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Lessons from the Front

It seems like only a few years ago that I sat where you are sitting. I was an English major, and that meant that I liked reading and writing. It also meant that I had no idea what I was going to do with my career.

The self-help guides I read claimed that to have a successful life you had to have a clear goal in mind and then work relentlessly for that goal. But that isn’t how life worked out for me. As a matter of fact, almost nothing I have done in my career was planned in advance.

You probably know that the most remarkable of my life’s journeys was the one I only recently completed, and that was having the honor of running for president. In case you haven’t heard, I lost. Actually, I prefer to say that I won the silver medal. After Walter Mondale got shellacked by Ronald Reagan, he remarked that he had always wanted to run for president in the worst way, and that is just what he did.

Despite my loss, the experience was extraordinary and revealing. I have come away more optimistic about the country. I have met people from across the nation—people who don’t make the nightly news but who make daily innovations and discoveries that propel our economy and provide for our futures. I have met parents who sacrifice their resources and their careers for their kids and military men and women who willingly serve in some of the world’s most hostile environments. And while it is fashionable in some circles to deny it, I firmly believe that America is the greatest nation on earth.

The experiences during my campaign also impressed on me singular life lessons, and I thought I might share some of those lessons with you.

Reaching Out

At the beginning of a campaign you experience a good deal of what I will call unwelcome anonymity: nobody knows who you are. I was once at a Marriott hotel in San Francisco, and I had arranged for a massage to loosen my back. After hundreds upon hundreds of handshakes in a day, my back got tight on the right side. The masseuse, who obviously was unaware of my political career, remarked to my assistant, “Mr. Romney has strong legs. He is a dancer, isn’t he?” That’s probably the best compliment I got during the campaign.

But the anonymity is soon lost. During my last campaign I was taken aside by one of our national security agents, and I was informed that all my emails were being closely read by a foreign government. In fact, the same was true for all the people who had emailed me—my staff, friends, and family were also being monitored by that government.

The words of a hymn came to mind: “Angels above us are silent notes taking Of ev’ry action; then do what is right!” The government involved was no angel, but our words and deeds may well be recorded in heaven. And, I presume, so are the pages we open on the internet. Our anonymous surfing may not be recorded on earth, but it surely leaves an imprint in the book of life. Remember, every day you are writing your autobiography.

Early in a campaign it can be difficult to attract an audience to a political rally, particularly if it is during working hours. I remember one event we had scheduled in New Hampshire. We have a summer home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, but the rally was at least an hour away from our home. I knew that the media would read a lot into whether I had attracted a crowd or not. So you can imagine how relieved I was to step onto the stage and see a large and enthusiastic audience. Looking closer, I realized I was looking at almost the entire Wolfeboro Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There may be times in your life when you feel that it’s a bit of a burden being a member of the Church. Some folks will think you are not Christian, some may be insulted that you don’t drink with them, and others may think you are trying to be better than them by not swearing. But, based on that experience and many others in my life, I can affirm that your fellow members of the Church will be a blessing that far more than compensates. They will bless you when you are sick, lift you up when you fall, help you raise a teenager, counsel you about a job, and, yes, even move your junk. We are not perfect. As a matter of fact, in many things we are probably no better than anyone else. But we are remarkably good at reaching out to one another. Decide to be one of those who does just that.

Incomparable Worth

At my first 2012 presidential debate in Denver, the miles of interstate expressway from my hotel to the auditorium were closed to all traffic—for me. My motorcade was led by thirty or so motorcycles and police vehicles flashing their red and blue lights. I was accompanied by the Secret Service, which included not only the detail of agents that surrounded Ann and me in our bulletproof SUV but also the tactical unit that followed, armed with machine guns facing the vehicles behind us.

The Secret Service was only the icing on the adulation cake. Day after day, thousands of people shouted my name, investing in me their hopes for victory. The day before the election, Kid Rock electrified a packed arena for me, and the crowd cheered for Ann and me for three solid minutes before we could speak.

The day after the election was different. The Secret Service was gone. They had asked to stay on another week, but we felt that was an unnecessary imposition on them and the taxpayers. The cheers were gone as well, replaced by the agonizing reappraisal by others of what had gone wrong. I was back to driving my own car, filling my own gas tank, and buying groceries at Costco, just like I had been doing for several decades before.

Truthfully, Ann and I had never become caught up in all the flurry. I know that may be hard to believe, but during the journey we saw ourselves in exactly the same way we have throughout our marriage. We knew that, win or lose, any acclaim would eventually be forgotten. As Jimmy Durante once sang, “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.”

What we treasure from the campaign was not the pomp and the popularity; it was the friends that we made. We became very close with a number of the Secret Service personnel. In fact, as we prepared to go onto the stage to concede the victory to President Obama, more than one of those agents fought back tears. We miss them as friends—not as power candy.

Living life can be self-consuming: who you are can be overshadowed by what you do or what you have done. If you allow that to happen, the inevitable twists and turns of secular life can warp your self-confidence, limit your ambition, test your faith, and depress your happiness. You are not defined by secular measures. You are a child of a Heavenly Father who loves you. You are His work and His glory. And that statement confirms your incomparable worth. It also informs your life’s most important work: to lift others; to lift your family and spouse, if you’re married; and to remain true and faithful to the Almighty.

Greater Purpose

You may find it hard to imagine what it is like to debate an opponent on national television. I was not a high school debater. In fact, until I got into politics, the only person I had ever debated was my five-year-old son Matt. And he usually won.

My 2012 campaign had twenty-three televised debates—twenty with fellow Republicans and three with President Obama. These were no debate slouches. Newt Gingrich had been Speaker of the House. And President Obama had been president for four years. He kind of had his facts nailed down by that point.

You may have read that one of the candidates for governor of Florida this year put a fan under his podium when he debated. I know why: debating can be sweaty business.

Before every one of my debates I did something to keep things in perspective. At the top of the sheet of paper that was placed on my podium so I could make notes during the debate, I wrote one word: Dad. I also drew a small image of the sun. Throughout the debate, when I would glance down at that paper, I was reminded of my father’s fearlessness in fighting for what he believed was right. And the sun? That reminded me of the familiar scripture “Let your light so shine . . .” Win or lose, I hoped I would never do anything that would dishonor or discredit the things I hold most dear.

During your life you will encounter circumstances that make you sweat. For many of you, exams and tests won’t be over when you graduate. You will all stand at podiums, stand in front of a boss to ask for a raise, or work on a critical project. At moments like those, perspective is a very powerful friend. You may welcome perspective through preparatory prayer, by considering the blessings of the temple, or by simply glancing at your CTR ring. Find ways to keep your life in perspective.

Heroes Needed

One of the most meaningful aspects of the campaign was meeting remarkable people. I met Lech Wałęsa in Poland. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland, they rounded up thousands of that nation’s most influential people. And then they shot them. There was to be no leader available for a revolt. Against that backdrop, a shipyard electrician said no to oppression and no to the Soviets. He formed a union of fellow workers and joined a barricade behind shipyard gates. What followed was a movement that led to the freedom of an entire nation.

I met Cardinal Timothy Dolan in the rectory of New York City. He is a mighty voice for religious freedom.

I met Billy Graham at his mountain home. He prayed for me. His is a gorgeous voice that has long called people to come to Jesus.

I met the former Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm. His counsel on judging other religions was instructive. He said he had three rules for understanding another faith: First, learn about that faith from one of its adherents, not from one of its detractors. Second, compare the best of one religion with the best of another, not the best of one with the worst of the other. And, third, leave room for religious jealousy. I inquired what he meant by religious jealousy. He explained that in every religion he has encountered, there is something he wishes were also part of his religion. Among Mormons, he spoke of our missionary program; among Catholics, their reverence for the Pope.

From all the admirable and heroic people I met, I was impressed with the enormity of the influence of one single person. Time and again, one person makes all the difference in the lives of multiple people.

Each of you here will influence other lives. Think of that. Perhaps you will shape history; perhaps you will shape one person’s history. Consider with care how you act, what you say, and what you devote your life to, for, I assure you, your choices will shape the lives of others.

America needs heroes. You don’t have to be larger than life to be a hero, just larger than yourself. We see heroes every day—Scoutmasters, Primary teachers, missionaries, campaign volunteers, and parents. I hope you will choose to be a hero, because this world needs a lot more of them.


This text is adapted from Governor Romney’s forum address to BYU students, faculty, and staff on 18 November 2014. To listen to the full address, visit

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