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Graduation speech - 1994

Since Guy Kawasaki feels he can dig out an old graduation speech he gives, I figured, why not. I think it would have taken me less time to re-write this than find it! Were I to compose this today, it would be half the length with 1/10th the cliches.

The 1994 Mankato Alternative High School Graduation Address

When Principal Stoufer, asked me to be speak to you proud and deserving graduates on this special evening, I was honored, delighted, and surprised. But mostly surprised. And I'll tell you why.

I have to ask you graduates a question:  How many of you have a mother, a father, an aunt or uncle, or friend who is right now close to being in a state of shock just because you are actually graduating?

So I guessed. I remember almost 25 years ago, how surprised my mother was when she realized I had actually passed my classes, made up my detentions, paid my bills, practiced the funny graduation walk, and had earned my "get out of school free card." In fact she was so doubtful of my achievement, I don't think she got a substitute to take her place on the bowling team until she actually saw the mortar board and tassle.

And even then I think she wondered if I wasn't just "up to something."

When I asked  Mom about my graduation when writing this talk, she said, "Oh, Doug, I just didn't know about you back then. You had such a smart mouth! You were always picking fights! You had quite an attitude!"

So here I am, asked to give a talk about graduating from high school and about the future, and the principal and the teachers expect me to be wise and helpful and inspiring, and I'm telling you what a goof I was in high school.

Suddenly it occurred to me that some of the same qualities my mother saw as negative are the same ones that help successful, creative and happy people everyday. Let's take a look:

You had a Smart Mouth!

Gee, wasn't Mom really saying that I was a knowledgeable person with good communication skills? Well, maybe not. You know what? I hope I can stay a "smart mouth."

But staying smart and knowledgeable is tougher now than almost anytime in human history. We in what is referred to as the "Information Explosion." The amount of information in the world some say is doubling every 4 to 7 years. 90% of what science knows about the human brain has been discovered in the past ten years. Only 18 months after graduation, half the information a computer science student has learned in college is outdated. Your children and many of you will hold jobs that don't even exist today, and will change careers - not jobs, but careers -  an average of four times.

Did any of you think you were done learning because you've graduated from high school? Everyone, from firemen to physicians, from homemakers to horsebreeders, from mechanics to merchandisers, will need to keep acquiring skills throughout their careers. The best that your schooling has given you so far are the tools for learning: reading, writing, speaking, listening, computing, analysing, debating, and creating.

Lucky for us, as Tom Robbins writes,

If little else, the brain is an educational toy. While it may be a frustrating plaything - one whose finer points recede just when you think you are mastering them - it is nonetheless perpetually fascinating, frequently surprising, occasionally rewarding, and it comes already assembled; you don't have to put it together Christmas morning.

The second half being a smart mouth is the ability to take what you know and be able to communicate it to others. Jan Hosey from Auburn University asks people to think about where power comes from. Does it really come from guns or knives or fists or money? Or does true power come from the ability to communicate?

Where did Martin Luther King or Betty Friedan get their power?  Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln? Golda Meier or Nelson Mandela?

How can you expect someone to address your grievance if you cannot clearly express the problem?

 Or as Charles F. Kettering puts it, "A problem well stated is a problem half solved."

Perhaps we need those "smart mouths."

You were always picking fights

Too many of us, Mom included, always regard fights and conflict as negative.

I don't think fighting is wrong, but what we have to learn is how to pick our fights, how to choose our causes.

Frank Koch, tells about a time when he served a battleship captain who picked the wrong fight:

        Two battleships assigned to the training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. I was serving on the lead battleship and was on watch on the bridge as night fell. The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye on all activities.
        Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow."
        "Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain called out.
        Lookout replied, "Steady, captain," which meant we were on a dangerous collision course with that ship.
        The captain then called to the signalman, "Signal that ship: We are on a collision course, advise you to change course 20 degrees."
        Back came a signal, "Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees."
        The capatain said, "Send, I'm a captain, change course 20 degrees."
        "I'm a seaman second class," came the reply. 'You had better change course by 20 degrees."
        By that time the captain was furious. He spat out, "Send, I'm a battleship. Change course 20 degrees."
        Back came the flashing light, "I'm a lighthouse."
        We changed course.

So how do we determine what fights are worth picking? Only ones which can be won? No, I don't think so. Fights for justice and equality and human rights will continue to be fought throughout our lives.

I believe when picking our fights we should ask ourselves: Will the outcome of this conflict be of consequence to me in five years? I would not waste my time arguing about the particulars of a dress code or the location of a smoking area. But I would work and fight hard to get to be one of the people who have a say in making those choices.

Don't fight decisions once they are made: fight to be a decision maker!

We should also ask ourselves: How will the outcome of my fight make a difference in the lives of my children or grandchildren? That's called taking the long view.

All you graduates have already shown that ability. At some point you chose to study for a test rather than go to the movies. You chose to stay in school rather than take a job. Actions which at the moment may not have felt the best, but were right in the grand scheme of things.

And while it always a good idea to look at the big picture, we should also remember that the only way we really make a difference is by what we do for other individuals. Unfortunately, too many people have the same attitude as the Peanut's cartoon character Lucy who bluntly states, "I love humanity. It's people I can't stand."

Joel Barker tells the story of an older man who, when walking along the ocean one morning after a big storm, sees the what he takes to be a figure dancing on the beach in the distance. As he gets closer, he realizes it is a young man who is repeatedly reaching down, twirling, casting his arms out, and then repeating the strange movements. As he get closer still, he sees that the young man is tossing  back into the sea some of the hundreds of thousands of dying starfish which had been washed ashore up and down the beach during the storm. The older man questions the actions of the younger man by asking, "Why are you undertaking this task? So many starfish have been washed up, you could be here for days, even weeks, and still your actions barely would make a difference." The younger man looks at the older man, and slowly, beautifully, reaches down and tosses another starfish far into the ocean, and replies, "I made a difference to that one."

We may not be able to change the world, but we can change another's world. And we can do it daily with a smile, a compliment, a helping hand.

As Bob Hall, who wrote to me on the Internet from the Ohio Educational Computer Network said:

Remember that some days at some times, YOU become the most important person in someone's life. If I'm stranded on the side of the road or my toilet is overflowing, President Clinton is not so important to me anymore. It's the mechanic or the plumber who is the most important person in my life. And if they are good, regardless of what they do the world will beat a path to their doors. In a world where mediocrity is the norm, people will beat a path to your door for a good tune-up. Be prepared to be the most important person in someones life.

Pick good fights which will make a difference to individuals.

Such an attitude!
my mother said. I hope you all not only have an attitude, but keep one, especially if the attitude that you have helps you react to life purposely. One term for this attitude is proactivity. Charles Swindoll make this observation about attitude:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company...a church...a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our
past...we cannot change the fact people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you...we
are in charge of our Attitudes.

Fate might make us poor, but we do not have to be miserly. We may not feel loved, but we can still chose to be loving. The happiest people in this world are those who have decided that they have both a choice in and responsiblity for how they have chosen to live their lives.

Or to put it in actual context, think about these frogs:

The Optimistic Frog by Anonymous


Two frogs fell into a deep cream bowl,
The first one was an optimistic soul.

The second one took a gloomy view,
"We shall drown," he cried, "We're through!"

So, with a last despairing cry,
He flung up his legs and said, "goodbye!"

Quote the other, with a determined grin,
"I can't get out, but I won't give in!"

"I'll just swim around 'til my strength's spent,
and then I'll die, the more content."

So, bravely he swam, until it would seem,
His struggles began to churn the cream.

On top of the butter, at last he stopped,
... and out of the bowl he gaily hopped.

What's the moral? Tis easily found,
"If you can't hop out, keep swimming around!"


Such is the power of attitude!

So graduates, if you have them, take with you tonight your smart mouths, your need to pick fights, and your attitudes. Use them to make your world and the world of those you love a better place.

I congratulate you, the 1994 Class of Mankato Alternative High School, on reaching this first milestone of lives which I predict will be both rich and will enrich the lives of others.

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Reader Comments (1)

"Doug Johnson: Natural Born Storyteller". :)
Bravo, thanks for that.
And if you had included Call No.s in your speech (to encourage the audience to read the books), it would have been perfect.
January 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Chew

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