On 27 June 2014, I delivered the Commencement Address to the graduating class at DeVry University Charlotte. I was honored to be asked by Dr. Regina Campbell. I didn’t post the address here previously, but I talk about risk so I thought it might be interesting to my followers here. Enjoy!
Thank you to Dr. Campbell for inviting me here today and thank you to the faculty, administration, and staff of the DeVry University Charlotte Campus for the warm welcome they have extended to me. Congratulations to all of today’s graduates, their parents, families, spouses, partners, significant others and all the other recalcitrant folk you managed to bring to today’s proceedings. But seriously, we should all be enormously proud of our graduates today. They join an ever-growing body of DeVry alumni across this nation, Canada, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world that have benefited from the uniquely DeVry experience and how it enhances their careers. I know a little something about this group as I have been honored to have been made a DeVry alumnus three times in my life–and my wife a DeVry alumna twice. All of which means that I’ve had the opportunity to sit where you are now several times and as a result, I know there is truth in the old joke about there being two kinds of commencement speeches: short and bad. As for me, I plan for this one to be short, however I’m also sure that no one plans to deliver a boring commencement address, which may very well account for my knowledge of both the masculine and feminine forms of the Latin noun “alumnus” so well (thank you Wikipedia).
There are several time-honored traditions in American commencement address giving that I am obliged to follow. The first I’ll call the Pronouncement of the State of the Real World. It will come as no surprise to you that we live in a rapidly changing world where our lives and fortunes rise and fall with the technological innovations we love and love to hate. Navigating a career in this environment is nothing short of a lifetime commitment. A recent publication by the Business Insider reported on the most in-demand college majors. The four that topped the list (in order) were Business, Computer and Information Sciences, Engineering, and Health Professions, the sum total of which comprised 82% of new demand. If you’ve identified those as majors that DeVry focuses on and has so prepared you for, you get to get a diploma today, or sometimes later in the mail, as the case may be.
When I think back to when I was recruited to attend the (then) DeVry Institute in Columbus, OH from my hometown in Pittsburgh, one thing stands out: flip charts. See back then personnel from the recruitment office would travel to schools in a region to find students. They’d then come to your home and produce from their briefcase a tabletop flip chart that contained facts and figures that I had never seen before. See, DeVry has always been focused on enabling its graduates to obtain work and advance in high technology, in-demand careers. I was shown graduation and placement rates and told that if I was highly motivated, I too could have a shot at this kind of success (and I could do it in three years!).
I don’t choose to believe that this was merely a sales technique; I believe its designed to attract students of a certain caliber and by that I mean students that will be ashes and not dust (and its at this point, that we are moving into the next tradition of the American Commencement address, and that’s the Inspirational Quote). Allow me to explain.
One of my favorite quotes is from American author Jack London whom you may know from such classics as White Fang and The Call of the Wild if your liberal arts professors have done their jobs well (and if you had the inclination to complete the assigned readings). In a passage first attributed to him in 1916, London writes:
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
A year is an interminably long time, encompassing our daily interactions with our loved ones and friends, the technological advances that propel us forward into the future while simultaneously threatening to leave us behind, and not the least of which in our ability to earn a living. DeVry is looking to graduate students that are London’s meteors! Brilliant flashes of light in the sky that want to live their lives fully participating in the sturm und drang of working in the business of high technology. Students that are so enamored with being alive that they will voluntarily submit themselves to the stress of three years worth of countless 8-week terms so that they can enter the workforce quicker and in so doing reap the benefits of an improved life. You may be doubting me, but from my vantage point of teaching DeVry students from all walks of life these past 10 years, I can tell you this is true…I just swooped in here at the end, donned these robes, and punctuated your achievements by waxing eloquent. But again, I speak from experience.
DeVry prepared me for a life and career that I could never have anticipated. What I do now professionally was not even a job when I started at DeVry years ago. Know that it so critical is the formation of your ability to adapt and leverage what you learn here at DeVry as you advance in your chosen professions. My passion and my work now is risk management, which I practice both as a practitioner as well as a researcher. Do you know how you can become so wrapped up in something, you begin to see it everywhere? I believe we are all risk managers in everything that we do. In every moment of our lives our highly tuned decision analysis systems are attempting to aid us in maximizing benefits and minimizing harm. In so studying risk, I have come to know a few basic maxims that, if acknowledged, can reveal themselves to you at various times throughout your lives. The first, unfortunately, is that you will never have the resources to accomplish all that you want or desire in life. This applies both professionally and personally. See, I believe that priority equals risk; our pursuit of high-priority goals forces us to make risk-reward tradeoffs. as a result, no company will have enough money to expand the way that it wants, no information security program will have the resources to defend against all possible attacks, and no person the ability to pursue and achieve all they desire in life. This truth compels you to choose the most important things you want to spend your brief, meteoric time pursuing. The unfortunate thing for most people (and organizations) is that they too often make these prioritizations passively, without actively choosing one over the other, in full awareness of what they need to sacrifice to achieve their goals.
You’ve survived three (or more) years with a singular goal that you are realizing today. The good news is that very soon, you are going to have a lot of free time on your hands. What you do with that time is up to you, but know that if you do not actively invest it, you will have passively offered it as forfeit. So make a list of your priorities: family, friends, physical fitness, charity, volunteering, career milestones, entrepreneurism, community, research, publishing…
Chuck Palahniuk’s sensational 1996 book and then film Fight Club had some memorable quotes that I use today when teaching risk. But one exchange that stands out for me is when the main character, Tyler Durden, turns to his crew and asks them, “Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died?” He follows up by saying that, “You have to have an answer to this question!” Don’t answer now. Ponder it and know that I believe that whatever your answer to that question is your personal list of risks. Manage that risk; use your time; become ashes not dust.