In March of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first Presidential Inaugural Address. The fifth sentence of that address contains his memorable phrase,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Your Senior Class has chosen for its motto this admonition from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
I want to suggest to you that the greatest impediment to following Emerson’s advice is “Fear”. It might not be the “paralyzing terror” that faced my parents and the American people of the 1930’s to whom FDR spoke in the near apocalyptic conditions of the Great Depression, but, nonetheless, it is Fear, in all of its gradations of intensity that will impact your choices about the paths you will follow.
None of us want to acknowledge that something as sinister as Fear will have such a dramatic impact on our lives. It is not the kind of chill bumps, scream-out-loud fear associated with horror movies. It is the sleepless nights, the agonizing uncertainty kind of fear that is inherent in most pivotal decisions of life.
Fear is in part the human reaction to the unknown. Your future will be filled with many unknowns, especially if you follow your class motto and depart from the established pathways and create new trails of your own. How then, as new graduates, do you muster the fortitude to be a trailblazer?
I have no secret formula that will guarantee that you will make the right choices. What I want to encourage you to do is not let fear, in all of its manifestations, become the obstruction you cannot overcome. For fear will be there in the unanswered questions, the chill that engulfs you when you throw off the blankets of habit and custom, and the most debilitating fears of all, self doubt as to your abilities and the possibility of failure.
Will there be uncertainty and doubt? Of course! Will there be those who scoff at your boldness? Yes, there will always be the “Earth is Flat” detractors who will deem your courage to be folly. They will laugh from the safe harbor of the Status Quo as you unfurl your sails and launch into unexplored waters.
I encourage you to not be satisfied with the Safe Life where all the doors and windows are locked and the shades are drawn. Be bold, conquer your fears. Live courageously! Be Trailblazers!
My second piece of advice is that “Good Enough is Not Good Enough.” You have all worked on a project and as you near its completion, you or your coworker decide to slack off and dismiss your decision to be less than thorough with the comment – “Oh well, that’s good enough.” On his journey from slavery to college presidency, Booker T. Washington tells the story of what turned out to be his admissions test to get into college. The head teacher informed him that a room needed sweeping. She said, “Take the broom and sweep it.”
Seizing his chance, he did so – in his own words – with “delight.” Three times he swept that room. After he finished, he grabbed a dusting cloth and dusted it four times.
That teacher couldn’t find a speck of dirt or dust in the entire room, and Booker T. Washington went home that day having been accepted into college.
Now Booker T. Washington didn’t know that his admission to college depended on how well he swept that room – but it did. Had he taken the approach that one good sweeping “Was Good Enough,” the world may have been deprived of one of the great minds of the 20th Century.
You will not know which of your undertakings in life are equivalent to his sweeping the room. It may be the simple tasks or the boring assignments where it is easy to assume that nobody is looking or checking and the temptation is great to do less than your best and dismiss your actions as being “Good Enough.”
Your future success may very well be measured by how well you sweep the rooms of your life. And Good Enough is Not Good Enough.
One of the most commonly promoted opinions about the secret to success is the statement: “It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know.”
I have never subscribed to that theory because I have observed that it is most often espoused by those who wish to explain the absence of what they know. They tend to omit the hard work that is associated with acquiring knowledge and highlight their social skills as the substitute.
In my opinion, that is a hollow proxy. I recognize the importance of social skills and acknowledge that far too many people who possess knowledge do not excel because they don’t possess social skills. So, therefore, a firm handshake, the ability to look someone in the eye rather than examining your shoes when you talk to them, the possession of good manners and clear speech are all important traits that you should possess. But I do not believe that your friends on Facebook or the followers on your Twitter account or any other people who constitute the Who You Know in the world will ever substitute for What You Know or compensate for What You Don’t Know.
What I am about to say should not be misunderstood. I fully recognize and encourage the acquisition of knowledge and skills. After all, that’s what you came to college for. Likewise, I do not discount the importance of being given opportunities, for a job is often provided by someone you know or because you have been recommended by someone who appreciates your abilities.
However, I believe that there is something that is far more important—the glue that holds what you know and who you know together so that you can experience a rewarding future. It is the unique soufflé that you serve at the banquet table of your life and that is Who You Are.
So Who Are You?
Are you kind to other people? Do you try to help those who need help?
Do you place your own successes and well-being ahead of everything else including your family and your friends?
Are you a person who respects the Truth?
Do you follow the rules or do you look for shortcuts?
Do you work hard? Do you go beyond the expected and ordinary?
Do you take as much joy from the successes of your friends as you do from your own?
Are you a person of Faith who can face the adversities and uncertainties of life with confidence?
In short, Are You A Good Person?
How you answer these questions will determine Who You Are.
So my message today is this:
Don’t be afraid. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Secondly, remember—Good Enough is Not Good Enough. And, it’s Not What You Know or Who You Know, But Who You Are that matters. These are the brushes and the colors with which you will paint the mural of your life.
May God Bless You.