I have the coolest speaking gig this week: I’m giving the commencement address to 20 graduates, ages 17 to 20, who have completed their GED – in prison! I feel so extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be a voice for them. As this week’s blog, I want to share with you the words that I will share with them:
First of all, congratulations to each one of you!
What you have achieved through your hard work here is extraordinary. Knowledge can never be taken away from you. Knowledge is power.
I am happy – and privileged – to be your graduation speaker here today. But I am under no delusions of grandeur. Frankly, I don’t remember who any of my graduation speakers were. And, of the dozens of commencement addresses I have heard over the years, I remember very few of them. (In fact, the only ones I really remember are the ones that I have given.) I don’t expect that any of you will remember me. But I am hopeful that at least some of you will remember the secret that I am about to share.
How many of you would like to know the secret of all wealth and happiness; the secret of all prosperity and success? Would it be useful to you to know the one thing that will ensure that you could do and achieve anything you ever dreamed of doing? No matter where you are, no matter what your circumstance?
Give me just 20 minutes – and I will share with you that one thing – that one secret that can switch up the entire game for you.
Let me start by telling you three short stories:
1. The first is about a man who was born in a tiny one-room house. His mother died when he was 9. His sister died; his girlfriend died. He was only able to go to school for a year and a half. He got fired from his first job. He tried to start a business and he failed. He wanted to get involved in government. So he ran for the state legislature. He lost. In fact, over the years, this man suffered failure after failure after failure, loss after loss after loss, in his efforts to become more involved in politics. But despite his loses, he kept moving forward. In 1860, he was elected the 16th president of the United States. This is the story of Abraham Lincoln who we revere as one of the greatest presidents in our entire history.
2. The second story is about a woman who was born into poverty in rural Mississippi. She was raised by a single-mother. At the age of 9, she was raped. After years of abuse, she left school and ran away from home. She got pregnant when she was 14; her child died shorty after he was born. She went back to school – and discovered that if she applied herself, she could do well. She graduated from high school. She went on to college. When she was 19, she went to work at a radio station. They loved her. Then she went to work for a television station and did well. So well, in fact, that she eventually started her own television network. Through her work, she has impacted millions of lives around the globe. She runs a school for girls in Africa. She has become one of the richest and most influential women in the world; and for a time was world’s only black billionaire. Of course, I’m telling you the story of Oprah Winfrey.
3. My third story is about a man who was born in South Africa at a time when a violent white minority dominated the land. This man felt strongly about the injustices that he saw and he spoke out often. In 1962, he was arrested, tried and convicted. He spent the next 27 years of his life – longer than any of you have been alive – in prison. While in prison, he studied language, and history and politics and law and government. He studied all of the dialects of his people. And in spite of the harsh conditions, he exercised, he took care of his body and his mind and his spirit.
After his release from prison, he was elected the president of South Africa. And was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. This is the story of Nelson Mandela.
What do these three people have in common?
- Each of them was disadvantaged.
- Each of them had overpowering challenges when they were young.
- Each of them failed and failed and failed again.
- Each one faced unbelievable, seemingly unbearable, hardship.
- Each chose not to be bitter.
- Each chose not to give up.
- Each chose not to get lost in blame.
- Each chose not to accept mediocrity.
- Each chose not to run away from adversity.
- Each one chose not to accept failure.
Let me ask you a question: Do you know how steel is made? You know, the stuff we make bridges out of?
Iron ore is taken from the earth; the ore is lumpy and not very strong. It’s put in a blast furnace at 1600º. The impurities are burned away in the fire. And the end result is a material that can holdup skyscrapers.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t born the president who changed the face of our country. He became the Abraham Lincoln we revere; he became that man through all of the difficult times, through all of the challenges, through all of the failures.
Oprah Winfrey wasn’t born one of the wealthiest and most powerful women on the planet. She was born into poverty and abuse. She became the woman who is loved and admired by millions, who does so much for so many; she became the person she is today because of the hardships she faced, and overcame.
Nelson Mandela wasn’t born the leader of South Africa. He didn’t grow up knowing that he would become the voice of apartheid. He became the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize – who changed the face of an entire nation – through the daily choices he made over more than 27 years in prison.
They built their lives of steel by walking through the fire where they were tested, tortured, tried. And they became the people they are.
So what is the secret?
Obviously it’s not money; obviously it’s not race; obviously it’s not gender; obviously it’s not where you’re born; or whether you have one parent or two. Obviously, it’s not about whether you’ve been in prison or not. Obviously it’s not about privilege – or luck.
No, there is only one common denominator.
There is only one secret.
The secret is choice.
These people made choices.
You see it is the choices that we make that determine our success.
In every moment of our day, each one of us is called upon to make choices. And every choice we make, whether large or small, will either ensure our ultimate success; or consign us to lives of frustration and failure.
- Who we hang with is a choice.
- How we care for our bodies is a choice.
- How we treat others is a choice.
- Integrity is a choice.
- Excellence is a choice.
- Greatness is a choice.
- Discipline is a choice.
- Commitment is a choice.
- Success is a choice.
Life doesn’t happen to us. We happen to life.
And here’s an important truth: (This may be the most important thing I say to you this afternoon. This may be the most important thing you ever hear.)
- Each of us is unique.
- Each of us is a singularity
- There is no one who has your gifts and talents.
- There has never been and there will never be another you.
From this place here today, from this fire:
- Will you be brave enough to own your own uniqueness?
- Will you be strong enough to claim your own vision?
- Will you have the courage to speak with your own voice?
In this room, could there be a voice for social justice? Could there be a peace maker? Could there be an Emmy winning screen writer? Could there be a multi-platinum musician? A life saving firefighter? In this room, could there be a senator? A visionary scientist? A best-selling author?
I dare say there could be. For you see, I believe that anything is possible – when you choose.
It is the choices that we make in the fires of our lives that will determine our greatness.
Victor Frankl was a doctor in Vienna, Austria when the Nazi’s came to power. He had the opportunity to escape and come to the United States. But instead, he chose to stay to care for his family. The Nazis came for him. They seized and destroyed all of his writings and research that he had spent his entire life working on. They put him in the concentration camps with his wife and his parents. They exterminated his wife and his parents in the gas chambers; and burned their bodies in the crematoria.
Through all of this, Frankl chose to care for his fellow prisoners. He chose to believe that he would survive. He chose to believe that evil would be overcome, that good would prevail.
Frankl survived the war. And after he was set free, he wrote one of the greatest books of the 20th century: Man’s Search For Meaning. In that book, Frankl said that our greatest gift, the greatest of all of our human gifts, is our power to choose how we will be in every moment, regardless of our circumstances.
- Choose to believe that you are an original.
- Choose to believe that there is no one else like you.
- Choose to believe that you have a contribution to make; that you have gifts and talents that only you can give to the world.
- Choose to believe that your voice matters – that your voice can change the world.
- Choose to make your lives extraordinary.
- Choose to make your lives a masterpiece.
Choose. And you will enjoy success beyond your wildest imaginations.
I believe in you.
I wish each of you – each and every one of you – lives filled with peace and all good things.
For information regarding the speaking programs I offer or to check on my availability, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org