As a new school year begins, I can’t help thinking about all the wasted words given out during countless commencement addresses last Spring. Giving a pep talk to someone moments away from graduating makes no sense to me. By then, it’s too late to make any changes. Instead, we should focus on giving them the straight scoop while there’s still time to do something about it. In that spirit, I would like to share with you my patented pre-commencement address. This is the one I’ve given my incoming high school freshman students for the past six years. It’s also the one speech they refer to the most when they come back to visit. It goes a little like this…
“Welcome to the most important day of your life. That’s a bold statement for me to make since I don’t know any of you. I have no idea what tragedies and triumphs you may have encountered on your path to my classroom, but I stand by my opening statement. Because, at this moment, you’ve been granted a do-over, a mulligan, a fresh start, a new beginning for your life. And you will never get another again as long as you live. At this moment, every grade you have ever received no longer matters. No one will ever look at them again. If you were a straight “A” or straight “F” student, it doesn’t matter because no one cares. Sure, if you did have high marks, the knowledge and study habits you acquired will serve you well, but the grades themselves do not matter. At this moment, every door in your life is open to you. You’ve already won the DNA lottery. You’re an American. You have access to fresh running water just down the hallway in a fountain. That alone puts you ahead of more than 780 million people in the world. Right now, everyone in this room is eligible to go to Harvard, the number one college in the world. Nothing is preventing that from happening, except you. Here’s your first cold fact of life, kids. From this moment on, you will only close doors to your future. By winter break, I will already know which ones of you have closed the door to an Ivy League education. By Christmas, we’ll both know.
“I know what you are thinking. Why do I want to go to Harvard? You want to go to Harvard because it will provide you with the best protection from the world you are going to grow old in. Your physical strength on the playing field means nothing. Only your brain, and the skills you develop with it, will set you apart because here comes another dirty little secret. The world’s changing. It’s not like it was when your parents went to school. Back then, they only had to compete against the kid in the next desk for a job. Not anymore. Thanks to all the technology you love, you won’t be competing against the students in this room for a job. You won’t be competing against kids in Noblesville, or Fort Wayne, or Bloomington. You won’t be competing against kids in Los Angeles or New York or Hogsknuckle, Arkansas. Nope. The kids you’ll be competing against when it comes time to get a job to support your family are in New Delhi, and Bangladesh, and Shanghai. And, that kid is going to school six days a week with additional tutoring during his off time. That’s who you will be competing against. And that kid is hungry for what you’ve got, and he’s willing to work harder for it than you are.
“But, here’s the good news. Those kids in what we now call third world nations, when they grow up and get those good-paying jobs, they’re going to want to buy stuff. Stuff you make. Like clothes you designed, or a house you built, or a medicine you discovered or an app you created. The world-wide market is huge and its going to get bigger. Where will you find yourself in it? On top, making the decisions that affect a great number of people? Or, on the bottom, trying to figure out how to pay your heating bill? The gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider all the time, and you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of it.
“So how do you keep those doors open? How do you give yourself the best chance of making it in a global economy? Here are the three most important letters you will hear all day. “G.” “P.” “A.” Your GPA means everything. Your grade point average will determine the course of your future. It determines the scholarships you can receive, what college you can get into, what kind of job you’ll be qualified for, where you’ll live – which is directly tied to your job. Even who you’ll marry in a large part is based on where you graduate from. That is all tied into your GPA. Keep in mind, you’ve only got six semesters before you start applying for colleges. Six. The end of your junior year. If you screw up any one of those semesters, your dreams for Harvard are over. Once your GPA drops down, mathematically, you can never get it back up to a 4.0 again. That means you need to make sure it’s as high as possible at the end of your first semester, to give yourself a fighting chance. So, how do you do that? Your semester grade is based on your first two quarters. Each one of them critically impacts your semester grade. How do you keep your quarterly grade up? That grade is based on your work over the next nine weeks, and any one assignment can mess it up. Just one piece of homework done below a level of excellence can derail the quarter, the semester, your overall GPA and your life. That means you have to make a decision right now about how you want the rest of your story to play out… Today… The most important day of your life.
“Now, let’s get to work.