May 13, 2016  

President Daniels to graduates: Your choices, not chance, will help you achieve great things

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - I’ve often observed that the two most difficult assignments in public speaking are eulogies and commencements. They share two daunting characteristics. First, you are not the star of the show; no one is there to hear you talk. And second, it’s tough to come up with thoughts that haven’t been expressed more eloquently by others a hundred times before.

Still, the Purdue tradition that assigns this task to the occupant of my current job is a welcome one, in large part because it regularly provides me this inspiring view: a sea of bright, shining faces, full of hope and expectation as they look forward to a new era of freedom and promise. I’m looking, of course, at the parents, who have finally paid that last tuition check. Can we pause for a moment of appreciation for the parents and family members who have played such large roles in the achievements we celebrate today?

Around the country this weekend, ceremonies like this one are dispensing diplomas. They all read about the same - bachelor of this, master of that. But they will not be equal in meaning.  Repeated studies reveal that the seriousness of subject matter and the rigor with which student mastery is evaluated vary widely. As employers have come to learn, many diplomas tell little or nothing about the holder’s readiness for work or for life. At most, they are a proxy for the intelligence that got the student admitted to college in the first place.

Your diplomas are different. You chose a school where, by and large, serious subjects are taught seriously. Where high grades are still provably hard to come by. No participation trophies here. You got your diplomas and your self-esteem the old-fashioned way: You earned them.

Mitch Daniels

Purdue President Mitch Daniels talks about the results of hard work that powered the university's newest graduates through rigorous coursework and will carry them through their careers during 2016 spring commencement ceremonies on campus. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons).
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There’s more value to all your hard work than just getting your money’s worth. Scholars on the topic of human happiness have proven that the single strongest key to a satisfying, fulfilling life is “earned success,” the kind that can come only from sustained effort, overcoming difficulties, dealing with setbacks.

And yet, among many pernicious notions of our time, perhaps the most dangerous is the idea, sometimes implied and sometimes express, that life is more or less a lottery. That we are less masters of our fate than corks floating in a sea of luck. Or, even more absurd, that most of us are victims of some kind, and therefore in desperate need of others to protect us against a world of predators and against our own gullibility. 

I doubt you or your parents believe such nonsense. If you did, you wouldn’t have come to Purdue. You wouldn’t have invested the time, money, or hard work that brought you to this moment.  And I hope you will tune out anyone who, from this day on, tries to tell you that your achievements are not your own.

Oh, sure, we all get important help along the way. I hope you will never lose sight of those parents, teachers, coaches, and others who nurtured and assisted the growth of your intellect, skills, and character. But in the end, your successes, and your failures for that matter, are, like your diplomas today, really up to you.

I used to like that clever metaphor about the turtle on the fence post. You know, the one that ends “What you know for sure is he didn’t get there on his own.” It’s cute, but I don’t use it anymore. It dawned on me that it sends just the wrong message. Because the fictional turtle on a post did nothing to lift himself to that height; he just got lucky, when someone else put him there. Life’s achievements are never like that.

I’m not saying that luck never plays a part; of course it can. But, unless it’s the tragic kind of luck, it almost never decides a life’s outcome. Like the referees’ calls in a basketball game, the good and bad breaks are likely to even out over the course of a season. What counts in the long run is the quality of your play.

Here’s the deal: You can’t take luck completely out of the equation, but you can tilt the odds in your favor. Decisions you make, and effort you either do or don’t put in, will either increase or reduce the chances that life’s breaks break in your favor.

Some of these choices are pretty obvious. Practicing basic preventive health, like exercise, a prudent diet, and avoiding things you should avoid, raises radically the odds that you will live a longer and more vigorous life span. Getting married and staying that way is powerfully correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes: better health, economic security and career success, and best of all, higher levels of long-term happiness.

But nothing will improve your odds more than the characteristic that got you into this auditorium today. Ask the great achievers of history, like our greatest inventor, Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Or the incomparable champion of freedom Frederick Douglass, who taught: “We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is work … enduring, honest, unremitting, indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put.” Or movie pioneer Samuel Goldwyn, who said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” 

Baseball fans here will remember Eddie Murray, a Hall of Famer and one of the great clutch hitters of all time. Once, after his wrong-field bloop double had scored a winning run, Murray was yelled at by an opposing fan who shouted, “You must be the luckiest hitter in baseball.” To which Murray politely replied, “You must not watch batting practice.”  

A few years ago, an intriguing case came before the Indiana Supreme Court. A man who had trained and disciplined himself to count the cards at a blackjack table had been banned from Indiana casinos because he was winning too much. He hadn’t cheated, and he wasn’t just getting abnormally lucky. He was just winning by way of his hard work. The judges said the case pitted his right of access to a public space against the casinos’ right to decide who came on their property.

The court decided for the casinos. I can’t second-guess their reading of the law, but I admit I was rooting for the customer. All he had done was to tilt the odds in his favor, and he did it through his own effort, the kind Douglass called “honest, unremitting, and indefatigable.” That’s the formula I recommend to you; far more important, that’s the formula history recommends. Follow it, and you’ll minimize the role of luck; practice it, and you’ll never be anybody’s “victim.”

At these ceremonies, I have started drawing particular attention to a few words in the conferral language we are about to recite. They refer to the “rights, privileges, duties, and responsibilities” of your new degrees. I cite them because today’s world abounds in people who are quick to demand what they claim are their rights and privileges without recognizing any concomitant duties and responsibilities. 

Not Boilermakers. Not today, not ever. The history of this university is one of people who came from modest circumstances, accepted the responsibility to work hard and went on, through good luck and bad, to achieve great things and to be great citizens. Who accepted the duty to lead others in lives of similar character. Who knew, with George Washington, that “We cannot ensure success, but we can deserve it.” 

You’re going to see, and I believe make, a lot of history.  Maybe more than you may have thought about. 

A few years ago, I took up with two new lady friends. It’s OK. My wife, Cheri, knew and approved. You see, for a few months in 2007, the two oldest people anywhere on Earth lived in Indiana, just 30 or so miles apart, and I found that, and them, just fascinating. Bertha Frye was 113, Edna Parker 114, two Hoosier farm girls who had been 18 when the Titanic sank, your age when the U.S. entered World War I. When I brought them together to celebrate Edna’s 114th, the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the oldest combined age of any two humans who ever met. Try to imagine all the history, and changes, they witnessed. 

I bring it up because, during your lives, 114 will cease being incredible. It may in fact become routine.  In just the historical blink since Bertha and Edna were your age, life expectancy has increased by 30 years in the U.S., 36 years worldwide. With the advance of medical science, the trend is sure to continue. 

So your life expectancy is headed for three digits, to levels humanity has never known or imagined. You will be called on to rewrite the rules about what a career is, what “old age” is, what “Till death do us part” means.  And you will have tons of time to shift the odds and take luck out of the equation. 

But that is not the sort of life expectancy that matters this morning. Purdue expects much more of you than longevity. We expect that you will do great and important things with all those years you are so likely to have. That you will produce new knowledge, great companies, innovative breakthroughs, sound families and, most important, build lives of character and virtue. When you do, luck won’t have had much to do with it.

I will always have a unique memory of and affinity for the class that leaves us today. We were freshmen together. You arrived at Purdue the same year I did, a semester before me, officially.  But my first speech in this job was to you, at Boiler Gold Rush, in August of 2012. I called you my classmates that night, and I think of you that way today. I’ll be watching with the pride of association all your future growth and accomplishments.

I know with certainty they will come. That you will continue to do the hard work, and make the choices, and develop the kind of characters, that the world associates with Boilermakers. The kind that tilts the odds of life steadily, and decisively, in your favor. I wish you good luck, in the firm belief that you won’t need it. Hail Purdue, and each of you.

Related release:

Purdue adds sixth ceremony for spring commencement

Note to Journalists:  Video B-roll from commencement is available at 

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