Life Lessons: Commencement Remarks from Richard Forsten

Over the past few weeks, thousands of seniors have graduated from area high schools. Appoquinimink and Middletown students participated in commencement activities at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center over Memorial Day weekend, with Saul Ewing attorney Richard Forsten giving the following commencement address. Congratulations to the Class of 2014!

In a few short minutes, you’ll all be receiving your diplomas, which mark the formal end of your public education. But I’ve been asked to give a “commencement” address, and “commencement” doesn’t mean ending or finishing or completion, rather, “commencement” means “the beginning” or “the start” or “the initiation.”


And so, a commencement address is designed to recognize this start, and, if successful, to leave you with some insights and encouragement as you embark on the next phase of your lives.

Now, years ago – more years than I care to admit – the commencement speaker at my high school graduation said a few words to me and my classmates. He said years from now, you’re not going to remember who I am, nor are you going to remember anything I say, and so, he said, I want to leave you with two images that I know you’ll remember, the hand and the fist, and then he went on to describe what the hand and the fist symbolized.

But you know something, my graduation speaker was right – I don’t remember his name, I don’t remember what he said, and, worse still, I don’t even remember what he said about the hand and the fist. So, I’m not going to say anything about a hand or a fist.

What I want to do is leave you with a few clichés – five in all – that I think will help you along as you commence the next chapter in your lives. The advantage of clichés, of course, is that they are clichés. People have heard them many times and they are more memorable than anything I could make up. But most importantly, clichés are clichés because they contain a lot of truth.

Let me start with something that you’ll need to do in the years ahead and for the rest of your life: “LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERYDAY.”

Now I realize that some of you may have been looking forward to high school graduation because you thought you’d be done. No more teachers, no more books. No more having to learn stuff.

But, if you haven’t realized it already, let me simply point out to you that graduating high school is not the end of your educational process, although it may be the end of your free educational process. And, it doesn’t matter if you’re going on to college, or to serve our country in the armed forces, or other job training, or whether you’re still figuring out what you want to do. The point is simply this: Every day, for the rest of your lives, you need to learn something new.

According to WikiAnswers, one-third of high school graduates never read another book again, 42% of college graduates never read another book after college, and 80% — eighty percent! – of U.S. families have not bought or read a book in the past year. Some have questioned those statistics, but even if they are only partly accurate, they are still alarming.

Don’t be part of that one-third or that 42% or that 80%. Learn something new every day.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you wake up every day and sit down and study advanced chemistry or advanced physics or the history of ancient Rome, but I am saying that you should be intellectually curious, that no matter how much you may think you know, it’s really not enough, and that technology is always advancing forward. If you don’t commit to continual learning, you’re going to be left behind.

When I graduated high school, there was no such thing as a laptop computer, no such thing as a smart phone or a tablet or DirectTV or email, text messaging, instagram, twitter, or even, the internet.

Cell phones were sometimes called bag phones, because the phone was attached to a box that was roughly the size of a small shoe box and you carried it in a bag over your shoulder.

And I did my papers in college using a typewriter made by a typewriter company that is no longer in business.

So, part of the reason to learn something new every day is to avoid becoming a dinosaur. Last time I checked, the dinosaurs went extinct.

But learning something new everyday doesn’t always have to be hard work.

Read the newspaper, or at least a few stories in it. Don’t rely exclusively on TV or the radio or the internet. Subscribe to a real newspaper, on paper. Just going through it every day, you will see something that catches your eye and informs you in ways that TV and the internet never can.

Read a book every now and then. Watch a documentary. Listen to a podcast or an audio of a book. And don’t focus all your energy on one subject or area. If you like science that’s great, but read a history book every once in a while. If you like fiction, that’s great too. But from time to time do something outside your comfort zone. Do something outside your normal interest.

Above all, learn something new every day.

Even as you [do], though, strive to remember this:

“ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY.”

We live, and you have grown up your whole lives, in the age of the internet. You are able to go online and look things up and get instant answers that are usually pretty accurate. Some of you may be doing that right now, although I hope not.

My point, though, is that we live in a world where patience seems to be a lost virtue. We know what we want, and we want it now. Amazon is spending millions of dollars trying to figure out a way for same day delivery, as if waiting a day or two is somehow unacceptable.

What I’m really trying to tell you, though, is that things take time. Relationships take time. Careers take time. Raising families takes time.

The CEO for Ford didn’t just walk into his entry level job and expect to be CEO a year later. And, he didn’t say to his boss after one year, “Hey, I’m ready to be CEO now.” He spent many long years, working hard and doing good work, to get where he got. If he had expected instant results, and quit when he didn’t get them, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

It’s that way in virtually every field and every endeavor. Things take time. They take hard work. You may be gifted in a particular area or field, but there is no substitute for long, hard work.

Set your goals, work hard, and eventually you’ll get where you want to go. Don’t give up, because, remember, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Anything worth doing is going to take some time.

For my third cliché, I simply say this: Carpe Diem – Seize The Day.

Now, we all have a tendency to kick back and wait for things to happen. We all have a tendency to say, “Tomorrow, we can do that tomorrow.” But, you say that too often and pretty soon you’re looking back at a lot of yesterdays and wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished the things you want to do. Seize the day.

In the movie “The Dead Poets Society,” Robin Williams plays an English teacher who, on the first day of class, takes his students down to the entrance hall of the school, where all the past athletic trophies and pictures of teams are displayed in cases, and he has the students look closely at the photos – many of which are 40 or 50 or more years old. Those students in the photos were all grown and many were dead. Did the students in those photos accomplish what they set out to do, or did they say I can do that tomorrow too many times?

Seize the day. Because while Rome may not have been built in a day, it still took many days. If you don’t seize the day now, you may never get your Rome built.

For my fourth cliché, I’m going to use a quote. It comes from one of the great speakers of the twentieth century, President John F. Kennedy, who said:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I offer you this quote because, believe it or not, your life is going to get even busier and more hectic in the years to come. Many, if not most of you, are going to start families, you’re going to start careers, you’re going to be busy. And that’s all good.

But along the way, don’t forget to get involved in your community. Don’t forget to give a little something back. Find something that you like, something that feels right, and strive to make your community a better place.

It doesn’t have to be a lot. It might be serving as an officer in your church, or raising money for a charity through a walk-a-thon, or the relay for life, or the big ball marathon. There are dozens of causes you can devote your time to. You might even run for school board some day, although I warn you that it takes a lot of hours and a thick skin, because you do hear a lot of criticisms and complaints.

Just don’t look to get stuff from government or your community. Do stuff for your community. Work to make it a better place. One of the things I’ve come to believe in is karma – the concept that if you do good things, good things will happen to you. So go out and get involved and do good things.

My final point may not be a cliché that you recognize, but I’m trying to make it one. And if you only remember one thing that I say today, please remember this:

“ALWAYS TAKE THE HIGH ROAD.”

In recent years, with the internet, anonymous blog postings, talking heads on TV, we seem to have reached a point in society where, rather than discuss the merits of a position, we’d rather just try and come up with clever insults or putdowns.

And people notice that.

It’s tempting, sometimes, when someone says something that we think is stupid to tell them “you idiot, that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” or worse.

And it’s tempting, when a waitress gets your order wrong and isn’t particularly apologetic about it, to snap at her. And it’s really tempting, when someone gets in the 10 items or less line with 15 items, to say something rude.

Don’t. Take the high road. It’s hard, but it’s better.

I know you’ve already seen this in school, but let me stress it: reputation matters. A lot. And what reputation do you want? How do you want to be known? As a jerk, who’s quick to insult people and make snide and rude comments? Or as a nice person, who rarely, if ever, has anything bad to say? If given the choice between hiring those two people, which would you hire? If given the choice, who would you rather have as a friend?

Over the years, I’ve seen people get infuriating emails or messages from folks, and, what do they do? In the heat of the moment they compose a really biting response that puts the person who sent the email or message in their place. And then, they send it.

Delete that heated response. Calm down. Think carefully. Don’t take the low road. Even if you need to disagree with the person who sent the message, you can do it without being disagreeable. If you sink to the level of the person who sent the infuriating email, you diminish yourself. Always take the high road.

We all know reputation matters. And if we always take the high road, we’ll get where we want to go a lot easier and in better company. It is not easy to always take the high road. Sometimes you may have to simply bite your tongue. But always, always, always take the high road.

Now, I could go on. But I know that time is precious. There is still much to learn and we must seize the day.

Years from now, you probably won’t remember my name, but I hope that you’ll remember these five clichés, so that if you’re ever asked to give a commencement address, you can say “I don’t remember his name, but he told us to learn something new every day, that Rome wasn’t built in a day, to seize the day, to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country, and, most of all, he told us to always take the high road. And I did those things, and they made a difference.”

May you always take the high road and may you have great success in the years to come.

Congratulations class of 2014.

———————

Richard “Shark” Forsten is a partner with the firm of Saul Ewing in Wilmington. He lives in an old farmhouse just south of Middletown and serves as vice president of the Appoquinimink School Board. In addition, he serves on the boards of Goodwill of Delaware and the Everett Theatre, where he is board chair. He is also vice-president-at-large for the Delaware State Bar Association and is the long-serving parliamentarian for the Delaware Republican Party.

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