I recently delivered a commencement address to Masters graduate students at Florida Institute of Technology. All of the graduates were working professionals, many of them middle-aged and beyond. As I looked into their faces, I realized that they were as excited and as anxious about their future, about possibilities of life, as are graduates 30 or 40 years younger.
In a very real way, we're all graduates of the school of life and we all have the opportunity to continue to grow and contribute. So here's my commencement address for all of us approaching or inhabiting middle age and wondering what's next?
It is commencement for all of us. A new beginning. A new adventure. I'm here on behalf of good news. Good news has asked me to speak to you about hope, inspiration and possibility. To impress upon you how much power you have if only you find the belief to develop it, the courage to wield it and the confidence to maintain it.
You have demonstrated the ability to not only recognize opportunity but more importantly, the power to marshal the forces and resources necessary to capitalize on it. You have earned the right to pause for a moment and enjoy the well-deserved feeling of accomplishment.
OK, that moment is over. Now what? That's the challenge of life. You're never done. And why would you want to be? That's called death. The excitement of life is that there is always a now what? Or at least the opportunity for a now what?
For many, that is an overwhelming and unwelcome thought. They wonder why they can't simply work for something, achieve it and then leverage it for a lifetime. Your car might run on cruise control but your life will not. Your relationships will falter. Your job satisfaction will wane. Your good vibe will say good-bye and your self-respect will wither and die.
The world today is always changing, always evolving. As are we. How many times have you wondered, what was I thinking? What pleases us one minute might not the next. And so it's easy to get trapped in a less than fulfilling existence.
Amazingly, for some, being trapped is actually preferable to the fear of taking a risk in an effort to create something better. Some enjoy the certainty of the cage that confines them. You've seen the prison movies. The old guys who are paroled after spending decades behind bars almost never want their freedom. They've lost the ability to make decisions for themselves. They're comforted by their cage. But that is not living. That is simply existing.
Major change is underway today in almost every area of our lives, including your business and your areas of interest. You can't resist change and you shouldn't try. Change is your friend because it's a constant and therefore predictable. The question you must always be asking, answering and pursuing is this -- how is change affecting my area of interest or expertise?
Whether you realize it or not, you possess valuable inside information that makes forecasting change fairly easy. You talk about it every day with your boss, your team and your spouse. Once you acknowledge that change is coming and recognize where it's headed -- get there. Get there right now. Get there ahead of change because opportunity is a constant companion of change. They move together, side-by-side. One begets the other.
There is so much change underway right now, so much opportunity, because the world has very quickly grown very small and very flat. The barriers to entry are gone. There are few, if any, geographical restraints. You no longer need permission. You no longer have to live in New York or Los Angeles. You don't need an agent, editor, publisher, tons of money, access to airtime or a big IT team. There are global distribution platforms that you can access with little effort or money. The world is now yours.
There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. And don't say that you're not an entrepreneur because you are. We all are. Not just us but our companies. The best companies, no matter how large, are all entrepreneurial. They have to be to survive. Steve Jobs once famously referred to Apple, a company with a $500 billion market cap, as the world's largest startup.
Begin to think of your life as a start-up. That takes courage and involves risk. It's exposing yourself to frustration, failure and fun. But that's were you'll find life. Mark Twain said, "Go out on the limb. That's where the fruit is."
The first step after recognizing opportunity is always the hardest. It's the single step that most people can't take and single reason most people never achieve their dreams. More than anything else success is an act of faith and at some point you have to take a leap of faith. The good news is, the more leaps you take, the less fearful they become. You learn that the Universe will catch you as long as you are leaping for the right reasons. If you're leaping from a job at a non-profit that mentors under-privileged children to sell drugs to under-privileged children, the universe won't catch you but the cops probably will.
I don't know why or how the universe will catch you. I just know that it will. I've experienced it in my own life and I've interviewed hundreds of men and women who have experienced the same. The universe loves boldness. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.
Understand that it's never too late to discover yourself, reinvent yourself, pursue your passions or create a life of significance. Today we are living non-linear lives. Traditional career paths are a thing of the past. That is a very liberating fact for men and women of all ages. It removes the pressure of feeling like you have to get it exactly right, right now. It removes the pressure of having to think that this degree, this moment, this job, has to define you and has to inform the rest of your life.
While dreaming and planning are important, be aware that action is the fuel that powers this new age of opportunity. Calculated, strategic risk taking has always been and always will be the path to success. Or as my buddy, barefoot water skier Banana George said at the age of 93, "I don't wait for the next thing to happen. I make it happen." Shortly after that, George smashed the world record for the oldest person to ever barefoot. Are you ready to make something happen?
As you move forward in your life and career, understand that there is a premium placed on creativity today. That's more good news because creativity is not a magical spark or a God-given blessing bestowed upon only a lucky few. Creativity is a process that you have the power to control. It's the process of mastering technique.
Creativity is revealed through fearlessness, hard work and persistence. It's diligent refining and editing. It is a great screenwriter toiling over a single line of dialogue until it's perfect, poignant and natural. It's Jackson Pollock throwing and dribbling and splattering paint until order emerges from the chaos. It's you pondering solutions to a problem, brainstorming ideas until a creative solution appears.
So don't ever say, "I'm not creative." That's not accurate. Just say, "I'm lazy and don't want to put in the effort to allow creativity to flow through me."
As you move forward, understand that you are an expert who has a voice that is potentially very powerful. That's more good news because your real job is to find an audience, a market for your voice. Today, we are all journalists. We are all brands. If you have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile, a blog, a Twitter account, a YouTube Channel, or a Pinterest page, you have a personal brand. Protect it. Grow it. Nurture it.
It's easier than ever to get your voice out there but it's harder than ever to stand out. Learn to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Being different is what cuts through the noise, gets you noticed and wins you followers, believers and converts.
As you build or rebuild your life and career, understand that family, friends, associates, employers and lovers all want to be inspired. The market for hope and inspiration, for someone or something to believe in, is infinite. If you want to be successful, be that someone and offer that something.
Understand that hope and inspiration are sold with passion and enthusiasm. These are the contagious cornerstones of a successful business culture and a successful personal life.
Stop growing older and start growing bolder. Move forward with excitement about a future that is uncertain, undetermined and limitless.
Go forward with passion and enthusiasm, knowing that you are creative, your voice is powerful, and your potential unlimited. Never allow the outside world, the media, your insecurities, your friends or even the time and effort invested in achieving one thing keep you from always trying to get closer to what it is your heart desires.
Go forward with persistence remembering the words of Thomas Edison who failed 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb: "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."
Go forward with belief, understanding that belief builds empires and lack of belief destroys dreams. As the great entrepreneur Henry Ford said, "If you think you can or think you can't you're right."
And above all else go forward with joy and happiness in your heart. Don't ever say, "I'll be happy when I achieve my goal" because if you're not happy now, you won't be then. Happiness can only be found in the journey, not the destination. As many wise men have stated, there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.
Follow Marc Middleton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarcMiddleton