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Jason Gay’s 2019 winter commencement address

December 15, 2019
Photo of Jason Gay

Sports and humor columnist Jason Gay shared wisdom as well as jokes (many at the University of Michigan’s expense). Photo: Bryce Richter

Jason Gay, a 1992 political science graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, delivered the following charge to UW–Madison graduates at winter commencement Dec. 15, 2019, at the Kohl Center:

Good morning. Thank you for having me. Thank you for that kind introduction.

Yes, it’s true. It is me. J.J. Watt.

No, the truth is, my name is indeed Jason Gay and I am the sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal — which is kind of like being the money and investing columnist for ESPN.

You know, when I was first asked to deliver the winter commencement speech to the Class of 2019 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I had the exact same reaction that you had:


I mean, there must have been a terrible mistake.

There was a giant mix-up. I assume they sent the invitation to the wrong person.

Maybe Chancellor Blank typed in the wrong email. She was hurrying off to a meeting at Bascom Hall, and she meant to type in J.J. Watt’s name, and she accidentally typed in “Jason” and eight weeks later, here we are.

I won’t lie: everybody here has been really cool about covering up for the mistake, pretending they actually meant  to do this. You’ve all been extremely kind. And I’m grateful.

But make no mistake. Some people are definitely going to get fired for this.

I mean, come on. A Wall Street Journal columnist?

You know, if there’s one thing I remember from my time in Madison, it was how, first thing in the morning, after a long night on State Street, me and my friends used to love to roll out of bed and curl up with a nice, warm, broadsheet copy of the Wall Street Journal.

My friends, there are graduates of this school who have won Nobel Prizes, Oscars, Super Bowls! J.J. Watt raised $40 million for needy people in Houston.

Me? I ate 27 griddle cakes at Mickey’s Dairy Bar this morning.

It’s true. I’m just some guy who writes about sports in a daily financial newspaper, which might be read by your parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-great grandparents and occasionally uses that column to make fun of those deadbeats at the University of Michigan.

Yes, it true. I believe Wolverines are weasels.

Technically, Badgers are related to weasels, too. But we are considerably cuter.

And smarter.

And we win more football games.

I actually thought, for a moment, we might have some folks from Ann Arbor show up to protest my speech. I thought that would be kind of cool.

Then I remembered: Michigan never shows up in Wisconsin.

It’s true. It’s true.

At the Wall Street Journal, I’m surrounded by Wolverines. I got Wolverines to my right, Wolverines to my left.

I do my best to avoid them.

But every once in a while, I’ll run into one, PUSHING very hard on a door that says PULL.

Anyway. Enough about Michigan.

Let’s do a proper welcome, like they told me in the instruction manual.

Congratulations to all of you, the University of Wisconsin–Madison class of 2019!

Congratulations to you, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, your siblings, your kiddos if you got ‘em, your professors, your assistant professors, your TAs, your friends, your significant others, your exes, your enemies, your landlords, your baristas, your bartenders, your freshman year roommate who liked to clip their nails in the middle of the night, and the person sitting next to you who just woke you up in your seat 30 seconds ago and said, “Look at the guy onstage with the funny hair.”

Congratulations on a mission well done.

Today is a true life milestone.

And to think: If you all had just waited to graduate a little later – or a little sooner – we could all be outside in warm springtime weather.

But I love it. This feels like proper Wisconsin weather today.

You know, my children are with me today – they’re up there, watching “Toy Story 3” on an iPad.

They’ve never been to Wisconsin before. And this morning, we had a real authentic Badger experience.

I took my children outside. It was windy. And I showed them frozen Lake Mendota and the wind was blowing in their faces and I said, “Well, kids, here it is, Daddy’s favorite place in the world: Madison, Wisconsin!”

And they looked for one and a half seconds and we sprinted as fast as we could into the nearest building.

But I envy you. I miss this place.

My time in Madison was some of the most fun of my life.

Honestly, if I regret anything, it’s graduating in four years.

What was I thinking?

I should have *at least* stretched it out to six years. Maybe seven.

If I hadn’t finished that last term paper, I could STILL be here.

Back when I was at Wisconsin, it was quite common for students to take a long time to graduate.

But I heard something the other day, from someone in the administration, that was quite troubling: the average Wisconsin student now graduates in less than four years.

This is true, apparently.

Modern Badgers, I hate to say this, but you are doing it entirely wrong.

What is the hurry?

I say: Stay in Madison as long as possible. Have you been in the real world? Have you seen what it’s like out there? Have you watched screaming lunatics on cable news?

Life does not get any better than this.

It gets warmer, yes. But it does not get any better.

I went to school here in the 1990s. The early 90s. These were simpler, primitive times.

Back then, Wisconsin was a sovereign-rule glacial moraine occupied primarily by woodchucks and kids from the Chicago suburbs.

There were only two buildings in the entire city – Humanities and State Street Brats. The rest was of the city was cow pasture.

Students back then – they did not have social media or smart phones. We didn’t even have the Internet. I actually have no idea how we spent our time.

We communicated by something called a telephone – a crude device, usually affixed to a wall, through which human beings talked to each other, verbally, without using emojis.

We listened to Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, the Grateful Dead and a new band named Nirvana.

We wore a lot of terrible baggy clothes.

We survived mostly on bratwurst and Babcock ice cream.

And we never won any sporting events.

It was like going to school at Northwestern.

Those were different times

Somehow, I survived. I made it to the end, just like you today.

What a fantastic class this is. So young, so motivated, so much smarter than me. There are Badgers graduating today from more than two dozen different countries. Faraway places like Australia, Kenya, Denmark, Stevens Point, Iraq, Venezuela, Eau Claire, Poland, Finland, Sheboygan, Ghana, Iceland, Appleton, Zimbabwe, Oshkosh, Uganda, the Syrian Arab Republic, Fond du Lac, Peru, Waukesha, Oman and of course the proud independent Arctic nation of Green Bay.

My congratulations to all of you. You are Badgers for life. And it is absolutely the best thing to be.

Look at Chancellor Blank. She went to the University of Minnesota and then she got another degree from a two-month online Internet college called MIT. Then she worked at Princeton, which is another online Internet college, and then Northwestern and Michigan.

She basically spent her entire career behind enemy lines.

But now she’s a Badger. And she’s a Badger for life.

Chancellor Blank recently went for her physical and her doctor told her that her bloodstream is now 70 percent cheese curds.

Which, as we all know, is quite healthy. And the statewide adage.

That’s what Wisconsin does to you.

So today? Today is a special day. You’re about go out into this wide, wide world with only one firm obligation.

And you know what it is: You can’t move back into your parents’ house.

I mean, come on.

Your parents – this college journey of yours began with big aspirations. Maybe you were the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you’d become a neurosurgeon. Or an astronaut. Or a lawyer or a movie director, or best of all, maybe you’d become a brand influencer on Instagram or even TikTok.

Now? Now your parents just don’t want you to move back into the house.

Even if they say they want you to move back into the house, even if your mom says, “It’d be kinda nice to have my baby back into the house” – your mom is lying.

She does not really mean that.

Mom and Dad have moved on.

They’ve taken your bedroom, and turned it a lounge with a pool table, a trampoline and a tiki bar. OK, that’s not true.

Here’s the truth: Your Mom and Dad are growing marijuana in your childhood bedroom.

Come on. It’s basically legal now. It’s a multibillion dollar business and it’s only going to get bigger.

Just trust me: Your parents don’t want you back in the house.

Still, it might happen.

I know this, because **I** moved back into the house.

Oh boy, that was fun, graduating from college, where I had my own apartment, full autonomy over my life, and coming home, waking up in the morning, going into to the kitchen where I grew up – and being greeted by the death stares of my Mom and Dad.

Dad would be there in his Oxford and khakis, his bag already packed for work; Mom would be halfway out the door to her job.

And I would be standing there, shirtless, in my Bucky Badger pajama bottoms, waiting for them to leave, so I could go crawl back to bed.

Somehow, I got out of there. And you will, too.

And if I can impart one bit of wisdom as you go out into that great big world, it’s this:

Are you ready? This is the big reveal.

Nobody out there really knows what they’re doing.

I know! I know!

This is not the kind of thing someone’s supposed to admit in a college commencement speech.

I’m supposed to be up here delivering sage life lessons and pearls of hard-earned insight.

But I promise you: This is insight. This is quite sage!

It really is a great secret of life that we’re often sadly too embarrassed and self-self-conscious to admit.

No one out there has life all figured out.

Everyone’s scrambling every day, in their own way.

Don’t believe those charlatans who write self help books. There’s a whole industry of know-it-alls. Nonsense. Ignore it.

The people who claim they do have life figured out – they have it less figured out than anyone.

Even your parents. Your parents, they seem so smart, so together, they can pay for dinner and fold laundry, but trust me, they’re making this up as they go along, too.

And this is good! It is healthy and human and normal. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, frailties, and imperfections and all the times we’re struggling, all the times we get it wrong.

I mean, come on, I am a sports columnist.

I get it wrong between three and 450 times per week.

My life is constantly humbling. There’s no shame in admitting that.

I was really thinking about this, as I sat down to write this speech. Forty-five minutes ago, in Helen C. White.

You know, 11 years ago, almost to the day, I was laid off, like so many people were during the recession at the end of the last decade.

Anyway, I was handed a sad cardboard box and told to pack up my stuff. It was barely a week before Christmas.

And I remember going home, to my tiny New York apartment, to my future wife, Bessie — who is also here today, also watching “Toy Story 3” on an iPad.

But back then, she was sitting there, in our tiny New York apartment, and as tears began to well in my eyes, I said:

“Honey, I don’t know how, but exactly 11 years from now, I am going to give the winter commencement address to the class of 2019 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“Also, honey, I don’t know how I know this but Donald Trump will be president and there will be a TV show with a Baby Yoda.”

I didn’t say any of those things.

I don’t remember what I said. But I remember how I felt.

But I remember thinking:

This is really humbling, but it’s also strangely exciting.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to relive any of that again.

And I think it’s important to do the homework, to prepare, and take the serious stuff seriously.

But I also think it’s useful to always carry some humility, to acknowledge we are not always in control of our stories; how often it’s moments of chaos, luck, and strange bends of the universe that conspire to teach us, to push us, challenge us – and bring us to thrilling events like this ceremony today.

A quick story:

Not long ago, a minister in California named Lydia Sohn interviewed a bunch of people between the ages of 90 and 96.

These were really old people. These people remembered the first time the Cubs won the World Series.

And she interviewed them about happiness.

There’s a belief that human happiness happens on a curve.

People are said to be happiest when they’re very, very young, and don’t have a care in the world – like my kids up there, now watching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on the iPad.

And then, on the other side of the curve, people are supposedly happiest again when they are much much older, retired, and liberated to enjoy the little things, like spending their grandchildren’s college fund on a condo in Fort Lauderdale.

And middle of the curve – which is the part I’m in and you’re about to go into – this is supposedly the hardest, toughest part. This is when people go out in to the world. They get jobs, have kids. There are crises. Relationships happen and fall apart. Perfectly good adults start walking around in sweatpants.

This should be the hardest part, the unhappy part.

But these 90- to 96-year-olds that Reverend Sohn talked to – they told her something different.

They said they were happiest in the harsh middle part, when their lives were craziest and messiest, when all their kids were still in the house and tracking mud through the living room and setting small fires in the backyard.

They were happiest when they were balance all of it – work and family and figuring out how to pay for stuff.

These people, all of them approaching 100 years old – they said they were happiest when their lives were the most chaotic.

I think that’s remarkable wisdom.

My friends: You’re about to step out into this beautiful chaos.

You’re probably going to have a job or two or 12 that you don’t really like.

You’re going to have good bosses and bad bosses and many, many mediocre bosses.

You’re going to worry about money.

You’re going to freak out about where to live.

You’ll get your heart broken a few times, both professionally and personally.

And, I hate to say it, but: At least one night per year, you will sit in your bedroom and eat an entire cheese pizza all by yourself.

Maybe that was last night.

But please!

As you go out there, remember this:

Nobody is a life expert.

Nobody has it all figured out.

Everyone is making it up as they go along, at least partly.

Embrace that uncertainty and chaos.

Be kind and civil to your fellow human beings, even on the Internet.

Call your Mom and Dad on the phone every now and again.

(Text messages don’t count.)

And do me a favor, read a newspaper.

Newspapers are still really good for you just like cheese curds.

My congratulations to every single one of you.

You have my gratitude and my awestruck admiration.

Promise me you’ll walk out these doors – into the wonderful, life-affirming Wisconsin cold – and change the world.

And then you’ll sprint back intothe nearest building, and warm yourselves up again.

Thank you!