Obama ASU Commencement Translation

by Rocket Finance


President Obama delivered the following remarks during his commencement speech at Arizona State University last week:

Now, some graduating classes have marched into this stadium in easy times – times of peace and stability when we call on our graduates to simply keep things going, and not screw it up. Other classes have received their diplomas in times of trial and upheaval, when the very foundations of our lives have been shaken, the old ideas and institutions have crumbled, and a new generation is called on to remake the world.

It should be clear by now the category into which all of you fall. For we gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and the world. The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibility that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices. We are engaged in two wars and a struggle against terrorism. The threats of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic defy national boundaries and easy solutions.

Translation: No one else has ever been faced with trouble like that we have today – therefore we need to turn to extraordinary measures in order to succeed. We cannot let this crisis go to waste.

For many of you, these challenges are felt in more personal terms. Perhaps you’re still looking for a job – or struggling to figure out what career path makes sense in this economy. Maybe you’ve got student loans, or credit card debts, and are wondering how you’ll ever pay them off. Maybe you’ve got a family to raise, and are wondering how you’ll ensure that your kids have the same opportunities you’ve had to get an education and pursue their dreams.

In the face of these challenges, it may be tempting to fall back on the formulas for success that have dominated these recent years. Many of you have been taught to chase after the usual brass rings: being on this “who’s who” list or that top 100 list; how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car.

Translation: Don’t look to yourself for help, you can’t do it. The pursuit of profit for yourself and your family only results in problems. This formula has only resulted in ruin for the United States of America. Don’t strive to be the best.

You can take that road – and it may work for some of you. But at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go; that in fact, the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.

Translation: Every person who experiences financial success is a sham with no substance. They are greedy and only interested in outward appearance – except for myself, of course.

I want to highlight two main problems with that old approach. First, it distracts you from what is truly important, and may lead you to compromise your values, principles and commitments. Think about it. It’s in chasing titles and status – in worrying about the next election rather than the national interest and the interests of those they represent – that politicians so often lose their way in Washington. It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that come with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street.

The leaders we revere, the businesses that last – they are not the result of narrow pursuit of popularity or personal advancement, but of devotion to some bigger purpose – the preservation of the Union or the determination to lift a country out of depression; the creation of a quality product or a commitment to your customers, your workers, your shareholders and your community.

Translation: The producers of the products and services that you enjoy only desire your comfort. If they expect you to pay for said services and products, they are evil and greedy. You should go into the work force with no expectation to be paid. In fact, those of you who are going into the medical profession, will follow the model of the Cuba where doctors make less than cab drivers – but don’t worry, the doctors in Cuba are only interested in helping patients, not making a profit.

The trappings of success may be a by-product of this larger mission, but they can’t be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff.

Translation: If you expect to make a profit, you are no better than Bernie Madoff.

The second problem with the old approach is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success all too often leads to complacency. We too often let them serve as indications that we’re doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we’re not doing our best; that we are shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age. And the thing is, in this new, hyper-competitive age, you cannot afford to be complacent.

That is true in whatever profession you choose. Professors might earn the distinction of tenure, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll keep putting in the long hours and late nights – and have the passion and drive – to be great educators. It’s true in your personal life as well. Being a parent isn’t just a matter of paying the bills and doing the bare minimum – it’s not bringing a child into the world that matters, but the acts of love and sacrifice it takes to raise that child. It can happen to presidents too: Abraham Lincoln and Millard Fillmore had the very same title, but their tenure in office – and their legacy – could not be more different.

Editorial Comment: What the . . . ? Do not try to be the best because that leads to complacency? Is is somehow Millard Fillmore’s fault that he did not have a Civil War crisis during his presidency?

And that’s not just true for individuals – it is also true for this nation. In recent years, in many ways, we’ve become enamored with our own success – lulled into complacency by our own achievements.

We’ve become accustomed to the title of “military super-power,” forgetting the qualities that earned us that title – not just a build-up of arms, or accumulation of victories, but the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity, equality and freedom that have made us who we are.

Translation: The Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps defeated the German Nazis and Imperialist Japan and you really should have seen those Peace Corps volunteers kick Russia’s butt during the Cold War.

We’ve become accustomed to our economic dominance in the world, forgetting that it wasn’t reckless deals and get-rich-quick schemes that got us there; but hard work and smart ideas -quality products and wise investments. So we started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings. We saw businesses focus more on rebranding and repackaging than innovating and developing new ideas and products that improve our lives.

All the while, the rest of the world has grown hungrier and more restless – in constant motion to build and discover – not content with where they are right now, determined to strive for more.

Translation: The rest of the world is so much better than us because they are striving to build and discover. Not for profit, of course, but out of the goodness of their hearts. Americans no longer care about building and discovering. Editorial Comment: But wait, I thought we were not supposed to try to be the best?

A willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame. A willingness to question conventional wisdom and rethink the old dogmas. A lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige – and a commitment instead to doing what is meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world.

That’s the spirit that led a band of patriots not much older than you to take on an empire. It’s what drove young pioneers west, and young women to reach for the ballot; what inspired a 30 year-old escaped slave to run an underground railroad to freedom, and a 26 year-old preacher to lead a bus boycott for justice. It’s what led firefighters and police officers in the prime of their lives up the stairs of those burning towers; and young people across this country to drop what they were doing and come to the aid of a flooded New Orleans. It’s what led two guys in a garage – named Hewlett and Packard – to form a company that would change the way we live and work; and what led scientists in laboratories, and novelists in coffee shops to labor in obscurity until they finally succeeded in changing the way we see the world.

Translation: No one who ever did anything good was doing it for a profit. Hewlett and Packard were probably willing to give their products away. And the pioneers who went west, were doing it for the motherland. Their dream was to sacrifice in order to stretch this nation from sea to shining sea so that someday I could come along and give everyone free health care.

Just look to history. Thomas Paine was a failed corset maker, a failed teacher, and a failed tax collector before he made his mark on history with a little book called Common Sense that helped ignite a revolution. Julia Child didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was almost fifty, and Colonel Sanders didn’t open up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was in his sixties. Winston Churchill was dismissed as little more than a has-been, who enjoyed scotch just a bit too much, before he took over as Prime Minister and saw Great Britain through its finest hour. And no one thought a former football player stocking shelves at the local supermarket would return to the game he loved, become a Super Bowl MVP, and then come here to Arizona and lead your Cardinals to their first Super Bowl.

Translation: Paine, Child, Sanders and Churchill all worked for free and as volunteers in non-profits. If they had been motivated by profit, they would have done nothing good. Please cheer because I just said something about the Arizona Cardinals.

And that’s not just how you’ll ensure that your own life is well-lived. It’s how you’ll make a difference in the life of this nation. I talked earlier about the selfishness and irresponsibility on Wall Street and Washington that rippled out and led to the problems we face today. I talked about the focus on outward markers of success that can lead us astray.

But here’s the thing, graduates: it works the other way around too. Acts of sacrifice and decency without regard to what’s in it for you – those also create ripple effects – ones that lift up families and communities; that spread opportunity and boost our economy; that reach folks in the forgotten corners of the world who, in committed young people like you, see the true face of America: our strength, our goodness, the enduring power of our ideals.

I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge. But it is also a privilege.

Translation: Everyone on Wall Street and in Washington is selfish, because even though I only gave 1% of my $1.7 million salary to charity last year, my intentions are good. None of you will make a profit in our current economy, but that doesn’t matter, just serve the motherland!

Because it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had – to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don’t ever shy away from that endeavor. Don’t ever stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love.

Congratulations on your graduation, and Godspeed on the road ahead.

Translation: Congratulations!

Text from Huffington Post.

  1. 3 Responses to “Obama ASU Commencement Translation”

  2. By Trevor on May 17, 2009 | Reply

    Do you really think our President doesn’t want us to be the best we can be? That he wants us to turn our back on capitalism and give up on our pursuit of happiness? If so, then I feel sorry for you because that’s a sad way to live.

    America would be a much better place if people actually took to heart the change that Obama stands for. One person at a time, one idea at a time, we can regain America’s true identity.

  3. By rocketc on May 18, 2009 | Reply

    Trevor, Obama wants us to be the best we can be for those dependent on the government. If you think Obama does not want to undermine capitalism, then you have not been paying attention. Listen to his speeches, read his books and look at who his closest friends and mentors have been. So far, none of hid policies have helped small business or private, charitable non-profits.
    How can you stand to be lectured about unselfishness by a man who gave 1% to charity, used political influence to get his wife a six figure job and made a smarmy deal with a shady real estate broker in order to get the house he wanted?

  4. By Trevor on May 19, 2009 | Reply

    I’ve read his books and listened to his lectures and do you know what they say to me? That Obama truly believes in the greatness of America, both realized and it’s potential. Plain and simple. That American’s are capable of accomplishing amazing things through hard work, teamwork and sacrifice. I’m not going to argue every little factoid about how much he gave to charity or what really happened with Rezko. So much of that has been processed and spit out by the media on both sides that it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. All I know is that I believe President Obama to be a genuine American patriot who’ll do everything he can improve the lives of all Americans.
    I’m sure we could argue all day long about our political differences and honestly I think that’s a good debate to have, otherwise I wouldn’t bother reading your blog, but it just saddens me to think that you really believe that our President doesn’t care about the American people.

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