The text of President Obama’s speech, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, President Crow, for that generous introduction, and for your inspired leadership here at ASU. And I want to thank the entire ASU community for the honor of attaching my name to a scholarship program that will help open the doors of higher education to students from every background. That is the core mission of this school; it is a core mission of my presidency; and I hope this program will serve as a model for universities across this country.
Now, before I begin, I’d like to clear the air about that little controversy everyone was talking about a few weeks back. I have to tell you, I really thought it was much ado about nothing, although I think we all learned an important lesson. I learned to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. And your university President and Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.
In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one’s title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one’s life has been led – and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.
And I want to say to you today, graduates, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone, one that you and your families are rightfully proud of, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Your body of work is yet to come.
Now, some graduating classes have marched into this stadium in easy times – times of peace and stability when we call on our graduates to simply keep things going, and not screw it up. Other classes have received their diplomas in times of trial and upheaval, when the very foundations of our lives have been shaken, the old ideas and institutions have crumbled, and a new generation is called on to remake the world.
It should be clear by now the category into which all of you fall. For we gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and the world. The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibility that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices. We are engaged in two wars and a struggle against terrorism. The threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic defy national boundaries and easy solutions.
For many of you, these challenges are felt in more personal terms. Perhaps you’re still looking for a job – or struggling to figure out what career path makes sense in this economy. Maybe you’ve got student loans, or credit card debts, and are wondering how you’ll ever pay them off. Maybe you’ve got a family to raise, and are wondering how you’ll ensure that your kids have the same opportunities you’ve had to get an education and pursue their dreams.
In the face of these challenges, it may be tempting to fall back on the formulas for success that have dominated these recent years. Many of you have been taught to chase after the usual brass rings: being on this “who’s who” list or that top 100 list; how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car.
You can take that road – and it may work for some of you. But at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go; that in fact, the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.
I want to highlight two main problems with that old approach. First, it distracts you from what is truly important, and may lead you to compromise your values, principles and commitments. Think about it. It’s in chasing titles and status – in worrying about the next election rather than the national interest and the interests of those they represent – that politicians so often lose their way in Washington. It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that come with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street.
The leaders we revere, the businesses that last – they are not the result of narrow pursuit of popularity or personal advancement, but of devotion to some bigger purpose – the preservation of the Union or the determination to lift a country out of depression; the creation of a quality product or a commitment to your customers, your workers, your shareholders and your community.
The trappings of success may be a by-product of this larger mission, but they can’t be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff.
The second problem with the old approach is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success all too often leads to complacency. We too often let them serve as indications that we’re doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we’re not doing our best; that we are shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age. And the thing is, in this new, hyper-competitive age, you cannot afford to be complacent.
That is true in whatever profession you choose. Professors might earn the distinction of tenure, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll keep putting in the long hours and late nights – and have the passion and drive – to be great educators. It’s true in your personal life as well. Being a parent isn’t just a matter of paying the bills and doing the bare minimum – it’s not bringing a child into the world that matters, but the acts of love and sacrifice it takes to raise that child. It can happen to presidents too: Abraham Lincoln and Millard Fillmore had the very same title, but their tenure in office – and their legacy – could not be more different.
And that’s not just true for individuals – it is also true for this nation. In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own success – lulled into complacency by our own achievements.
We’ve become accustomed to the title of “military super-power,” forgetting the qualities that earned us that title – not just a build-up of arms, or accumulation of victories, but the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity, equality and freedom that have made us who we are.
We’ve become accustomed to our economic dominance in the world, forgetting that it wasn’t reckless deals and get-rich-quick schemes that got us there; but hard work and smart ideas -quality products and wise investments. So we started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings. We saw businesses focus more on rebranding and repackaging than innovating and developing new ideas and products that improve our lives.
All the while, the rest of the world has grown hungrier and more restless – in constant motion to build and discover – not content with where they are right now, determined to strive for more.
So graduates, it is now abundantly clear that we need to start doing things a little differently. In your own lives, you’ll need to continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy: to have more than one job or career over the course of your life; to keep gaining new skills – possibly even new degrees; and to keep taking risks as new opportunities arise.
And as a nation, we’ll need a fundamental change of perspective and attitude. It is clear that we need to build a new foundation – a stronger foundation – for our economy and our prosperity, rethinking how we educate our children, and care for our sick, and treat our environment.
Many of our current challenges are unprecedented. There are no standard remedies, or go-to fixes this time around.
That is why we are going to need your help. We’ll need young people like you to step up. We need your daring and your enthusiasm and your energy.
And let me be clear, when I say “young,” I’m not just referring to the date on your birth certificate. I’m talking about an approach to life – a quality of mind and heart.
A willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame. A willingness to question conventional wisdom and rethink the old dogmas. A lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige – and a commitment instead to doing what is meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world.
That’s the spirit that led a band of patriots not much older than you to take on an empire. It’s what drove young pioneers west, and young women to reach for the ballot; what inspired a 30 year-old escaped slave to run an underground railroad to freedom, and a 26 year-old preacher to lead a bus boycott for justice. It’s what led firefighters and police officers in the prime of their lives up the stairs of those burning towers; and young people across this country to drop what they were doing and come to the aid of a flooded New Orleans. It’s what led two guys in a garage – named Hewlett and Packard – to form a company that would change the way we live and work; and what led scientists in laboratories, and novelists in coffee shops to labor in obscurity until they finally succeeded in changing the way we see the world.
That is the great American story: young people just like you, following their passions, determined to meet the times on their own terms. They weren’t doing it for the money. Their titles weren’t fancy – ex-slave, minister, student, citizen. But they changed the course of history – and so can you.
With a degree from this university, you have everything you need to get started. Did you study business? Why not help our struggling non-profits find better, more effective ways to serve folks in need. Nursing? Understaffed clinics and hospitals across this country are desperate for your help. Education? Teach in a high-need school; give a chance to kids we can’t afford to give up on – prepare them to compete for any job anywhere in the world. Engineering? Help us lead a green revolution, developing new sources of clean energy that will power our economy and preserve our planet.
Or you can make your mark in smaller, more individual ways. That’s what so many of you have already done during your time here at ASU – tutoring children; registering voters; doing your own small part to fight hunger and homelessness, AIDS and cancer. I think one student said it best when she spoke about her senior engineering project building medical devices for people with disabilities in a village in Africa. Her professor showed a video of the folks they’d be helping, and she said, “When we saw the people on the videos, we began to feel a connection to them. It made us want to be successful for them.”
That’s a good motto for all of us – find someone to be successful for. Rise to their hopes and their needs. As you think about life after graduation, as you look in the mirror tonight, you may see somebody with no idea what to do with their life. But a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline. The folks at your local homeless shelter might see a friend. None of them care how much money is in your bank account, or whether you’re important at work, or famous around town – they just know that you’re someone who cares, someone who makes a difference in their lives.
That is what building a body of work is all about – it’s about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It’s about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star – because one thing I know about a body of work is that it’s never finished. It’s cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. You may have set-backs, and you may have failures, but you’re not done – not by a longshot.
Just look to history. Thomas Paine was a failed corset maker, a failed teacher, and a failed tax collector before he made his mark on history with a little book called Common Sense that helped ignite a revolution. Julia Child didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was almost fifty, and Colonel Sanders didn’t open up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was in his sixties. Winston Churchill was dismissed as little more than a has-been, who enjoyed scotch just a bit too much, before he took over as Prime Minister and saw Great Britain through its finest hour. And no one thought a former football player stocking shelves at the local supermarket would return to the game he loved, become a Super Bowl MVP, and then come here to Arizona and lead your Cardinals to their first Super Bowl.
Each of them, at one point in their life, didn’t have any title or much status to speak of. But they had a passion, a commitment to following that passion wherever it would lead, and to working hard every step along the way.
And that’s not just how you’ll ensure that your own life is well-lived. It’s how you’ll make a difference in the life of this nation. I talked earlier about the selfishness and irresponsibility on Wall Street and Washington that rippled out and led to the problems we face today. I talked about the focus on outward markers of success that can lead us astray.
But here’s the thing, graduates: it works the other way around too. Acts of sacrifice and decency without regard to what’s in it for you – those also create ripple effects – ones that lift up families and communities; that spread opportunity and boost our economy; that reach folks in the forgotten corners of the world who, in committed young people like you, see the true face of America: our strength, our goodness, the enduring power of our ideals.
I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge. But it is also a privilege.
Because it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had – to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don’t ever shy away from that endeavor. Don’t ever stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love.
Congratulations on your graduation, and Godspeed on the road ahead.