It’s graduation time and I was reflecting on my experience three years ago giving the commencement address at Southern Illinois University’s College of Applied Sciences and Arts.  It was an incredible experience.  While my speech was directed to those graduating, I find it hold meaning no matter what stage of life your at.  So, if you are interested, here is my commencement address to the graduating class of 2010.


2010 Commencement Address to the SIU College of Applied Sciences and Arts

2010 Commencement Address to the SIU College of Applied Sciences and Arts

Thank you for that wonderful introduction.  I am honored and grateful to Provost Rice, members of the platform, faculty, and students to be recognized as the outstanding alumni of the year.  Thank you.

27 years ago I was sitting where you are listening to some old guy rambling on about who knows what.  After struggling with this speech, I decided that I’ll just speak to you as if I were speaking to one of my own kids…


WOW, you really did it.  I can’t believe it.  Your mother, now she had all the confidence in you but YOU really surprised me.  Congratulations. And to welcome you to the ‘real world’ we’ve decided — you can’t move back home.  NO, seriously, it’s time for you to get out there, get your own place and get a job.  And you need to start paying for your own cell phone.  No more family plan, no more shared minutes.

I arrived at SIU in the fall of 1978 and the world was a different place.  The big news that year – Playboy magazine named SIU the number one party school in the nation.  When I came home on break, my parents questioned me about that and I told them I had no idea and that I honestly didn’t READ Playboy.

College was certainly an eye-opener for me.  We had girls living right across the hall.  The bars sold buckets of beer for a buck; and then… there was Halloween.  Well, I had a few pages in my speech on that topic BUT you’ll have to go to my blog for those details as somebody [nodding in the direction of the dean] “streamlined” my speech.

If you haven’t already noticed I’m a boomer and we like to talk about our self importance. But as we enter middle age and some of us are already retiring it will not be long before we hand over the keys. It’s kind of a fixer upper now.  A national debt of $13 trillion, social security is paying out more than it takes in, not to mention health care, climate change and unemployment.  It doesn’t sound like a very good time to be entering the workforce.

On the other hand, things were not all that rosy when I graduated.  In fact, the last time unemployment was as high as it is today was in 1983.  There will always be economic downturns, some worse than others.  But they do end and things do get better.

Looking back over the past 27 years I realize I have been extremely fortunate to have had a successful and rewarding career in aviation.  A number of people have helped me along the way. Dr. NewMyer, in particular, has been a consistent advisor, mentor, and friend to me over the years.  Gary Shafer, the director of the Southern Illinois Airport, hired me as an intern in my senior year, even though he already had two. He gave me a temporary job after graduation with business cards and paid for my attendance at an airports conference, which was a considerable advantage in getting my first job.

On the surface, it appears I was lucky and things just happened for me. But the truth is, below the surface, it was a real struggle.  I changed direction multiple times before finally settling on a specific career focus.  A big struggle for me was figuring out what I really wanted to do.  Everyone always says to do what you love, find your passion.  But that’s easier said then done.  I admired others who knew exactly what they wanted.  I also felt a certain amount of pressure, not from anyone in particular, but from society in general. There seems to be this general notion that you need to focus on the big game, the big deal, the big win, the big promotion, the big project.

That line of thinking didn’t really work for me.  Over the course of my career, I found it tends to be the little decisions that over time define who we are and make all the difference in our life experience.  Back in 1989, I was asked to take on a weekend project.  There was no financial incentive.  The opportunity was mostly to do some interesting work and impress my boss.  Well, that weekend project got extended to a month, then six months, and then three years.  What was a simple yes/no decision on working over the weekend essentially opened one door, which in turn opened many other doors that set the course for my career.  In itself, it was not a big decision but had I said no, my life would have likely gone in a different direction.  Looking back, I think the primary reason I said yes was that the specific activities the assignment involved seemed to resonate with how I defined myself.

But there is a fine line between being focused on the little decisions of work and life and becoming lost in the shuffle and buzz of everyday life.

John Lennon wrote “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I think the current version of that quote is more like “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy responding to emails, texting, twittering and talking on the cell phone – all at once, and while driving.

Now, more then ever, we are being bombarded by things fighting for our attention.  We wake up in the morning with the radio, then the TV goes on, there’s a newspaper waiting at the door to be read, well, at least for us old folks there is.  On the drive to work, we have a radio, telephone, CD player.  We get to the office and there’s the boss, co-workers, phone calls, messages, mail, email, web pages, instant messages, on and on and on… who or what is in control here.

What we focus our attention on is our most valuable possession but we give it up freely; sometimes consciously but often unconsciously.  It seems that it’s only when a tragedy occurs that we wake-up momentarily to remember life can be short and there are no guarantees of tomorrow.  We try to keep focused on what’s important but it’s difficult to put into practice with so many distractions.  BUT WE HAVE the ability to have absolute control over our experience and to keep focused on what’s important in life no matter what the world throws at us.  It takes the right focus and discipline.

TRANSITION POINTS are a great opportunity for refining how you see yourself and improving your habits.  You sit here today with your own unique set of knowledge and experiences and you have some ideas about your future.  So here are a few thoughts as you chart your course.

First, clear your mind.  You have learned a lot over the past four years but you need to get out of the college mindset.  Take a day, a week, a month – whatever feels right and reflect on your life, your beliefs and define what is important to you.  Write it down.

Second, be open to explore.  Particularly if you are not sure about where you are going. Take time to read, travel, and learn.  Be open to new ideas and ways of thinking.  Take chances.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  I’ll say that again, don’t be afraid to fail.  You will learn more from one good failure than you will from ten successes.  It’s human nature to become risk averse as you age, so don’t think that you can do it later because you may not.  Anything new or different will feel awkward, and that’s ok. Awkward is good. Awkward means you are learning. In fact, I suggest that in the next 30 days you try something adventurous, something perhaps out of character for you. Keep it legal, moral and ethical but try something you have never thought about or imagined you doing.  Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Third, establish your discipline.  Develop your habits and patterns of behavior that create the person you want to be and in essence define success for you.  Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Set your own pace. Just like running in a long race with thousands of people, it’s easy to find yourself influenced by those around you.
  • Take ownership of your thoughts and actions.  And don’t forget – what happens in the internet, stays in the internet, forever.
  • Build your network of contacts, colleagues, mentors and friends.  This will be one of your most valuable assets.
  • Be adventurous. Particularly early in your career don’t be afraid to take chances.
  • Be honest – to others as well as to yourself.
  • Be fully present in the moment – on what you are doing and who you are with.  Multi-tasking doesn’t work and cell phones, computers, TV, and all your other gadget have off switches – use them.
  • Try to see past the distortions of reality that the media, business, government and other social entities create. The old adages don’t believe everything you read and don’t trust all people in authority still holds true.
  • Consider that everything happens for a reason, so look at life like a detective and try to discover the meaning in the little things.

Being clear about what’s important to you, being open to what the world has to offer and being disciplined will create opportunities for little successes.  Time will fly by because you’re into what you are doing and enjoying life.  The past will only be relevant at reunions or family gatherings when your siblings treat you as if you are still 12.  And then, seemingly out of the blue, someone will ask you to get up and talk about your self, and you become the rambling old guy.

So, my final advice before you officially graduate: Remember the beauty in life is who we are is a work in progress.  No matter where we are in life and how much we have accomplished, we are never really complete.

It is what you choose to do next that defines who you are.