Prepared to Make the Difference: Three Ideas to Help You Make a Really Big Difference

My faculty commencement address to the JMU College of Business.

Class of 2017, Congratulations!    You did it!

In the College of Business, we have a slogan…Prepared to Make the Difference.

  •    It means you are ready to hit the ground running and have grown closer to becoming a professional.
  •    You learned business fundamentals, collaborated in teams, and participated in our many experiential CoB programs.
  •    You are equipped with resources, knowledge, and connections to help you succeed.

Today, You ARE prepared to Make the Difference —and I want to share three ideas that may help you make a REALLY BIG difference.

  1.      Be courageous.

Think about a moment in your life when there was something you really wanted to do….but didn’t do it because you were afraid to try. My moment was as a child. I wanted to be a cheerleader for my school. But I was apprehensive about trying out, because I doubted my ability to make the squad. I didn’t know how I would face my family, my friends, and the world if I didn’t make it.  So I didn’t try out. It was the cowardly choice, not the courageous one. I. let. myself. down.

But what the experience taught me at a young age, was that NOT trying ALWAYS feels worse than failing.  NOT TRYING was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat again.  So I vowed to never let the fear of failure stand in front of anything I TRULY wanted to accomplish. I stopped caring about failure and I decided to become fearless, ESPECIALLY in my career. I still experience failures today, but I know it really isn’t that bad because I actually learn a lot when I fail and life does go on.  When YOU aren’t afraid to fail, you will wake up every morning willing—and eager—and full of courage.   And the more courageous you can become, the more that big, exciting, and meaningful opportunities will enter your life.  Courage can lead you to do some pretty great things as you try to make a big difference in the world.

  1.      Commit to lifelong learning.

Today, you begin a new frame of learning as a college graduate. There won’t be structured classes or professors guiding you.  We in the College of Business have done our part. Now it’s your turn.  YOU will be in charge of your business education going forth. Let me tell you why this is so important.

When I was a senior looking for my first job, I had good grades, I was an active leader in clubs, and I held an internship where I performed well. Back then if you applied for a job, bad news came through a formal letter in the mail. I knew I could either trash the rejection letter and be angry about it—or make it my friend. I decided to make it my friend, folding it neatly and storing it away in the back of an old filing cabinet. Eventually, that letter had a friend—and then another— and another until I had my-own-little-sorority of rejection-letter-friends.

Over the next few decades, while my rejection letters sat in the filing cabinet…the world of business changed in so many ways…laws, technology, societal trends, the consumer voice, big data, …so many things—but I continued learning — as those changes were taking place. One day I found and re-read all those old rejection letters, I realized something very important.  And here’s what I want you to understand—continuous learning WILL reward you in the long run.

One letter had come from a Fortune 500 Company—my dream job at the time. No job, but…a few years ago that very same company contacted me with a request to do some digital marketing consulting for them. That. Felt. Great!   Another one of my rejection letters was from a graduate school that turned me down.  Six years ago, that university invited me to guest speak in an honors marketing seminar. That felt pretty great too!

I strongly believe that business career success requires you to constantly learn. Class of 2017, I challenge you to continue learning so you don’t miss out.  If you don’t—and you know this—someone else WILL be learning and you’ll eventually turn stale and will be left behind in this highly competitive and dynamic business world.  Don’t let today be the end of your education.  Start by building on experiences you had as a business student—like studying abroad, being a member of a business student organization, service learning, and going on company tours. Find ways to carry those experiences on as a business professional.  Be that person who continues to learn— and you will find NO shortage of ways to make your big difference.

  1.      Cherish the good in every day of your life.

It will be hard to make those big differences if you aren’t feeling good. We all have bad days—but you can always find something to appreciate, even on your darkest of days, if you look.  I have a nightly ritual. I call it my blessing box. It’s a box I found at Michael’s craft store—it’s about the size of a six-pack. Inside I put 365 blank notecards—one card for each day of the year.  Every night, I pull out the card for that day and add the current year—then, I write ONE sentence about something meaningful from that day: an activity, an accomplishment, something funny, something joyful.  Just something good I want to appreciate and remember. Then I move it to the back of my box, and my card for the next day awaits me. In that little box, over the course of many years, I’ve ended up with a personal collection of special moments from every day, of every year. And it is rewarding to look back at the goodness in my life as I write on my card each day.

I have 365 of these.  Each card reminds me to be forever grateful for the people, passions, big experiences, and little moments that are so special. Writing on these cards and reading them each day made me discover that when you are in tune with the good in your life, you can better operate from a position of incredible strength.  And with that strength comes powerful insight that guides you towards where and how to make those really big differences in your life and in the lives of others.

Today might be a great day to start your own blessing box, or a journal, or even just daily moment of silent reflection.  What will you write or think about?   I hope it’s something that captures today as a cherished, positive, festive, and joyful celebration of your entire JMU and CoB experience that you shared with your classmates, friends, and loved ones supporting you today.

Tonight when I write the 2017 entry on MY May 5th card I will probably say: “I never imagined I would give a commencement speech, but I did…and it was a genuine honor that I will always cherish.”

On behalf of the faculty and staff in the JMU College of Business, we wish the Class of 2017 our very best.  We hope that you find courage, that you continue to learn after today, and that you find the good in every day of your life.  And, as you make YOUR difference in the business world, YOU — will – make – us – proud.

Dr. Theresa Clarke's Commencement Speech to the JMU College of Business Class of 2017.

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