Last week I had the honor of being the Commencement speaker for Mohawk Valley Community College’s Class of 2017. Getting to deliver that kind of address in front of over two thousand people was both terrifying and exhilarating. It’s a role I never thought I’d get the chance to play – a bucket list item that wasn’t eve on the list. Writing a speech for this kind of an event was a challenge, and I don’t know if it hit home with anyone in attendance but I gave it my best shot.
The talk itself isn’t online anywhere that I’ve seen and so I’m including the text of my remarks below. I hope you find something there that you can take with you on your own journey whether you’re graduating this year or not.
Ryan Miller Commencement Remarks for MVCC 2017
Good afternoon, it’s quite an honor to be here with you all today. And congratulations the class of 2017. You did it! You’re here! You made it….some of you maybe just barely (who here just barely made it?). It doesn’t matter. You did it. Today is your day.
Seeing you all from this vantage point puts things squarely in perspective. While it’s important to celebrate your accomplishments as students and now graduates today, we should celebrate your accomplishments in the contexts of the other roles you have – Roles and titles that sometimes go unacknowledged but nonetheless have meaning and expectations. I don’t just see students – I see mothers, fathers, caregivers, breadwinners, role models, sons, daughters, immigrants, refugees, artists, entrepreneurs and activists.
I know that the opportunities and education you’ve received here at MVCC are keys that will unlock options – whether that’s leveraging the skills you’ve learned to head into the workforce, enable a career change, or to build the foundation to continue your education. But beyond the fancy paper and recognition you’ll be receiving today I hope you’ve also learned things that don’’t come with a certificate or diploma……
I hope you’ve learned that there are people in your life who want to see you succeed and who care about your success. I hope you’ve learned to celebrate the things that make us all so similar and to celebrate and learn from those who are very different from ourselves. I hope you’ve learned a bit more about yourselves and what drives you to get out of bed in the morning. And I hope you come to learn that education goes well beyond the classroom. As Henry Rollins said (and I’m paraphrasing without the 4-letter words..) Knowledge, without Mileage , is meaningless. I’m going to say that again because that statement has had a profound impact on my life. Knowledge, without Mileage , is meaningless.
The challenge that all commencement speakers face is how to impart some words of wisdom, humor, tweet able quotes and inspiration to those of you who are celebrating your accomplishments and starting this new chapter – and as I’ve been told by multiple in attendance today……to keep it short.
And so I thought back to my own college graduation experience way back in 2003. And our commencement speakers were none other than Ben and Jerry – yes THE ben and Jerry from the Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream and fro-yo empire. They seemed (and seem) like nice enough folks but when I racked by brain to try to remember what they told US as graduates, I came up with nothing. I couldn’t remember a damn thing EXCEPT that we all got a free pint of Cherry Garcia after the ceremony. So the challenge I have before me is what can I offer you, what piece of memorable advice can I give that you can carry with you into the world – and how can I do it without an ice cream budget? I haven’t built an ice cream empire, I hold no PhD, and don’t feel as though I’m an expert on anything.
But I hope that maybe some of what I’ve picked up along the way may be useful to you today, tomorrow, or at some point along your journey. So here we go:
I have a confession to make – I got lucky. I have a partner and a family that has a potent combination of hustle and heart. My father and his family have an innate drive to build things, to work with their hands, and to solve problems. My dad taught me about the importance of doing good work. How to Hustle. How to make yourself useful no matter if you’re sweeping the floor or leading a team.
And my mom has instilled a ridiculous genetic dose of empathy. She taught special education for over 30 years and it’s through her that I’ve learned to look a situations from multiple points of view and with an empathetic heart and to stay humble along the way. Today as you take a first step towards your next bold move, look for opportunities that will challenge, humble you and fulfill you. That is where you’ll find your place and your purpose. That’s lesson number 1 – Stay Humble, and Hustle Hard.
Lesson 2: Smart People should build things (especially if you don’t know how). I get to work with people every day who are working to build their dreams. Who are working ridiculously hard at solving big problems and turning their passions into businesses. In some cases they’ve burned the boats – there is no plan B. There is no turning back. And every single one of them will experience failure along the way as they’re building their dream.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – none of us really knows what we’re doing all the time. But even the first step of putting an idea or a dream out into the universe or the marketplace can have profound impact on your life. The act of trying and failing and trying again is your real-world MBA. You’ll learn resilience, access talents you never knew you had and meet incredible and interesting people along the way regardless of the outcome – because doing the work, grinding it out – THAT is an equalizing force that creates opportunities. I hope that each of you starts building something new. Start right now, especially if you don’t know how.
Lesson Number 3: Get At Bats
I hate baseball but this is a great metaphor. I When I turned 30 I started one of those photo-a- day projects. You’ve seen these before I’m sure, where the goal is to capture and post a photo every day for a year that tells a story of that day. Besides upping my still nascent skills as a photographer the biggest thing that experience taught me was how to look for a story or a moment. When I had that goal each day it forced me to look at the world just a little differently.
The same thing is true when you’re hunting for opportunities. You have to do it every day. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Every day, you’re throw metaphorical pitches that you can either watch as they go by, or take a swing at them. The more you start to recognize opportunity in your daily life, the more swings you can take and eventually you will connect. Stop waiting to be picked. Pick yourself. Start watching. Start swinging.
Lesson Number 4: We all wear Pants and put them on one leg at a time (except Beyonce)
I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten to meet many of my heroes over the years. Men and women that I’ve looked up to for years who are top performers in their space or who just genuinely look like they’ve got things all figured out. And we all project – we all create these ideas about those we follow and in many cases put them up on a pedestal without ever really knowing them. And the truth in most cases is that they’re just people like you and me. They still put their pants on one leg at a time in the morning (again, except probably Beyonce). And sometimes that realization can be disappointing. But it’s also reassuring. Because once you realize that your heroes are just people, the distance between their accomplishments and where you want to go gets much shorter. When you realize we’re all just people wearing pants it becomes easier to see and draw a map from where you are to where you need to go.
Lesson 5: Respect Gravity –
Think back the moments, conversations and experiences that have had a major impact on your life. Whether those things are good or bad wonderful or painful, you are here today because each of those has shaped your path in one way or another. I’m also going to guess that most of the people on the other end those conversations or experiences don’t fully understand the weight that those moments have had on your life or how they have affected your path. How you choose to spend your time and choose to spend it with, those things push and pull you….they are forces of gravity that move and change your path over time.
One of the most important things I’ve come to realize is that each of us is a force of gravity, and that we may never understand fully the impact that we have on others. Every decision we make can carry a profound weight, pushing and pulling those around us and affecting their paths.
Many of you have big dreams of changing the world….of making a dent in the universe. But I’m not going to challenge you to go out and change the world. Because you are already doing it each and every day. My challenge to you is to be aware of how you’re doing it and how it is impacting others.
Be good to yourselves, be good to each other. Congratulations and thanks so much.