Valedictory Address to All 2012 Graduating Students by Peter Bennett

May 11, 2012
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Will Rogers

Will Rogers

“Don’t go through life, grow through life.” — Eric Butterworth



When the future King Arthur was drowning in melancholy, Merlin the Magician shared this wisdom with the young prince:

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.” (From Theodore White’s The Once and Future King)

What if Merlin were speaking to you? Don’t think you can just point to your framed college sheepskin hanging on the wall. Even a doctorate, while nice to have, is still just a piece of paper. In fact, the last I checked, a college diploma still doesn’t come with life directions written on the back.

The sooner graduates realize that a degree is not an entitlement, more personal growth will occur. UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden may have understood this best, when he said, “It’s what you know after you know it all that counts.”

Or perhaps, the sage advice of American cowboy and comedian Will Rogers is closer to the mark. Rogers may never have met a man he didn’t like, but he didn’t like the idea of people sitting on their hands, too satisfied or too comfortable with themselves to learn anything new. “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there,” he said.

Quite simply, the best never stop learning and improving. They know that you’re either getting better or getting worse. They never settle for “good” when “great” is attainable. They see good as the enemy of great.

Many great people have created their own personal improvement plans or PIPs. To keep his writing sharp, Charles Dickens would leave his mansion at night and retrace the mean streets of his youth in Victorian England. When the marriage of lawyer Millard Fuller (1935-2009) and Linda Fuller was on the rocks, instead of divorcing they sought ways to improve their union. They gave away their millions and founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976. Meanwhile, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s improvement plan included traveling everywhere with a tape recorder so he could take notes on his competitors. Leaders are lifelong learners and improvers.

Maybe you’re a teacher. But what kind of teacher are you? “Have you been teaching for 20 years or have you been teaching one year 20 times?” Substitute your own number.

Maybe you run a cookie company. The Oreo was the best-selling cookie of the 20th Century; Nabisco has sold about a half a trillion of them since their introduction in 1912. In 2011, the company introduced the 110-calorie Neapolitan Triple Double Oreo, featuring a layer of strawberry and chocolate cream between three Golden Oreo wafers. If you can deliver more than just plain vanilla (without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs), try it.

There’s an old Zionist slogan that goes, “Build it and be rebuilt by it.” Even if you live in a mansion, you can always benefit by adding one more room — the room for improvement. By continuing to work on this special room, you’ll always feel vital and relevant. Conversely, if you decide to hang up your tool belt and pull the plug on your personal construction project, I think you’ll be surprised at how fast your skills and talents will erode in our rapidly changing world.

You don’t have to sign on for 18-hour days; just keep improving at a pace you’re comfortable with. Heading in the right direction is more important than finding perfection. Learn the name of a new flower or bird or the difference between a pinot and a merlot. Learn a new dance or language! Volunteer. Join a club. Immerse yourself in improvement. Keep an open mind and remember that you can learn from every person and experience. “I have never met a man who was not my superior in some particular,” Emerson said.

Your work on yourself will also benefit others. If each person just tried to improve in one area, our economy would boom. Think about it. If you want to get healthier, you join a gym. You start losing weight, reducing your need for medical care, and the gym owner starts making money. Can’t afford the monthly membership fees? Then start jogging before or after work. Sooner or later, you’ll wear out your shoes, and you’ll have to buy a new pair from your local running store. If you want to learn the tango or a new computer program, you’ll take a class, hire an instructor, or buy a book. Each person, in his or her self-improvement quest, moves the economy forward and becomes a more skilled member of society.

Anything that keeps you from growing is a demon to be exorcised. Complacency is an air-tight coffin. We have all faced people who have tried to hold us back for whatever reason — a boss, a coach (How many NBA teams passed on 2012 breakout star Jeremy Lin?), a parent, a rival, a critic — but ultimately, we make the decision to stay where we are or to move ahead.

In high school, I read The Drifters, by James Mitchener (1907-1997). I don’t know why he received the criticism he did for his sweeping sagas, such as South Pacific, Chesapeake, and about 40 more titles. He wasn’t an intellectual heavyweight, I had heard. But I’m sure he didn’t let the criticism bother him, especially since he was always growing and researching new topics with which to enchant and fascinate his readers.

As his success grew, some members of his adopted family weren’t all that thrilled about it. He received this comment from one: “Who do you think you are trying to be better than you are!” The comment didn’t justify a response, but Mitchener did reply:

“I’ve spent my life trying to be better than I was, and I am a brother to all who share the same aspiration.”

One of those “brothers” is comedian Roseanne Barr. On July 25, 1990, before a baseball game between the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Calif., she sang a loud, screechy version of The Star-Spangled Banner. After singing, she mimicked the oft-seen actions of jocks by spitting and grabbing her crotch. Many listeners found her rendition repulsive, including President George H.W. Bush who called it disgraceful.

She finally got her do-over 21 years later, singing the national anthem for a local girls’ softball team in Hawaii, where she owns and runs a macadamia nut farm, far from Hollywood and her critics.

“Facing, like, the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, and doing a redo. It was huge,” Barr told CBS Sunday Morning in 2011. “You can always get better. Nobody can stop you from getting better, and nobody can stop you from trying to make something right.”

We can all be better than we’ve been in the past. If you ever feel smug or self-satisfied or think you know it all, pick up a new skill or open a new book outside your comfort zone. “As long as you’re green, you’re growing,” Ray Kroc said. “As soon as you’re ripe, you start to rot.”


The Friendly Skies

Never be satisfied that you’re doing enough. There’s always room for improvement. You may think you’re doing good, but as the following anecdote shows, you’re not the only one judging your performance.

A preacher dies and joins the line at the pearly gates. It’s a light day, with only one guy ahead of him.

St. Peter welcomes that guy and says, “Name and occupation?”

“I’m Jack, retired airline pilot.”

St. Peter reviews his list, smiles, and passes him through. “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom,” he says.

Up steps the preacher who says, “I’m Bob, a church pastor for almost 50 years.”

St. Peter checks the list, then says, “Welcome, Bob. Please take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom!”

“Hey, wait a second,” the preacher says, thinking there must be some mistake. “I’m a minister of God, and all I get is this cheap robe and splintered staff?”

St. Peter calmly explained, “We judge by results. When you preached, people slept. When he flew, people prayed.”

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