Monday, December 22, 2008

Graduation Speech

The following is the speech I delivered to the Honors College at Florida International University at their recent graduation ceremony:

I hold in my hand a blank envelope. It was on an envelope similar to this one where much of what we know as FIU was conceived. 22 years ago, Modesto "Mitch" Maidique became President of a small South Florida university with about 6,000 students. He had never been the president of a university or college. In fact, he had no experience in university administration. He had taught at Stanford and was a successful entrepreneur. But this was a new challenge, with new obstacles. He needed a new paradigm. He did not go out in search of one. He created his own.

On the back of an envelope like this he wrote out his dream for FIU. Unlike his namesake, it was not a modest one. It was not simply adding a department here or improving student activities there. It was so much more than that. On the back of an Eastern Airlines envelope, he laid out his vision for the university, listing his goals:

• transforming the school into a research powerhouse
• reaching $100 million in research grants
• securing an endowment of $100 million
• seeing 100 doctoral students graduate
• creating a law school
• creating a medical school
• creating an architectural school
• creating a 1-A football team

Those big ideas crowded the back of a regular sized envelope. It took 22 years to make them a reality. This year, he finished checking the last items off his list. And having accomplished everything he set out to do at a university that now boasts close to 40,000 students, he informed us all that he was stepping down. Having fulfilled his dream, his job was finished. And it all started with some notes on the back of an envelope.

Never underestimate the power of ideas. They have the power to transform and to inspire. They have the power to uplift and to change. They have the power to get you out of bed in the morning and face the challenges of a new day. Our ideas, our vision, our dreams – they bring out the best in us, the best in others. They are immortal. Unlike the flesh, they do not die. And without them? As the Book of Proverbs says, where there is no vision, the people perish.
Most, if not all of us, have had big dreams. It is almost as if it is ingrained in our DNA, as if we were programmed to think big. Many of you had big dreams as kids, and in high school and now in college. Maybe it was to run for office or start a charity or write a book. Perhaps it was to start a business or travel the world. I bet your dream was something big. Something that went beyond the mundane and the everyday. How many of you dream of simply going to work from 9 to 5, going home, watching television, and doing it again the following day? How many of you dream of middle management? Of your own cubicle? Of simply getting by? We were meant for so much more.

But sadly, many of us will never pursue our dreams. Many of us won’t even dare utter them out loud, for fear of ridicule, for fear of failure. Well, I am here to tell you it is time to let go of your fears, to let go of what is holding you back. For President Maidique, it started with the back of an envelope. For you, it starts with a blank business card.

Reach under your chairs and you will find 6 blank business cards and a pen. I have a blank card and pen of my own up here. Grab one of the cards and the pen. What is your dream? Your vision? What have you always wanted to do? If there is one thing you could accomplish during your lifetime, what would it be? Write it down on the card. I’m going to do the same. Find a cure for a rare disease? Write it down. Bring fresh drinking water to countries where it is in short supply? Write it down. Pen the great American novel? Write it down. Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, permit yourself to reduce it to writing. Now you have it in black and white. Carry this card in your wallet or purse until you accomplish what is on the back of it. Depending on the dream, it may take months, even years - possibly 22 as in the case of President Maidique.
There, you’ve taken the first step. At Stephen Covey says, you have started with the end in mind. You have given yourself permission to chase your dreams.

And the other five cards, you ask? In the next few days or weeks, hand them out to family or friends, and ask them to do what you just did. Ask them to reduce their dreams to writing. People who want to think big, who have vision, help others think big too.

So, you have reduced your dream to writing. Now what? Develop a game plan on getting from here to there. A roadmap if you will. Odds are others have come before you with similar dreams. Have made similar pursuits. Study what they have done. Research online. Go to the library. Visit the bookstore. Search out and speak with those who have pursued similar goals and aspirations. How did the local author get his book published? How did the local politician get elected? You may be surprised how eager they will be to speak to you. Ask them how they achieved their dreams.

Then sit down, and write your business plan. Spell out, in concrete terms, what tasks you need to perform. And provide yourself deadlines for accomplishing those tasks. If you were starting a business, you would do nothing less. When I prepare for trial as a lawyer, I sit down and write out my trial strategy. Plan it out, task by task. Certain tasks may only take a few weeks or months to accomplish. Some may take years. It does not have to be a fancy, spiral bound plan. The back of an envelope may do. Or a paper napkin for that matter. This speech was planned out on a diner’s paper napkin over a plate of fajitas.

Once you have your plan, it is time to execute. Everyday, dedicate some time to achieving your dream. Some days you will have an hour or more. Some days, you will only have a few minutes. But everyday, do something. Make the most of the time you have. Driving to and from work. Waiting in line at the department store. Brushing your teeth in the morning. Instead of listening to music, or sports radio, or daydreaming, think about the end in mind and how to get there. What is the next concrete thing you can do? Think about what it is and how to complete that task. And write all your ideas down. They’ll come to you when you least expect them. My best advice - always keep a pen handy.

And be prepared to change your plan. Life is not static. Circumstances change. The best laid plans, as they say. Be ready to take detours along the way.

And most importantly, be accountable. Do not shy away from telling others what is on that card. Share it with someone you trust, you love, someone who wants to see you accomplish your wildest dreams, and have that person hold you accountable. Meet with that person once a month and let them know of your progress. Have them serve as a sounding board for unexpected obstacles and issues that arise along the way and share in the joy as you check off the tasks on your plan. Consider keeping a journal, recording your progress.

In fact, one or more of you may have the dream of making the dreams of others come true. For you, I have a suggestion. You may want to create a website or message board or another online forum by which all of you in this room can post what you wrote down on your cards and encourage, and help and hold each other accountable. No one is an island. We all need each other. The bigger the dream, the more help we can use. And if none of you are interested in creating an online forum, I would encourage your professors and administrators to do so. A dream board. Have you ever heard of something that sounds more "honors college" than that?

I also encourage all of you to push forward. To chase what is most important to you. And realize that it is not the destination, but the journey which is most important. There will be challenges. There will be failures. There will be setbacks. Accept them. Embrace them. They mold you, change you, make you who you are. To get through life playing it safe, not stumbling here and there - well, that isn’t much of a life at all. On your death bed, you won’t regret the risks you took. You’ll regret the ones you did not.

And let me remind you that you are in good company. Many FIU graduates have sat where you have. Have had dreams of their own. And they have pursued their dreams and in so doing have made things better in our community, in our state, in our nation, and beyond our borders. They have gone on to become leaders in politics and business. Doctors, and lawyers and teachers. Inventors, creators and thinkers. They have shaped policies and ideas and ways of thinking, and in so doing, have left their indelible mark. They, like you, believed they could make big things happen, and pursued their dreams as if their very lives depended on it. And they, like you, started with an idea.

Let me finish with one final thought. I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I matriculated at FIU 18 years ago. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was in the inaugural class of the Honors Program, as it was referred to then. 100 of us. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that a student named Ana Correa was in my section. She was bright, and charming and captivating. And I knew that day, the first day I met her, I would marry her. I told my best friend at the time, who was in my introduction to psychology class, that I would. He, as you probably do now, thought I was crazy.

Well, I asked her out. And she turned me down. And I asked her again. And again, she turned me down. Well, the third time was the charm. But I wasn’t satisfied simply dating her. I wanted to propose. Here I was, 19, and she was 18, students in the Honors programs, dating a mere two months, when I asked her to marry me. She said no. I asked again. Again, the answer was no. You’re probably seeing a pattern by now. Well, I asked her a third time, on her birthday, December 28, 1990. She said yes. We got married 3 ½ years later after graduation. We celebrated our 14th anniversary this past June. I was never suppose to come to FIU. My plan was to return to Chicago, where I grew up, and attend college there. Of course, if I had, I doubt I would ever have met Ana. But instead of returning home to Chicago, I stayed in Miami, and came here instead. And it is the best decision I ever made. Not only did I get a great education but I found my kindred spirit. I’m living proof ladies and gentlemen that there are no coincidences.

I also don’t believe it is a coincidence that I am here today, speaking to you. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that you are out in the audience. I suspect I had this rare and flattering opportunity to speak to you as much to help you pursue your dreams as to pursue my own. And I suspect many, if not most of you, were searching for a few words of encouragement, perhaps even permission, to chase down your vision. Here is what my card says - write a novel. A dream that I have picked up and put down for these past 6 years. Maybe giving a speech on pursuing dreams is the kick in the pants that I have been looking for. Maybe hearing my speech is the jump start you’ve been looking for.

As you head out of this ceremony, hold onto that card. Keep it on you at all times. Years from now, it will be yellowed, and dog eared, and wrinkled. Some of the words may be smudged or blurred. You may get new wallets, new purses, new credit cards, new family photos. But keep the card. If you hold onto it, read it regularly and pursue the dream written on it, I can’t promise you will accomplish what’s written on it, but I can promise your life will be all the better for doing so. That I can promise you.

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