Sullivan University Commencement - April 30, 2011

Good morning. Thank you for that kind introduction.

Being asked to speak at a commencement ceremony is quite an honor, but I'm smart enough to know this isn't about me. I stand before you with three important responsibilities.

First, I'm charged with congratulating these accomplished men and women on behalf of our entire community.

Second, I'm supposed to offer my best advice.

And finally, I'm supposed to shut up and sit down so we can start handing out degrees and turning those tassels!

For reasons that will soon become obvious, I'm going to start with the second task. Here's my best advice for the future: “Don't get too comfortable.”

Let me explain.

At my own commencement ceremony 31 years ago, I was starting a journey in both the literal and figurative sense.

I had a new degree in economics, but what I was really excited about was the “round-the-world” plane ticket I bought for $999.

With that kind of ticket, you could make as many stops as you wanted, as long as you kept traveling in the same direction around the globe.

I'd planned that trip and saved money for it over several summer jobs. First, I worked as an industrial roofer.

If you can imagine working with hot tar all summer on a roof in the Ohio River Valley, then you can also imagine why the next year I found work operating a crane in Alaska.

I saved enough for my round-the-world trip, but just barely. Most of the time, I was trying to travel on $10 a day.

You can imagine that, even in 1980, that wasn't enough to stay at fancy Westernized hotels with English-speaking concierges.

I was riding the bus – or the donkey cart – with the locals. I was sitting on a corner, shooing flies away from a meal that I bought on the street and wasn't completely sure what was.

Some of the bathrooms were pretty weird too.

There were times when, bottom line, I just wasn't that comfortable.

Sometimes I wasn't physically comfortable. But more importantly, I experienced moments of cultural discomfort. I just wasn't sure what I should do or say, or whether anyone would understand me anyway.

I learned a lot and was reminded of the ways that people are the same the world over – from the poorest communities in Laos to the wealthiest sections of Louisville.

But the best thing I learned was how to be comfortable outside my comfort zone.

I learned that even in the most awkward interactions, you can go a long way with a warm smile, a willingness to try new things, and the ability to laugh at yourself.

It turns out that stepping outside your comfort zone is a skill that you develop with practice – just like any other skill.

When I got home from that trip, I started running SerVend, an ice and beverage dispensing company with four employees.

And I set a lofty goal. I wanted SerVend to become international.

I'll be honest, this was partly because I wanted an excuse to travel again. (And maybe spend a bit more than $10 a day on the trip.)

But I soon learned that being willing – even eager – to step outside the usual comfort zone wasn't just fun for me. It meant that I had a competitive advantage over other businesspeople who might be too intimidated, for example, to travel to Milan to recruit partners or customers.

SerVend eventually grew to 300 employees and generated about 70 million dollars worth of revenue a year. Twenty percent of that came from the opportunities I was willing to pursue overseas.

Here's another a time this skill helped me:

In 2007, when I first started thinking about running for political office, I knew I wanted to help my community through public service. But I also knew there would be parts of running for office that would make me feel goofy or uncomfortable – like talking about myself on TV.

After my first campaign commercial, a family friend told the newspaper that I sounded like I was talking at a funeral – and that people might fall asleep.

A funeral that puts you to sleep!

And THAT was from a FRIEND.

But I had known, going in, that I could survive uncomfortable moments, and that I could grow by surviving them. For me, that wasn't just the PRICE of going into community service, that was one of the joys.

I know that most of you can't take a trip like I did. At least not right now.

The average age of the graduates here today is 33, which means that many of you already have personal or professional responsibilities that keep you from disappearing for a year. (Although you may sometimes want to!)

But ... here's what you CAN do:

You can attend a house of worship that is not of your own tradition.

You can take a bus to a part of town that you've never been to before. And go to a restaurant that serves food you aren't even sure how to eat.

Introduce yourself to a refugee family. Maybe volunteer to help people study for citizenship tests. Or simply get to know the Somali family whose son plays with your daughter on a soccer team. Just say “hello.” That's how it starts.

Not only will those experiences enrich your life, they'll prepare you for the inevitable moment in your career when you'll face an opportunity that sounds really fantastic ... EXCEPT for that one little part that is outside your comfort zone.

Practice the skill of being uncomfortable. THAT's my best advice.

Now, here is the reason I offered my advice before congratulating the graduates. I suspect most of the graduates here already know a great deal about comfort zones.

Let me give you some examples:

Randy Moulin. ((Pronounced as MO-Lin, like MOW the yard.)) Can Randy Moulin stand up?

Randy has been in nursing for more than 25 years. But today, he’s receiving an associate's degree in culinary arts and is working toward a bachelor's degree in hospitality management. His plan is to start a personal chef company, in which he'll come to people's homes and cook several meals for them. He'll put a couple of meals in the fridge, a few more in the freezer and leave instructions for how to heat them up.

Now, I've heard that the idea of starting his own business terrifies Randy. After all, he's got a family to support and there are no guarantees for a new business. But Randy is taking a chance, because he says he doesn't want to be on his deathbed someday wondering: “What would it have been like to be a chef?”

So congratulations Randy. Good luck!

(And when you start your company, make sure you send me a business card.)

What about Kyle Dryden? Kyle, can you stand up?

Kyle was a sports and wedding photographer in Lexington when the economy got rough a couple of years ago. He could have done the relatively easy thing of taking whatever work he could get quickly.

But instead, he did some soul searching about the best option for him and his family.

He thought about the joy he took in cooking and, like Randy, he ended up enrolling in Sullivan's culinary arts school.

Now going back to school and changing careers wasn't easy. The hardest part, believe it or not, was going to Florida this winter to participate in a prestigious and exclusive college program at Disney World.

I know that may not sound like a hardship, but the program – which was like an internship – is five months long. (It's not quite over yet.)

He had to leave his wife and four-year-old son behind in Lexington Five months is a long time in the life of a four-year-old.

So I know that has been hard on you Kyle.

I suspect your son, Bruce, didn’t really understand why you were going to see Mickey Mouse without him.

But I'm pleased to hear that program turned into a full-time job offer. When you take that job this summer, you'll be taking your family with you. Congratulations Kyle!

(And Bruce, if you're here, I think you're going to meet Mickey Mouse!)

Daisy Seigler? Can you please stand up?

Daisy says she didn't really like high school that much when she was a teenager. Then, she got married young and became caught up in the demands of a non-academic world.

But about three years ago, she began to see that after years of child-rearing and following her husband's military career around the world, her own options in the workforce had become limited.

She said she had begun to dread those moments when her high-school aged daughter would ask for help on homework.

After so long away from school, Daisy felt a little intimidated by that.

Now I can imagine that if helping a teenager at the kitchen table is intimidating, then summoning the courage to enroll in college and start taking accounting courses had to be really scary.

But Daisy did it. And she LOVED it.

Like most of us, she's gotten more serious about things since high school. She likes school so much that she's going to continue to work toward a bachelor's degree after picking up her associate's degree in office administration here today. Congratulations Daisy!

Randi Turner, please stand up.

Randi is a veteran of the United States Army. She served in Desert Storm. When she returned after honorably serving our country, she quickly realized that she was going to need more education if she wanted to move out of blue-collar work.

Today, she is receiving an Executive MBA, her fourth degree from the Sullivan system of schools. She has said that every degree meant an advancement in her career. In fact, since completing her coursework for this degree, she's already earned a promotion at UPS. She's a project engineer manager.

Far be it for me to talk about “comfort zones” to anyone who has served her nation in war.

Randi obviously has a willingness to take risks. That's part of the reason, as a woman, she is having such great success in an area of business that is still fairly male-dominated. Congratulations Randi.

And remember Chad Burks, who spoke earlier? Can you stand, Chad?

As you know, Chad isn't actually graduating today. He's here representing the 67 people who will, in June, become the first graduating class in Sullivan's new Doctorate of Pharmacy program.

About three years ago, Chad was working in a pharmacy in New Albany, loving the work, but getting frustrated because he wasn't able to do all the things that a full-fledged pharmacist does. He couldn't interact with patients much, or give advice.

So even though he'd been out of school for a while, he decided to become a full-time student again. That meant disrupting the comfortable routine he and his wife had created for themselves.

For a while, he though he might even have to leave the area – because when he first made the decision he didn't know Sullivan was starting a pharmacy program.

But instead of thinking about the reasons NOT to do it. He started making it happen.

Congratulations Chad! I'm glad you could stay here in the area.

The men and women I just introduced to you have stepped out of their comfort zones in big ways. But I know they're not all that unusual.

No one got here today by taking the easy road. So I offer my heartfelt congratulations to each one of you, and to your families as well. I'm sure many of them had to make sacrifices to support you.

What I ask of you now is to remember what you've learned here at Sullivan – not just what you've learned about business or cooking, not just what you've learned about health care or information technology. I want you to remember that you learned what you can accomplish by daring to take risks.

I suspect you'll prove again and again that your greatest successes in life will come in those moments that rattle your nerves a bit.

So congratulations again. Good luck. And … don't get too comfortable!