'Roots & Wings'
Commencement Speech at SMU
By Ray L. Hunt

SMU trustee and business leader Ray L. Hunt gave the commencement address at Southern Methodist University on December 21, 2013.

Thank you Dr. Turner.

First, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to each of you soon‑to‑be graduates sitting in this historic – but newly renovated – coliseum today.  The original Moody Coliseum first opened its doors in December of 1956, and its first official event was that year’s graduation ceremony.  As we all also know, for the last ten months, Moody Coliseum has been undergoing a truly transformative expansion and remodeling.  This project has just been completed, and, once again, the new Moody Coliseum’s first official function is a graduation ceremony. 

Ray Hunt at SMU Commencement on 21 December 2013
Trustee Ray L. Hunt gives the commencement address.

However, what is more important today is the story about each of you – as individuals.  Each of you is about to receive a diploma, and, obviously, this is a very seminal event in your life – one that represents the culmination of multiple different personal accomplishments and triumphs – each of which we are celebrating today.

This date also marks a very important and very meaningful closing of one chapter of your life and the beginning of another chapter of your life.  The upcoming new chapter of your life will, without a doubt, contain a number of challenges and difficult issues with which you will have to deal – but it also will offer each of you the potential of great personal reward and success.  The deciding factor as to how positive – or not positive – your future will be is based upon only one variable; namely – you – as an individual. 

The good news is that each of you has the potential to make this next chapter in your life, and those later chapters that will follow, very successful – and for having worked hard to earn that opportunity, I, again, offer my most sincere congratulations.

As to my comments today, I would like to, first, state for the record that, for a variety of reasons, I have had the “opportunity” to hear more university commencement speeches than should be reasonably required of any nonacademic, and, in all honesty, it has really been a mixed bag.  Some commencement speeches were excellent – others were terrible.

Further, and being totally candid, I do not think that I have ever heard any commencement speech – good or bad – that imparted any new knowledge to the graduates.  However, what seemed to separate the better commencement speeches from those that were less memorable was one characteristic: namely, the better commencement speeches provided a slightly different – and sometimes unique – perspective on knowledge that those who were about to receive diplomas already possessed.

My objective is to try to do that today. 

With that objective as an underlying presumption, my comments today are going to be based on a very simple personal experience I had a number of years ago. 

One day, I was walking through our living room at home and I noticed on the couch a little needlepoint pillow.  My wife loves to collect little needlepoint pillows which have sayings on them, and she has an uncanny ability to come up with sayings that really have a lot of substance.  The one I noticed that day was one of her favorites.  It said the following:

“There are two things
of real value we can give our children;
One is roots
The other is wings.”

Now, I realize that it has been a long time since anyone wearing a cap and gown today has been referred to as a child, but I would suggest to you that this is one of those sayings that represents deep wisdom.

Therefore, my comments today will be divided into two broad categories – the first dealing with roots and the second dealing with wings.

As to roots, each of you has a unique and personal set of roots when it comes to the family and loved ones who raised you as a child, encouraged you when you needed encouragement, punished you when punishment was deserved (and possibly on a few occasions when really it wasn’t), helped you with your homework, offered a little prayer at that hour of the day when they knew you were taking a particularly difficult exam, were worried to tears when you came home later than you should have one night – and then, once they learned you were home and okay, threatened to kill you.

Further, it is important to acknowledge that were it not for those who provided you with this encouragement and support, you probably wouldn’t be sitting in this room today. 

Whoever they are, and wherever they are, these are the individuals who gave you your individual and personal roots and these are the loved ones upon whose shoulders you will be standing as you go forth and accomplish whatever it is that you accomplish in life. 

Let me repeat that thought – as if there is only one thing that you remember from this commencement address today, it needs to be this: no matter how successful and how accomplished you end up being in life, you need to always remember that you will be standing on the shoulders of those who went before you. 

Obviously, your first set of roots is totally unique to each of you as individuals.  A second set of roots, however, is shared by each of you; namely, the experiences which each of you has had as you have studied here at SMU.

Now, let’s turn to the subject of wings – and here, many of my comments can correctly be described more as a recitation of challenges – rather than a regurgitation of platitudes.

Most commencement speakers have as a theme that you, as graduates, have been very well prepared to go forward into the world to accomplish great things.  I will in no way disagree with that premise.  However, success should not be an automatic assumption, and I would submit to you that what will determine how much of your personal potential you will actually realize in life will be a function much more of how you deal with future failures than how you deal with future success.

In that regard, I would like to share with you a few short observations on life to which you clearly have already been exposed, but whose subtleties you might not yet have fully recognized. 

My first observation deals with the fact that, up to this point in time, you have probably been told that if you worked hard, studied hard, explored all of your options, etc., etc., you would be expanding significantly the opportunities and alternatives which life would afford you. And, to this point in your life, that statement was probably true. 

However, it is important for you to now realize that all of that is about to change.  From this point forward, the opposite is going to occur – as almost every major decision you make from this point forward will probably narrow, not broaden, your subsequent options in life – and for that reason, the challenge you will face will be to be very thoughtful and deliberate as to these decisions that you will have to make.

Some examples that I am referring to would be the following:

  • The profession you elect to pursue will cause you to exclude a number of other professions.
  • The company or the not-for-profit organization with which you choose to associate in the future will require you to turn your back on other opportunities.
  • Where you choose to live, geographically, will limit a number of life experiences which you would have had had you lived someplace else.
  • Whether or not you elect to marry – and if and when you elect to start your family – will cause certain other options to fall away.

And the list goes on – but the fact is that instead of life being represented by an ever-widening set of options, beginning today, your options are now going to become progressively narrower.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this and this is one of those universal truths which has applied to every human being who has ever lived. The key, however, is for you to be aware of this phenomenon and, therefore, to make your future decisions in a very disciplined, thoughtful and wise manner.

In that regard, I have always found interesting the title of the little book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I think that title has a lot of truth in it. Basically, what that phrase really says is that the solutions to many of life’s problems – even the most complex personal problems – can often be found in simple truths – if you recognize those truths and stay true to the principles they represent.

In kindergarten, each of us learned certain basic rules, such as:

  • Be nice to the other boys and girls,
  • Don’t fight in the hallways,
  • Tell the truth, and
  • If you make a mess, clean it up.

In my opinion, these, and several other simple kindergarten rules, have universal application, and when it comes to the multiple questions which will ultimately determine how you live your life, my observation has been that – quite often – the more complex a personal question or challenge is, the correct answer may be correspondingly simple. 

Stated differently, the proper answer to a particularly complex question may, in fact, be quite simple if you base your decision on the basic principles involved. 

Now, dealing with the consequences of that decision may be very challenging – sometimes extremely challenging – but making a difficult decision is a different subject from how best to deal with the consequences of the decision made. In short, when faced with difficult problems in the future, you should always be true to your personal values and principles as you make your decision – no matter how difficult dealing with the subsequent consequences might be.

A companion point deals with the many small decisions which each of you will make in the future concerning the way in which you will live your day‑to‑day life. If you ever fall into the trap of making day‑to‑day decisions based upon the opinions or the expectations of other people, then, in reality, you are allowing third parties to define your life, your interests and your values – and once that occurs, you run the very real risk of losing your own identity. This may occur bit by bit over a very long period of time – and you may never even realize it while it’s happening – but the bottom line is that if you start making personal decisions based upon what you perceive will be the reactions and opinions of others, then you are no longer living your life – rather, you will be living a life fashioned by others. It will be important, therefore, to periodically step back and take a dispassionate look at what you are doing and why you are doing it – and to make sure that the manner by which you are conducting your personal affairs reflects your true individual passions, principles and priorities – as opposed to reflecting the expectations or opinions of other people who happen to surround you.

Another very important point as you go forward is that you should never believe your own press clippings. One of my favorite sayings – which I clipped out of a magazine 20 years ago – is that a person’s reputation is like his shadow – it is always longer or shorter than the real thing.

Translated to a personal level, this means that you should never believe that you are as good as your admirers say you are – but you can also take some comfort in knowing that you will never be as bad as your detractors would have others believe. 

Additionally, no matter how well you did in your studies here at SMU, don’t fall into the trap of thinking too highly of yourself as you go into the next chapter of your life. 

As you deal with new people and new situations, you should always assume that there is going to be someone involved in whatever you are doing who is smarter than you, more capable than you, and will attempt to work harder than you.  When that happens, your success – or lack of success – will be measured by how hard you work and the degree to which you apply yourself when facing stiff competition – because I promise you that stiff competition will appear in whatever you elect to do in the future.

To come full circle, and before your diplomas are conferred, I would like to refer one last time to both your roots and your wings.

As to your roots, remember that no matter how successful you are in life, you will, in some manner, be standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before you.

With respect to wings, you have been prepared exceptionally well while here at SMU for achieving significant future success, and as each of you leaves to embark upon the next important chapter of your life, I would like to wish you good luck and Godspeed.

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