Editor’s note: The following is the prepared text of the address delivered by Shaka Smart ’99 H’17 at Kenyon’s 189th Commencement on May 20, 2017. More coverage of Commencement is available here.
Thank you, Sam. Good morning, everyone!
This truly is a glorious day. You made it! Did any of you have that moment in time when you didn’t know for sure whether or not you would make it?
I sure did. It was my very first week at Kenyon. I was in English 1-2 with Professor Ted Mason. Professor Mason came to the first day of class dressed in a three-piece suit with his bifocals half way down his nose and quickly informed us that no one would be receiving a grade better than a B- for the first semester of the class.
The son of a single mom who’d pounded into me a fear of disappointing her with my grades, I raised my hand and naively asked, “but what if someone earns a better grade?” He looked at me, as only Professor Mason can, and said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Later in class, he referred us to a twelve-line poem in our literature readers and instructed us to bring a three-page paper about the poem to the next class. I’d never read nor written about poetry. But I gave it my best shot and by the time I finished the paper, I thought it was pretty good.
A couple days later, we got our papers back with a grade in red ink at the top. I received a two out of 10. “Here’s the good news,” Professor Mason told us, “most of you have nowhere to go but up.”
I distinctly remember wondering if I’d be able to make the monumental progress as a student that would be required of me to make it. But, like you, I did. And at the end of the semester, I got a B-.
I majored in history during my time at Kenyon. So I thought that, in preparing for today, it would only be right to become a graduation speech historian. In my research, what I’ve come to learn is that no less than three of the top 20 commencement addresses of all time were given on this very campus. Sets the bar pretty high for me, doesn’t it?
On the other hand, I for one don’t remember anything about the probably stellar address given by Faye Vincent during our Commencement in 1999.
I do recall, however, how I felt on that day, probably very similar to how you feel right now, a mix of emotions so unique that you may never feel it again. I remember, a few hours after the ceremony ended, sitting with my friend, Joe, on the front bumper of his burgundy 1990 Ford Tempo in the New Apartments parking lot, crying, laughing, reminiscing and crying some more for over an hour.
It had hit us — college was over — and we knew very little of what the coming months had in store.
If you feel that way right now, or maybe a few hours from now, it’s OK. The future may seem terrifying, but figuring it all out is going to be a lot of fun.
Thank you, President Decatur, the Board of Trustees, family, friends, and, most importantly, the graduating Class of 2017. This day is truly all about you, even as you prepare to leave this Kenyon cocoon and learn that your life will increasingly become more about others. I’d also like to thank my wife, Maya, and our daughter, Zora, for accompanying me to Gambier this weekend.
Today is our 11th wedding anniversary, so I’m grateful to have them here to join me in celebrating with you. As a graduate of Harvard and Northwestern, Maya is used to being around the academically elite. But over the years, she has marveled at the stories I’ve shared depicting the bond between students and faculty here at Kenyon.
Which brings me to the last group of people I want to acknowledge, the professors. You are the absolute best. You’ve taught so many of us to love to learn, and I don’t know that there’s anything more valuable you could have done for us.
As Kenyon students, each of us has our own example of a professor who transformed us into a better version of ourselves. In my case, it was Peter Rutkoff. To Peter, and to all the special teacher-mentors that make this faculty world class, thank you.
To you graduates, there are so many things I’d love to share with you today, but none more important, timely and specific than this: Find the right way, your way, to express your gratitude to the people on this campus that have impacted your life in ways beyond your current comprehension. You can’t yet fully know what I mean, but you know well enough.
In a way that’s particularly meaningful to you and to them, demonstrate your appreciation. You will not regret it.
As my days at Kenyon dwindled, I was forced, like all of you, to decide what the next chapter of my life would entail. It was challenging to come to the realization that my entire identity was about to change, and change dramatically. For four years, I had walked around this campus with a basketball in my hands. And now my career as a student-athlete was about to end.
Because they cared so much, and because they’d dedicated so much time to my development as a student, my professors pushed me to follow a path similar to the one they’d taken: rigorous post-graduate study, research, writing, teaching, maybe even becoming a professor at a place like Kenyon.
But they didn’t see what I saw. They couldn’t understand at the time that my passion pointed me in a different direction. It was thought by some that a student like me, like each of you, would somehow spoil this tremendous education by choosing a less traditional route. I disagreed.
Without knowing exactly how, I believed I could utilize more of what I learned here as a coach than in any other way. That was largely because it was my coach, Bill Brown, who introduced me to Kenyon, who saw to it that my mom could afford Kenyon, who convinced me to come, and who became the closest thing I had to a true father during my freshman year here.
And when he left Gambier the next summer to take a job at another institution, I was heartbroken. But before moving, he planted a seed in my mind. “When you graduate,” Coach Brown said, “I want you to come work for me.”
So the summer after graduation, the exact time period you’re about to enter right now, I headed to a one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania to make 45 dollars a week as a graduate assistant coach.
In retrospect, not only did I know nothing about my new surroundings, I also knew next to nothing about the profession I’d chosen. I lived in a raggedy apartment and ate half a Subway sandwich twice a day every day. But I loved the opportunity in front of me, the chance to impact people in the way that Coach Brown had impacted me.
Not everyone will understand your path. Not everyone will see what you see. That’s OK. As civil rights leader Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Today, more than ever, the world you’re inheriting needs you to choose a path that makes you come alive and follow it unapologetically. You won’t regret it.
Along the way, when people tell you they believe in you, make sure you listen.
For much of my life, my grandfather sent me newspaper articles clipped from the Chicago Tribune that focused on whatever area of interest he thought I had at the current time. He’d write these short comments on most of the articles to alert me to a specific point or provide a personalized message.
What my mom commonly referred to as the “clipping service” was not merely limited to me. He sent each family member his or her own separate stack of newspaper articles at least once a week. Pretty remarkable, looking back on it. Must have taken him hours to organize and send out in the mail.
During my Kenyon years, my clippings were dominated by news of Michael Jordan and his world-champion Chicago Bulls. As the internet became more and more popular, I never did tell my grandfather that I could easily go online, find the same articles, and save him some time.
No, I rather enjoyed reading his brief comments on the articles, and I believe he enjoyed sharing them, too.
Once I joined the coaching profession, the subject of the clippings turned more to basketball strategy, sports psychology, and big college games. One installment I received, less than a year after leaving Kenyon, had an article previewing the national semifinal games at the Final Four, which was being held in Indianapolis that year.
I can still see his note on this particular article. “Someday, Shaka,” he’d scribbled in his distinct handwriting, “you will coach in the Final Four.” I always appreciated his belief in me.
Back then, just like anyone fresh out of college, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the unforeseen challenges ahead. Sometimes, that ignorance is a good thing. Either way, here was my grandfather, with all his wisdom and life experience, telling me I’d make it, urging me to believe.
He lived for more than another decade and continued the clipping service almost up until the very end, March 29, 2011. Four days after he passed away, our team played in the Final Four in Houston. I hope he knows that his prediction came true.
As you exit this bubble and begin your long and winding journey, know that there will be people that doubt you. I can tell you from experience that sometimes your harshest critic will come from within.
But you’ll also have those that breathe life into you, even if only from afar. Listen to those champions — often, they are clairvoyant. And you will not regret it.
Advice comes along with this season of your life. For weeks now, you’ve probably heard your share. So I’ll add just a bit more. I’ve spent my entire adult life around college kids. Each school year, they stay the same age, but I get one year older.
I’ve followed dozens of graduates and witnessed the whole gamut of their experiences. I’ve seen the unlikeliest success stories and some really bad wrong turns. I’ve seen capital-E Epiphanies and, as Einstein would say, the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
I’ve seen people master the power of intention, seeing to it that their habits match their expectations, and producing amazing successes as a result.
From all those observations, here’s what I want you to know to do, what I wish I’d have known to do better 18 years ago when I was in your chair.
Every day, choose your relationship with feedback and with failure. And choose wisely. Because make no mistake about it, in the “real world,” those two F bombs are coming.
When I refer to feedback, I mean the reaction to anything and everything you do. Some forms of feedback you’ll have to search for; others will hit you like a ton of bricks. Sometimes feedback is very public — like when you’re a coach. Other times, it occurs behind closed doors.
As we’ve established, there will always be haters. But what about feedback that just might have merit?
Learn to understand that you need it to survive. Just like that red ink that ripped our papers apart and turned us into better writers at Kenyon, real-world red ink is coming your way, too.
Take a growth mindset — I can and will grow from every situation. Feedback is your food.
When I say failure, I mean with a lowercase f. Setbacks, mishaps, losses, days when we get knocked on our backs.
As long as we have the right perspective, capital-F Failure is merely an illusion in our minds. It ain’t real. There’s always a chance to reset, to recalibrate, to grow. But only if you choose the right response.
On November 18, 2009, our team suffered its first loss of my career as a head coach, an away game. We got back late, I didn’t sleep much, instead lying in bed replaying the game in my mind over and over.
When the alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., I literally couldn’t get up. I felt paralyzed. How could we lose that game? How could it not go as planned? What will happen in our next game with a ranked opponent coming to town?
I had a choice to make … and I’m telling you, whether you go into writing, or medicine, or investment banking or politics, you’ll have this choice too. I had to view the previous night’s setback as a chance to grow and, as we like to say, respond. I couldn’t let that failure be fatal.
Fortunately, I got up that morning. And we won that next game. You’ll get up, too. You’ve learned that here and you’re ready to make that powerful choice. One day at a time.
You need not be perfect, just intentional. Remember, if later today, you find yourself sitting on the front bumper of your friend’s car unable to control your myriad emotions and looking like a mess, you’re right where you should be, right where I was.
Life’s about to get more messy, less predictable. Good! You’re going to love the journey of figuring it all out. I wish you luck and much, much more. Thank you.