Freston: Pack a well worn passport and a curious spirit

May 29, 2009, 8:02 PM UTC
Fortune

Here’s the third and final segment of Tom Freston’s 2007 commencement speech at Emerson College. In earlier posts, Viacom’s former CEO shared career lessons and detailed 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.” Here are Nos. 3 and 4 on that list, along with Freston’s warning about what could happen if grads don’t follow his advice.

No. 3: You’re going to want to say that your passport is well worn and filled-to-the-brim with stamps and visas. Because all those exotic stamps from far away places are the kind of tattoos that you won’t regret when you’re older. Travel is the best and probably cheapest graduate school you can buy.

I learned way more from my travels than I ever did in business school. My experiences overseas gave me the self-confidence and international perspective to build MTV and Nickelodeon into global brands early on. We were the first to do that.

A good adventure can change your life – and why would you put that off? It’s too late for you people to drop out of college now, but there are still plenty of things you can drop out of: Just get on a plane and go. Travel early and travel often. Live abroad, if you can. Understand cultures other than your own. As your understanding of other cultures increases, your understanding of yourself and your own culture will increase exponentially.

We, as Americans, have so much to learn here. We have a shockingly low level of global awareness and familiarity and little idea of how the world sees us. And those disturbing facts keep getting us into a lot of trouble.

The flatter the world, the more you need to be globally attuned and conversant. And you will find that the diversity of friends, interests, and thinking that this will bring you will broaden your scope and enrich your life here at home.

Fourth and last: Forty-years from now, you DO NOT want to say you are still only listening to The Shins and Arcade Fire, or LCD. To do that, you must very consciously maintain your curiosity, broaden your interests and continue to follow the cultural flow wherever it goes. Refuse to get too comfortable with what you already know. People’s tastes and attitudes tend to freeze up in their late ‘20’s. There are plenty of people my age whose cultural preferences were cryogenically sealed in 1974. It’s amazing and it’s not pretty. Many guys my age are still exclusively rocking out to Foghat.

What I have seen over my many years in the media and entertainment business, where I know a lot of you are headed, is that the most successful people – writers, executives, whatever – have many interests, an encyclopedic knowledge about them, and an undying curiosity about social trends and the endless parade of “next new things.”

They are always growing.

So my advice to you: Stave off obsolescence and prolong adolescence. Stay a young thinker. Read, listen to and watch everything you can. Explore the corners of popular culture and the arts. And, of course, these days you have to stay maniacally plugged in to the cutting edge of whatever technology is taking your profession into the future – otherwise you’re toast.

I know you just got done cramming for finals. But most of what you have to learn in life is yet to come. At Emerson you have been immersed to your eyeballs in the mix of today’s culture, and you have all thrived. But it will become increasingly hard to maintain that edge as you get older. Your responsibilities pile up. But learning is never the wrong choice…those who stop learning are the only people who really ever grow old.

Now, I don’t want to scare you but these guidelines I offer are to be ignored at your own peril. If you don’t show maniacal passion for something, if you don’t immerse yourself fully in the world by traveling or living abroad, if you don’t stay curious, if you never change your mind or develop a healthy sense of self-awareness, there is a real danger that you might end up as the President of the United States. [Bush was President when Freston delivered this speech.]

But if you take this very basic advice to heart – to follow your heart and never settle for less, to reincarnate when necessary, to live on our whole planet and revel in all of it and to keep learning always – maybe you will have the kind of career and life that no guidance counselor could have predicted for you.

And maybe, 40 years from now, you will find yourself at a commencement podium passing along the wisdom you acquired. And, if you are especially blessed, you will look out into that sea of graduates and see your own son or daughter in cap and gown.

So, Class of 2007, congratulations on all your hard work. You should feel very proud. Enjoy your accomplishments today and prepare for the great ride that starts tomorrow. Relax – you’re gonna be OK. The fun is just beginning. Best to you always and Godspeed!

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; and joining U2 frontman Bono on his mission to reduce global poverty and AIDS.