(I gave this talk to a dinner for students at Tamaqua High School, my alma mater, on May 18, 1992. The students were being honored for excellence.)
I know that you are all achievers and you have a good idea of how to achieve. I wonder, though, if I might be presumptuous enough to provide some additional thoughts on how to reach the next level of achievement. These thoughts have guided me throughout my life—in fact, I learned them in Tamaqua—and since they’ve helped me, perhaps they will help you.
• Don’t always stick with what’s comfortable. If I may relate to my classroom at Penn State, let me tell you that contrary to what you may believe, newspapers don’t have much of an impact on how people think. The research shows that people tend to read what they agree with and to avoid reading they don’t agree with.
I urge you to read books, essays and articles that you don’t agree with. Be receptive to new ideas. I didn’t say you had to change your mind; I just want to ensure that you have enough to go on when you make a decision. And you can only do that if you already read ideas you agree with.
• Don’t give up when you have a new idea to give to the world. A new idea is first a lone voice in the wilderness. As others start to adopt the idea, you will hear an echo. Finally, a choir. It takes a long time to get to the choir stage, but when you reach that stage, everybody’s on board—and it’s a wonderful feeling. Some people let life happen; other people make life happen. Always be someone who makes life happen.
• Don’t be trendy. Do things because you want to, not because everyone else is doing them. I realize that you’re under a great deal of peer pressure at this point in your life. Everybody wants to be like everybody else. Conformity is in. I would urge all of you to celebrate the differences; that’s what makes us individuals—and better people.
• Keep an open mind when meeting someone from another culture. I realize that when I use the phrase “another culture” around young people, they think I’m talking about their parents. But I’m talking about the wide diversity in our country, even just in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
It has been my great honor to have served my country in the U.S. Navy and to have met people from many countries. Morocco. Italy. France. Spain. Mississippi. I learned not to judge people by the color of their skin. I learned that gray is the only color that matters—as in the gray matter between one’s ears—the brain. And that in matters of the mind, the color of a person’s skin—for that matter, someone’s gender—doesn’t matter. The stereotypes are wrong.
So let me emphasize:
Don’t judge a book by its cover or a person by the color of her skin. Look inside, and I am confident you will meet many fine people.
Finally, let me talk about my mother and Daniel.
My mother raised me mostly on Aesop’s Fables and the Old Testament. Every story, no matter the length, had a one-sentence moral, which my mother subsequently reminded me of when I was straying or which she would cite as a way of helping me find the right path in a sticky situation.
Of all the stories my mother told me, the one I liked the best, the one I think shaped me above all others, was the story of Daniel in the Old Testament.
Daniel, you may recall, put his faith ahead of his loyalty to secular matters, ran afoul of a decree by King Darius and was thrown into the lion’s den. But rather than being eaten alive, Daniel was protected by an angel and was alive when Darius came to check on him the following morning. Darius spared Daniel and punished his detractors.
When my mother would finish telling me the story of Daniel, she would turn to me and say, “And what is the moral of the story?”
In the beginning, I was slow to answer and she would firmly tell me: “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.”
For many years to come, whenever it appeared I was running with the crowd instead of standing on my own, my mother would say to me, “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.” My mothers one-sentence moral from Daniel in the lion’s den will be forever with me. It is something I have passed on to my daughters and I hope they pass it on to their children.
And that, ultimately, is the message that I want to leave with you.
Go forth in life.
And dare to be a Daniel.
The world will be a better place because you did.
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