August Commencement Address, by Dr. Robyn Cox
Dr. Robyn Cox
Good afternoon graduates, and congratulations on the accomplishment we are celebrating
today. This is a good day. You and your families can truly be proud of your achievements
while you were a student at the University of Memphis.
Speaking of that, while you were a student, you probably visited the University web
site many times. You have certainly seen the words “University of Memphis: dreamers,
thinkers, doers”. That’s our motto. Those three words appear on the University seal.
Have you ever stopped to reflect on what they might mean for you? Dreaming, thinking
and doing describes what you have been as a student. You have had a dream of what
you would achieve in life. You worked hard to think about and understand the ideas
and concepts introduced by your professors. And many of the things you have done have
been motivated by the idea of reaching the goal of graduating today. Perhaps you think
that you will be leaving all that behind now – that you’ll receive the degree and
move on to a totally different world. But you won’t. You’ll still be a dreamer, thinker
and doer after you walk out that door today and into your future. Because that’s what
we all are, for our entire lives.
It’s been quite a few years since the day I was a graduate like you are today. Ever
since then, I’ve tried to figure out what it takes to make dreams into reality, and
how to think in a productive and responsible way about the significant matters of
life, and perhaps most importantly, what are the essential things to do in order to
live a fulfilled and meaningful life. I am going to spend my few minutes with you
today reflecting on where this search has taken me. I hope there will be something
about it that you can use as you go forward into whatever comes next.
Let’s begin with your dreams. What will it take to succeed in turning your dreams
into reality? You might be surprised to hear that you don’t necessarily need to be
really smart, even though you are because otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Also, you
don’t have to be wealthy, or lucky to achieve your dreams. That’s because the most
indispensable element in turning your dreams into reality is …… perseverance. Woody
Allen had it right when he said that “eighty percent of success is just showing up”.
Whatever your dream is, there’s a good chance that you will not reach it easily or
quickly. In fact, if you do reach it easily or quickly, you didn’t dream big enough.
A worthwhile dream should take time. Along the way, you might have some disappointments
and setbacks. They happen to most of us. The important thing is how you react to them.
Quite a few years ago, when I was a young junior faculty member, I failed at something
I tried as I pursued the dream of becoming a successful academic. I was quite despondent
and I guess it showed. One of my students – younger than me and yet so much wiser
– brought me a gift. It was a small jar of candy and on it was written, in that cute
bubble writing, the word “persevere”. It was just the encouragement I needed to pick
myself up and try again. I still cherish that jar even though the writing is worn
off it now. It sat on my desk for many years as inspiration. Maybe you should get
one for yourself.
If you have a setback as you seek your dreams next week or next year, it might be
painful, or embarrassing. You can take some time to pull yourself together. But then
what will you do? The most fundamental thing is to learn from the experience and then
hang in there and have another go at it. There are so many clichés that express this
general idea, we can be in danger of forgetting how true they are. Sayings like: ‘you
never lose until you quit’; or, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try try again’. These
sayings are so familiar because they capture something really central about succeeding.
So, don’t give up. Perseverance is the number one characteristic that will help you
achieve your dreams.
Now we come to the topic of thinking. Up to now, you’ve probably been thinking a lot
about the things in your immediate life. Your classes, your girlfriend or boyfriend,
what to eat or wear tomorrow, and so on. That stuff is all good and necessary. But
in the next 20-30 years, you also will need to think about some pretty serious and
weighty issues. You will live in a time that calls for decisions about morality and
responsibility that have never arisen before, as well as decisions about questions
that have existed forever but now require a fresh evaluation. There is an enormous
quantity of information and misinformation coming from every direction these days.
The internet of course, 24-hour television news, junk mail, Twitter, and so on. Pulling
it all together can be difficult and confusing for a thoughtful person who wants to
do the right thing.
In this environment, it has become popular for various entities to try to trick you
into thinking that things are simple – black or white, blue or red, etc. Simple categorical
thinking is so much easier. You just identify the appropriate pigeonhole, usually
with a catchy but vaguely defined label, and put the whole troublesome business in
there. Done. But unfortunately, life is not simple. In fact, real-life is always complicated
when you start looking at the big picture. So don’t be beguiled into believing that
a few words in a sound bite or a slogan or a label can truthfully encompass the important
real world issues that will come along. Matters such as: what are the basic responsibilities
of government? Or, how should we manage scientific discoveries that allow human beings
to be created in a laboratory? And many more such challenges. I urge you to refuse
to close your mind with simplistic thinking when the time comes for you to decide
how our society will move forward.
But in that case, how will you cope with the information explosion of the present
and the future? In other words. how will you think in order to reach decisions about
where you stand on the weighty matters of your days, whatever they are?
The most important action to take is to step outside your comfort zone and intentionally
expose yourself to other points of view. For example, if you usually watch CNN news,
switch over to Fox news sometimes. Some of the ideas you hear might not appeal to
you much or they might be promoted by people you don’t admire, but still they might
have some worthwhile elements. I encourage you to keep your mind open and weigh as
much information as you can before you settle on a position. And when you do decide,
take the next step. Vote, write a letter, attend a meeting, or whatever it takes so
that the results of your thinking can contribute to the world of the future.
One more thing on the topic of thinking and your future. I have noticed that living
is rather like a ride on a Ferris wheel. Sometimes you are up and the view is fine
and your thinking is optimistic and you feel fulfilled. Then, sure enough, after a
while you will be down and the view is not so good and you might be tempted to think
that life is no longer enjoyable. Let me assure you that you would be wrong to think
that. The wheel will go around and you will rise up again. Your life will go up and
down in cycles. You won’t know when the changes will come, but they will come: up,
down, up again. So remember to notice. When you are up, look around and think how
good it is and take a moment just to be glad. When you are down, think about the fact
that you will be in better times in the future.
So far, we have reflected on aspects of achieving your dreams and being thoughtful
as citizens and as individuals. That leaves me with the topic of doing. What are the
essential things for you to do in the future in order to live a fulfilled and meaningful
life? As it turns out, it is not essential to do most of the things that are held
up in our culture as highly desirable experiences. You don’t have to visit the ruins
of Pompeii, or become a celebrity, or drive a fancy car. The really important stuff
to do is in your relationships with the people in your life. First of all, with your
children. If you have children now or in the future, spend as much time as you can
with them before they get old enough for school. I’m not saying this for your children’s
sakes, although spending time with you can be very beneficial for them. But I am saying
it for your sake. Don’t miss this experience – it will be over quickly and it will
never come back. Being with your children, teaching them what’s important, and vicariously
experiencing their joy and enthusiasm for living is one of the most fulfilling things
there is for a man or a woman to do, period.
It is also important to do what you can to be close to your parents. Forgive them
for their human mistakes, if you need to. And talk to them about their lives before
you came on the scene. This is how you figure out who you are. Learning about past
history as it relates to you will add meaning to your life and anchor you in time
and space. Don’t wait too long to begin learning your story from your parents and
other family – the opportunity does not last forever.
And the last thing to do is so simple and yet it will contribute so much to your happiness.
Smile at people. It’s a crazy thing, but when you smile at someone else, it makes
you feel good. They usually like it too, so it’s a win-win situation. We should all
do it more often.
If, in your future, you have opportunities to climb a mountain, or play pro baseball,
or snorkel in the Caribbean, by all means do it if you want. But it won’t make your
life more fulfilled or meaningful than reveling in your children, appreciating your
parents, and smiling at people – or at least, not much more and not for very long.
So there you have it – reflections on what’s important about dreaming, thinking, and
doing after you graduate from the University of Memphis. I will leave you with a short
synopsis: as you dream, persevere; as you think, don’t decide until you deliberate;
and, make people the most important thing in your life. Now, as I walk back to my
chair, I want you to turn to the people on each side of you, smile at them, and say