Good morning! Dean Kaminshine, Provost Palm, faculty, staff, distinguished guests, parents, friends…and of course the students of the Georgia State University College of Law Class of 2013…congratulations!
As the Mayor of the City of Atlanta, I am deeply honored to be here with you today.About 20 years ago, I remember sitting in a ceremony like this. But mixed with the excitement of my law school commencement came worries about the future. Like I did then, I’m sure you sit here now with great trepidation.
What does the future hold? Will I make it? Am I smart enough? Am I disciplined enough? Can I live without sleep for three months as I prepare for the bar? Can I exist on popcorn and Coca-Cola? How long will it take to pay off the law school loans I may have to take so I can eventually become as rich or famous as Mark Geragos?
Only you can find the answers to those questions. No one knows what the future holds, but I am sure you will make it. You definitely are smart enough or you wouldn’t be here today. Georgia State made sure of that. But if you aren’t disciplined enough, change your ways right now.
Yes, you can live without sleep for a few years – ask any GSU alum. And besides, popcorn is from corn, and corn is a vegetable. Vegetables are good for you.
And Coca-Cola will give you all of the caffeine you need to stay awake so that you can graduate from a wonderful university. You will eventually get those loans paid off. You may never be as rich as a Mark Geragos, but don’t let that stop you from giving it a try.
In fact, you may never have too much money or the fame of an Oprah Winfrey or a Steve Jobs or any others like them. But you can be great in whatever field you choose, because greatness is within the eye of the beholder.
You see, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. You must decide what is great – don’t let others do it for you.
Since my election as Mayor almost two and a half years ago, I have delivered a number of commencement speeches, despite the fact that in my job, I deal with a lot of demanding issues every day.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love being Mayor. But on any given day, I could be at the world’s busiest airport opening a $1.4 billion terminal, recruiting the North American headquarters for Porsche or hosting the President of the United States in our city.
But commencement ceremonies are really special to me. For a two-hour block of time where everyone is simply --– happy. Teachers are proud of the growth and success of their students. Parents are happy about the success of you – the graduates.
You, the students, are happy that this part of your academic career is over, and you look forward to the next stage of your careers. You will leave this arena today with an incredible advantage. You have earned an advanced degree from one of the most highly regarded public universities in the state of Georgia and the nation. You are part of an incredible network of Georgia State alumni. And in this moment, you have extraordinary physical capacity --- the energy of your youth --- to go forward and work hard to achieve great things.
After I graduated from law school, I returned home to Atlanta and worked for Paul Hastings and then I joined Holland and Knight. I had a typical client roster, but as a college and law school student, I’d met lots of folks in the music business. I really love music. So, I proposed to my bosses that I develop an entertainment law practice. They said sure --- as long as you bill and bring in the fees.
So on top of my regular corporate work, I made the choice to begin building a roster of clients in the entertainment business. That meant that I’d often work a full day, fly out to Los Angeles for a meeting, take a red-eye right back to Atlanta, go home to my condo in midtown, shower, change and turn-around and go right back into work --- maybe even get on a plane later in the day to Boston or Washington D.C. for another client meeting. I loved my job, and passion is certainly the enemy of fatigue. I was also about 25, 26, 27 years old at the time.
Fast forward a few years to 2008, when I began my campaign for Mayor of the City of Atlanta at age 38. Some of you may know --- it was a tough campaign. I didn’t win by a lot. (smile)
Anyway, there were some times when I had to do out-of-state fundraising. During the summer of 2009, my campaign staff scheduled me for a trip to Los Angeles after a full day of activities and put me on the red-eye to be back for an event the next morning. I said, “Fine, no problem. I used to do this all the time.” Well, I worked all day, got on the plane, went to the fund-raiser in Los Angeles, got on the red-eye back to Atlanta, went home, showered and nearly died.
Things are a lot different at 40 than at 25. I say all this to tell you to get ready to work hard now. I need for you to use your extraordinary physical capacity – the energy of youth – to get ready, to fall in love with the grind. The grind is all those moments alone that people never see … the moments that make people say, “I knew you were going to be successful all along.”
But there’s another reason why I came this way this morning to tell you to take full advantage of the degree you’re about to receive and all the benefits and advantages that come along with it. It’s not just to encourage you to live your lives fully --- thought that is important. It is to remind you that we --- your city, your state, your nation --- need you. The world needs you.
Our future, as individuals and as a nation, requires us to think on a global scale. The world is so connected that we have to be in tune with what’s going on in Europe and the Americas and Asia. One decision I believe you must make is to choose cooperation over conflict. The flat world – to coin the phrase made popular by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman – demands it. Why? Because the United States of America is at a crossroads.
You are inheriting a world far different from the one you were born into. Much has changed in a generation. And now change comes so fast. Our cities, our nation and our world are faced with sobering challenges --- challenges which demand we make hard, yet responsible choices for our future.
We’re facing international threats that were unimaginable to Americans before Sept. 11. We’re facing competition from countries such as China and India and Brazil and others. All of this is happening when our deficits are growing, our environment is under siege, and our education system is not delivering the results we need for the future.
Make no mistake about it: To achieve extraordinary change, you are going to have to do things that are hard. It means that as you stand here today, you must ask yourself this question: What will be my collective place in history? To ask what you, as an individual, hope to achieve is standard upon this occasion. But, I believe that is no longer a big enough question for this time in our nation’s history. More will be required of you for your city, state and nation in the years to come.
I often reflect on President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and so many of his speeches. He was a young leader, who came to power during a period of rapid change. During his presidency, he said we should not pray for lives of ease, but rather we should pray that we become stronger men, and of course, women.
I really think this is the mandate we must embrace. The tests of our time demand it. As a generation, you must decide - - like those who came before -- to do what is necessary -- to do what is hard -- to face every challenge that stands in the way of continued advancement of our community and our nation.
I’ll close by sharing with you a story about a person who has always been one of my heroes and who chose to do very hard things. When I was a young boy, my dad and I would sit at the kitchen table and he would talk to me and my three older brothers about politics and current events. One of the people he admired a great deal was Thurgood Marshall.
By the time he was 32, Marshall had won his first U.S. Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida and was appointed Chief Counsel for the NAACP. He argued many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, successfully, with the most famous being Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 --- the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education, as established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, was not applicable to public education because it could never be truly equal.
In total, Marshall won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court and then off course, he went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Hearing about Thurgood Marshall made me want to become a lawyer. And now you know one of the reasons why when I turned 18, I went off to Howard University for college and law school. Thurgood Marshall graduated first in class from the law school in 1933. He was clearly talented. He could have chosen any number of paths for his life. But he chose to tackle hard things. He chose to turn into adversity.
As I close, let me leave you with one last reflection. I recently read about how the famed attorney William Kunstler kept a reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue of David on his desk. It is unique because it is the only important artistic work of David before he throws the stone to commence the battle with Goliath.
Looking at it, Kunstler pondered the lesson inherent in the pose and thought, “David is standing there thinking . . . Do I dare? Do I dare? If I throw the rock and I miss . . . I am one dead Israelite. If I just wound him, I am in the same position. But if I strike him and defeat him, I have done a great deal for myself and more importantly, for my people.”
Each of us faces such moments before we dare to do something significant. Granted, if we lack the will to act and just allow the thought to pass --- no one outside of ourselves will know. However, there is no worse feeling in the depths of our spirit than knowing our defining moment came and went - - and we did not respond.
Georgia State College of Law Class of 2011, as tomorrow’s leaders you will find yourselves faced with a similar choice - - and collectively you must ask, “Do I dare? Do I dare?”
I believe you will. That’s why I came this way today to encourage you to choose to turn into adversity; choose to some part of your life turning into the fire. I believe that is where greatness is.
All of this is easier said than lived, but I know what you can do. When you stumble, keep moving; when you are down, don’t stop. Remember that you are a part of something that is bigger than you are. Because at the end of the day, you extend your own life by contributing to something that will outlast it.
Consider this quote from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. She said simply and more elegantly than I can:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that does.”
So I am asking you, as the next generation of leaders, to make your plans … put your shoulders to the wheel … fall in love with the grind … and do not stop.
And somewhere along the way, when you look up, you might just have changed the world.
Congratulations to every single one of you, and Godspeed.