Student Life

Bob Bernstein 2017 Commencement Speech

Watkins College of Art - Bob BernsteinThis is actually the second art school graduation I’ve attended but the first I knew in advance that I’d be nervous about.

I mention this and tell the story about why I attended the 1986 graduation ceremony at the California School of the Arts in Oakland, CA, not as any qualification for speaking today but to give you a sense of me and my story — which I was told was what I should talk about.

You see, strangely I went to the art school graduation instead of going to my own. I had moved from my hometown of Chicago to the Bay Area after attending two different universities and after taking a year off to work on a doomed-from-the start presidential campaign.  I moved to San Francisco to “find myself.”  A year later I “found myself” waiting tables and realizing it was time to get my degree.

I graduated a year later from San Francisco State University.   I was only there for a year and didn’t have any affinity for the school and thus didn’t care much about attending the ceremony.

Coincidently, a childhood friend’s art school graduation ceremony was the same day.  I ended up going with Carolyn’s parents to her graduation.

Thinking back about that ceremony – and what I did and didn’t remember about it – helped prepare me for this talk.

Watching that graduation from afar actually gave me a unique perspective of graduation and made me for the first time proud of what I had accomplished.

I realized that I completed a six-year journey with lots of twists and two transfers to discover what it was I wanted to do next.

What I remember is how proud Carolyn’s parents were and how other parents were excitedly looking for their child in the crowd.

And what I don’t remember is anything that was said at the graduation. At first I rationalized this, thinking it was because it wasn’t my graduation.

Remembering all this made me realize that a graduation ceremony isn’t just for the graduates.  It’s also for the parents, friends, teachers, partners, and other loved ones who’ve watched you grow, struggle, and achieve.

And thinking about how this ceremony means so much to so many people scared the heck out of me.  What a responsibility this is!

The self-doubt dissipated a bit – not completely, but a bit — when I read something JK Rowling said at a commencement speech.

Sidenote:  The fact that I actually read other commencement speeches to prepare for this should be evidence of how nervous I was – and am — about this whole thing.  As I’ll get to later, I have some weird pride about doing things my own way and not worrying about how others did it.

Miss Rowling said she settled down when she realized she didn’t remember a thing that was said at her own graduation.

That helped her relax and helped me too until my “have to do it different” personality kicked in and I decided to put even more pressure on myself.  I decided my approach would be to say or do something that y’all might remember in 30 years.

To do that, I decided to use the power I have up here to give you an opportunity to find your own memory of graduation.  In honor of the author of Harry Potter, I’m going to do that by granting myself a Super Hero Power.

No, I’m not going to fly, suddenly become invisible or magically turn this all into a Quidditch match.  Although, that truly would be something you’d remember 30 years from now.

Way more modestly, I’m going to call a Graduation Time Out.

I ask you to take 30 seconds to look around and find something that you will remember 30 years from now.  I think back on that graduation and still remember that my friend’s dad cried more than her mom.  Maybe for you it’s the fact that the hat on your friend next to you is crooked, or your seat is a bit uncomfortable or wish that it was a bit cooler out here.

You’re all artists.  You get it.  Find your own perspective on this graduation.

30 Seconds.  Starting Now.

Now that I’ve hopefully given you something you will remember, let me before I forget thank a whole bunch of people for giving me this power.

Thank you Commissioners Mrs. Basham, Mr. Currey, and Mr. Nestrick; Board Chair Mr. Stumpf and all the trustees of the college.

And thank you President Kline and the Watkins faculty and staff for inviting me here today.

And thank you to the parents, friends, and of course today’s graduates for indulging me in what will hopefully be more than just a bit of self-therapy for the next 15 minutes or so.

I also want to thank my wife who perhaps gave me the best tip as I prepared for this talk.  After being shocked and flattered to be asked to give a Commencement speech and before totally panicking, I called her.

“You’ve heard me give speeches,” I said.   “Can I do this?”

If anyone out there is expecting this talk to be full of great advice you better take note now.  Her answer also shows how important it is to have someone close to you who will tell you the truth in a way that you can hear it.

My wife Irma, who is best known as the co-owner of the renowned local gourmet popsicle place Las Paletas and most valuable to me as a partner and mom to our sons Max & Alex, knows most of my inner-demon stuff and my general fear of talking to big groups. She started not only with a compliment but one that hit me in a vulnerable place and opened me up for came next.

“You’re a writer,” she said.

Sidenote 2 :  the thing about me being a writer and not a restaurant guy…I’ll get to that later.  For now, just know that I’m more of a closeted writer and by starting this way my wife boosted my ego.

“If you write it,” she continued.  “And if you practice it over and over and if you allow others to give feedback and if you don’t go off script, you’ll be fine.”

If I were smart I’d tweak those four things to:

1) just do it;

2) practice and perfect it;

3) seek feedback and/or get a mentor;

and 4) set and follow your goals.

And then I’d stop right now.

However, since the second-best advice I got was to not give any advice at all and simply tell my journey, I’m going to take a different approach.

I’ve lived most of my life differently than the advice I just passed along.

Thus, I’m going to use the rest of my time for rebuttal.

I’m not here to tell you to ignore any of those four points.  That would be silly and maybe irresponsible of me.

They are concrete, practical, and positive things that if you followed you’d likely be fine.

Instead, I am here to tell my story and from it you can take what you want.

And being this is Music City, I decided that to start by summing up my life in one song.  The true soundtrack of my life comes from Cat Stevens, who as a moody teenager, I listened to over and over in the basement while I learned to write by journaling about my woes.

I’ll never know if his words about searching and such influenced me or simply reflected my teenage feelings.  However, his words “I don’t want to work away doing just what they all say” in a song called “But I May Die Tonight” has influenced me as much as anything.

Point #1:  Just do it!

Frequently people say they admire me for “just doing it” — that is, for quitting a job I didn’t like to open my own business.

Real stories are never that simple or easy.

I did do that.  But I didn’t just do it. And just doing it took longer than the 15 months it took to put it all together or even the three years it took to work up the courage to quit my job.

The deeper story is that I seriously considered so many other ideas before doing the coffeehouse thing that by the time I just did it, I was too worn down from beating myself up from so many years of not doing it that it’s hard even now to congratulate myself for just doing it.

I passed on things like taking a gap year to travel the country in a used custom van complete with shag carpeting, starting a Fantasy Football magazine directly out of Journalism School, and giving myself an opportunity to pursue my art — creative writing.

I could connect the dots in my life to present a path of a guy who learned to write by journaling his teenage laments, and learned about politics from volunteering in a Congressional campaign office that opened across from his house, who had many summer and college jobs in the restaurant business, who eventually decided to combine his interests by becoming a political journalist and landed a first job in a city that didn’t have a coffeehouse – a situation he decided that years in the hospitality industry and time spent writing personal stuff at cafes made him uniquely qualified to rectify.

But that path would be far from straight.  And each bend or twist took time, energy, and willpower that we don’t have the time – or couch – to discuss.

From the vantage point of being 55 and being in business for 24 years, I realize that my lifeline is more like the stock market. It goes up and down on a daily basis.  Over time, though, it’s way up.

This may sound like advice.  But I’m telling you about me.  And looking back at me, I realize that I didn’t just do it.

I just did something, which led to something else that led to a coffeehouse, which then led to what’s about to be nine cafes and that eventually led me to getting the opportunity to tell you my story. 

#2 Practice and Perfect It.

Here is where I have to say I’m jealous of all you graduates.  You may not realize it but you have given yourselves a rare gift:  the gift of exploring, practicing, and perfecting your artistic interest.

I’m one of many who didn’t just do that. 

I didn’t practice my artistic interest.  And in a broader sense, I didn’t perfect anything.

I thought about being a writer.  Heck, I still think about being a writer.

But I’m far from being a frustrated creative.  I’ve just found other ways to explore and express my creativity.

To explain how I came to realize I made rational decisions about my life and feel I bent rather than abandoned my desire to pursue the creative arts, I’m going to use the first of two movie references that will show my age.

City Slickers is about guys going through a midlife crisis.  An old, wise cowboy character along the way says that Life is One Thing.  “You stick to that and the rest doesn’t mean anything,” he says.

What’s that one thing?

Ahh, that’s what everyone has to find out for themselves.

For me that One Thing turned out to be the ability to use my creativity to be financially independent.

Sidenote 3:  the thing about being financially independent, again, that’s another couch issue.

I still want to write that novel, screenplay or children’s book –each of which takes up space in my mind.

But this restaurant thing has achieved my One Thing.

I get to be creative every day in how new stores are designed, how employee benefits include grants for employee dreams and how slogans reflect the company.

I may not have written the Great American Novel, but I have written:  “Drink two cups and dance after breakfast.”  “Drink like you just woke up.”  And “We appreciate your addiction.

As for the Perfection Thing?

I have a perfectionist part of me, but it’s a much smaller part than the “It’s good enough” part of me.

I didn’t read business books until the magical year that I turned 50 and my business turned 20.  It seemed like a good point to figure out what I did right and wrong.  I read all about how companies seek perfection and how they go from Good To Great.

However, none of that resonated with me until I allowed myself to expand the definition of perfection.  I know that our stores don’t maximize revenue, operate by a set of written core values, or even know what we’re doing some of the time.

But this business is perfect for me.  I get to do whatever I want every day, spend lots of time with my kids, and make enough money to pay for our family’s lifestyle.

Could I tighten operations, open more stores, and make more money?

Sure.  But at what cost? 

#3 Seek Feedback and get A Mentor

I can point to many times that people gave me sound, practical advice that helped.

However, for other reasons perhaps also needing therapy, most decisions in my life came without seeking counsel.  These weren’t all great decisions: For instance, do I need to say anything more than “mullet?”

But most of the big decisions in my life were made without much or any counsel, and most of them worked out.

Again, far be it from me to tell anyone not to seek advice.

I just know that I’ve made decisions I’m happier about when I trust my instincts and ignore the naysayers.

#4  Set Goals and Stick to Them

My wife was right to worry about me going off script today.  I did that in a speech to Ethiopian coffee farmers that if not for the help of a quick-thinking translator, I would have insulted an entire village.

But about life?  Going off script is what got me here.

I have a running joke amongst my managers about my seemingly constant desire to do new things.  I’ll send an email titled “Idea #897” and then follow it up almost immediately with another marked “Idea #223.”  Not only do I recognize that I focus on the latest shiny object but I know that I can’t keep up with all my projects.

If this were about advice, I’d probably say something now about how you should find a good support team who can help you set goals and hold you responsible for meeting them.

Instead, I’ll talk about my childhood summer vacations – because that’s part of my story.

Our family took annual summer driving vacations.  My brothers and I wanted to get to the beach, mountains, or wherever we were going as quickly as possible and thus we pushed for the highways.  My parents thought differently.  They poured over maps (another thing that shows my age) to find smaller roads that wound through small towns.

Along the way, we’d invariably and unexpectedly find a fish fry, farm auction, or county fair.

What I’m trying to say – other than reluctantly saying my parents were right – is that by being open to shiny objects and sidetracks and by being open to modifying my destination goal, I’ve done way more than I ever planned on.

There was no goal to build a $10-million company.  There was no goal past not failing on the first café.  I grew by being flexible and being open.

And I’ve had more fun – starting with those backroad county fairs – going off script.


I’ve had people tell me I should combine it all and write a book about my business experiences.  One who knows me well suggested “Good Enough” as a title.

What interests me more – or even haunts me more – is a self-help novel that I’ve started many times also based on those family driving vacations.

When it came time to eat, my dad would drive past the first restaurant. My mom wouldn’t like the second. Someone else would object to the next.  And so on.

“Chicken Charlies is just ahead,” became the family mantra.

I’ve lived my life as if Chicken Charlies is just ahead.  Sometimes that means I’m like Hamilton and “never satisfied” and it’s depressing; other times it means I’m like 7/11 and always open to new challenges and it’s exciting.

What gives me hope that I’m doing something right came a few years ago when my eldest, Max, was about seven.

“What do you think you’d want to do when you grow up?” I asked.

“I want to do what you do,” he said.

“You want to have your own business?” I asked with what turned out to be false-placed pride.

“No,” Max said.  “Just be a dad.”

And I’ll leave you with that One Thing and these Other Things.

Which as a journalist, I should know better: I’ve buried the lead of this whole talk. I’ve broken a bunch of best practice rules and I’ve followed others without realizing it – and I’ve been fine.

But enough about me.  This about all y’all.

To end, I just can’t resist giving at least one piece of solid advice.

After all, every Commencement speech I read was full of it. A couple lines that I felt appropriate for today:

James Franco:  “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Jim Carrey: “So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.  You can fail at what you don’t want.  So, you might as well take chance on doing what you love.”

And perhaps my personal favorite “Wear sunscreen.”  Kurt Vonnegut.

Since I like doing things my way and this is an art school with a film department, I’ll quote a line from a screenplay that’s been on my list to write for so long that the reference for it is now 50 years old and probably too old to use.

But to me it’s worth trying to explain.

My scene plays off a classic moment in the 1967 movie The Graduate.  Dustin Hoffman has just graduated and has no clue what he wants to do next.  Mr. Robinson – a family friend — takes him aside and gives him one word of advice “Plastics.”

Fifty years on, “Plastics” has come to represent all the well-intentioned but not-welcome advice that people give graduates.

In my movie, there is a similarly lost character who just sets out driving down the highway to clear his mind.  He finds himself aimlessly following a truck for miles and miles.  Eventually he pays attention to the words on the truck. “Robinson’s Plastics.”

He then quickly pulls the car around the truck to pass it and yells “Screw Plastics.”

Fade Out.

With that, I leave you to do your own thing your own way.

Thank you very much.