Winter Commencement 2017


Before we begin the conferring of degrees, I’d like to share a few final thoughts with you. First and foremost, congratulations. Today represents the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. You’re earning a degree from a great university – maybe even an advanced degree – which means you’re well on your way to a healthier, wealthier, and happier life. Even better, the economy is going strong and unemployment is low, so your immediate job prospects are quite good.

Now I am going make a suggestion that might raise some eyebrows. But this is commencement, and it is customary to give advice – even at the risk of knowing the most unsolicited advice is promptly ignored. And, chances are that years from now, even though you may remember the advice you won’t remember it was me who gave it.

So let me tell you this: If you do not completely love where you landed and are not passionate about what you are doing, use that degree you’ve earned as a springboard to do something else that is exciting, fulfilling, and engenders passion. Don’t feel like you have to do something simply because you spent years studying it, or because you spent a lot of money and feel the need to justify the expense. That’s a recipe for feeling trapped and enduring long term unhappiness.

If we have done our jobs here, and I am confident we have, we have provided you a fundamental education that has prepared you for a lifetime of change including careers, relationships, locations, and life-long learning. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it that’s success and the satisfaction that comes with success require that you are good at what you do.   Being good at what you do usually requires that you like what you are doing – not always, but more often than not. And it is not always the highest salary, the most desirable zip code, or the best job title that brings you satisfaction and success. 

I encourage you to embrace the idea that you can officially declare yourself a success when you enjoy going to work every day and leave knowing that you have made a difference.  And, you will know you are satisfied with what you do when your job becomes your calling.

I personally believe that mediocre people are satisfied with what they do, competent people are happy with what they do, but really successful people are passionate about what they do. Each of us is on our own life journey, seeking love, meaning, security, professional opportunity, and knowledge. And it’s not up to others to say whether you’ve succeeded or failed, it’s up to you to decide how you want to measure your own success or failure based on what you want to accomplish – and the things that matter most to you.

Douglas Adams, author of the bestseller “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” once said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I needed to be.” I want you to end up where you want to be.

 Forging your own path may also mean running into dead ends, and sometimes we must first get it wrong before we can get it right. Believe me, I know that personally from experience. So please, let your life be defined by your own standards of success, based off what’s important to you – and what you want to learn from life.

Your degree is not an end point – it’s not your destiny or your fate. It’s a springboard into something else. It’s evidence of your sustained effort and accomplishment; it’s an indication you’ve acquired a set of skills and a great deal of knowledge; and it’s a passport to better opportunities.

A degree in engineering may be a passport to a career in engineering. But it might also be a passport to a career in business or teaching. Where and how you use the skills and knowledge you acquired is entirely up to you. Personally, I hope you have already found the thing you love, taken the first steps to mastering it, and can now pursue it with passion for the rest of your life.

But long experience tells me many of you are still unresolved or perhaps torn between different paths. I know I certainly was when I was sitting at my first commencement in 1977. And that’s just fine. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should give all your stuff away and go busking across Europe – though that does sound like fun!  And, if you let me know, I just might go with you. I can be a lot of fun.

But what I am saying is that this transition is a great time to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and to recalibrate your future plans as needed. This is an important point in your life.

Regardless of what you decide, I do hope that while you were here you broadened your sense of yourself and others. I hope at some point you walked into a class that you really dreaded taking and walked out wondering if you should change your major.

Because the professor was that inspiring and your classmates were insightful. I hope you had a chance to do meaningful research, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, and to learn how real discoveries are made and learn how human knowledge advances incrementally.

I hope you had a chance to study abroad and immerse yourself in a foreign culture, where you enjoyed the warmth and generosity of strangers. And if you did, I hope you experienced just enough loneliness to help you grow and just enough culture shock to give you a new appreciation for your own. All of these will help make you a more compassionate and open-minded person.

I also hope you met some life-long friends, read a few books you’ll never forget, made a few professional contacts, and maybe even fell in love for the first time. Moreover, I hope that the time you spent here has enriched your life and positioned you to be a life-long learner. Because when you decide you’re done learning new things, that’s when you become the member of the family that everyone makes fun of at Thanksgiving!

Finally, remember that you do nothing on your own. Many people have helped you become the success you are today and many more will help you in the future. 

So don’t forget to thank all of the family, friends, and mentors who nurtured you, encouraged you, and helped you get here. Almost without fail, every great success had a helping hand along the way.

Someone took a chance on you.

Someone gave you an opportunity.

Someone believed in you.

Thank them for it.

Congratulations to all.  You have my best wishes. Thank you for being part of the U of A community.