I had the wonderful privilege of helping with six graduation events over the weekend – Public Health, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Medicine, and Professional Programs, which include Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Exercise Physiology, and Medical Laboratory Sciences.

The experience was amazing – bright, excited students surrounded by proud parents, siblings, spouses, and family members. The faculty from the respective schools turned out in great number, and the deans did an amazing job in demonstrating their love and affection for their students.

It was an important milestone for all involved, closing the circle for students – the end of school and the beginning of their careers, proud parents witnessing an almost singular achievement by their children, and bittersweet closing of a chapter for faculty and deans. We see ourselves in these students – our dreams as we sat in their seat, memories of our families and our graduation, and knowledge that what is to come is even better.

I gave each school’s students four challenges for their futures:

  • Find your “why” or purpose. I have previously blogged about Simon Sinek’s great TED talk on the Golden Circle and his book Start with Why and thus will not go into detail here. Finding your real “why” or purpose becomes your North Star. When you clearly define your “why,” decision making is pretty easy in your life, and this destination becomes your reason for being when things in life get hard. WVU President Gordon Gee’s favorite leadership book, Team of Rivals, is about Lincoln’s cabinet. Lincoln’s “why” was to put the country back together again. My “why” is to tangibly improve the health and lives of our citizens, focusing on One WVU and One West Virginia.
  • Dream big, reach far, and don’t worry about failure. To me, we misinterpret risk all the time. We tend to focus on risk of omission – that is failing at something or making a mistake. I think the much bigger risk is the risk of omission – that is, not doing something important. We should seek being part of the signal, not the noise. Gordon Gee understands that standing out for something you believe in, for great purpose or “why,” is leadership. He has said on many occasions that if you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance even better. Failing and continuing to try constitute learning. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, tells us that the secret to mastery is 10,000 hours of practice (e.g., lots of failing and improving). Steve Jobs said the difference between successful and unsuccessful people is perseverance.
  • Remember that one person can make a big difference in the world. Many people are mistaken that they can make a big difference in the world. Look at Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, or Abraham Lincoln. I like Mitch Albom's book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which describes how the behaviors and kindnesses or unkindnesses you perform in this life amplify and resonate in the next. This is Buddhism-like karma. I told the story of the starfish – a little boy walking down the beach sees that a bunch of starfish washed up overnight and starts to throw them one by one back in the ocean. An older man walking by says to the little boy that he is wasting his time, that there are too many starfish to get them all back in the ocean. The little boy looks at him and says, “Yes, but for the ones I do, it will make all the difference.” Make a difference in your life – person to person clinically, or amplify this through education or research.
  • Remember simple gifts. We too often mistake really important things as unimportant, and unimportant things as important. Gifts of health, family, service, nature’s beauty, and purpose are foundational. Money, power, title, and material possessions are not.  Gratitude comes from understanding how lucky each one of us is for our simple gifts. Our goal should be to want what we have, not have what we want. I told the candidates to remember that the average lottery winner is less happy than the average person, and the average person surviving a life-threatening illness is happier than the average person. I hope they have their eyes open and see what is really important in their lives before it is gone.

I challenged them to find their “why;” dream big and don’t be afraid of failing; remember one person can change the world; and hold on to simple gifts.

These are my challenges, too.

I finished by reminding them that whether they wear their Flying WV on their shirt or their coat, they need to keep it flying in their heart, and that we are their home.

Go First.

Change the world.

Godspeed, West Virginia University Class of 2015.