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What an Honest Commencement Speaker would say

Written on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 by

students

Last month Patriot Update ran a video of a commencement speaker telling the graduates assembled before him that they were not special. Good for him—finally an honest commencement speaker. The hard truth is this: If graduates want to be special, they need to go out into the world and do something special, something that will make the world, our country, and their communities better. The video got me thinking about the several times I have given commencement addresses.

In my brief talks, I always tried to be uplifting, but also to convey the truth about life after graduation. I built my commencement addresses around that sentence that appears at the bottom of most college diplomas: “…together with all the honors, rights, privileges, and responsibilities appertaining thereto.” Knowing that the graduating seniors were more interested in their “…honors, rights, and privileges” than their “responsibilities,” I gave them a wake-up call by focusing on the latter. While not unhappy with the commencement addresses I have given in the past, if invited to speak at a graduation ceremony in the future I will do things differently. For my next graduation speech, I am going to say what an honest commencement speaker in today’s recessionary environment should say. Here are just a few of the things I will say:

Nothing in the world you are about to enter is free. If you want something, you must be prepared to work for it and earn it. You are not entitled to anything except what you earn by working hard, working smart, and working long. Many of you are accustomed to your parents paying for most of your needs and the government paying for your tuition, books, and fees. When you walk across this stage and receive your diploma, things are going to change. From this point on it will be up to you to make your own way, pay your own bills, and become a self-reliant, contributing citizen. And yes, your government-backed student loans are just that—loans. You do have to pay them back. You owe the American taxpayer a financial debt as well as a debt of gratitude.

Everyone else is going to pat you on the back and recite some form of “Hallmark message” about the bright future that awaits you and how wonderful your life is going to be. That might turn out to be the case, and I hope it does. But this won’t happen automatically. Success is not a birthright, an entitlement, or something you deserve. Rather, it is something that must be earned, and the process can take a long time. Your pathway to success might turn out to be a long road littered with potholes and detours. You are going out into the real world, not to Disneyworld. You cannot succeed by simply “wishing on a star.”

The American economy is bad shape, unemployment is high, and good jobs are scarce. You might have to struggle financially. You may have to start at the bottom in a lesser job than you would like and work your way up. If you get an opportunity to do this, be thankful—many of you won’t. And if you are able to find a job, don’t blow it. Be a diligent, dependable, hard-working, honest team player who thinks critically, improves continually, seeks responsibility, looks for things that need to be done and does them, and expects to be held accountable. In today’s borderline recessionary environment, your degree is not going to be a ticket to automatic success, but your degree combined with a positive attitude and a strong work ethic might just get you a chance to prove what you can do. If it does, take what I call the PHD approach to success. No, I don’t mean Doctor of Philosophy. The PHD approach means to show up at work every day with an attitude that says I am poor, hungry, and driven. Consequently, I am willing to do what is necessary to succeed.

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