Commencement address to HT Class of 2016

ht commenceCongratulations to the graduating Class of 2016 of Huston-Tillotson University!

Thanks for inviting me. To President Colette Pierce Burnette and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Archibald Vanderpuye (VAN-der-poy) and the talented faculty of Huston-Tillotson, a special Congratulations.   I come today bearing the thanks and appreciation of an entire city.

There has been no greater honor than – wait, that’s not right   — being asked to deliver this speech is the greatest honor I’ve yet to receive as Mayor.

It’s an honor to share this special day with you all. I’ve come to have a special place for Huston-Tillotson in my heart. A delegation of HT students and environmentalists met me in Paris where I signed international climate change agreements between cities. And this spring I had the special privilege of throwing out the first pitch at the baseball game against Wiley.

Throwing out a first pitch is not easy. Now, I played a little ball. Even got a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I used to be able to throw pretty well. But try throwing one pitch in dress shoes, slacks and a dress shirt without properly warming up in front of a crowd that didn’t show up to see you.

Come to think of it, it’s kind of like being a commencement speaker.

And if I didn’t throw a strike, and I am proud to tell you that I at least threw a no-hitter. So there’s that.

But we all know who this day is for, and it’s not for me.  But lest you graduating seniors get confused, it’s not even mostly for you either.

Let’s take a moment to thank the real heroes today.

Will the graduating class please rise, turn, and face your relatives because there is no one happier for  you than these folks right now.

To the moms and dads and grandparents, this is your day. You made this happen.

Looking at you graduate today, your relatives have the dizzying perspective of time. They see you in diapers, in the outfit you wore on your first day of school, in what you wore to prom. They see back in time to the very beginning of you and all the different paths you took — and could have taken.  They watched you open your eyes for the first time, and then each time you’ve opened your eyes, over the last twenty or so years.

And Class, while you’re up, let me give you a first piece of advice.  You need to learn to capture moments – to live be able to live in the moment.  In the matter of hours, if not weeks, and certainly years, this day and this moment will become a blur.  So, let’s try to capture it.   Look at what a beautiful day it is, bright and sunny.  Look at how many people are here – stretching all the way to your left and all the way to your right.  There’s even a second deck at the back ‘cause everyone wouldn’t fit down here on the field.  And look!  Way in the back, to the right and left, there’s even a triple deck.  Look again at HT’s bell tower.  Take this moment in and preserve it in your mind’s eye.

Go ahead and be seated.

There are alumni here whose roots in this institution go even deeper. How about this – all alumni, could you stand so we could give you a round of applause?

There are a few alumni I’d like to single out:

First off, we have with us today my friend, colleague, and sometimes teacher on the City Council, Miss Ora Houston, who is here today celebrating her 50-year reunion with the Class of 1966.  [pause]  And congratulations to her class.

Then there are two other alumnae I’d like to acknowledge: Dr. Maxine Kelly Boles and Dr. Wilhelmina E. Jones Perry, members of the Class of 1944.

These gals are teenagers compared to the other HT alum I’d like to salute. Mr. Ira Scott is 99 years young. Let’s give him a hand.

This school was a radical idea when it started long before even Mr. Scott was born. It was chartered less than a decade after the Civil War ended. This means the first students at Tillotson were freed men and women.

But the white churches that helped found the school really didn’t know what to do with African-American students. This was not a settled question. An early commencement speech at this school called “The Possibilities of our People” left the question open, and so did the curriculum.

Some students were taught cooking, sewing, and carpentry and how to be “polite and kind” in the company of whites.

Other students took history, Greek, Latin, physics, trigonometry, philosophy, and chemistry.

Those students – those first graduates of this institution – became the first generation of teachers to the first generation of freed Americans. These teachers went out and answered that question for generations in the community about what was possible.

It’s easy to say that Historically Black Colleges and Universities create many leaders – and that’s not wrong. But in HT’s case that doesn’t quite capture all that happens here. Because this school creates pioneers.

For example, this school had a basketball coach that went on to play a little baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His tryout apparently went a little better than mine.

Then there’s Dr. Herman A. Barnett, a Tuskegee Airman before enrolling here. In the late 1940s, he marched on the University of Texas campus to protest segregation. And then in 1949, he integrated the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, becoming a surgeon.

That was more than 20 years before Ron Givens came to Huston-Tillotson. He become the first black Republican in the legislature since Reconstruction.

There were others, including Robert Stanton, a ’63 graduate, who became the first African-American Director of the Park Service in the Clinton administration.

In case any of you are confused by me mentioning a Clinton administration, no, she’s not President yet. Hillary Clinton’s husband was also quite accomplished.  The Class of 2016 was still in diapers when Bill Clinton left the White House, and with that mention, their parents and I now feel really, really old.

Looking back in time makes us all dizzy, but if it’s any comfort, Ira Scott thinks we all look like teenagers.

One thing is clear: From the first graduation shortly after Emancipation to Huston-Tillotson graduates occupying positions of real power in the legislature and the Clinton and Obama administrations, those who have worn the caps and gowns before you, have paved a clear path of success for you.

Behind you is a line of role models stretching almost all the way back to the Civil War.

In front of you…

How you navigate this path called adulthood is something that each of us continues to figure out as we go. By now, Ira Scott probably has it almost all figured out. Almost.

In a few minutes, you’re going to line up, look for your parents in the stands, hear your name called, and then everything’s going to move fast.  You walk across this stage, shake some hands, and take your diploma, and try to remember to wave and smile at your parents so they can take a blurry picture of you that will be one of approximately 60,000 pictures you’ll be asked to pose for today.

And you’ll smile for every single one, OK? Be patient. You’re folks are so proud of you they can’t stand it.

But let’s go back up on this stage for a second. That diploma being put into your hand. It’s a certificate that you succeeded here and everywhere else you’ve been that led to this moment. You’ve probably been told that your diploma means you have an education, and an education is something that can never be taken away from you.

I can see by some of your reactions that you have heard that once or twice before. See parents! They were listening.

And some of you seniors might have plans for your diploma. Maybe you imagine using it to get a cushy, six-figure job in an office where you can hang your diploma in an expensive frame. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But seniors, remember the paths of success of your soon-to-be fellow alumnae? Remember those pioneers who came before you, many sitting with us today? You got an education here at Hutston-Tillotson, to be sure. But as an HT graduate, because it’s  in Austin, Texas, you got something even more exciting.

As much as anything else, your diploma is a license to fail.

I can see I just lost all the parents. Don’t worry, mom and dad. We’ll make lemonade out of this before we’re done.

But think about it. We are sitting in Austin, Texas. This is one of the innovation capitals of the world…  the city that leads Texas in patents and venture capital…  more new start-ups in this city per capita than anywhere in the country and maybe the world.

Innovation and creativity are in our city’s water.  And you’ve been drinking it for at least four years.

But true innovation and creativity does not take form by following the easy, well-established path.

It comes from taking risks.  It comes from being ready to “try something new.”  It comes from putting yourself in the position where you might fail.

The diploma you are about to receive signifies that you are successful.  With this diploma, you never have to prove that again – to yourself.

Inside your heart, know that you are successful.

Because if you are sure of that inside and about yourself, in the quiet moments when you are alone, just with yourself, that you are successful – then you are ready to step out and put yourself in the position where you might fail.

To try to achieve something great or big, or new…  something that is a stretch or a challenge…  something that might truly change your life or the lives of others…  something that might seem unobtainable…  something that may seem a little scary…  something that might not work.

Now let’s be clear about something else.  Failing just for the sake of failing is not the goal here.

The goal is to learn.

Try something…  be ready to fail…  and then learn…

Try again, apply what you learned…  and be ready to fail, again…  and continue to learn…

I’ve always been a little suspect of those who succeed the first time they try something big, or new, or special.  It’s hard to know if they’re good and smart – or just lucky.

Your generation, the generation of innovators, socially conscious innovators, is a gift to the world.   My generation is too prone to follow set paths, often too afraid to step outside the box.  But your generation expects much and has grown up with, and is comfortable with, change and newness and that is happening in your lifetime at dizzying speeds.

Your generation has watched smart phones just happen.  You’ve watched the internet being born.  Change is your generation’s Normal.

When I was in college taking chemistry, none of us were allowed to use calculators during exams.  It would have been an unfair advantage for the few in my class that could afford and had one.  We all had to use a slide rule.  You all probably don’t even know what a slide rule is…

But not your generation.  You expect change.

So I expect you, and now charge you, with being part of change – being an agent of change.

And to do this, you have to try new things.

Change does not happen without people who are willing to walk the high wire…  sometimes without a net.

This means you will sometimes fail and sometimes fall.

I’m here today to remind you that failing is okay, so long as you learn quickly.

If you learn from your failures and then act, it is not your failures that will define you.  It will be the ultimate fruit of what you learn.

The iterative problem solving process is the core to new innovation, to the new start-ups…  it’s why Austin has became a tech center.   You try something, it doesn’t work…  so you try it a little differently and you learn.  And you try, again, and you learn some more.  And you get better…  And then you get good.

If you talk to folks in the tech community, they’ll tell you that if what you’re doing feels easy, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

And if you ask them how they achieved success, they’ll describe the painful path of failure that got them there.

Just look at IBM.  Now, we could look at IBM as a company that builds supercomputers. Or, we could look at IBM as a company that failed at doing what it initially set out to do. Anyone know what IBM made when it was founded more than 100 years ago?

When IBM was first founded, they made cheese slicers.

Really. Cheese slicers.

We’re expecting a little more from your diploma than to hang on the wall of your office at the cheese slicer factory. Your diploma is your permission slip not to succeed at the first thing you do.

Your Huston-Tillotson diploma is authentic, certified, official authorization to feel free – to feel entitled – to fail…  and then to try, to fail, to learn, to adjust again.

This is the charge they are putting into your hands when they hand you a Huston-Tillotson diploma:  Pioneers cut their own path. A leader learns from failure, adjusts and presses on.

Denzel Washington said that “Many have the skills and talent to be successful.  But few have the guts to fail.”

Put another way, I don’t want to see you succeed at selling cheese slicers.  Fail, learn from the experience, and then go change the world.

That’s how you make good on the down-payment on your opportunities that has been made over and over again by those who will very soon become your fellow alums.

To be clear, I’m not talking about having grit and working your way through adversity. (Although that’s also good advice, just not today’s.)

I’m talking about the absolute value that can be found in not meeting your vision when you first try.

When people ask what your commencement speaker said, this is what you should say:

“Get out there and become the biggest failures you can as quickly as you can.”

Said another way:   Take risks.  Don’t be scared  Feel free and empowered to try new things, to be an agent of change for yourself, your family, and your community.

With today’s diploma, you have earned this.

When I discussed this commencement address with my wife, Diane, she gently suggested that this might be a bit of a downer. Perhaps, on such an optimistic occasion, a guy just turned 60 talking to college seniors about failure might be kind of a bummer.

But my daughters told me that I wasn’t saying anything different than someone else has said recently about turning lemons into lemonade.

If I’m suggesting you run toward risk, embrace the lessons of failure, and show grit, maybe it sounds better when someone else says:

I break chains all by myself

Won’t let my freedom rot in hell

Hey! I’ma keep running

Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves

Graduates of the Class of 2016, I urge you to riot through the borders in your careers, not least because no one ever went wrong taking advice from Beyoncé.

I am so honored to play a role in this special day, so please accept my heartfelt congratulations. We are all expecting a lot from you, and I can’t wait to see you get started.