To be determined

by G. Timothy Johnson

This recent season of commencement speeches reminded me of my own “career” giving such speeches. From 1975 to 2009 I was the Medical Editor of ABC News and therefore very much in the public eye. One result was receiving many invitations to give commencement speeches. I quickly adopted a policy of each year accepting the first two who called. Having learned the painful lesson with my very first speech—that most of the audience and graduates had no appetite for a long, semi-scholarly address—from then on I always made clear that my speech would be 10 minutes or less and very personal. And I quickly developed a “standard speech” that I used in dozens of commencements. Here it is in abbreviated form, still firmly ensconced in my memory now decades later:

As you graduates are sitting here today with your degree soon to be in your hands, you are probably quite certain that you have your future fairly well planned. I would like to suggest that is not really necessary. In fact I would like to suggest that you take that blueprint for life now in your head and revise it to include a large space marked TBD—To Be Determined. I regard my job today to suggest that you are in for major and unexpected changes in that blueprint. And I am going to attempt to convince you of that by briefly telling you a little about my personal pilgrimage.

After majoring in history and philosophy in college I entered seminary and became a Protestant minister. When my wife and I married in 1963, she was convinced she would be a minister’s wife the rest of her life. But just two years later, after taking the prerequisite science courses, I entered medical school with the dream of becoming a family doctor in a small town. Instead, I ended up as Chief of Emergency Services in a hospital in the Boston area.

During those early years I became acquainted with Dr. John Knowles who was then the General Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital. He was also part of a Boston group that in 1972 took over the ownership of the ABC affiliate in Boston, WCVB. That ownership group had decided to include a half-hour morning medical “call in” program in their new lineup and John recommended me as host—without, by the way, telling me he had done so.

By now you can probably guess the “rest of the story.” I hosted that program for several years while still practicing emergency medicine full time. And several years later when the ABC network decided to start a morning program called “Good Morning America” they asked me to join as a part-time contributor. Nine years later I made the difficult but exciting decision to join ABC News as the first full-time doctor on a national network, a position I held for the next 25 years until retirement. During that time I also became the Founding Editor of the Harvard Medical School Health Letter, the first of what became a flood of such publications.

So now I hope you can understand why I tell you with some authority that you really shouldn’t expect that your life will unfold according to the plan you may have in your head as you sit here today. In fact today is only the start of a great adventure and the truth is that you have no idea about all the unexpected opportunities that might come your way. So open up that space in your blueprint and mark it with capital letters TBD—To Be Determined. Thanks for your attention and blessings on your unpredictable but exciting journeys.

P.S. My wife and I celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary on June 14 this year, so since I am still an ordained minister she is still technically a minister’s wife!