December 2014 Graduation Address by Dr. James Downing

Graduates, parents, faculty and other distinguished guests: Thank you for allowing me to share this wonderful day with you. It is an absolute privilege to be here.

After I was graciously invited by President Rudd to deliver this address and began to work on a speech, I tried to remember my own commencement.

To be honest, 37 years later, many memories from that day have faded. I cannot tell you who spoke or what advice was given. But, what I do vividly recall is taking stock of what it took to get that diploma. Countless courses and untold hours of hard work had paved the way to that single moment of actually receiving my Bachelors of Science degree. Graduates, I know that you have put in an immense amount of time, energy and effort. Reflect for a moment on your journey to get here and be tremendously proud of your success. Class of 2014, congratulations on your accomplishment.

It is also important to recognize those individuals who supported you, nurtured you and pushed you to reach this success. We should give a round of applause to celebrate the parents, friends and professors who played a role in getting you here today.

Graduation marks a chapter closing, but holds the promise of a story that has yet to be written. My own graduation day held a particular sense of poignancy. In college, I experienced the pure freedom of learning, close friendships, a sense of community and valuable life experiences. On graduation day, there was sadness in knowing that time was coming to a close. However, those feelings were mixed with the excitement of beginning a new chapter and the realization that I was now completely responsible for making my way in the world. It was my time to look at the possibilities and to choose which road to take. As I now reflect back on that critical time, there are a number of guiding principles I used to make the important choices in my life. I would like to share those with you today.


First Principle: Dream big.

Do not be afraid of thinking outside the box. Great things can happen with big dreams. One of the best examples of this is Danny Thomas, the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where I served for 29 years. Danny was a successful entertainer and humanitarian. His dream of giving back by opening a hospital that would provide free care and freely share its research seemed improbable. He had no experience in running a hospital or a research institution, but that didn’t restrict him from thinking big. Danny was able to engage and inspire others with his ideas and make St. Jude a reality. Danny’s bold dream has resulted in St. Jude becoming the nation’s largest health care charity; an institution responsible for introducing the word “cure” to the field of childhood cancer research; and a place of hope for children from around the world.

Another example of dreaming big occurred on the University of Memphis campus 17 years ago when students helped create a program to raise money for the children of St. Jude. The idea? Find donors to sponsor you to stay up all night in the name of St. Jude. The Up ‘Til Dawn program has spread to 250 colleges across the country and has raised almost $40 million dollars for St. Jude.


Second Principle: Find your passion and pursue it.

I was blessed in college to find my passion—science and medicine. I loved the pursuit of new knowledge, the experimental process and the interpretation of data and communicating those results. Once I started pursuing this passion, I would often wake up during the night and think about new questions and experimental approaches to answer them. I was lucky to discover this early in my life and pursue it throughout my career. I continue to get excited about seeing new data and designing new experiments. It is incredibly rewarding to look forward to going to work every day and then go home at night, feeling happy with what you accomplished. Don’t waiver. Don’t compromise. Find your passion and follow it.


Third Principle: You only need a small safety net.

Don’t worry about what you are going to do if you fail. Take risks and go all-in when you do. You are intelligent and well-educated and you understand the value of hard work. If you fail at your first pursuit, take a moment to brush off the disappointment and try again. Nothing can beat perseverance. Too many people worry more about failing than they do about succeeding. Don’t limit yourself by worrying about what plan B is. At this point in your career, focus on plan A. I decided to pursue a research career in medicine at a time when every medical school in the country wanted to only train primary care physicians. Out of 20 medical schools, I was rejected by 19. But, in the end, all I needed was that one to purse the career to which I had fully committed.


Fourth Principle: Make sure what you do has potential to change things for the better.

If you are going to spend the majority of your life working, it might as well be for something that makes a difference. What do you love? What are your talents? What can you contribute that makes the world a better place for yourself, your neighbor and your community? It does not matter in what walk of life you pursue your career. Find the ways—small and big— that you can change things for the better.

I have been blessed to participate in some of the most significant research on childhood cancer conducted during the last 30 years. As the CEO of St. Jude, I am now leading a new vision to make our institution the global leader of research and treatment for pediatric catastrophic diseases. Through my work, I have met presidents, visited the White House, count more than10 Nobel laureates as friends and have been part of the discussion to change the way medicine is practiced around the world—accomplishments I would have never thought possible when I was sitting at my own commencement ceremony. What helped me to achieve these successes is pausing during my career at different points to reflect on whether I was working on the most important issues. If not, I made a conscious shift in the focus of my efforts. Remember to do this throughout your own career and make adjustments when needed to ensure that you remain on a path that makes differences where they matter most.


Fifth Principle: Stay true to what matters.

Awards and accolades fade. One day your diploma will be stored away in a drawer and other certificates of acknowledgment hidden away in closets. But, what will remain are family, close friends and the impact you have had on them. Whether you stay in Memphis or find yourself somewhere else, look for what inspires you and for others that feel the same way. Together you can build something great in your personal life, work and community.

When you leave this commencement exercise today, you do so with much more than a single piece of paper. With you now and always is a valuable asset—your education. Congratulations and now go out and change the world. We are depending on you!