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Everything Has Its Price! Some Reflections On Winning, Losing, Choice And Opportunity

  • Date: 12/16/2000
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 2000, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of engineering, education, polymer science and polymer engineering, business, and community service and technology.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies.

    And, you have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process, and that life's experiences will continue to instruct you along the way.

    So, you may ask, what can your president add to this arduous process that is at once an ending and a new beginning?

    Last Sunday, as I began to think about what I might say to you today, I was browsing through the paper and read an article profiling one of Akron's best, Richard Norton. Perhaps some of you also saw it in the Sunday Magazine.

    If you did, you would know that Dick Norton is a person who began at the bottom, as many of us have. He started humbly as a management trainee at FirstMerit Bank, 31 years ago, and steadily rose to become what he is today, president and CEO of FirstMerit.

    Here is what he had to say:

    "I had to work hard. I was given chances . . . and I took them."

    "Every time you take on something new, there is a risk you may not be able to do it."

    "But I encourage my kids to be uncomfortable," he continued. "Because if you are not willing to be uncomfortable, you can't grow."
    (Akron Beacon Journal, Sunday Magazine, 12/10/00, p/ 17)

    As I read Mr. Norton's words, I found myself reflecting on the events of the past month, as our country pondered the fate of the two men who would be president.

    Two men, who gave their all for so many months, so many years, and who - without a doubt - were thrust for 36 days so vividly and openly upon an uncertain victory or defeat.

    And if that is not uncomfortable, I am not sure what is.

    And so, as I thought about Dick Norton's experience here in Akron, I found that his words were describing an experience not so different from that of Al Gore and George W. Bush.

    Mark my words: I do not know any public servant who has not lived or died (figuratively speaking) by the result of a voting public.

    I am sure you can vicariously imagine the thrill of those who have relished in the vote of victory, and I hope that perhaps you also may feel real sympathy for those who have suffered in defeat.

    Indeed, just a few weeks ago, an article in the Washington Post started this way:

    "The vice president was smart and savvy but a bit stiff out on the campaign trail. His opponent in the presidential race was a rich, handsome man with a reputation for youthful misbehavior. Polls showed a dead heat. On election night, the TV networks called the race in several key states, only to change their predictions later."

    "Early the next day, the vice president issued a concession that wasn't quite a concession. His backers grumbled about ballot irregularities and demanded a recount. His party dispatched operatives to disputed states to search for ways to overturn the official tally." Nasty court battles dragged on for weeks."
    (Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 11/27/00, p 6-7)

    It sounds familiar doesn't it? But here is the irony: The vice president was not Al Gore, it was Richard M. Nixon, and the year was 1960.

    Most of you are too young to remember, of course, and the rest of us may have too easily forgotten.

    And although 40 years separate these two events, human feelings and human frailties bridge them across time.

    Let me tell you how.

    Specifically, let me tell you by using words that Lamar Alexander, former two-time governor of Tennessee and Secretary of Education, wrote just last week:

    "Our family has been thinking about the Gores and the Bushes, wondering what their lives must be like as they lurch daily between sudden death and victory. For which family will there be agony of losing?"

    "For which family will there be four more years of a smiling spouse, of children followed by the Secret Service, of parents wincing as some comedian caricatures the presidential son as a nincompoop?"

    During these family deliberations, Mr. Alexander heard his son say: "'I don't know about you dad, but I am glad we're not in this mess.'" And hearing this, Mr. Alexander says to us, "Of course, I would prefer to be in it; that is why I tried - twice. I wanted the joy of winning and the opportunity to serve. I certainly didn't want the loser's messy job of discovering a new life. But I have found that in losing there is new freedom, a delicious privacy and the opportunity for new service."
    (Lamar Alexander, Losing Can Be Liberating, Wall Street Journal, 12/7/00, p.A26)

    I tell you this not to embroil you in political issues, but to ask you to reflect on what lies ahead.

    So here are three final lessons to help you reflect and to guide you on your way:

    Lesson #1: Be not so quick to criticize.

    Have you even met, let alone come to know, those who you may often criticize?

    How do you know that you do not agree, if you have not sat down, talked and tried to understand?

    How many of you actually met and talked with our two presidential candidates?

    Can you say, with any degree of clarity, that you know why you supported one, and not the other?

    In a more practical sense, it is important to realize that knowing works both ways, and if you assume you know what the other person thinks of you, you may be floating nothing more than a false assumption.

    The experimental literature on stigmatization is telling on this matter.

    Suppose we play a game. I will tell you that I have told another, let us say, and just for the sake of this example, that you are mentally ill. And then I ask the two of you to engage in a cooperative game.

    Except that I have not told the other person anything. So you think that he thinks that you are mentally ill, but he just thinks that you are an average person.

    The fact is, however, that your presumption of being stigmatized . . . your presumption that the other person thinks you are mentally ill, will ensure that you behave quite differently than you would have otherwise.

    The same is true for many other assumptions that each of us make about how we presume that others view us. Think about it, please, as this is a far more pervasive and pernicious malady than you may want to acknowledge.

    Lesson #2: Prepare yourself, but remember, as the old saying goes, that there is more than one way to skin the cat.

    There are no guarantees in life. But being prepared is the closest thing to a guarantee.

    If you have not prepared yourself or planned for whatever you want to do, say going to law school or to medical school, you may find that your chances of getting admitted are slim at best.

    It is not likely that you will become a banker if you have not studied banking and finance; or that you can gain entry to medical school without the requisite courses, grades and motivation.

    It is never too late to try again, however, and you can start now to prepare yourself for new goals and aspirations.

    My point is that, "Opportunity favors the prepared mind."

    It will also help you to know that the opportunity you seek may not be when or where you wish it to be.

    Just because you want a particular opportunity, does not mean you will get the one you want. So you may need to compromise, or you may need to be persistent and prepare yourself for another round.

    You may have to realize your goal elsewhere than where you are. You may need to move, or you may need to wait.

    Lesson #3: Everything has its price!

    This is a lesson my mother taught me. She would say in Spanish: "Todo tiene su precio!" Everything has its price!

    Whenever you make a choice, the price is that you cannot do something else. And every time you cannot do that something else, you have to know the value of what you choose.

    Learn to balance. Learn to change.

    Remember the old Australian proverb: "Rooster today; feather duster tomorrow."

    In the new economy, entrepreneurship is in, and many of you will no doubt be part of new, high technology ventures.

    Not all ventures succeed, of course. Indeed, taking a risk - being uncomfortable - is what it is all about.

    But to naively think that everything will succeed is, indeed, naive. To assume that everything will fail, on the other hand, is self-defeating.

    Remember that if you do not try, that if you do not ask, the answer is always no.

    Perhaps the German poet, Goethe, put it best:

    "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."

    "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it."

    "Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now."

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Fall 2000 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

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