Several folks have asked me to share my comments from graduation last spring. The following are my comments to the Decatur High School graduating class of 2016:
Good evening, seniors. It is a pleasure and an honor to stand here before you this evening. I’d like to take a moment to share some comments before we get to the highlight of the evening–when you get to walk across this stage to be recognized for a significant achievement. Twenty-four years ago I was at my high school commencement ceremony; sitting on a football field much like this, under the blazing Arizona sun, watching thunderclouds in the distance and wondering if we would make it through the ceremony without getting drenched by a monsoon. It was over 100 degrees that day–but of course it was a “dry heat”…much like an oven. I can’t say I remember everything that was said at the ceremony, but I do remember that most people talked too long and that it takes a long time to read almost 700 names. So I’ll try to be brief.
I hope being graduated from this fine institution is but one of many, many achievements you earn in your life. Achievements like this do not come easily. They are the result of diligent effort, persistence, and long-term focus. As you move into the next stage of your life, I encourage you to seek out challenges and opportunities, to take calculated risks, and to push yourself toward greatness. I took a risk when I chose the college I would attend after high school. I visited Cornell College in the spring of my senior year, having never been to Iowa before. I flew from Phoenix, Arizona, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wearing my customary shorts and t-shirt. When I reached Iowa–in the spring, remember–it was windy, below freezing, and snowing…and the airline had lost my luggage. I had to walk around the dorm begging for pants and a sweatshirt. Naturally, I fell in love with the place and called my mom that night to let her know I had found my college.
That fall I moved 1,500 miles away to a place I had only visited once. I didn’t know a single person and had little idea what I was getting myself into. I faced many difficulties, and you will as well. Stay focused on your long-term vision for your life. Pursue endeavors that feed your soul and move you toward your goals, but understand that others may not always agree with your course; and that’s okay. You should have seen the looks on the faces of our loved ones when last fall my wife and I shared that our family was moving to Georgia. Many folks tried to talk us out of that decision. But despite the opposition, we had to set our own course.
Your approaches and ideas may come under attack from those who are critical of what you are doing. Listen to your critics and learn from them, but always set your own course.
I’m reminded of a message delivered by Theodore Roosevelt to the University of Paris back in 1910, shortly after completing his second term as President of the United States. He said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I remind myself of President Roosevelt’s comments frequently and have embraced this approach to life. Like everyone, I have made mistakes along my journey. I have been the target of criticism. I learn from my mistakes, listen to my critics, and move on as a stronger and wiser person; and I encourage you to do so as well.
President Roosevelt understood leadership. He understood the difficulties in accomplishing great things. I encourage you to ask yourself these questions. Are you going to be a doer, or a watcher? Are you going to attempt to achieve greatness or are you going to criticize those that do? Are you going to be one who strives valiantly or a timid soul who knows neither victory nor defeat?
You leave our school district with a strong foundation. Use that foundation to pursue your dreams, take risks, and achieve greatness. Thank you.