Monday, June 22, 2009

My Speech

This post inspired by Jenners' Game 6. It is a late entry in the game, but I'm sure it is OK. {*grin*}

Jenners's contest was to write as if you were to be a commencement speaker. My version differs in that following are the notes for my graduation oration to the graduating inmates at a state prison. These inmates had completed their high school diplomas while in prison. Some had continued on to receive their bachelors degrees. I was the invited speaker for their combined graduation.

As an aside, the start of the ceremony was delayed for a nearly an hour so that the mother of one of the inmates could make it to the prison for the ceremonies. After the ceremony, she was in tears because she was so proud and excited. As she explained it to me via interpreter (she was from another country; spoke no English, and had been traveling for days to attend), her son was the first in the family to ever learn to read and write, let alone graduate high school. After listening to her pride in her son, I've always wondered how anyone could ever refuse to speak at a prison graduation ceremony.

Thank you for inviting me here today to share in the celebration of your educational achievements.

Setting goals is easy, attaining those goals is much more difficult. It requires motivation, hard work, and persistence. And you have faced the additional challenge of achieving your educational goals while  incarcerated. You set your goals, enrolled in this program, worked hard to master the necessary material, and now you're finally at the point where you receive recognition! You've mastered skills, implemented discipline in your daily life, and worked towards your objectives. The knowledge, skills, work habits, and work ethic you've learned will benefit you every day for the rest of your life.

I want to talk about life and success. Defining success can follow many tracks, but I think the critical part is to dream and pursue those dreams. Having an education allows you to dream. It allows you to dream of how to better yourself as a person, how to improve your situation in life, and ultimately how to improve the community in which you live.

Each person's life has many aspects. We are each many different things. I am many things: a dreamer, a tinkerer, a scientist, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a politician. Each of these aspects share a need of the ability to visualize a goal and do the hard work to pursue the goal. Each requires that I utilize all that I have learned.

Some of us were lucky and started young being able to read and write and do well academically. Others discovered the keys of knowledge later in life and only then came understand the beauty of knowledge and the doors it can open. All of us who dare to learn and dream and set goals will also at some point encounter the dread end point of failure and rejection. One cannot do great things without embracing the risk of failure and the pain of rejection. The measure of a great person is that they undertake the journey in spite of the risk of failure.

I'd like to share with you the path of two people I admire very much: Leonard Suskind and Theodor Geisel. Neither name probably means much to you.

I remember meeting Lenny when I was a young graduate student attending a scientific summer institute. He was attending the same program. Nothing odd about that, except that most of us were in our twenties, but Lenny was already in his forties. One night I happened to ask Lenny how he came to be in physics and his answer still inspires me. Lenny had dreams of attending college and graduate school. The reality was that Lenny ended up married with a young family to support. So he became a plumber's assistant and attended college while working full time. He graduated college as a master plumber, a father, and a family man. He started graduate school the same way, gradually earning research assistantships that allowed him to become a part time plumber. When I met him he had just become a full time physicist at Stanford. Today Lenny is a full professor at Stanford, the author of multiple books in diverse fields, a prolific author of scientific papers, and one of the top physicists in the world. Many would have let the dream die when facing these difficulties, but Lenny was persistent in working for his goal. His success is an example for us all never to give up.

Theodor Geisel was a very successful advertising agency executive, but wanted desperately to pursue his dream of writing children's books. (For those who are old enough, he was the creator of the Flit insecticide ad campaign.) So he wrote his first book. Seven years later and after rejections from 43 different publishers, that book was finally published. He went on to win every writing prize in the field along with two Emmys and a Peabody award. He changed children's literature forever. Even more important, he changed the way many of us learned how to read. You may know him better under his pen name of Dr. Seuss. That first groundbreaking book was "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street". Even his wife had urged him to just get on with advertising after the 23rd publisher had rejected the manuscript. But Theodor persisted in his dream. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Geisel as a guest lecturer in college and the thing that sticks with me most is his firm belief that you are a success only if you are doing what you enjoy, no matter what others may think.

Both Lenny and Theodor faced challenges, overcame obstacles, and were rejected. But they used their own motivation to persevere. They didn't let fear of failure stop them and you shouldn't either. The difference between "making it" and "giving up" is often your own self motivation. You must believe in yourself before others will believe in you. And people must believe in you before thay can believe in your vision, your dreams, and your goals. And when people believe in your goals, they will help you along the way.

So dream big, make your plans, set your goals, work hard, and believe in yourself!
I congratulate each of you! You dreamed big, set your goals, and achieved success. You did it! You have taken the first step to even bigger dreams. So smile a little more today; feel good about your achievements. Most importantly, believe in yourself and continue on the path to your own successful future.


  1. This was so wonderful ... inspiring and heartfelt. Your examples were amazing ... I know that most people would have given up when faced with those odds ... or never even started in the first place. I love that you gave this speech at a prison -- it gives it more meaning. Your story of the inmate's mother really touched me too. Thank you so much for sharing this ... it was beautiful and wonderful and touching. Bravo!


You know you want to ... so just do it!!!

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