Joe Zee to College Grads: “Be Open, Be Passionate, Be Curious”
Editor-in-Chief Joe Zee delivered the Academy of Art University commencement speech for the 2015 graduating class. Here, he offers three simple ideas that’ll have you on your way to success. (Introductory video produced for Academy of Art University by studioDP2; David & Valentina Pfeil, producers.)
Hello, class of 2015!
It’s such an honor to be standing up here today to help all of you celebrate your big day. I will be honest and say that when Simon (thank you) asked me to come and deliver today’s commencement speech, my reaction was a mixed bag of emotions. I was honored, of course, but I was also nervous. I know, you’re thinking, he always looks at ease, so cool and calm and collected….so what is he talking about? Well, a commencement address is more than just a speaking gig, and I didn’t just want to come up here and reel off a bunch of clichés but to do it right. So of course, my initial reaction besides being nervous was also excitement, fear, exhilaration, anxiety and most of all, a sense of responsibility. And I realized – after that second glass of wine to help me calm down – that I was really just feeling what all of you must be feeling right now.
And I know. Because I was each and every single one of you.
Some of you may see me as the editor in chief of Yahoo Style or the former ELLE creative director, while some may think of me as a celebrity stylist, a clothing designer, a red carpet commentator or maybe even just that guy on a reality show. But to me, I still see myself, as that wide-eyed kid, a little cocky, always full of questions, who ventured to New York City 25 years ago, with my dad and my grandmother, in an old station wagon, jammed with everything I owned and a vision. I was feisty and determined: I knew I wanted to be a magazine editor, sure and simple. No back up plan, no alternative, no ride home. And I thought, well I just need to move to New York, go to fashion school, get some experience and everything will fall into place. Not so fast.
That first week I arrived in New York, I learned all about obstacles, perseverance and finding solutions. When the internship office at school told me I couldn’t apply for one until senior year, I hit the pavement on my own, writing letters – on a typewriter! – to editors whose names I found on mastheads and following up with endless phone calls until the no’s turned into a yes. Or at least, a maybe. Or taking control of a relatively inactive and considerably dull school newspaper by assuming the roles of editor, publisher, copy chief, stylist and delivery boy.
Those solutions proved to be successful for me. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. The thing that we’re all after: SUCCESS. The double rainbow. The big ice cream sundae with whipped cream. The feeling of being psyched every single morning to start your day.
Success for me was never about the number of followers you have, the business card with your name on it or even that weekly paycheck. It was about being proud. Proud of seeing your ideas come to life as a living, breathing thing. Did it impact people? Did it make a difference?
I consider myself a success because…I LOVE WHAT I DO. I am enthusiastic about every project I get to be a part of, no matter if it’s glamorous or not. I love it so much that I often fall asleep with my phone in my hand, trying to send out one last idea for the day. Being able to do what you love is the greatest thing in the world…whether it’s starting a family or a YouTube empire. But it isn’t easy. It requires true unflinching self examination—and that is one of the hardest things in the world to do.
And I did it, following 3 very simple ideals.
First up: DO YOU.
HASHTAG Best advice anyone ever gave me. Nothing is worth it if it doesn’t allow you to be you. Not what you THINK someone wants from you or who someone thinks YOU SHOULD BE. And this is what the next handful of years in your lives should be all about. Being you.
Two: NO LIMITS
Don’t limit yourself. I was told by a reporter blogger recently that I was a risk-taking “Slashie”—someone who has multiple careers happening simultaneously. He’s right, though I would like to think that I am just pursuing all my passions. I commit (probably too much) to everything I’m excited about, and I’ve learned in recent years, to also say yes to things that scare the crap out of me or things that confuse me. And they always ended up being great adventures. We’re all blank slates. The possibilities for your future are endless, infinite. It’s the detours that are going to make your life all the more exciting.
And three. Oh, number three. This one seems really easy, but it’s not. And believe me, it makes ALL the difference.
Thing three: BE NICE, HAVE FUN. I’m serious about this one. You can ask my staff. It sounds like a piece of cake, right? Well, remember that during those difficult moments when the stress becomes too much and you want to snap. Just remind yourself to HAVE FUN.
The big picture exists, for me, in these ideals. If we go straight to the heart of this funny, serious, and amazing puzzle called existence…one indisputable fact remains: Tomorrow is not promised.
Life is not lived on the horizon. It is not what you someday hope to do. Nor does it just exist on Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or Periscope. It is what you are doing RIGHT NOW. It is going out tonight to celebrate your graduation. It is leaving this college campus to follow your dreams. It is working for hours on something you love, just to get it right. It is hearing that one song that makes you want to jump up and down. It is every tiny moment of every single day. And that’s where happiness lies.
I love finishing an all-nighter at Yahoo Style at 5 a.m., getting an hour of sleep, and heading to Rockefeller Center to be a guest on the Today show by 7 a.m. I love every second that I get to work in the fashion industry and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
And now it’s up to you all. Go out and find your own version of success. And go after it with all your heart. Enjoy every second. That’s what it’s all about.
All of you will leave today with different plans and different dreams, but keep this in mind: Be open, be passionate, be curious. I always knew what I wanted to do. My plan was specific; my career route clearly mapped out; I had all the details organized. I am happy to say, none of it worked out the way I planned. It worked out so much better. I remember discussing this very point with one of my professors, a curmudgeon of a man, but full of insight and wisdom. I was devastated at not getting a specific job after graduation, and he said to me: “Joe, you go ahead and make that plan. And then throw it away.” At that time, I was confused but in hindsight, Professor Hyde was right. He has since passed, but his advice has always stayed with me. Define your path but be prepared for – in fact, go looking for and embrace – all those detours and side roads. And prove all those doubters wrong along the way. I had someone tell me after graduation that I would never be an editor at a women’s fashion magazine because I was neither blonde nor a woman, and yet I did it. And after my first television appearance, a talent agent in LA told me, I would never get a TV show because I was “too Asian”. (And he was Asian!) Well, this fall, I will be the first ever male Asian daytime talk show host on a major television network. I’ve turned challenges into advantages; hurdles into goals. Rejection was my motivation. And those naysayers became my champions. They just didn’t know it.
I have no idea where you’ll all be headed after today, or what impact you will have in life, but I do know this: whatever it is you do, do it with conviction, do it with passion, do it with curiosity. Take chances; risks reap rewards. Embrace your failures and celebrate your accomplishments. Because you can do it. I did it.
Ok, for those of you out there who think I may have left out that serious philosophical remark in this speech, I’d like to leave you with this quote from a well-known philosopher who the young women on my staff tell me speaks the truth. Her name is Nicki Minaj and she says, “Live in the present, that gift is for the gifted // This is what you came for // You get what you buy, this what you paid for // So make sure the stars [are] what you aim for.”
Good luck in all that you do, Academy of Art University graduating class of 2015.