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Vision for the Future: A Commencement Speech

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Yesterday I gave the commencement speech at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Conn. I've spoken at lots of places before -- the U.N., the White House, awards shows where hundreds of thousands of people were watching. But this was my first commencement gig. I felt a big responsibility. I wondered what words of wisdom I could give to those young adults, about to start a whole new life.

The last time I hit a creative block, I was in the studio working on my new album. My brother, Sam, helped me look for inspiration. He ran across a video of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the African-American civil rights leader, pastor and congressman from New York, giving a speech in Cambridge, Mass.

So that gave me a great start -- for my album and my address to the WestConn graduates. Here's what I told them:

Dr. Powell's speech was moving -- one of the most powerful I've ever heard, in fact. The title was "What's in Your Hands?" Dr. Powell was speaking to a group of people who were down on their luck, thought they didn't matter, thought they didn't have power, thought they had no way of escaping poverty and no way of changing their circumstances.

Dr. Powell asked the audience, "What's in your hands?" He wanted to get them to think about what they could do rather than what they couldn't do. What they did have as opposed to what they didn't have.

He then went through a list of figures both biblical and historical. From Jesus to Benjamin Franklin, he laid out examples of people who used what little they had in their hands to change the world.

What he said formed the basis for the message I want to give you today -- that we all have the ability to achieve our dreams, if only we can envision what we want and plan to make it happen.

I was born in a small town in Haiti. We didn't have much. My parents left Haiti to come to America in search of a better life for my brother and me.

They believed that if they could just change their circumstances, they could begin to live out the vision they had for themselves and their children. They saved every penny they could to get to America. But they knew getting there wouldn't mean automatic success. They had to plan in order to reach the goals they set for themselves.

They had a vision for their future that was far greater than many of their friends' and even other family members'. Like my parents, you've done everything you can to complete that first step. They wanted to get to America; you wanted to get your degree.

But you have to know it doesn't end there. You have to ask yourself, what will you do with the degree? How will you use it to achieve your goals? And the answer to that depends on how far you can see. You must have a vision for your future. You must pair that vision with a plan.

Because my mother and father instilled in me the need to have a vision and a plan, I survived in the entertainment industry -- an industry that isn't very kind.

I came to America as a boy excited. This was the land of possibilities and opportunities. I loved music, writing, singing, playing. That's all I ever wanted to do.I was told that I didn't have a chance. That there was no way I could make a living as a musician or a rapper.

I was in a group no one wanted to manage, whose first album didn't get great reviews. I was told to give up -- several times. But I had a vision for myself that was strong. And I set in motion a plan to accomplish what I knew I could.

If you have a vision for yourself, it won't matter that others may be blind to what you can see. That vision will help you see past many factors that can discourage you. That vision will help you see past the setbacks -- and setbacks will happen.

It's not enough to just be able to see. That's only the beginning. The real question, the more important question is, what will you do with what you see? What are you going to do with that vision?

Talk to any successful person, whether it's a professor or your parents. Research any figure who has made his or her mark in history or in their field. The one thing they will often have in common is that they saw something in their future. And the reason we remember them is because they did something with that vision.

You don't have to be rich, powerful or famous to be great or successful. In fact, your vision doesn't have to be of you becoming rich, powerful or famous.

Unfortunately, in this society we oftentimes measure success in shallow and material ways: How much money do you have? How powerful are you? Are you famous? How big is your house? What kind of car do you drive? All these questions reinforce the misguided belief that success is somehow tied to material things that benefit the self. I have, I do, I am.

I have had a lot of success in entertainment. But I didn't really become successful as a person until I began to give of myself to others who needed my help. Outside of being a husband and a father, nothing has given me greater satisfaction than the work I've been able to do with Yéle Haiti, the charity I founded in 2005.

It's one of the many things I've been able to accomplish because I had a vision for myself. All the success I've had would mean nothing without the opportunity to better the lives of others in my home country.

I'd like to challenge each of you to define success for yourself. You will find that making a commitment to others as well as yourself will be key.

Create a vision based on your specific gifts, talents and tools. There is greatness in simply being you and using your skill to do something with your vision -- and to put your personal plan in motion.

You are ultimately responsible for how far you can see. Your future belongs to you, and you alone.

Believe it or not, I used to ride a donkey to school in Haiti. I lived in a one‐room shack. When I came to America, I didn't speak a word of English. Today I am able to travel the world, reach people with my music, work on behalf of my native Haiti and even speak at a college commencement. I am proof that anything you want is possible, if you can only envision it first.