May 12, 2022

2022 High Point University Commencement Address

The following is transcribed from my 2022 Commencement Address to High Point University graduating seniors, who are simultaneously challenged and blessed with graduating as our world is re-entering a stage of dramatic consequence. 

Introductory Remarks to High Point Community

Thank you so much, President Qubein.  

Students, I stand here before you with incredible pride. I was able to seize an artifact from Dr. Qubein that I understand has caused you enormous grief over four long years.  [Unveils Extendable Fork].   

Yes, Nido.  I am told you’ve been using this sophisticated tool to snatch French fries from your students. No more!  

Nido, your sense of humor is one of many qualities you model which our world needs more of. 

There is also your insatiable curiosity – which you inspire in your students – and your ability to connect with everyone around you on a deeply human level.  

You have helped grow High Point into the Premier Life Skills University and built a culture in which students feel welcomed and cared for by their peers, faculty, staff, and broader community. 

The wisdom you’ve shown throughout your tenure is perhaps best exemplified by your insightful decision… to stock KIND bars at every kiosk on campus.  

But even giants falter.  I was devastated to hear that – on Valentine’s Day and Halloween – you give out giant candy bars – not KIND bars.  So, to make up for such travesty, we have made sure that everyone gets a KIND bar today. Please look under every one of your seats and find your KIND bar! 

Students: let’s take a minute to thank all those who helped you get to this important moment: your parents and loved ones, people like Dalton’s Mom, your fellow students, your professors, and the Administration and Staff that took care of you every day! 

I want to recognize four people who have made an impact on every student here today. They have doled out thousands of smiles, hugs, and encouraging words to our graduating students. Ms. Val, Ms. Christie, Mr. Chris, Ms. Lillian – could you please stand up? 

Ms. Val, I know you promised parents to watch over their kids during their time here at High Point. It’s nice that you kept your word with Student Body President Katy Parisi, but it’s downright impressive that you managed to keep JP Kerwick and Jordan Fowler out of trouble. 

Speaking of the class of 2022, how about Dakota Tameling? Most of you think Dakota is going to JP Morgan, but in fact…he’s going to be joining Jimmy Kimmel’s Late-Night Band as their very first French Horn player! 

And Emmy Beck-Aden. You thought that she was joining NBC’s prestigious page program, but after her winter Olympics coverage, she’s decided to join the US National Team for her favorite sport: curling! 

And Alon Parker: most of you think he was recruited by the sales team at Amazon. In fact, it’s because they just acquired the James Bond library of movies and think he may be the right successor in the franchise. 

Let’s hear it for all the graduating seniors of High Point’s class of 2022! 

Message to High Point Class of 2022

Today I want to talk to you about a very important topic – something you’ve probably NEVER heard about over the last four years: THE GROWTH MINDSET. 

I know. I understand you’ve covered that topic.  

So instead, I will just talk about a light and fluffy subject: your generation’s role in steering humanity in the right direction. No pressure, Dalton. 

But in all seriousness, Dalton, I love what you shared about “leaving everywhere you go better than you found it…and finding ways to give grace and inspiration to the people around you.”  

I want to talk today about HOW to do that as you are all simultaneously challenged and blessed with graduating as our world is re-entering a stage of dramatic consequence. 

The ship of humanity is moving in the wrong direction, and it will be upon all of you to steer it back on track. 

To illustrate this point, I want to compare the circumstances when my father’s generation came of age, to those when my generation and your generation graduated from college. 

My father was fifteen-and-a-half when he was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp by American soldiers. He was barely alive.  He never got to go to school past third grade, let alone college. Several of your grandparents were around your age when they were sent to free Europe from tyranny and darkness. 

By contrast, when I was fifteen years-old, my family immigrated to America from Mexico. I was able to attend college during a period when passionate but cordial debate was the norm. I remember observing political leaders vehemently disagree on a particular topic, while maintaining a friendship rooted in respect. Our world was far from perfect – but the arc of human progress trended in an upward direction. Freedom, open markets, human rights, civility, and the quest for knowledge were all advancing.  

It seemed almost too good to be true.  In fact, it was so good that we began to lose sight that Our Great American Experiment isn’t so much a fixed state of affairs as it is a purposeful daily affirmation – something that we opt into, live out, and vote for not once every four years, but every single day – through how we engage with one another. 

Your generation is graduating at a moment when basic norms like kindness are under attack. 

Divisive social media algorithms, biased media sources and self-serving politicians have increasingly polarized society and pushed us towards bad habits.  We are too quick to judge and too slow to forgive.  Echo chambers on social media make us think ours is the only way to see things. And the “other” must be “evil.” 

While America was once the net exporter of values that help inspire progress, our tribal culture is now contributing to fragmentation across the world. 

Our lack of resolve around protecting open minds and open societies has given dictators abroad impetus to threaten liberal democracies. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has marked one of the greatest assaults on the free world since WWII.  

This level of disruption is overwhelming, even paralyzing, BUT it comes with enormous OPPORTUNITY. Chaos is a catalyst for us to step into our agency. Because just as you are entering the world, our world is reentering history. 

And you can help write its most epic chapter. 

Let me clarify – to you and to your parents – that I am not asking you to give up on making money or pursuing your dreams. Parenthetically, I will maintain that you will achieve far more success, including financial success, if you find purpose in whatever you choose to do. That was certainly my experience with KIND. But I am not asking you to change professions. I am not talking about the WHAT but about the HOW.  

HOW WE ACT along our DAILY JOURNEY ultimately impacts society in much deeper ways than any of us ever acknowledge. 

We need to ADOPT DAILY HABITS rooted in Curiosity, Courage and Compassion: the 3 Cs To Excel Every Day in Life. Curiosity. Courage. And Compassion.  

It may seem simple, but it is seriously hard work.  

The easy path is to surround yourself with those who tell you what you WANT to hear rather than what you NEED to hear.   

Opt instead for curiosity 

Think critically about everything.   

Use news and data not to simply AFFIRM but to INFORM your beliefs. 

Develop the courage to have uncomfortable conversations – the only kind that will help all of us grow  

– the courage even to collaborate across lines of difference.  

And relate to others with compassion.  Assume positive intent. Put yourself in other peoples’ shoes. Be more forgiving.  

Apply the same approach when dealing with yourself. Be more forgiving of yourself when you face a setback. Remember everyone has setbacks.  

And have the courage to be more introspective and self-critical when things are going well. Arrogance can be the greatest enemy of your growth.  So Believe in Yourself – but allow for some self-doubt, to keep you grounded and learning.  

But how is it that I am talking to you guys about civilization entering a critical period in history, and then saying you can transform society – in historical ways – by relating to one another with the 3 Cs? Isn’t it a bit far-fetched to suggest that your generation can change the world through these daily habits?  

The greatest safeguard of democracy are citizens that are curious, courageous, and compassionate. The best antidote against the authoritarian streak infecting our world are healthfully skeptical citizens who refuse to be divided between “us and them,” who will question everything, particularly when it is served to us by the “leaders” of our respective tribes. Totalitarian despots cannot manipulate those who have the courage to think critically and compassionately. 

While your individual actions may feel small, all of us practicing good habits can cause a massive ripple effect of positive transformation.  

My father credited his survival during the Holocaust to a German soldier that threw a potato by his feet when nobody was watching. It was not just the nourishment that half-rotten potato brought to my father. It was the German soldier’s courage to recognize my Dad’s humanity. It’s probably what made my Dad remind himself that he was human and had to carry on.  

Practicing these skills will not only improve your relationships and our communities – it will also help you excel at life’s pursuits. At KIND, we were able to build one crazy idea into an incredible company because of the culture we created – not just because of WHAT we did, but HOW we did it: prizing hearty debate, treating everyone with dignity, working hard and thinking even harder, and no less important, developing a thick skin and having a sense of humor!  

If you think about it, what else can have more impact in society than how we relate to one another? We are ultimately a product of our daily interactions.  We can be jerks throughout the day, or we can smile a bit more, listen a bit more, care more.  When you look back at who you will become 30, 50 years from now, a lot will come from how you interact with others. HOW you act along that journey will become your destination as a human being. 

And so too for the course of history! If all of us allow online anonymity to turn us into trolls, and it starts seeping into real life and we are aggressive and insensitive to one another, what do we expect will be the aggregate result for our country, and for humanity?  On the other side, if we join forces to treat each other with compassion, courage, and curiosity, always working hard to unlock the truth of this human experiment we call life, think about the amazing world we will create! 

You know why you should be enormously energized today? Because the stakes are so high – and you have the power to make a huge difference. We all will join forces in shifting our culture back to what makes our country so amazing – to reknit the social fabric of kindness that underlies our nation’s greatest achievements. 

Your generation will lead. And we will all be with you, every step of the way.   

It starts today, as all of you graduate.  It starts with every one of you. It starts with all of us.  

Class of 2022, let’s go and steer this ship!  

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