Follow Your Bliss
A long time ago before I gave my first commencement talk, an old Irish priest gave me some advice. He said: „Think of the commencement speaker as the corpse at an old-fashioned Irish
wake. They need you to have the ceremony, but nobody expects you to say very much,‟ I‟ll take
that advice this morning and be brief. First, and foremost, I‟m here to say “congratulations to Millspas graduates. You‟ve labored long and done fine work, and we‟re here to honor you and wish you god speed on your life‟s journey. Congratulations to faculty, family and friends, who were there to support, encourage, and yes, to put up with you graduates. I‟ve always said that no one accomplishes mush alone. If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know she didn‟t get
up there all by herself. So this is a day when each of you on top should congratulate those who lifted you up, and share, at least spiritually, in your accomplishments.
And perhaps the greatest congratulations of all on this day ought to go to the parents. I say that not to steal any of the graduates‟ glory. This is your day and you should be filled with pride. But I‟ve got to tell you I‟ve been both a parent and a graduate-and parenting took more of my thoughts,
more concentrated learning, more money, and a greater emotional toll-than any sheepskin I‟ve
earned. Most of the parents will understand when I tell you that I spent many days encouraging my kids to be independent and many nights whispering the parents‟ prayer: “Dear God don‟t let
then hurt themselves. Help them fly, but don‟t let them fall.” They have lived with the contradiction of making parent noises to protect you, while they assist you in every way that you may take wings. As the popular song puts it: they have been “ the wind beneath your wings”. So I
hope all of your graduates will join with me in congratulating your parents, grandparents, and the parental figures in your lives.
Now that the congratulations have been made, I‟m obliged by tradition to give you some sagely advice.
When I was at Ford, I‟d take this opportunity to encourage more science and math education, and to express concern for the shortage of graduating scientists and engineers. I believed then, and I still believe, that the scientists are vital to America‟s global competitiveness. Back then, I
presented this same theme at engineering schools and liberal arts colleges alike. Only now, I‟m beginning to realize why I never got invited back to liberal arts schools.
But I can tell you America needs broadly-educated liberal arts graduates every bit as much as we need scientist, technologists, and business graduates. Maybe I didn‟t say often enough back then,
maybe I didn‟t totally believe it myself –but I‟m a liberal art believe now. For I had an epiphany later in my career that taught me the value of diversity.
My company, my industry, in face all of American industry, was hit very hard in the late 70s and early 80s by high-quality, low cost foreign products. As they say down here,” You don‟t learn a whole lot from the second kick of a mule.” So at Ford, we changed our entire philosophy to concentrate on quality. To do that required empowering our people, giving them the authority and opportunity to make decisions that were once reserved for senior executives.
We worked, for the first time, in empowered teams. And in those teams, I got religion. For I realized that the best engineering solutions didn‟t always come from an engineer, but might come from a personnel guy with a Bachelors Degree in history. The best management ideas didn‟t
necessarily emanate form an MBA, but just as often from an assembly line worker with a degree form the school of hard knocks. That‟s when I realized that diversity, diversity in educational backgrounds, in cultural heritage, in gender and in color, all added to the Mulligan stew that makes America the most creative and innovative country on earth.
As Bill Rogers put it,” We‟re all ignorant, only on different subjects.” By drawing on diversity, we begin to fill in the gaps of ignorance, and somehow become more than the sum of the parts. So, that‟s one reason I‟ve become a believer in liberal arts education.
Yet there‟s another, more recent reason. Recently, I began to read the works of a man named Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell was a college professor and perhaps the world‟s foremost
expert on symbolism in mythology and folklore. More important, Joseph Campbell became the voice of a new generation that says life is too short to be small. His philosophy can be summed up in three words:” Follow your bliss”. Follow your bliss. No, not “if it feels good, does it.” That was the „70s. Follow your bliss means to follow a course in life that is most exciting and challenging for you and to follow a direction that brings you the greatest personal and professional satisfaction.
Campbell urges us to do like King Arthur‟s knights when they set our on their Holy Grail. Each set out alone. Each entered the woods at the deepest, darkest point, where there was mo way or path. If there is a well-known path, it is someone else‟s path, not yours. In this way, each individual is able to create his and her own grail led only by a sense of self discovery and of personal bliss.
In my career, I‟ve had the great honor of meeting and conversing with many of the most
accomplished men and women of my generation. They all had one thing in common. They were pursuing their individual visions with energy and enthusiasm. And they were enjoying the heck out of themselves. So follow your bliss, and you will have a rich, full life. Follow after money or power, you may lose it and have nothing. Or worse, you may get the money and power and still have nothing.
It‟s like an executive I once knew who confided that he was not fulfilled. He said:” I climbed to the top of the ladder, and suddenly found my ladder was against the wrong wall.” Find the wall that turns you on, and climb it. It‟s that simple.
Now Joseph Campbell said something else about following your bliss that may sound contradictory. He said, and I quote:” Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Where you stumble, there lies your treasure-what on earth did he mean by that? Doesn‟t that contradict
following your bliss? I learned what he meant by that when we were establishing Quality as our Number One Priority at Ford. What we found is that to achieve quality in product, or by inference, in a life, you have to look enthusiastically for mistakes.
You might think of it like a space shuttle aimed for the mom. It isn‟t a matter of taking aim and firing a straight shot. If these errors go uncorrected, they become more and more exaggerated, and you miss your window of opportunity.
So the faster you recognize, admit and correct your errors, the more precisely you can stay on target. Success is error driven. Where you stumble becomes your opportunity to make corrections, to learn and grow,. Let me give a couple of examples.
There was a man who was determined to become a public servant. He ran for legislature and lost. He ran for congress and lost. He ran for the Senate twice and lost both times. After all these failures, he even tried for a political appointment as a state land officer, something like a Justice of the Peace, and he was flatly rejected. Yet this guy held to his vision of public service and in 1860 was elected President of the United States. The man, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.
Or how about the athletes among us, considering the baseball player who held the record for many years as having struck out more than any ball player in history. In his career, he struck out 1,330 times. Yet what we remember about Base Ruth is not the 1,330 times he failed, but the 714 times he hit a home run.
Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Edgar Allan Poe, and Whistler were all expelled from school at one point. They all failed. I could go on for days pointing out failures that were, in reality, people stumble while following their bliss. But I think I‟ve made the point. Follow the bliss. And where you stumble, stop and smile, for there your treasure may lie.
Well, that‟s about all of the sagely advice this old grey head can come up with. And I‟ve got to admit I‟ve even come by that late in life. As someone once said,” When you finally get it all together, you begin to forget where you put it.” But I suspect you‟re way ahead of me.
As I look at your graduates, I see you are actually bigger, stronger and smarter than my generation was. You‟re already dome away with so many of the hypocrisies-the dual standards, the cruel
prejudices, and environmental insensitivities-that my generation struggled with, and only partially, overcome. You‟re way ahead of us. Many of you have already recognized the failures of my generation for what they always are-the opportunities of your generation.
The responsibility is awesome. And we parents, while we‟ll still be there for you, we‟re come
about as far as we can in your future. As the old saying goes,” No matter how tall your father was, you have to do your own growing.”
So on this commencement day, I speak to you as a parent. And I join your parents in the silent prayer as you go forward:” God, please let them fly, but don‟t let them fall.” I also speak as your commencement speaker. And as your speaker I urge you to go for it: take you chances, follow your bliss. Good luck, and God speed.
Thank you. (1681 words)