FGCU Commencement Address by Dr. Allen Weiss

Photo: Dania Maxwell/naplesnews.com

Photo: Dania Maxwell/naplesnews.com

Honored graduates, President Bradshaw, Distinguished Faculty, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, spouses, children, friends, and colleagues—congratulations to you all on today’s wonderful achievement. It is my great honor to be with you today. All of you should feel proud at this momentous accomplishment.

With your permission, I’d like to speak directly to the proud young men and women we honor today. I would like to share a special message with you graduates that I hope you may carry with you as you look back fondly to your years at FGCU.

Graduates, you have worked hard to achieve success and you deserve to celebrate! – later! For the next few moments, I ask you to look back and consider what brought you this success over 20 or so years and then close your eyes and imagine yourselves 20 years from now. And then—in one final homework assignment at FGCU—ask yourselves the key six questions—who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  • Who will you be with 20 years from now?
  • What will you be doing 20 years from now?
  • When will you get there? That is easy 20 years so you get credit just for showing up.
  • Where will you be located 20 years from now?
  • Why will you be motivated 20 years from now?
  • And how will you be making a life for yourself?

These are the questions that will help frame your life.

And since this university is approaching the same age as many of you, permit me to trace FGCU’s development from its birth 17 years ago, through early childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood. The purpose of this exercise is to encourage everyone here to think about who will you be with, what will you be doing, when will you be successful personally and professionally, where will you be living, why will you be motivated, and how did this all happen.

In the early 90s, FGCU was but a dream—a gleam in the eyes of some local folks and governmental officials in Tallahassee who I imagine never predicted the level of success and achievement FGCU has achieved.

I recall that my wife and I attended a lecture in the early 1990s at the downtown Telford Auditorium of the NCH Healthcare System, featuring the recently-named founding Dean of Arts and Science of FGCU. Dean Jack Crocker had come from the University of South Florida with high hopes. I remember, vividly, his presentation that talked about the ambitious plans and lofty aspirations of his new university. I’ll be honest. It was a great presentation, but few among the 100 residents present that night felt the same confidence that Dean Crocker had in his vision being realized.

In fact, as we walked out of the auditorium, I said to my wife that it was a nice idea to have a university locally but that it really wouldn’t affect our family, as our kids would already be in college before the first class was enrolled. So no one in the Weiss household was bound for Florida Gulf Coast University.

How wrong I was. There would be a Weiss enrolled at FGCU—me! In 1999, I enrolled in the second executive MBA class. And while I never dreamed I would be a student at FGCU, it turned out to be a life and career changing event. You see, that evening at Dean Crocker’s lecture, I was thinking, myopically, about the future of our high school-age daughters and not about myself. What I might well have been asking was, “What if I took advantage of this new university to build experience and knowledge and earn an MBA?” Luckily, FGCU gave me the kind of life-changing experience I wish for all of you, as you walk across the stage in a few moments, new degrees in hand.

By the time I enrolled, FGCU was already well on the way to answering the key questions.

First, the who. FGCU, in the early 1990s, faced an unknown and potentially daunting future. And one of first decisions was what to call this new child. Naming a baby is always exciting but it’s a real challenge when there are multiple parents and lots of politics involved. The “Who” question was quickly answered with the name, Florida Gulf Coast University. Over time, that name was shortened to FGCU and identified with quality, academics, success, growth, diversity, and, of course, basketball,

The when was answered as the first students were enrolled in 1997.

The where was fortuitous. Southwest Florida was experiencing rapid growth in the early 90s. And at the time, there was some controversy as to where the new university should be located. Founding Board member Ben Hill Griffin’s generosity won the day. And here we are—strategically located near I-75 between two growing communities, which will soon be one continuous community.

The what would be the focus of the University; initially environmental, distance learning, and technology all of which were novel at that time. Founding President Roy McTarnaghan and second President Bill Merwin must have been asking “What if,” and been very optimistic as they set such an ambitious course. To his credit, President McTarnaghan has seen the walls go up, the roof go on, the stained glass installed. I’ll explain what I mean about that comment in a moment. I am certain that my good friend President Merwin is smiling down at us today, I’m sure equally proud and somewhat amazed.

The why is obvious, as FGCU has become an economic powerhouse and cultural Mecca for our entire region.

The how becomes the province of all of us who continue to support and represent FGCU as loyal alumnae. How do we see the world? How have we added to society? How do our accomplishments help reflect on the university from which we graduated? How do each of us answer the “what if” questions?

These “what if” questions require what behaviorists call, “cathedral thinkers.” What is a cathedral thinker?

Well, when the colossal Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was conceived, the architects saw the foundations to go into the ground. The foundation workers saw part of the walls go up. The masons, who built the walls, barely lived to see the roof completed, and the roofers may have lived to see the stained glass installed.

In those days, the average life expectancy was well less than 40 years. And it took many decades to build the cathedral. But all those workers took the long view.

And that’s what a cathedral thinker is—an individual who thinks about the long term….who has the perspective to imagine how things might be.

Today, of course, our perspective has to be much wider. Life has changed in so many good ways, with today’s average life expectancy well into the 80s. In fact, women in Collier County have the longest life expectancy in the nation—86 years, men the second longest 80.2. So all of us have more time to employ cathedral thinking, looking at the long view, planning, thinking ahead and then enjoying the fruits of our labors.

As you ask these “what if” questions and begin to plan your future, you might also consider four principles around the initials of your soon-to-be alma mater, F-G-C-U.

  • F is for family and friends —both personal and professional.

Deciding who you are going to spend your life with is a key early decision. The company you keep is going to change you more than the other way around. Are the leaders in your life, your friends, and your potential spouse good, moral, ethical, honest, competent, and motivated to do good? Today, would you join this team, live with this person forever, be happy with your choice as you grow and mature? If yes, great. If not, you can’t get away too quickly.

Who you pick as your partner in life and who you work with professionally will have the most profound effect on you. Eddie Rickenbacker, an aviation industry pioneer, once said, “I would rather have a million friends than a million dollars.” And he was right. American’s used to average three close friends; now the average is down to 1.5. You need trusted people you can call in the middle of the night to get real advice.

  • G is for grit—nothing comes without hard work.

Sticking with an idea, persevering, getting through adversity will lead to success. Having the same ability to stay the course and not giving up in the face of overwhelming adversity probably creates an even better outcome than never being challenged.

One study assessed West Point cadets for qualities that lead to success. Researchers found that intellectual and physical abilities matter less than having “grit,” the ability to stay the course in the face of challenge.

Everyone faces challenges and has disappointments. Having the “grit” to respond over a long haul is more important than the stress itself. Stay the course, do the right think often enough and you will get the right result.

  • C is for the cycles of life that all of us experience.

Every individual and enterprise is faced somewhere down the line with life or industry changing events—disease, divorce, death of a loved one, prison, financial ruin, bankruptcy, job loss, and other stressful events. Many not only recover but emerge from such events stronger and wiser.

As Dun & Bradstreet CEO Jeff Stibel has said, “When most people look back on their successes, they realize there were a series of failures that allowed them to navigate to success.”

Learning from our mistakes starts with being able to get past denying we make mistakes. All of us make mistakes. It’s what we learn from them that counts.

  • Finally, U is for understanding—having the empathy to put yourself in other’s shoes.

“He does good to himself who does good to his friend,” is how the Dutch humanist Erasmus put it 500 years ago. “He does good to himself who does good to his friend,”

We see this every day from those who take a genuine interest in others….who really listen when people speak… who are truly concerned about the welfare of their friends and colleagues.

These are the people we respect the most.

There you have it. The “what if” questions to ask yourself —Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, and the F-G-C-U formula to guide you.

Oh yes, and one final word. Have fun! Life, you will find, is a long and exciting journey. It is best to experience it with a large dose of joy and enthusiasm.

Honored graduates, families, professors, leaders and guests—congratulations and best wishes for the next 20 years and beyond, for continued success and satisfaction in all you do.

Thank you for allowing me to be with you on this momentous day. Enjoy the journey! Thank you.

~ Dr. Allen Weiss, December 13, 2014, Reprinted with permission


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