Spring Commencement 2012 – Evans explains the importance of saying YES
Award-winning Creative Director, Executive Producer and Photographer David Evans (BEDV 1984) gave the commencement speech for the spring graduating class of 2012 in Stewart Theatre on May 12, 2012. With a graduating class of nearly two hundred students, it is the largest graduating class in the history of the college.
Below is a transcript of his speech which he explains the importance of saying “yes” when the universe speaks to you about something you love and believe in.
Thank you, thank you so much.
What a privilege to share the stage with you again Dean Malecha. Thank you so much for this wonderful honor. It means the world to me that I’m still involved with the College of Design after all these years. My education here truly shaped my career and indeed my life.
And congratulations to all of you. I was sitting where you were once, so I know how hard you worked to get here. It’s such a pleasure to be here today to celebrate this milestone with you. It’s a big deal and you should all be wildly proud of yourselves.
For many of us, this path chose us, not the other way around. We were called to it because we know at our core that there is deep substance in design. Sure, we swoon over couture, and we can get giddy about a new typeface…museums, cathedrals and skyscrapers can make our knees buckle in awe of their mass and materials.
But we also believe that there is power in what we do. That we leave behind the clues that history will know us by, and that we play a powerful role in shaping the contours of the future.
People live, eat, work, love, raise families, worship, study, celebrate and grieve in our buildings. They are informed by our layouts, by our websites, by our graphics, and they are entertained by our animations, and our films. They declare their identities by wearing the clothing we fashion for them, and they listen to music, climb mountains, and perform surgery using the products we create and improve upon.
You wield profound influence. You honestly can change the world. And with all the goings on here in North Carolina that have put the state in the spotlight this week, I’d say there’s never been a better time to roll up our sleeves and fight harder for justice through the ideals we embody.
Now, you’ve just received your diplomas. I’m sure a lot of you already have jobs lined up, or you’ve figured out a plan to get one. Some of you already have 5-year plans, 10-year plans. Some of you probably even have retirement plans. And that’s great. In fact, I’m blown away by so many of you who I’ve met and the plans you’ve told me you have. The world needs creative people in stable positions. No doubt about it.
But I imagine—in fact I really hope—there are some of you sitting here today with absolutely no plans whatsoever. (Parents, please save your jeers and rotten tomatoes for the end of the presentation…it gets worse).
Because I don’t believe that everyone needs a plan, or that having one is even the surest route to success. I’ve never had plan. I don’t have one now.
Don’t get me wrong. Not having a plan is not the same thing as not being prepared. And all of you have just checked that box; you’re incredibly prepared. And not having a plan is not the same thing as having no ambition, or not wanting to accomplish great things.
But not having a plan is one way to make yourself available when the universe whispers that it has something special for you, and it frees you up to say yes when the universe plots random dots on the map of your life that you may only connect years or decades later.
I’d like to share just a couple of stories of how not making plans and leaving myself available to say yes, plotted insanely random dots for me that I’m only now seeing the connections between.
I just got back from Madagascar a couple of weeks ago where I was directing a documentary. It may be the best project I’ll ever work on. And it’s all because I said yes, and moved to Venezuela in 1992. Say what? …Venezuela? …Madagascar? What’s the connection? Try to pay attention because this is a little hard to follow. And that’s kind of my point.
In 1992, I had a good start on a successful career as an art director in a big ad agency in Washington, DC., when I happened to see an employment ad in a trade magazine. It said “Come work in Venezuela.” I really didn’t even know where Venezuela was exactly, but something in me recognized that this ad was speaking to me, and only to me. I had no doubt that I would get that job, and that I would soon be in Venezuela, wherever that was. But I had no idea that this would also be the first in a long series of random dots that have connected to draw a beautiful, if zig-zagging map of my life so far.
My first visit to Venezuela after being offered that job didn’t turn out so well. I flew down to make sure I would like the place enough to accept the job. After I met my new colleagues in Caracas, I flew to the interior of the country to see if there was anything cool to photograph.
See, I already loved photography. And I had even dropped off my photo portfolio once at National Geographic a few years before. They returned my images with a note from the editor who had reviewed my work. I’ll paraphrase: “Dear David. You suck.” So I had let that dream go a long time ago, but it didn’t stop me from doing what I loved. I still took photographs and the potential to take photographs guided many of my decisions.
Anyway, while I was in the interior of Venezuela, I managed to get trapped behind rebel lines for a week during an attempted coup de tat. Burning buses, bodies in the street, I never knew if it was the good guys or the bad guys pointing their guns at me. It was just an awful mess. But you know? After things calmed down, I ended up accepting the job anyway. Something told me to make myself available, that the risk could be worth the reward. So I said yes. Everyone I knew thought I was insane and I couldn’t really argue with them.
I went to Caracas on a one-year contract as creative director for a large agency. I ending up staying for three years. I met Max, a famous Venezuelan architect who became my friend, and he introduced me to the Andes and to the ancient farmhouse he was renovating high up in a cloud forest. His adobe house and primitive folk art collection turned everything I thought I knew about aesthetics on its head. Little did I know how much else it would change for me.
As I was about to leave Venezuela, Max said, “¿Sabes que, David? There is a small property for sale just down the mountain. It has a couple of mud shacks on it. If you bought it, I would design and manage the renovation for you as a favor.” Now it’s a much longer story than that how I came to own the property, and it was probably owing at least partly to the altitude and maybe a little bit to the moonshine we were sipping, but I was pretty sure I heard something whispering to me that I should keep myself available, that I should take this risk. So I said, “yes.”
So now it’s 1996, and I’m back in DC freelancing as a graphic designer to pay for the renovation of my mud shacks in the Venezuelan Andes, where I would disappear to for weeks, collecting folk art like a man possessed, and taking photographs.
Back in DC, I was designing a brochure for National Geographic Television and they offered me a position running their design department.
Now, for all I’ve just said to you about saying yes, I didn’t hear the universe whispering to me this time and I said no. And I said no twice. And I said no a third time. It’s not that I was such a hotshot that I could turn my nose up at a place like National Geographic. But like I told the executive offering me the job, “the truth is Kathie, I have a house in Venezuela, and right now I’m committed to collecting folk art and taking photographs while I finish the renovations.
“You’re a photographer?” she asked. You have a home in the Andes?” Well, the truth was I had exactly one published photograph…in the 1983 Windhover at NC State. And my “home in the Andes” was more of a construction site infested with scorpions, but “well, yeah,” I said, “more or less, I, um, I guess that’s mostly sort of correct…sure.” She took some of my photos with her and came back with an offer that included plenty of vacation time for me to travel, and also to put me in charge of their photography department. I didn’t hear any whispering this time, it was more like a scream. And I didn’t just say yes, but “WHOA! Yes!”
That job led to all kinds of experiences. I helped launch an international cable television network, and since I was the boss of the photo department, I gave myself photography assignments all over the world. My second published photograph? It was in National Geographic Magazine.
We’ll get to Madagascar soon, I promise. I told you it was complicated.
I left National Geographic after 6 years, but I continued my relationship with them. My work with National Geographic got my photographs a lot of attention. So I decided to give up graphic design and just pursue photography. I’d recaptured my first dream of being a photographer because I’d never given up my love of photography even though I’d been doing other things to make money.
If you hold onto the thing you love and find ways to make it important sometimes good things can happen.
Of course, that also means taking risks. And not just the kind that mean getting shot at in strange countries. Giving up graphic design, which had been my bread and butter involved a risk. But somehow I knew that now was the time to go all-in on photography. Doing that was scary because I had no idea what would happen, but it also seemed exactly the right thing.
So being available to say yes when the universe whispers also means being willing to take risks. But if all of you weren’t already risk takers, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. After all design isn’t the safest career choice you could have made.
Here’s something else. Being open when the universe whispers also means being open to making new friends. Friends are also part of the story because they will often help you in unexpected ways. But making friends is different from networking, which is purposeful and plan-driven. Making friends is random and meaningful on its own.
So here’s how a random dot led to a random friend of mine. Because I had a house in Venezuela, a colleague at National Geographic recommended me to his former boss Jimmy Carter, to be an election monitor for The Carter Center during elections in Venezuela. That led to another election mission with President Carter in Ethiopia. And because I’d been to Ethiopia, National Geographic sent me on a photo assignment to central Africa. It was there that I met Lindy, a videographer traveling with the expedition. During the month we worked together, camping in the Sahara, he mainly just yelled at me; “Hey photo guy, get the hell out of my shot!” He and I would eventually work together on lots of assignments all over the world and he’s become a good friend. Remember Lindy; he comes up again in a second.
Another random dot and another friend: I was photographing a cooking show being filmed in a private home in Washington, when I met and became friends with the home’s owner, Dan, who had just started his new position at The United Nations Foundation.
Because of my background with National Geographic Television, and my experience in Africa, the United Nations Foundation asked me to produce some video about fighting child marriage in Ethiopia. I had never really produced a video quite like this one, and I could end up looking pretty stupid if it didn’t go well. But sure…I heard that whispering again. And I said “Yes, I’ll take that risk.”
When I went to Ethiopia to produce that video, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria was holding their board meeting in the same hotel where I was staying in Addis Ababa. The elevator door opened and there stood Dan from United Nations Foundation and Todd, who I knew from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Turns out, both he and Dan sat on the board of The Global Fund. The next day, I learned they wanted to create and fund a new “Storytelling Committee,” and asked me to direct a video about their work. It would be a risky adventure visiting AIDS, TB and malaria clinics in prisons, slums, and houses of prostitution in some of the poorest places on earth, and it would consume the better part of a year to finish it. But I heard that whisper again and I said “Yes. I’ll do it.”
There’s so much more to that story too, but we’ve all got someplace to be, so I’m going to try and wrap this up.
The film focused on the empowerment of the underserved, especially empowering women, and the film was a tool that helped The Global Fund raise billions of dollars, which in turn helped them save millions of lives. It also won a bunch of awards, which is also pretty gratifying. So no, I’m not all about noble causes…I really like awards, too. I admit it.
But causes are important, of course. It goes back to that idea of using our designs and our art to make a difference. And in fact when the universe whispers to people like us, one reason I think we listen is because the whisper also connects us with our values, with the things we believe in.
One final random dot: A friend from my now-distant days at National Geographic introduced me to someone looking for a documentary film director. The subject was about how global markets for folk artists are empower women in the developing world.
Folk art. Empowering women. In the developing world.
Now, I may not be the only person with that very specific set of experiences, but I don’t think there can be many of us. The project had my name on it, and 18 months after that conversation, Lindy and I were off to Madagascar to make a film about folk art silk weavers. We hope to use this film as a pilot to raise funds for a 3-year project about folk artists all over the world.
So, let’s connect these random dots: Moving to Venezuela in 1992 led me to collect folk art, and it got me a job at National Geographic Television. Working at National Geographic Television allowed me to fulfill my dream of being a photographer and introduced me to filmmaking. It also connected me with Bill & Melinda Gates, the United Nations Foundation, The Carter Center, and The Global Fund. All of which combined to get me an amazing assignment in Madagascar doing a film about folk art, something I really love, and which may end up being the most important project I’ll ever do.
No plan in the world could have resulted in all of this.
But wait, the random dots are still connecting, and a pretty important connection was made just a couple of days ago.
Remember Lindy?, who I met in central Africa and who was with me a couple of weeks ago in Madagascar? While we were traveling together last year on a project—I can’t remember if we were in Germany, Brazil, or Japan–I told him about my husband Sam’s hearing impairment, and how we were having trouble getting insurance to pay for expensive cochlear implant surgery. Lindy says, “Dude, call my brother, he’s one of the nation’s foremost cochlear implant surgeons and he might be able to help.” Sam and I met with Lindy’s brother in New York two days ago, and Sam is now scheduled to receive his implant10 days from now, all paid for by his insurance. All because I listened when the universe whispered to me and I said yes, and moved to Venezuela in 1992.
So that’s it. Make a plan if that’s what makes you comfortable. But if you don’t have a plan, don’t worry, just make yourself available, and try to hear the universe when it speaks to you, especially about things you love and believe in. And then always…always, say “YES.”
Thank you and congratulations.