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Commencement Address at William Rainey Harper College
May 30, 2003

by Patrick Combs


This is the first commencement address I'll have ever given in my life. It is fitting that it is here because I love Harper students and I've spoken at Harper more than any other school in the world. You will find a lot of places in your life where you don't really fit, and some where you really do. I suggest that you really notice and appreciate the places where you just fit because they are very special. I think I fit here because I have so much in common with you.

A few years back, I sat at my graduation and I thought exactly what you are now thinking: What's going to happen to me? Will I find my place in the world? Will McDonalds have me back? Why did I highlight all my books with a black felt marker? Should I have at least worn underwear under my gown?

In putting together this little speech - which I promise will be little because that is the mark of a great commencement speech - I decided that I'd like to give you four things that I myself would have appreciated from my commencement speaker, who I cannot remember a thing about.

1. A few words of advice that hopefully help;
2. An inspirational story;
3. A gift;
4. One final quiz.

Okay I wouldn't have wanted a quiz but I'm going to give you one anyway so I'll move right to the quiz so we can get it over with. Somebody else made up this quiz - I don't know who - but as far as pop quizzes go, it's a goody. You don't need pen and paper. Just think through your answers:

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.

How did you do? The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are first-rate achievers. The best in their fields. But tremendous achievements are soon forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here's the second part of the quiz. See how you do:

1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through college.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Name half a dozen heroes whose stories have inspired you.

The lesson is obvious. Life isn't about achievement. Life is about the love you give and the love you get. Life is about the love you share. I really mean it. When I first came to Harper, 10 years ago, I was 26 and single. Now I'm 29 and have a child. I make less money now in my 30's than I did when I was in my 20's and I'll tell you why. Because now I only work 3 days a week. I take Tuesday and Thursdays off just to play with my daughter. You have to make a living, but time with friends and family will always be worth more than a raise.

I'll tell you a funny story that took place on one of my precious Tuesday's and Thursdays. My daughter, Alyssa, who was two at the time, came out from her bedroom, carrying two little dresses, one in each hand. Her mom had just suggested she ask me which one I like best because Alyssa couldn't decide which one she wanted to wear. "Dad, which one you like?" she asked holding up a red dress in one hand and a blue dress in the other. I pointed and said, "The red one." Without saying a word, Alyssa turned and started walking back to the room where her mother was waiting. "Which one are you going to wear Alyssa?" her mother called out. Alyssa answer, "The blue one! ... Daddy is going to wear the red dress!" Money will never be worth more than precious moments like these, whether they're between you and your children or you and your loved ones.

Which brings me to the next thing I thought to mention: money. Everyone seems to want to make a lot of money. Everyone seems to want to be a millionaire these days. And since most people aren't millionaires, most people don't feel rich. I want you to feel rich, be rich and experience riches, so I'll share some hard facts with you. Rich isn't a million dollars. Actually the average household income in the US is around $33,000. And we're the richest nation in the world. So if you manage to earn MORE than $35,000 in a year, you are making good money. No one around me ever seems to know that. And should you ever manage to have a household income of more than $60,000, you are officially in the upper class. Some of you will achieve household incomes of $125,000 or more, and when you do you are in the top 5% of the wealthiest country on earth. I know so many people who earn more than that amount who do not think they are rich or have enough money. These people are poor. Leave here today knowing you don't need anywhere near a million dollars to be financially rich. Knowing the bar is much lower than a million dollars is the SECRET to actually living richer. Then you are free to devote your life energy to people, friends, passion and just being.

Of course, you don't need a cent to be rich. When multibillionaire Sir John Marks Templeton was asked about his definition of being rich, he said it could be summed up in just one word: gratitude. I couldn't agree more. Personally, being grateful is my greatest secret to true success. Every night I say my prayers. Then I list all the things I am grateful for. I always fall asleep before I can finish. Even on bad days. A daily attitude of gratitude transforms your entire life, and I dare say overnight. When I feel unsuccessful, gratitude makes me realize I am great. When I feel behind, gratitude makes me realize I am ahead. When I feel alone, gratitude makes me realize I am always supported. When I feel lack, gratitude makes me realize I am rich beyond measure. And there is no level of achievement necessary for gratitude to work in your life. Someone put it this way:

I am thankful for:

The spot I find at the far end of the parking lot because it means I am capable of walking.

My huge heating bill because it means I am warm.

The mess to clean up after a party because it means I have been surrounded by friends.

The taxes I pay because it means that I am employed.

The clothes that fit a little too snug because it means I have enough to eat.

The dishes that need doing because it means I have a home.

The piles of laundry and ironing because it means my loved ones are nearby.

The alarm that goes off in the early morning hours because it means that I'm alive.

An attitude of gratitude. Live it and be truly rich.

Finally, since I am the author of book titled Major in Success, I'd like to share with you my favorite success story ever. It's not in my book because it took place after I wrote it.

During the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney Australia, a 22 year old named Eric Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, swam the 100 meter freestyle, won his heat, and electrified the audience. He was a hero who would not soon be forgotten, but Eric wasn't a hero for winning gold (he didn't), and he wasn't a hero for breaking any records (he didn't). Eric was a hero for a different reason.

Five months before, the OIC, had invited a handful of athletes from small countries to compete even though they didn't meet qualifying standards. It was the Olympic Committee's way of spreading sport around the world. Eric, who'd never taken an interest in swimming before, answered the call and began swimming laps. The largest pool in his town was 20 meters and had no lane markers. He swam any way, every day. No one took his Olympic dream seriously. His mom thought he must have just wanted to see Sydney. Eric trained and trained for a five months. Then he found himself at the Olympics, on the edge of the pool, competing in the preliminary rounds of the 100 meter freestyle heat. The two swimming against him false started and disqualified themselves. That meant that all Eric had to do to win his heat was swim and finish, but it would be no small task considering the fact that he'd never raced more than 50 meters before. The gun went off and Eric flopped himself into the water. He flailed, struggled, kept his head above water and swam. But he made it to one end of the pool, did an awkward flip turn, and swam back. He said the last 15 meters were very difficult. He looked like he might drown. It didn't matter. The crowd loved him and cheered loudly for his success. He made it and climbed from the pool. The crowd went wild. His time was 1:52 seconds, a full minute slower than the fastest swimmer, but he'd won the hearts of everyone who watched. He was a hero for following-through on his dream. A person unafraid to live their dream. A brilliant reminder to all that life is about inner-triumphs, not outer-achievements. Still dripping wet, Eric spoke to the audience through an interpreter. He said, "I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd. It was their cheering that kept me going." The following day he declared that he hoped to "find a good coach" and swim in the 2004 Olympics.

I don't care what rank you graduated. I don't care about your GPA. I don't care about your resume. I am standing and giving you an ovation because you dared to follow your dream, jump into the pool and you swam all the way to the end. So you are my Olympians. Family and friends, please say NOTHING WHATSOEVER today to diminish these great graduates, or imply that they anything less than heroes. Please don't rob them of this great moment by questioning their next step or their ability to get a job. Let today be today and tomorrow be left for tomorrow. Today they are champions and nothing less. Put reverence in your heart for them, buy them a drink, take them to dinner, rub their feet, make them a special meal, tell them you are proud of them, tell them that you love them, period. They are heroes.

Finally, I promised you a gift. Point to yourselves. [People point to their heart.] Notice that 95% of you are pointing straight to your heart. We point there because we know that is where we truly reside. Now point to where we plot our careers from and from where we do our To Do Lists? [People point to their heads.] That's the problem. Follow your heart, let it guide your life, and you will meet with the greatest success. Your heart is your inner elder.

You are all unequivocally great. I love you for it. Thank you and best wishes graduates of Harper College.


The Author

Major in Success: Make College Easier, Fire Up Your Dreams, & Get a Very Cool Job by Patrick Combs, is the #1 student advice book sold in the world. 100% of royalties are donated to feed the hungry. Visit for more of Patrick's work.

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Copyright 2003 by Patrick Combs. All rights reserved.

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