A Column of personal opinion by John Rinaldi, Founder and Owner of Real Time Automation.
No, not Harvard, MIT or Stanford. Not my alma maters - Connecticut or Marquette. Ditto for my high school and elementary school. Not even the plumbing school down the road invited me to make a commencement address. So I stand here, all dressed, address in hand with no place to go.
But if I had been asked, here’s what I would have said.
Class of 2015, faculty, parents and honored guests, I am grateful for this invitation to speak to you today. Thank you for having me. I will endeavor to say something that might be remembered tomorrow morning as the results of tonight’s revelry manifest themselves.
I come here today with two purposes in mind. One to make this speech short and succinct so you can begin that revelry. And two, to welcome you to the real world and provide you with some rules of the road so that you have a better chance of staying on course.
Today is obviously an end, but it’s more of a beginning. At the risk of overusing Sir Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated quote, “For you, today is certainly not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end but for you, today, is certainly the end of your beginning.” It’s now a time in which you will have to fend for yourself. Starting today there won’t be folks around to protect you from disappointment, to cheer your every action, to ease your pain, cater to your happiness and plan for your future. Today you begin to walk the difficult road of life.
I’ll be honest with you. It’s a road filled with disappointments. You may unfairly lose a job, a business or a home. You may be devastated by a lost love. It’s pretty much guaranteed that illness and death will strike those close to you. Many other serious and not so serious tragedies will befall you. However, on that road you also find laughter, passion, beauty, happiness, and, if you’re lucky, love. In other words, starting today you’re going to experience life and its wondrous variety of disappointments and delights.
Kipling said much the same in his famous poem when he said that we must meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors the same. There’s truth in that. There’s truth in approaching life with that kind of equanimity. But there’s more that you need to know. Much more. Today, in the interest of brevity I am endeavoring to communicate to you the one key concept, above all others, that can do more for you than anything else I might say if we had hours and hours together.
Let me start by introducing you to a woman by the name of Lauren Prezioso. A woman on a beach, on a fine Monday afternoon in New South Wales, Australia. When a mother on the beach screamed that her two sons were drowning in the strong current, Lauren Prezioso fearlessly rushed into the water to battle the dangerous undertow. She saved those two young lives. All the more extraordinary as 22 days later she brought her own son into the world. Yes, she was nine months pregnant!
A hero. No doubt about it. But heroes are something unfashionable, something that’s been diminished in our culture. It’s common today to denigrate our heroes, past and present. The Founding fathers? Slave owners. That preacher over there? Had an affair. This sport star? He treated his child badly. That soldier. Well, there was this other soldier that committed an awful crime.
The truth is that all our heroes are real people and real people have feet of clay. But when we focus on that, we rob ourselves of the wisdom, inspiration, example and call to action that heroes like Lauren Prezioso provide.
Heroes are ordinary people that in a critical moment do extraordinary things. Sometimes, they change history, even world history. Take Alvin York. France 1918. The battle of the Meuse Argonne was raging. 554 men of the 77th US Infantry were lost behind enemy lines and Alvin York, today famously known as Sargent York, and his platoon were searching for them. With many of the men in his platoon killed or wounded, Alvin York, the conscientious objector, the man who would under no circumstance take a life, defiantly attacked a machine gun nest. He killed 32 German soldiers and captured 132 others to save the lives of his men. That incident was a key to a larger, more pivotal battle that changed the battlefield and likely changed the course of the war and the world.
There are many, many other examples of heroes. 22 year old Engineering student John Meis, armed only with a can of mace, attacks and subdues a gunman at Seattle Pacific University saving countless lives. Train Conductor Robert Mohr, realizing it would be impossible to stop his train before hitting 19 month old Emily Marshall, fearlessly climbs on to the front of his train and manages to kick her safely out of the way of his 6,000 ton train. Or our courageous Marines and Army soldiers that loosely place tourniquets around their limbs as they prepare for patrol. They so value the lives of their fellow soldiers that even a missing limb won’t keep them from fighting alongside their brother soldier.
All heroes. All worthy of our admiration, honor, awe, reverence and respect.
What led to these acts of heroism? Were these people just born to be heroes? Are they somehow different from those of us in this room today?
David Brooks, the famous New York Times Columnist, calls the virtues of these heroes, Eulogy virtues. Those are the virtues that we want to be spoken about us at our wake. We all want Eulogy virtues – courage, faith, friendship, compassion and more – but we often instead, focus on our resume virtues – the skills that we bring to the marketplace. Unlike resume virtues, Eulogy virtues are built slowly, over time with moral and spiritual decisions.
Return for a moment to Sergeant York. Alvin York was no saint. Born into the hardscrabble back country of Kentucky, eking out a living on the no good earth, knife fights, womanizing and hard drinking were more his life than heroism.
That ended on New Year’s Day of 1915. Alvin noticed pretty Gracie Williams whose father was the church pastor. The only way to see Gracie was to attend Church, so on Jan 1 1915, Alvin attended. And during the service he was so profoundly moved by the pastor’s words that he became a Christian. It wasn’t easy but he gave up the womanizing. Gave up the drinking. Gave up the fighting. He resolved to make better decisions.
It was difficult. Very difficult. He struggled with it each day. Each day in which he overcame temptation, unbeknownst to him, strengthened his self-control. As his temperance, pacifism and faith grew, he grew comfortable living with integrity. He faced many conflicts between his old life and his new one but he overcame them with resolve and faith.
That’s the secret. The secret of heroism. Know your values and live them. Live your life with the values you cherish. Live with integrity every day. Start with simple decisions. A simple decision to return a lost wallet. A simple decision, even if just for a day, to tell the truth. Honor your marital vows. Show up for work on time and work the entire day. Those simple decisions build the self-control muscle that strengthens and fortifies you for the really hard ones. If you do that and you ever have an Alvin or a Lauren moment when you have to charge ahead under fire, you’ll be ready and you just might, change the world.
Thank You. Good Luck and Godspeed.