Being in the arena
Remarks from fall 2023 commencement ceremonies
The following is a portion of my remarks to graduates at the fall 2023 commencement ceremonies on Saturday, December 16, 2023 in McGuirk Arena.
I am always struck by the contagious enthusiasm I am greeted with when I meet students and they explain to me why they are here at Central Michigan University. It is never a conversation about slogging their way through coursework or doing the bare minimum to get a diploma. It is always a discussion full of their excitement to learn and put lessons into action; about the ability to gain experience in an area they are passionate about. That passion and energy is why I have so much confidence in your future… why all of us on this stage and at this university believe in you.
Today you will receive your diploma, and when you leave this campus, you have a choice to make as you set off on a new journey. You can take the knowledge and experience you gained during your time at CMU and be a leader and a doer… or you can retreat into a life that may feel safer, content to sit back and merely watch the effort of others. My hope is that you will choose the former over the latter.
In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt talked about this very notion to a group of university students in a speech that would become known as his “Man in the Arena” speech. To paraphrase slightly, Roosevelt said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends themself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, IF they fail, at least they fail while daring greatly so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
What Roosevelt is saying is that it is important to be an active participant in life’s challenges rather than a passive observer, even when it is terribly uncomfortable. The active participant — the leader, the DO-er — can make a real difference, while passive observers never will.
He reminds us of the value of having courage over criticism. He shows that the person who risks nothing, does nothing and achieves nothing. ONLY the one who dares to act can make a positive impact. It is powerful and freeing to know that even if you fail, there is honor and value in having dared greatly.
To paraphrase another famous quote: It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. That willingness to make an effort – even when success is uncertain – is what sets achievers apart.
Finally, Roosevelt was talking about perseverance and resilience — character traits CMU graduates are known for in their careers and their communities. Failure and setback are part of any worthy endeavor… the key is to keep striving and not be deterred by these obstacles.
The ultimate reward for this resilience, effort, and courage is the triumph of high achievement. The sense of accomplishment that comes from having persevered is worth the effort and potential failure.
You already know that sense of triumph, that sense of accomplishment. By being in this room today – in this arena – you have already shown you have what it takes to achieve. You have already shown the willingness to be the one who strives valiantly and not the cynic nor the critic.
Over the past several years, you have demonstrated that you understand the importance of resilience, effort and courage in the face of challenges and adversity. Now it is time to take those qualities, along with the knowledge and experience gained through your CMU education, and unleash them on the world. You are going to make a spectacular difference.
No matter where you go, no matter what you do, you WILL face challenging situations and the specter of failure. You are prepared for it. You can handle whatever comes next. May you now have the confidence to do what Theodore Roosevelt suggested and be willing to fail in order to achieve.
I have been up here sharing the wisdom of an American president, delivered some 113 years ago. And as valuable as Roosevelt’s lessons are, I realize this is not the timeliest of references. Perhaps another – more recent – American icon has something to teach us as well.
In her song “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” Ms. Swift talks about overcoming the fear of failure. She is a bit more concise than Roosevelt when she sings: “Everything you lose is a step you take.”
I will not be singing it.
But the message is consistent with Roosevelt’s admonishment: Failing is better than refusing to try. It is worth being the active participant facing the possibility of failure. Even in failure there is growth and the satisfaction that you took a chance when others chose to merely stand by and criticize.
And of those who criticize your choice to dare, dream and lead…well, Taylor has lyrics for that too. “Don’t you worry your pretty little mind, people throw rocks at things that shine.” Or if you prefer… “Haters gonna hate.”
I realize at this point the Swifties among us could probably point to many other instances of inspiration to be gained from her lyrics, but I will stop here before we end up making friendship bracelets together.
The point is, whether in 1910 or 2023, you can absolutely make this world a better place by choosing to participate. You can positively impact your community by choosing to lead. You can overcome adversity and feel the satisfaction of daring to fail in order to make a real difference.
You are stepping into a brand new chapter of your life today. Remember all that you have learned and achieved at CMU, and pour it into everything you do. Stay flexible. Roll with the punches and continue to adapt to change... It's more valuable than you may know.
And do not forget to lift others up as you climb. Your colleagues, your community… they are your team. You have the amazing power to support and cheer them on. Trust me, it can change someone's life in ways you cannot even imagine.
Take the chance and strive for excellence – it is in you. And remember, every word you say, every action you take, can make the world a better place.
Hold onto your passion, while you keep your heart full of compassion. They are your guiding lights. And that sense of purpose you've nurtured here at CMU? Let it lead you.
Face every challenge head-on with that Fired-Up spirit of yours.
Be in the arena.
And as always, FIRE UP CHIPS!