As Prepared for Delivery:
Good afternoon, Head of School Frederick Assas, Chairman Tim Walsh and the entire Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, parents, family and, most of all, the Pace Academy Class of 2012.
I specifically want to thank Class Salutatorian Cameron Winders for that kind introduction and Class Valedictorian Michael Christianson for those inspiring words of his own.
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 high school graduation came the worries of 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 four years? Can I exist on popcorn and Coca-Cola? How long will it take to pay off the loans I may have to take so I can eventually become as rich as Mark Zuckerberg?
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. Pace Academy 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 Pace 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 Zuckerberg, 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 the aforementioned Mark Zuckerberg. 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.
As you can imagine, in my job I deal with a lot of demanding topics. 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 education.
And I am thrilled to be here because I get to spend time with some of the city’s most gifted young people … young people who bring an enviable and vital amount of energy to our city.
Use your physical capacity … that seemingly endless vitality you possess … is what I want to talk about today.
When I need an example of the energy of youth, I do not have to go any further than to mention the Class of 2012 at Pace Academy. This is an ambitious class of 86 young men and women who averaged 1320 on the SAT; each student completed at least one Advanced Placement course and at least 40 hours of service for the community. All of you are college bound with some of your classmates going to Ivy League schools or to a prestigious arts program or to a university overseas.
And with such a small class, you have developed tight knit relationships with each other and with faculty and staff ... relationships that will last and benefit you for a lifetime.
I am particularly interested in your Global Education program, which has already enabled this class to engage in study tours in England and Germany and participate in a Habitat for Humanity build in Jordan.
And I am pleased that you have already had such experiences because our future, as individuals and as a city, 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.
As your Mayor, I have to go beyond our city limits to create economic opportunities for our city, region and state. And I need … employers need … a workforce that can think beyond the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia as they do their work.
So I will be looking to you in the future. My successors in this office will be looking to you. All of Atlanta will be looking to you.
And I would not be surprised if one of my successors is in the Class of 2012.
As Mayor of the City of Atlanta, I have a personal request of each and every one of you on this commencement day. I need you to not let you up. I need you to keep pushing harder. I need you to keep your momentum going through the next stage of your education.
We have a tendency at the end when we see daylight coming, and we think that certain stages of our life are nearing an end … to let up … to get a little tired ... to relax. But I submit to you, that is not where excellence is. That’s not where greatness is.
You see excellence and greatness is in the fire. It’s in studying harder when other people are out. It’s in doing things that are courageous. It’s in making sure that your school work is impeccable.
You see, today is not a finale; this is not the end. If graduation were an end, we would call this ceremony “terminal” instead of “commencement.”
Today is about beginnings. This is the start … of the rest of your lives.
This is the moment … this is the time for hard work.
If you don’t remember anything I say tonight, remember these three words … preparation, preparation, preparation. It is your time to toughen up – not in the sense of harshness or carelessness – but in the sense of your purpose and of meaning business.
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.”
I wanted to be Mayor of Atlanta since I was 13 years old. Because of the work of people who came before me, my dream ended up becoming a reality. When I wake up every day, my eyes pop open up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning without the benefit of a clock or anything like that because I am doing what I love with my life.
Now what I am about to say may sound a little corny, but I want you to reflect back to the time in your lives when you still believed in Santa Claus. Because when you do a job you love, that is what waking up every day is like. Remember that passion is the enemy of fatigue.
You all can make the exact same decision today.
And I want you to. It doesn’t have to be deciding to be an entrepreneur or a lawyer or a doctor.
I just want you to choose your path.
Because I believe people perform at their best when they follow their own passions, their own goals.
Now is the time for you to set that compass. For you to lock in on it. Every day is a surprise. Every day is something terrific.
All of this is easier said than lived.
This isn’t easy, otherwise, I would not be up here today to encourage you. You will make mistakes and you will fail at times.
Don’t stop. Keep going.
And 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.
When I was a boy, I loved the Dallas Cowboys. Now that I am the Mayor of Atlanta, I love the Atlanta Falcons. But I used to follow the Cowboys, especially Tony Dorsett and later Emmitt Smith. And one day, I was watching a show about John Madden and how he coined the phrase “yards after contact” from a play involving Emmitt Smith.
The play was rather simple. The Cowboys were on their one yard line, and Troy Aikman took the snap and tossed the ball to Smith. As soon as he touched the ball, he got hit with such force he should have been knocked to the ground.
But Emmitt Smith kept on his feet and spun around and rather than stopping him, the hit propelled him forward for the longest run of his career.
So when the door gets shut in your face for that dream internship or career opportunity or even elected office, remember yards after contact. When you keep checking your text messages to see if your Mom or Dad made the deposit into your college account, remember yards after contact. When a professor tests your resolve and you think you are being picked on, remember yards after contact.
You made it through the grueling coursework of Pace Academy because this school challenged you, and you worked hard and took on the burden.
So I know that you can help build a better Atlanta, a better America and a better world. I am confident because as I stand here with you, the 2012 Class of Pace Academy, I can feel your energy.
I can feel the spirit of your school all around us. I can feel that Pace has fulfilled its mission of educating you and preparing you to earn your place among the best and brightest minds of this generation.
You are all young right now. And I want you to enjoy yourselves. I want you to celebrate when you graduate today. I want you to pause for a bit ... take it all in and relax … but only for a moment. After you celebrate, know that what happens to you and to your life really matters.
I want you to know that every graduate today is special because you are our message to the future for a time we may never get to and for places we may never be able to go.
And as you set goals for this next stage in your life, I want you to dream. It’s fine if you dream big, but I want you to understand that you can start small. In fact, small might be the best place to start.
You don’t need thousands of people to move the world … you can leverage your idea with a dozen people. In fact, it can be moved by the vision of a single person. Like a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs or an Oprah Winfrey … or a Mark Zuckerberg.
So graduates, as you think about your future, feel free to start small even if you wish to go big. Most great companies of today started with a handful of people. But they possessed a vision – they had the fire – and they had the will to do the hard things.
Consider this quote from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. She said simply:
“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 change the world.
Congratulations to every single one of you, and Godspeed.