a kid you watch "Jeopardy!" And you hit a certain age in America, and then your start planning your evening around "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel." maybe you guys have parents or grandparents that you cannot call during the "Wheel/Jeopardy!" block. But, as a young, harried dad, I had not watched "Jeopardy!" in years. But I didn't want to say that. So I said, "Why don't you tell me which rule change you're talking about, and I'll tell you if I know about it." [Laughter] </p> <p>He said, "We used to retire champions after they won five games. But now you can just keep playing until you lose." Here is what I said, "Okay, Bob, thanks. I'll make a note of that." But here's what I thought, "Like who cares? What are the odds that this rule change is going to affect me?" But of course it did. That tiny rule change, which they had happened to make just a few months earlier, coincidently turned out to be the thing that changed my life. </p> <p>Now I write and I speak, and I know about stuff full-time. That's my job, and I couldn't be happier. But it wasn't the plan. It was a game show of all things. I got lucky. Not you, my friends, you had a plan. You were smarter than me. You could win on "Jeopardy!" 76 times, I think. You got to a point in your life where you wanted something better. You thought, "You know what, there is something I can be excellent at, and I'm not there yet." And you figured out how to get there. You did the work. Here you are! That's how I know you're going to go on to do great things. </p> <p>Scott Fitzgerald once said, "There are no second acts in American lives." But I know for a fact that he's wrong because I'm in my second act. And after today, so are all of you. There are between 50 and 75 trillion cells in the human body. And over time, each one gradually gets replaced. The lining of your stomach and intestines regenerates every four days. Skin cells live for two or three weeks. Blood cells live between four months and about a year. Even skeletal muscle cells get replaced after 15 years. That's the warranty on your bicep. </p> <p>What this means is that you are, at a cellular level, an almost entirely different person than you were 10 or 20 years ago. The you sitting in your seat today is, on average, about seven years old. Your body will be keep re creating itself as long as you live. So reinvention is not a one time event. Likewise, we are all of us, works in progress. There are moments ahead of all of us where our situations will change, our fields will change, the world will change, and we will have to change with it. We will have to adapt. </p> <p>Reinventing yourself time and time again, over the course of a lifetime is not easy unless you're Bob Dylan or Madonna. For the rest of us, it's very easy to get set in your ways, to do what everyone is doing, to do what worked last time, to do what seems easy and comfortable. But you have to fight that because we don't live in a world anymore where there's one default path to American middle class security, like there used to be. it used to be you get into college, you do what you're told, and somehow it all works out, you're set for life. But work isn't like that anymore. Today there isn't a one size fits all solution. You have to figure out what you can do well and then keep creating niches where you are indispensable. Your story will be different from anyone else's. You will start a new path where there are no footsteps and you'll keep blazing that trail. </p> <p>Here is what I learned about reinventing from my own experience. If you remember anything I say today, and based on my memories of commencement speeches past, I think those odds are not great. But if you remember any of this, please remember what I'm about to say now. First, obsession is destiny. The thing that keeps you up late every night and gets you out of bed every morning, make that the center of your life, and the focus of your goals. For you it's probably not "Jeopardy!" That's okay. Your rule of thumb should be: How much time did I spend today doing the thing that I'm best at? The thing you love, and the talents that you have are sacred things. Take them seriously. </p> <p>Secondly, education is power. The things that you know and the skills that you've mastered are what makes you you. Because we are all the sum of the things that we've learned. And that education doesn't stop just because the bell rings at the end of a class or a diploma gets handed out at a commencement. We should keep learning something new every hour of every day for our entire lives. And you do it just by paying attention. That is the secret. The one thing I've noticed about every "Jeopardy!" champion is they're not weirdoes sitting at home memorizing the encyclopedia. Maybe a few of them are. But for the most part, they're just curious, normal people, but they're curious about everything. They pay attention. </p> <p>Third, and finally, time is short. When you make a course correction a few decades into your life like I did, like maybe some of you did, you become so aware of how precious every day is. There is no time to waste, there is so much good work to be done. What's the meaning of life? Why are we here? We are here to go. So go! Go forth! The world needs you. Change the world. Thank you so much, everybody, congrats again. [Cheers and applause] </p>
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