Life's Lessons Offer You The Best Education
March 29, 2010 - This speech was written for Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders to give the commencement address at an ITT Tech graduation ceremony.
Thank you. I am honored to be here today—to join with your families and your friends and the ITT faculty in applauding you on this special occasion. Let me start by saying to you, the graduates, congratulations.
ITT’s objective is to provide you an “education for the future.” For you, that brighter future starts right now. Remember “commencement” literally means “a beginning.” So, today we are not here to mark the end of your ITT education, so much as we are to commence the next chapter in your lives.
I must admit, upon being asked to speak to you today I was a bit intimidated.
First of all, your focus today is on what you have achieved, not so much what I have to say. You’re eager to move on to bigger and better things. This is your commencement, soon to be followed, I sure, by your celebration.
That’s probably why commencement addresses are usually given and then promptly forgotten. Someone once told me the best way to have your speech at a graduation ceremony remembered is to give a really bad one. Just awful.
So, this is kind of a no-win situation. As my friend put it, “You’re a dead man.”
Along those lines, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo probably said it best:
“Commencement speakers need to think of themselves as bodies at an old-fashioned Irish wake. You are needed to have the party, but no one expects you to say very much.”
I’ll try to keep that in mind.
Another intimidating factor about standing before you today is that you are not the typical or, more accurately, stereotypical college graduation class. The average student here at ITT Tech, I am told, is 29. And that’s just the average. Many of you, I suspect, already have children in school—have already acquired decades, not just years, worth of “real world experience.”
It is comforting to know some of you are 40ish—and beyond—and you can relate with me to growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s. I also realize, though, that means you can recognize style over substance. Or, as Harry Truman might have put it, when someone’s just shoveling manure in the hopes something beautiful will sprout up conveying wisdom.
Trotting out that graduation golden oldie—“if it is to be, it is up to me”—won’t cut it. Not with this crowd.
When you hear college “kids” whine about late nights in the library and cramming for finals, you probably have to laugh. You are adults, not kids. Many of you have juggled full-time jobs, family obligations and studying to be here today. Some of you probably have mortgages and student loans—and college funds for your kids.
You—who are average students here, 29 years old, or above average, already in your 30’s or 40’s or 50’s—already know this. So, this is for the “kids” among you, the 21- or 22-year-olds:
The toughest tests you’ll take in life aren’t the ones administered in the classroom, and your education isn’t ending here today.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who joked, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”?
The lessons life has to teach are endless. Only you can limit your education.
I surely need not tell graduates of the ITT Technical Institute that much of our lives today evolve around gadgets. Seems as if every man, woman and child spends countless hours using so-called time-saving devices—PC’s, laptops, iPhones, iPads—with much of our time spent not measured in hours or days, but in kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes and now terabytes.
You know you’ll have to keep up-to-date. Whatever is the “newest thing” today will be outdated tomorrow. Remember 10 or 12 years ago, when some people spent small fortunes on those 100 megabyte zip drives? I just had to get me one.
In your never-ending, on-going education, do take time—a second or even a minute—every now and then to just savor life and take in the lessons, beyond the technical, life might have to offer you. For example, I have learned simply from watching my children that my parents were much wiser than I thought they were—back when I was a teenager, before I became father.
Many of you have taken the remarkably bold step of going back to school, learning new skills to embark on a new career. Life, as you know, can be unpredictable—always changing. Standing still is not really an option. You have to be able to roll with the punches—be a little daring.
Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher, but he went on to become one of our country’s greatest presidents. Think he stood still? No.
He believed, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”
That’s the approach I’ve taken as a public servant, especially in my three-plus years as Jackson County Executive.
We came into office cutting the budget—and we’ve been cutting it ever since. We’ve looked upon these difficult times as an opportunity to make local government more efficient and responsive. And we’ve moved forward, establishing a new ethics code, opening a regional correctional center, laying the foundation for Jackson County to thrive when the economic downturn becomes an upswing.
I have always approached life with a “ready, aim, fire” attitude. Life is all about making decisions. You can’t get stuck in the limbo of “Ready, Aim… Aim… Aim… Aim…”
The lesson Truman’s predecessor in the White House, FDR, taught us was that in difficult times, doing nothing is worst than doing something that doesn’t work. He noted that in an effort to solve problems you have to try something. Letting a problem fester—to let people continue to suffer—and doing nothing, Roosevelt believed, was inexcusable. If something doesn’t work, he said, then admit it’s not working and try something else.
You have demonstrated you are people unafraid to try something else, and I applaud you for your daring.
I often tell college students—the so-called “traditional” students (those in that 18- to 22-year-old range)—not to view their education as merely a means to and end. A wrung that must be climbed on the career ladder, with higher education being necessary to obtain a higher salary.
Too many people sadly seem fixated on making a fortunate, rather than making a difference. We’ve seen a parade of disgraced, though too frequently shameless, CEO’s and CFO’s who at some point decided to trade their integrity in the pursuit of money. They failed to realize by consciously deciding to not live a life of integrity they were making themselves poorer, not richer.
The immoral, if not illegal, actions on Wall Street that brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression have not lowered the bar for honesty, decency and integrity.
Above all else, it is integrity that defines your character. It should be something on which you place no pricetag.
Living a life of integrity enables you to go home each night, look your family in the eye, and sleep like a baby.
So, as you move forward, do so with a purpose—trying not just to improve the quality of your own life, but trying to make a difference in the lives of others. Be a good parent. Be a good spouse. Be a good sibling, son or daughter. Be also a good neighbor.
Have the integrity to prove wrong the pessimists who say America no longer has “a sense of community.” Make a different—great or small. Keep your eyes and ears open. Seize upon opportunities to make your community a better place to live and work—to grow and prosper.
I have mentioned, a time or two, that many of you are older than the stereotypical college graduate. I want to leave you with the words of a young lady born long before we had computers and whose life was tragically short—shorter than anyone of yours or mine.
Anne Frank did not live to see her 16th birthday, but she made a difference in showing us that we need not lose hope or our humanity even under the most inhumane circumstances.
Her circumstances probably made her wise beyond her years, and I urge you to carry these wise words of hers with you as you move forward, “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
So, go forward and have what can truly be called a wonderful life—a life filled with friends and guided by unimpeachable integrity.
Thank you for sharing this important day with me. And, again, congratulations.