A graduation speaker should give graduates a glimpse into who they are—supplying an anchor that allows them to stand firm in the storms of life. Providing that anchor requires unbelievable intelligence, insight, and wisdom—or, if a speaker doesn’t have those, answers from a really good questionnaire!
For that reason, I conducted a survey to gain a small glimpse into the hearts, minds, and souls of the students in BYU Marriott’s graduating class of 2018.
To begin, why did these students say they chose Brigham Young University, and specifically BYU Marriott? Well, the most common answers were what you might expect:
- The school offers the major I wanted.
- BYU Marriott was the best place to get a good job.
- The BYU Marriott name looks good on a résumé.
However, only 3 percent admitted to coming for BYU Creamery’s chocolate milk. What shocked me is that “because accountants have more fun” was cited by only 2.6 percent. And not a single student chose BYU Marriott for the great parking at the Tanner Building.
Of course, students have hopes and dreams when they arrive on campus. What were the ones most commonly cited in the survey? Overwhelmingly, to
- Get a good education.
- Land a great job.
- Make great friends.
- Learn in a faith-based environment.
Those dreams evolved during the time they were at BYU. Many students responded that they began to realize they were more capable than they had originally thought. They also made major life decisions about love, faith, majors, friends, and how to move forward with the rest of their lives.
Many of our BYU Marriott students also experienced disappointment. I have a special place in my heart for these students. My disappointments—especially the big ones—have been some of the most constructive experiences of my life. My advice to these graduates, as well as to each of us, is to own those experiences. Learn from them. Do not let them define or overwhelm you. Use the energy they stoke in you to forge ahead with greater wisdom and determination.
Most of our students come to BYU with not much other than their dreams and talents, yet year after year, they leave with far more than that. This year’s class indicated they would be taking many things with them when they walk out the doors of the Tanner Building for the last time:
- A degree (100 percent)
- New friends for life (82 percent)
- A good job (71 percent)
- Extra pounds (56 percent)
- A spouse (38 percent)
- Children (24 percent)
- Unpaid parking tickets (9 percent)
Education is supposed to change people. How has a BYU Marriott education changed our students in the class of 2018? Here are some of the things they shared:
- I have new and better priorities.
- I am better at critical thinking. (At least I have some.)
- I am more confident.
- I am at peace with my choices.
- I am more aware of my potential.
- I know who I am and what matters to me.
Based on these responses, it seems to me that these students received the best kind of education here—much more than just an academic one.
With this picture of the BYU Marriott class of 2018 providing a backdrop of sorts, I would like to share six thoughts that hopefully will be a little bread in the satchels that these graduates—and each of us—carry as we go forward in our life’s journey.
Fear is the most limiting force in life. Ralph Waldo Emerson purportedly said, “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.” I agree. Because of fear, far too often we don’t reach for the stars, believe in ourselves or others, give of ourselves completely to people and causes, express ourselves freely, try new and difficult things, or even dream.
Too often we choose not to do these things because we are afraid of the disappointment or pain we may feel if things don’t work out.
Faith is the antidote. It starts with wanting something enough to take a stand against fear. We choose faith—faith that God created us to take on challenges, to make and overcome mistakes, to learn and grow, and to achieve the righteous and necessary things we need to accomplish in life. And faith that the world is not too crazy for us to handle.
I am not suggesting that we won’t encounter difficult and painful things, including failure. We will. But far too often we underestimate ourselves, feel fear, and fail to act.
When it comes right down to it, some things can only be learned by doing them. And the learning is greatest right on the edge of where our knowledge ends and uncertainty begins. We have to step beyond the light into the darkness. Don’t be afraid of this. Be willing, for wise and good purposes, to take that step. If you do, you will learn lessons reserved only for those who are willing to act without having all the answers.
I believe in the power of dreams. I heard this quote once: There is nothing like a dream to create the future. That’s powerful.
In my spare time, I coach high school track, specifically hurdlers. Jensen was one of my hurdlers. During his junior season, Jensen made a lot of progress, and by the end of the year, he was competitive, though nothing close to a champion. But he had a dream. He came to me and said, “I want to stand on the medal podium in the state championships next year. I am willing to do everything I can to achieve that.”
Candidly, I thought it was a pretty audacious goal. But I was inspired by his desire and humility. So we devised and began to implement a plan.
The short version of his story is that, fueled by the thought of standing on that podium, he threw himself into his training with extraordinary determination. Along the way, he experienced many setbacks. Races he lost. Injuries he suffered. Doubts he faced. But he pressed forward, and steady improvement came. In the last meet of the year prior to state, he ran the best race of his life, securing the last qualifying spot for the state championships.
Eighteen hurdlers qualified for state. To stand on the podium, he needed to finish in the top six. In the semifinals, he ran the fifth fastest qualifying time in the field of eighteen, posting his personal best time by a wide margin. It was a spectacular performance for him. Perfection. With this, he was one race and about fifteen seconds away from realizing his dream.
The finals came. It was incredibly exciting. The starter’s pistol fired. I wish I could tell you that he made the podium that day. He didn’t. He had needed to run a perfect race—like he had in the semifinals—to take his place on the winner’s podium. Instead, he came out of the blocks, made a minor mistake on one of the early hurdles, lost a bit of momentum, and never recovered.
I have never coached an athlete who took a defeat so hard. Jensen was inconsolable. His grief seemed exactly proportionate to the size of his heart and the sacrifices he had made to chase his dream. But what he didn’t realize at that moment is that he had already won before he ever stepped in the starting blocks that day. He had already achieved something that no one except himself really thought possible. He also learned a life lesson that was more valuable than one hundred medals: he could accomplish extraordinary things if he dreamed, believed in himself, and went to work.
Jensen is now serving a mission in Fiji. He recently sent me an email. With his permission, I share part of it:
I remember one thing you repeatedly told us regarding race day. “Practice is the time to think and prepare, but race day is the time to just run.” I am disappointed I lost, but there will always be another mountain ahead, and sometimes the peak won’t be the best view. But every climb prepares us for the future. The things that I have learned—and will learn—as I go through life are much bigger than the one race I lost. So I guess the secret to this life is just to enjoy every mountain or challenge as it comes, including the bad views and rocky paths, the victories and defeats. Always remember who is in charge and who the Lord wants us to become. And above all, when it is time to race, have faith and “just run.”
Having dreams that ignite us is powerful. Dreams lift us above uncertainty, fear, opposition, failure, disappointment, pain, and weakness. And whether a dream is achieved or shattered doesn’t ultimately matter. We can always create a new dream and begin again. The point is to move forward with great purpose, fueled by a steady stream of exciting dreams, chased with passion—and more often missed than realized. The value is in the creating and chasing.
I am a believer in what Elon Musk once said: “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. . . . Your goal is to be less wrong.”
Two years ago, I took a group of young men on a fifty-mile hike in the Uinta Mountains. We had maps and a GPS system to help us, but generally we just followed the trails. Along our way, we periodically chose to leave the trail and hike through the forest, mostly for the adventure. In spite of having great tools, we frequently got lost, which was frustrating. Much of our energy and strength was misdirected and wasted as we floundered.
Metaphorically, the most common factor I have seen that causes people to fall short of their potential or desires in business—and in life—is having inaccurate maps. Maps that do not represent things “as they really are” (Jacob 4:13). What do I mean by inaccurate maps in this context? Here are a few examples:
- Diagnosing incorrectly why a business is working or not working
- Having only a superficial understanding of a customer’s needs and wants and how to best meet them
- Underestimating one’s competitors
- Setting goals that are either far too easy or far too difficult to achieve
- Or, perhaps most importantly, relying on personal maps that indicate that the reason for our failure is someone else’s fault
When our maps are inaccurate, all of our positive attributes can actually work against us. A great sense of urgency just means we get lost faster. A sense of determination means we just go farther off track. Great enthusiasm means we are excited about being lost.
When our maps are accurate, our chances for success are obviously much better. So be skeptical about your maps—be brutally honest with yourself, be humble, and listen and learn from those who know the territory better than you do. Go out of your way to validate your maps, and be willing to change them when they are wrong.
There is little that is worthwhile that doesn’t require great sacrifice. Enthusiastically sacrifice the things that are not important—you know (and will know) what those things are. Knowing is usually not the issue; rather, it’s having the discipline to eliminate the unimportant things from your life. However, never sacrifice the things that do matter: people you love, principles you believe in, your own health, your vitality, and your reputation.
I believe that, ultimately, we become what we truly desire. The issue is that we sometimes mortgage what we desire in the long run for what we desire in the moment, and then we are surprised and disappointed when our real dreams, our long-term dreams, are not achieved. Make sure you sacrifice the right things for the right things.
Over the years, I have frequently engaged with students and other young people about the question of what it takes to be successful. All of us, in our hearts, want to be great. Over time, my understanding of what it means to be great has changed. “Everybody can be great,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “because everybody can serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Many years ago, my family moved from Arkansas to Australia. Our nine-year-old son, Zach, had experienced some challenges adjusting and “fitting in” in Arkansas. My wife and I were concerned that moving to a foreign country would amplify his challenges. The time came for the first day of school in Sydney, and we took Zach to meet his new teacher. Zach was nervous. We were nervous.
This skilled and caring teacher had a gift to see inside Zach and help unlock Zach’s skill, potential, and confidence. In a matter of moments, the challenging and complicated world of our son turned into a safe, happy, and supportive place. This teacher “got” Zach. He saw Zach’s
talents rather than his limitations. He made sure Zach’s classmates, who could have easily rejected the new foreigner, also saw what made Zach great. In the coming months, we watched our young son find himself in the most unlikely of places: a country and a school where he, in actuality, didn’t really fit. All because of a gifted teacher who may never achieve any degree of fame or fortune—except in our lives and our memories.
Many years removed from this important moment in his life, Zach, who is now a student at BYU, observes this about that life-changing teacher: “There is a big difference between people who are supposed to care and those who actually do care. The difference in their impact on you is massive. I knew that teacher genuinely cared about me.”
I see this same kind of greatness all the time in people who we will never hear about and who will never be seen through the lens of our popular culture as “great.” But they are great. Truly great in ways that truly matter. These individuals are regular people who make the world a better place in small but incredibly meaningful ways because they care and they take action. In all my time hanging out with industry titans, I never saw any of them do anything I considered greater than what Zach’s teacher did for him. Anyone can be great.
One of the absolute certainties of life is that, someday, it ends for all of us. Hopefully, it will be after a very long and abundant life, but that doesn’t always happen. In the last ten years of my career, four of my colleagues have passed away long before their time, leaving behind friends and loved ones and an avalanche of questions about why they were taken so young.
Take care of yourself. Savor every minute of every day of your life. There is only one you. You are not immortal. You can and will wear down and wear out, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get a good night’s sleep as many nights as you can. Drink plenty of water. Eat healthy and nutritious food. Exercise.
Make sure you take the time you need to disengage from work, to re-energize, and to connect with the people and experiences that fill you with love and energy. Invest in your relationships; they are what provide happiness and meaning to your life. Challenge and stretch your mind by learning new and difficult (but worthwhile) things—things that don’t have anything to do with your job.
Feed your soul with love, truth, light, and service. Love and lift others along the way.
Thirty years ago, I too was a graduate of this great school. For the past two years, I have had the privilege of actually sitting with our students on campus, watching them in action, day by day, up close and personal. It has been a thrilling and eye-opening experience. I consider this place and my time with these students to be sacred. I love this place and the possibilities it creates for all of us.
I love who our BYU Marriott family is. I love what we stand for. I love what I know these students from the class of 2018 will do in the next thirty years for their families and friends, their communities, and their work. Because of them, I am optimistic about their future—and ours.
I have learned that our lives do not turn out exactly how we have planned. But when we remember these six pieces of bread—have faith, be a dreamer who acts, strive for more accurate maps, make the right sacrifices, be great (but remember what true greatness is), and take care of yourselves and the people who need you—we can find sustenance, happiness, and meaning in life. And we can make a difference.
Speech given by Jeff Strong
Illustrations by Shaw Nielsen
About the Speaker
A twenty-nine-year-old veteran in the consumer packaged goods industry, Jeff Strong is the former global president and chief customer officer for Johnson & Johnson. A National Advisory Council member, Strong retired in 2016 and joined BYU Marriott, where he launched the highly successful BYU Marriott Marketing Lab, a student-run marketing consulting firm. In July, Strong began his service as mission president in the Arkansas Bentonville Mission. This text is adapted from his convocation remarks given 27 April 2018.