Lynne Cheney

Secrets of Success- May 10, 2003

Lynne Cheney
May 10, 2003— Searcy, Arkansas
Harding University Commencement
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Thank you, President Burks. I'm happy to be here at Harding University today on the joyous occasion of commencement, and I think I understand some of the emotions that you who are parents are experiencing this morning. Although it has been a long while since my own daughters graduated from college, I remember my feelings of pride and satisfaction in their accomplishments.

I also feel I have something in common with today's graduates. I know that young people often look for role models, people who have succeeded in ways they want to succeed. Well, let me just say that people in my generation look for role models, too, and I'd like to tell you I have found mine. You all know who she is: her name is Sandra Day O'Connor. What you don't know is why she's my role model. It has nothing to do with her being a Supreme Court Justice. It doesn't even have anything to do with her being a thoroughly nice person. No, the reason Sandra Day O'Connor is my role model-and this is going to make all of you very happy-the reason she is my role model is that she has perfected the art of giving short commencement speeches.

Justice O'Connor once gave a commencement speech that lasted just five minutes. I'm not sure I can tie that record, but in an attempt to live up to it, I'm going to make just five points today. I'm going to talk about five traits that are pretty widely shared among successful people that I've observed-and offer them to you as you head off into new worlds and new lives.

One secret of success, I have observed, is to act as if you know what you're doing. Now, I suspect this point doesn't need much elaboration. I have found college seniors to be pretty well-practiced at acting as if they know what they're about. They have a remarkably high degree of self-confidence-which in the case of my own children I used to feel an absolute motherly obligation to lower from time to time-but not too much. Watching Douglas MacArthur operate, Franklin Roosevelt observed that you should "never underestimate a man who overestimates himself." There's wisdom there-as well as a jab at MacArthur-and all of this coming from a president who demonstrated a thing or two in his time about acting confidently.

Take your self-confidence with you as you move to the next stage of your life. It will help you, even though you're a beginner, to behave with assuredness, to act as if you know what you're doing. And that is a key to success. But there's a second secret-one that goes right along with the first-and that is to know what you're doing. Sooner or later, you'll be tested. You'll have to make decisions and live with results that will show how hard you've worked, how much you've learned, how much you are to be respected. True expertise, orchestra conductor Victoria Bond once observed, "is the most potent form of authority." Those are words worth remembering. When your chance comes along to make the music, you will find it a very good thing, indeed, to know the notes.

A third rule for success I would offer you is this: Have a place to stand. Archimedes theorized he could move the world with a big enough lever, but he needed a firm place to stand the fulcrum. We all need that firm place, that base of conviction from which to act. I know that college has been a time when you've been encouraged to ask a lot of questions, and that is a crucial part of the examined life which Socrates thought the only kind worth living. But at this fine institution you have also learned how important it is to arrive at some answers and beliefs.

Cherish that base of conviction that gives you direction and offers a place to stand from which you can move the world. That's the third secret of success I would offer and the fourth is to be aware-and respectful-of where other people are standing. Let me tell you a story I heard some years ago. It was about a British naval commander, Roger Wilson, let's call him, who was sailing her majesty's yacht with the Prince of Wales on board. Commander Wilson, so the story goes, saw lights ahead, bearing straight down on the yacht. So he signaled: "Please yield." But the lights kept coming. "No, you please yield," they signaled back. The commander tried again: "Please yield." And again, the negative answer: "No, you please yield," so the commander decided to pull rank. "I am Commander Roger Wilson of her majesty's yacht, I have the Prince of Wales on board, and by royal decree, I order you to yield."

And back flashed the answer: "I am John Smith, and I have been in charge of this lighthouse for fifteen years."

You will encounter some immovable objects in your lifetime. Some movable ones, too, of course. The crucial thing-no matter how exalted you might become-is to be clear-sighted about the difference. Having a healthy estimate of yourself can be a fine thing-unless it keeps you from a realistic estimate of others. I mentioned Douglas MacArthur at the beginning of this speech, and if you've studied history as much as I hope you have during your time at this fine school, you'll remember that his career ended when he tried sailing into a lighthouse named Harry Truman.

The last secret of success I'd offer-and the most important one-is this: Know what success is. It may be connected with fame and fortune, but it well may not be. It almost certainly will be connected with work that you love, work that involves you deeply, quite apart from whatever rewards it may bring.

How do you discover what that work is for you? With intensity of effort, I would suggest, because knowledge of what that work is will grow out of learning what you do well. And there is no way to be sure of your capacities except by testing yourself, pushing yourself. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might," wrote Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth-century writer and a man who thought long and deeply on the subject of meaningful work.

And how will you know when you have found work you love? One symptom is that you will lose track of time. You'll look at your watch and wonder where the hours have gone, at your calendar and wonder what happened to your week. And that loss of time sense is symbol as well as symptom. We are time-bound creatures, but meaningful work can make us forget our mortal limitation-because it helps us transcend it.

Whether we create sonnets or families, make machines or harvest crops, work takes on meaning for us when we feel it to be a part of something that endures. Whether we undertake the business of business or scholarship or nations, work becomes beloved when it joins us with something larger than ourselves, something worthy that extends beyond us. Willa Cather put it this way: "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

And it is also success-or at least that most critical element of it I know. Photographer Margaret Bourke White once called her beloved work "a trusted friend, who never deserts you." And because you will never want to desert it, it is an energizing source like no other, getting you out of bed before dawn, inspiring you late into the night. There may be people in this world who become the very best at what they do who do not love their work-but I have never met them nor can I imagine from where they derive the commitment, day after day, that excellence demands.

There are many things that those of us on the podium wish for you as you set forth from this fine university. Indeed, you have many blessings already-this wonderful school, this joyous occasion, proud parents, good friends, teachers who have cared for you and will continue to.

To all of these, let me add my blessing. May you find success. May you discover the work you love-and prosper in it.

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