Some Words of Advice for 2019 Graduates

During this graduation season, I have found myself reflecting on the moment 19 years ago when I graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in computer science. I was preparing to serve my country as an undercover officer in the CIA. I was nervous to start a job that I was not allowed to tell too many people about and excited to forge my path in the big world. I also do not remember one thing said by my commencement speaker.

As the Class of 2019 begins the next phase of its life, I have three pieces of advice to help them tackle the challenges we are facing in this world — have a positive mental attitude, measure your success by what you give to others and love thy neighbor as thyself.

My dad is 86 years old and grew up in Marshall, Texas. Back in the ’50s, he was one of the first black salesmen for the American Tobacco Co., selling Lucky Strikes to gas stations. To make a successful sale, my dad would have to get behind the counter of the store to take inventory of all the products and figure out what the attendant manning the store needed. Right before he would walk through the door of the service station, he would look up into the sky. He would imagine the face of the guy he was about to talk to and tell that guy “Today is your lucky day.” He did this even though he knew as soon as he would walk in the store the attendant would curse at him, call him terrible names and demand that he leave because of the color of his skin.

This always happened, but my dad knew he would be able to convince the guy to let him behind the counter. By the end of the visit, the attendant would be shaking his hand and begging him to come back. He said the secret to his success was to have a PMA — a positive mental attitude. Life is hard. Life is difficult. Life is going to punch you in the gut. But when you change your attitude, you change your behavior. When your behavior changes, so do your results.

My second piece of advice is a lesson I learned from my time in the CIA as an undercover officer. I chased terrorists like al-Qaida around the world, prevented Russian spies from stealing our secrets, and helped put nuclear weapons proliferators out of business. I did this in places like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

During my time in Pakistan, I was asked to lead an expedition to Azad Kashmir following a devastating earthquake in 2005 that claimed the lives of 80,000 people. The destruction from this earthquake was unbelievable. Following our first reports, the U.S. military provided helicopters to help move the inhabitants of entire villages to safety, and I helped direct the airlift.

We were packing CH-47 Chinook helicopters with 100 people each trip. One little girl, who couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 years old and had lost both her parents in the earthquake, saw this whole scene and was afraid. She was screaming. She was crying. She refused to get on the helicopter. A village elder picked the little girl up and thrust her into my arms. I held her as tight as I could, and halfway through the trip she eventually calmed down.

When we reached our destination, everyone piled out of the helicopter. The little girl took a few steps and then turned around, ran back to me and gave me the biggest hug I think I’ve ever gotten in my life.

The face of that little girl is seared into my mind because that day and what we did in the aftermath of the earthquake is an example of how America is one of the few countries that has the resources and the willingness to help those in need, even if they are 7,000 miles away. America has become an exceptional nation not because of what we have taken, but because of what we have given. Measure yourself and your success by what you give to others, not what you receive in return.

Finally, I want to give you the best piece of advice I have read in a book — the Bible. There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Second Temple and some legal scholars, the Pharisees, were trying to test Jesus. When they asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” But most people forget that he added, equally as important, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The reality is we can’t change the world by ourselves. There is an old Swahili proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

To the Class of 2019, congratulations on your accomplishment and I hope you follow in the footsteps of my father and have a PMA. I hope you are inspired by the greatness of America by measuring what you give, not what you receive. And I hope you remember Jesus’ advice to love thy neighbor like thyself.


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