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Costolo urges students to 'bet on themselves'


Published May 4, 2013

At a 50,000-person event that was hardly improvised, the spring 2013 University graduates listened to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo as he spoke about the value of improvisation and living in the moment.

More than 5,000 graduating students took to the Big House on Saturday for commencement under sunny skies and a light wind. The video scoreboards displayed recorded messages from graduating students and tweets with #MGoGrad, fitting for an event headlined by the chief executive of hashtags.

University President Mary Sue Coleman gave remarks and presented honorary degrees on behalf of the University’s Board of Regents to Pulitzer-prize-winning historian David McCullough, University alum and philanthropist William Brehm, famed ballerina Suzanne Farrell and University alum Rosabeth Kanter, a business professor at Harvard University.

Coleman’s address challenged graduates to follow in the path of historic University alumni: “You will create change for the better, you will work on behalf of your neighbors, and you will do it with dignity and integrity.”

Costolo, a 1985 University graduate, began his address — which he jokingly said he began planning for Saturday morning — by taking a quick iPhone picture to tweet out to his 1 million followers, thanking his parents and reminding graduates to thank whoever supported them through their education.

Costolo, who was a computer science student during his time at the University, had a change of heart regarding his career after taking an acting class his senior year. It turned out to be more than “saying Arthur Miller lines to each other,” so he took another course the next semester and began stand-up comedy. Turning down programming job offers, he moved to Chicago to try his hand at improvisational comedy with the Second City, the famous theater company.

Costolo offered the picture-perfect version of how life in Chicago could have panned out, then explained the reality.

“In the real-world story of what happened, I decided to make a big bet on myself and take the chance to do this because it’s what I love,” Costolo said. “I was grinding away for a long time and had no money, and we would rehearse during the day and perform these little theaters at night for free and I was taking classes during the day at Second City, as well, trying to learn improvisation and eventually had to get out because I had no money. So I put my CS degree from Michigan to use wrapping flatware and selling place settings at Crate and Barrel.”

Improvisation, he said, is less than a skill than an expectation for graduates as they follow their passions.

He passed on advice given to him by a director at Second City: “The beauty of improvisation is you’re experiencing it in the moment, if you try to plan what the next line will be, you’re just going to be disappointed,” he said.

To end his often humorous remarks, Costolo invoked myriad careers University graduates would pursue and had advice no matter where they end up: “Be right there, and nowhere else, in that moment. Soak it all it. And remember to say thank you.”

In an interview after commencement, Costolo said, “You have this intellectual sense of how big the crowd is, but until you go out there and experience it, you don’t really have an appreciation for it.”

“You have to have a north star,” he said of the path — or lack thereof — he endorsed, “but you can’t constantly worry about, ‘Well, and then I’m supposed to do this,’ because life doesn't work that way and you won’t experience your life. You’ll be living it in service to some expectations that are fiction.”

LSA graduate Anisha Chadha was the only student speaker on Saturday. Though she came to the University concerned about how she would feel among some 25,000 undergraduates, Chadha said joining student organizations allowed her to create a small, unique community on campus.

“I realized, no matter what we were doing, it was almost impossible for me to feel small,” Chadha said in her address. “Even when I was in this Big House, with 114,803 other people, I began to realize that what I was feeling was not smallness, but rather I was feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself.”

Though most use the term “Michigan Difference” to describe the academic and cultural caliber of the University, Chadha explained it as the impact Michigan graduates can have on humanity.

“It is the difference we were given the opportunity to make,” Chadha said.