May 22, 2005
Thank you very much for having me here today. I understand that there may be some protests. I can't help it. I'm a Yankee fan. It's not by choice. It's not by choice. My father came from Manhattan and my mother came from Brooklyn, and my mother required my father to live in Brooklyn when the Brooklyn Dodgers were just one mile away. My father's revenge was from the time he brought me home from the hospital, because he hated living in Brooklyn, he put me in these little pin stripes, and he kept whispering to me about the Yankees. By the time I was three, I was brainwashed, and by the time I was four, I was being beaten up by all the other kids in Brooklyn, so it's become a source of great pride.
Obviously all of you are focused on your future, and you should be. I have one pitch that I'm going to make from my profession. I'm a lawyer. Usually that gets a lot of boos, but there's a story that I'm going to tell you because there is an advantage to being a lawyer, one great advantage that you can use at a very, very important time.
The story involves a priest, a doctor and a lawyer who die at the same time, and they all go up to heaven. And the first one that St. Peter looks at to judge is the doctor. And he says, doctor, you've had a very good life. You've saved a lot of lives. I'm going to give you a beautiful condominium in a lovely part of heaven. The doctor is very happy. He stands back.
The priest comes forward. St. Peter says, you've had a very, very good life also. You've saved a lot of souls. I'm going to give you a home in an even nicer part of heaven.
Then the lawyer steps forward. St. Peter looks at the lawyer, looks at his books and says, you were a lawyer. And the lawyer says, yes, I was, St. Peter. And he says, well, I'm going to give you a mansion in the most beautiful part of heaven, the greatest view, the nicest scenery, the greatest existence.
Well, the priest and the doctor are kind of perplexed by this. They look at St. Peter and say, I don't understand this. We save lives and save souls. What did he ever do to deserve this?
St. Peter looks at them and says, well, he's the first lawyer here since Thomas Moore in the 15th century.
So sometimes it helps to be a lawyer.
Congratulations. This is a very, very wonderful day of accomplishment for the faculty and all of the staff at Middlebury College, for your parents and friends and all your loved ones who are sitting here in the cold and rain because they love you and care about you so much. And mostly it's a great moment of accomplishment for you, because you've done a great deal and accomplished a great deal.
I'm going to briefly discuss leadership because I think leadership is something that you are already prepared for and you know a lot about. You may not think about it that way, but you do.
I'm very, very often asked, are leaders born or made, and it's my conclusion that leaders are made. First they have to be born, but after that very important fact takes place, which is important, all the rest of it is about what you learn, what you focus on, the role models that you have, the things that you think are important and about your education. Not just the education that you've now completed, but the education that you're about to begin. Because, if it all worked right at Middlebury, and I trust that it did, what it really did is give you a great desire to continue to learn and continue to grow, and some of the tools and ways in which to do that. So I'm going to discuss four different lessons of leadership that I've learned, and hope that they'll be important to you.
The first and the most important, I believe, is that you have to know what you believe if you want to be a leader. You have to have strong beliefs. You have to know what you stand for. You can't lead other people unless you know what you stand for. You have to spend a great deal of your time trying to figure that out and trying to determine what's important to you, what goals do you want to achieve.
Before, when the honorary degree was being give to Mr. Moses, now Dr. Moses, they mentioned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King had a strong belief. He had a strong belief that nonviolence could change America. It wasn't popular. It wasn't the product of public opinion polls. It came from his study, from his prayer, from his being a seminary student, from his reading about Gandhi, and he believed it, and he practiced it, and he did change America. I mean, we're a different country today because of his leadership, and that's a very dramatic example, but you have to know what you believe if you want to be a leader. You've got to point toward the future. You've got to spend time figuring that out. It may change. You've got to be open to different ideas and different thoughts. But you have to stand for something.
The second principle is one that was mentioned earlier by Mr. Stults. If you want to be a leader, you have to be an optimist. In fact, if you want to have fun, you should be an optimist. Optimists have a lot more fun than pessimists. But if you want to be a leader, you've got to be an optimist.
Suppose I had begun my speech like this: Things are bad. It's raining. It's going to continue to rain. Things are terrible. They're only going to get worse, and there's no hope. Follow me. Now there are some people in New York that would. But New York is big, and it has a lot of people, and they follow almost anything.
But most of the people in New York, and I'm sure all the people here in beautiful Vermont and most of the rest of the country in the world, they follow hopes, dreams. They follow fulfillment of dreams. They follow people who offer solutions to problems. Isn't that what Dr. King did? I mean, he faced a problem that up until then had been insoluble. He didn't face it by saying, nothing we can do about it, there's no hope. He faced it by saying that he saw a country in which people would eventually be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And he had a dream. He had a dream of actually seeing the Promise Land. He wasn't sure he could get there, but he was sure his people would. That's leading with hope, with dreams, with solutions to previous problems that others couldn't solve.
And that's what it means to be an optimist.
There's a great story that's told in a very different sphere about a great football coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, Vince Lombardi. The coach won many great games, and at the end of his career, it's said that he was being interviewed by a reporter when the reporter said to him, coach, what was it like when you lost a game? And the coach, who was a very fearsome, strong personality, looked back at the young reporter, almost frightened him by saying, I never lost a game.
The reporter was stunned, and he said, but, coach, I beg to differ with you. You did. You lost some games. You lost even a big championship game in 1960 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The coach looked at him straight in the eye and said, I didn't lose that game. I just ran out of time.
That's the mind, the heart and the spirit of a champion. You've got to try to think success.
And the third principle, you have to have ethics and morality, and you have to have a sense of right and wrong, because the principles that I've just mentioned, and a lot of other principles of leadership can be used for good or for bad. There are many, many examples in history of people with very strong ideas who understand the magnet that offering solutions is, optimists who are very evil, very horrible people, who do it for the wrong reasons. You have to have a sense of ethics. You have to be able to ask yourself, right or wrong. You have to be able to understand that the ultimate goal of your education is not just being all that you can be. That isn't just it. The Greeks understood the purpose of education way, way back, thousands of years ago. The purpose of education is to make you a participating member of the city-state. It's to have you discover what ultimately brings you happiness, which is your ability to contribute to other people. Whether we want to be or we're not, we're social by nature. Human beings are. And we find our fulfillment when we find our place, and it's not being alone.
And that's why I urge on you public service. Giving back. Different ways of doing it. Politics is one way to do it. Being involved in government, being involved in your community. So is medicine and teaching and so many other ways, but if you can understand that it's not just a good thing for you to give back, but it is critical to your happiness, you're going to be a very successful person. And ethics and morality have a lot to do with that, and understanding that winning is wonderful. Winning in sports. Winning elections. It beats losing them. But the reality is that winning is only fulfilling if you do it through the rules, and you do it by being able to contribute to other people.
And the final principle that I would discuss with you of leadership is relentless preparation. If you want to be a leader, you've got to be prepared. That's what your education has helped to do. You've got to do it all throughout your life.
When I got out of law school, I went to work for a federal judge who was the chief judge in the Southern District of New York eventually. His name was Lloyd McMahan. He had tremendous influence on me. Your first boss often does. Sometimes for good; sometimes for bad. Judge McMahan was a great teacher. He loved to teach young lawyers about how to be trial lawyers because that's what he was. And he used to have a lesson that he taught us. The lesson was: for every one hour in court, four hours of preparation. Never go to court unprepared. Anticipate everything that's going to happen in the courtroom. Rehearse it. Go over it. Memorize it. Do anything that you have to do, but anticipate what's going to happen.
And then he would say, no matter how much you anticipate, something unanticipated will occur, and you'll know the answer to it, if you've followed my advice. It'll just be a variation of what you've prepared.
That helped me a lot as a trial lawyer. It helped me a lot in business. It helped me a lot in emergencies that I had to handle. I think it's good advice for almost anything that you do. Financial presentation. Speech. Job interview. It helped me the most on September 11, 2001. Because when I arrived at the site of the World Trade Center, I didn't realize how bad it was. I had been told that a twin-engine plane had crashed into the North Tower. And although that would have been a horrible thing, and I anticipated a very, very difficult situation, that would not have been very different than the emergencies that we'd faced in New York City before. New York City is an emergency a week, and you face airplane crashes and subway derailments and blackouts and other situations.
But when I got to the site of the World Trade Center, and I got below the North Tower at the fire department command post, and the police were telling me to look up because debris was falling down, I realized in one particular moment that what I was watching was not debris falling down, but a man who was throwing himself out of the 101st, 102nd floor because he wanted to escape the awful flames.
And I stopped and froze and watched it, and my emotions and my intellect just changed. I said to myself, this is way beyond anything that we've ever faced before. It is much worse, and we're not prepared for this, and we don't have a plan for it. And I said that to my police commissioner and the other people that were there with me.
And then we just had to respond. We couldn't think that very long, so we had to ask for air support, ask for fighter jets to protect the city because we thought we'd be attacked again by air. We had to deploy the police to different parts of the city that we thought would be the next ones to be attacked by suicide bombers. We had to close down the bridges and the tunnels. We had to set up evacuation routes. We had to triage the hospitals. We had to bring in generators to light up Ground Zero.
And as I was thinking about those things and making those decisions very, very quickly, I remembered the words of Judge McMahan. If you prepare for everything that you can anticipate, you'll be prepared even for the unanticipated.
And we had prepared for many things. We had all these emergency plans, 25, 30 of them. We had an emergency plan for airplane crashes and for building collapses and for high-rise fires and for terrorist bombing, and I realized that every decision I was making came out of one of those plans. It gave me a great source of confidence that at least I'd be, most of the time, somewhere approaching the right decision, and it gave me great confidence that my team would be able to do that, too. So, I'm a very, very big believer in relentless preparation. That's how America has to deal with it now.
The question I'm also often asked is: should we be afraid of a terrorist attack? The answer is yes, we should, but what it should lead us to do is not to immobilize us, it should lead us just to do the best that we can to prepare and to figure out what they might do to us and be prepared for it, then to move on with our lives and not let it stop us and not let it harm us.
You began your college careers with a massive change in America. You began it, and shortly thereafter there were the attacks of September 11, 2001. It made a very, very big change in the way this country approaches its security. We don't even understand yet all the changes that it's going to bring about, but ultimately we're going to be stronger as a result of it, and we're going to be stronger because we've educated young people like you to understand that the world is complex and difficult, but if you can apply a reason and sense and rationality to it, it's going to be a much, much better place.
So I thank you very, very much for allowing me to participate. I appreciate very much the honorary degree. I understand that I didn't do nearly as much work to get it as you did to get your degrees, and I respect you very much for what you've already accomplished. I look forward to seeing all of you in positions of leadership in the future.
Thank you and God bless you.
Beyond the Bubble
By Thomas Stults, Class of 2005
May 22, 2005
I never really liked it when people referred to the Middlebury Bubble. I'm talking about that imaginary film that encapsulates this campus, the one implying we're isolated, preoccupied, turned off, just disinterested. Actually, lately I've been working down at the admissions office a little bit, so I've perused my fair share of essays, applications, e-mails ... but I never did come across that one essay that begins: "Hi. I'm looking for a place to escape, to wrap myself in a comfortable blanket, to play a $40,000-a-year game of hide and seek with the real world." It just didn't happen.
Because what you're dealing with is a bunch of aspiring, if not desperate, 18-year-olds chasing down their dreams and betraying a profound, if not somewhat naïve, desire for exploration. And I'm pretty sure that four years ago, when we were all filling out that same common app, trying to make ourselves look as accomplished and admissible as possible, there was within all of us at least a small seed of genuine curiosity looking for somewhere to take root.
And that curiosity came in all forms: Be it academic, political, athletic, even social, we were pretty sure that high school wasn't enough (not that many of our parents would have necessarily given us that choice). But regardless, we accomplished the first step. We all at least began our walk down the Middlebury runway. So when did the whole bubble thing come in? Did we lose our vision? Tone down our aspirations? Get a little too comfy in those BiHall chairs? It seems unlikely. But it was, I think, in a way, self-imposed. It happened when teachers, administrators, and even we as students, claimed we didn't take (or have) the time to pull our heads up from our books, or, maybe more appropriately in some cases, our lips away from that can of Busch Light.
But now it's all over, and so I guess we'd have to say, what, that the bubble is about to burst? And that's when you realize, the bubble was never there in the first place. Sure, maybe we didn't all have the time to read the Dining Out or Automobiles section of the New York Times each day, but that's missing the point. The point is, we're ready (whether we feel like it or not). Ready to continue. Ready to start anew. Ready to move on. Ready to give back. Why? Not because we've somehow finally managed to make our way out of the bubble surrounding us, but because this experience, these four, four and a half or five years-whatever it took you-have been a launching pad placed surreptitiously beneath us, a geyser of inspiration on which we found ourselves standing, and, at the very least, a non-stop trip that none of us could've avoided getting swept up in. Because, honestly, there's no better place for beautiful views and even more beautiful people. I'm talking personalities of course. But, while we're on the subject, let's discuss the "homogeneous, J. Crew catalog" stereotypes that supposedly inhabit this bubble. It may be true, in fact I may be a guilty contributor, but it's also superficial, because any designation categorizes individuals who are, by virtue of simply being individuals, too unique to be categorized.
And, as I think we all know, some serious differences do exist here. Being a small school, Middlebury has forced us to confront those differences. And I'll be honest: I don't think we've always overcome them. Lacrosse, econ, Proctor, ADP, the Mill, Frisbee, Angela's: They all conjure up certain images in our minds. For some, they're positive, for others they're pretty prejudicial. But I only hope that for a small number of you, they're strangely inspiring. Because here, let's face it, in the middle of nowhere, we continually prove, almost unwittingly, that differences can and should persist.
And I'm convinced it's a cause for optimism and confidence. Confidence, not only in yourself, but more importantly in everyone else. After four years, we can look around and say that we've all made it. We've made it in very different ways, we don't all necessarily get along, but we're reassured by each other's ability to get by, or actually do a hell of a lot more than just get by. And we did it in a way that worked for each of us. We've learned, or at least tested, the fact that there won't ever be just one "right way" through life. I mean it's a ridiculous proposition. I think Mark Twain was on to the same thing when he claimed, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Now there's a little sarcasm in Mr. Twain's remark, and I think this campus has shown as well as any other that a little naked run here or there doesn't do much to discredit a person's opinion in the classroom.
But these little nuggets of wisdom we've supposedly picked up along the way haven't always been immediately apparent. We have to go back, really remember where our mind was at, say five or 10 years ago, to see just how far we've come. When I was about 11 years old, I was a pretty self-confident little guy, and I thought of this word: "truthemist." That's what I called myself. I was a truthemist because I didn't believe in optimism or pessimism, half-full, half-empty. I believed in the facts, because the facts didn't lie. The glass was halfway: halfway full if you were filling it up, halfway drunk if you were drinking it down. But then this so-called bubble of ours somehow introduced the idea of perspective. Because, and anyone who's taken stat can back me up here, one fact can tell plenty of stories.
So when uncertainty arises, when a problem needs to be addressed, what matters is what we, each one of us, bring to the table. There was 9/11, there was (and still is) the war in Iraq. The death of Arafat. Genocide in the Sudan. Tsunamis in Southeast Asia. Blizzards right here in Vermont. The fall of the A-frames, and the rise of the Commons. Again, it's not about where you stand; it's about standing at all. It's about having the optimism and confidence that others, like you, have a genuine interest in standing up, too. It's about having the tolerance to really listen to their side, and finally, it's about using our heads and our hearts in forming our own views.
A professor of mine claimed that college is not about imposing a system of values; it's about creating a dialogue so that people can come to their own conclusions. Middlebury has been that dialogue; in class discussions, on the playing field, from our cramped freshman dorms to our posh senior housing. So let's take that optimism, let's take that confidence, and let's wear it on our sleeves wherever we go. And remember, even our education is not a fact, it's a perspective: it conceals from the ignorant, and illuminates for those who really choose to see, the limits of what we as individuals know. Together I think we've moved beyond those limits, and I wish you all the best. Thank you.