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Reflecting On a Milestone (2012 Summer Commencement Address, morning)

  • Date: 08/14/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • We speak of graduations as milestone events in our lives, but I ask you, what is the significance of milestones?  If they are only mile markers, well…such information may be gratifying, but it is not particularly useful unless you know how much distance remains to your destination.

    So, for a milestone to serve a purpose, you must have a firm idea of your destination.  Where is it that you want to go?  And a question of even greater importance is, why do you want to go there?

    Indeed, if you know where you are going and why, milestones become good places to pause, reflect and, in the parlance of today’s GPS devices, to recalculate if necessary.  So, you can take the opportunity of this milestone in your life to consider where you are going and why.

    But please do so in the context of what you perceive as your purpose in life.  If you successfully align your lifetime goals with your life’s purpose, you will likely enjoy a degree of self-satisfaction and happiness that is independent of wealth, status or fame.

    Or, as Henry David Thoreau said, “…if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”[i]

    But let us reflect and see how others have spoken on this question.

    Consider the lessons of Stephen Covey, whose best seller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” includes this famous bit of advice: “Begin With the End in Mind.”[ii]

    He wrote, “The end represents your purpose in life.  Until you can say what that purpose is, with assurance, then you just cannot direct your life in the manner that would bring you the greatest satisfaction.”[iii]

    Establishing your purpose – your destination – initiates a transformative process that should permeate all aspects of your life.  But remember that establishing your purpose is only the beginning of a transformation.  To actually achieve your purpose, to reach your destination, you have to do something; you must commit yourself to the actions that will get you there.  And in doing so, you will set in motion significant forces.

    Listen to how the great German poet Goethe said this very same thing:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.[iv]

     “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now.”[v]

    Clay Christensen, a renowned professor at Harvard Business School, amplified these ideas in recent years.[vi] Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe those occasional innovations that are disruptive because they are unexpected and because they replace existing technologies and even entire industries.[vii] Think of the effect automobiles had on the horse-drawn carriage industry. Or how computers have replaced typewriters and so many other ways by which we used to do other things.

    The Harvard graduating class of 2010 asked Christensen – himself a 1979 Harvard alumnus – to give their commencement address.[viii]  In his talk, Christensen spoke of an observation he made at his class reunions.  A dismaying number of his “successful” peers were deeply unhappy.  Christensen said, “I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them.  And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy.”[ix]

    The reason, Christensen said, was that these very intelligent, high-achieving individuals “didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”[x]  They made a fundamental and devastating blunder in their personal lives that they would never make in business: they invested in initiatives that offered short-term, tangible and immediate returns, at the expense of those that were crucial to their long-term strategies.[xi]

    Christensen went on to say that a significant fraction of the 900 students annually accepted into Harvard Business School “have given little thought to the purpose of their lives,” but he attempts to rectify that in his classes.[xii]  “I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at (Harvard Business School).”[xiii]

    He acknowledges that discerning one’s purpose in life often takes considerable effort, patience and persistence. I would add to that, trial and error.  Christensen said, “it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it,” even to the point of setting aside an hour every night for reading and reflection on the matter.[xiv]

    So, how does one discover a life’s purpose?

    For advice on that, you need look no further than your alma mater.  More specifically, look to your fellow Akron alumnus and now vice president for strategic engagement, Jim Tressel.  In 2008, he published a book that became a New York Times best seller, “The Winners Manual for the Game of Life.”[xv]  And the first line of that book asks, ‘If the game of life ended tonight, would you be a winner?’”[xvi]

    Jim goes on to write that, “Goals are important, but it’s important to understand that people are not defined by their goals and whether or not they reach them…We have to separate who we are from what we do,”[xvii] and purpose is tied to who you are.[xviii]

    For more than three decades Jim has helped young people pursue their dreams, set new goals, and walk the path of self-discovery.  He continues that fine work today as part of his ongoing efforts to enhance the Akron experience.  I am sure that Jim would be happy to help out any fellow alumni who came to him for advice.

    Another such alumnus is the person we will honor in a few moments with an honorary degree, Mrs. Ann Amer Brennan. Listen well as her story is recited and you will learn of a person who nurtured and guided a family, this institution, and indeed, a community. Her remarkable accomplishments are proof of the power of purpose, intent and action.     

    So, as your final University of Akron lesson, I invite you to reflect on this graduation milestone; to savor your successes and achievements…and then move on to whatever destination you have chosen.

    Begin again, if you must. Chart a course for your life by contemplating and identifying your destination, and setting purposeful, measurable goals. Then act, with Goethe’s good words ever in your thoughts:

    “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now.”[xix]



    [ii] Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 1989, 2004. Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, N.Y., P. 95

    [iii] Ibid, Covey, P. 96

    [v] Ibid, goodreads.com

    [vii] Bower, Joseph L. & Christensen, Clayton M. January-February 1995. "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave." Harvard Business Review.

    [viii] Christensen, Clayton M. July 2010. “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business Review.

    [ix] Ibid, Christensen

    [x] Ibid, Christensen

    [xi] Ibid, Christensen

    [xii] Ibid, Christensen

    [xiii] Ibid, Christensen

    [xiv] Ibid, Christensen

    [xv] Tressel, Jim. The Winner’s Manual for the Game of Life. 2008. Tyndale House Publishers. Carol Stream, Illinois. Cover.

    [xvi] Ibid, Tressel, P. xv

    [xvii] Ibid, Tressel, P. 4

    [xviii] Ibid, Tressel, P. 6

  • Topic Category: commencement
  • Tags: Brennan, Christensen, Covey, Goethe, Tressel, milestone, purpose,
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