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M. Brian Blake 2018 Winter Graduation speech

December 20, 2018

M. Brian Blake speaks at the afternoon ceremony for George Mason University's 2018 Winter Graduation. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, President Cabrera, for such a wonderful introduction.

Trustees, President Cabrera, Provost Wu, distinguished guests, I am honored to be with you today here at the most dynamic university in the world. (Don’t tell anyone at Drexel that I said that!)

Also, to my fellow Patriot graduates, I am so humbled to share the spotlight with you.  Coming from the Lowcountry of Savannah, Georgia, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here.

As graduates, we are so lucky to have leadership that continually evolves this great institution. Each time I come to campus, I find a new reason to get lost. And I didn’t graduate all that long ago.

However, at its core, George Mason is still the same. And its wonderful strength is that George Mason puts a high value on “thinking AND doing.” That’s why I know that you, my fellow Patriots graduating today, are going to “change the world.”  

But before you charge outside to do that, let me take a moment to arm you with some friendly advice. For a few minutes, I want you to think about failure. Or, rather, I want you to think about “perceived failure” – because, today, I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as failure.  

OK, so you’re thinking that each of you sitting before me has good reason to take pride in some level of accomplishment and success already. So, why talk about failure? Why?

Because I don’t think you can experience true “accomplishment” if you don’t appreciate the sensation of “perceiving” failure – and then learn from it.

That’s what I’ve done in my career, and here are a few examples.

For a look at my very first real perception of failure, I want to take you all the way back to an eighth-grade spelling bee. Are spelling bees even a thing anymore? Well, for those who remember them, it’s a competition to spell words. Correctly spell them, that is.  

And I have to say, during middle school, I was pretty good at it. First in my school, second in the district — not bad for a 13-year-old. So, when I got to eighth grade, everyone in the school — including myself — figured I would become the district, regional, and perhaps national champ.

Well, when the district competition was narrowing down to the final round, my first word was, believe it or not, “failure.” I, of course, thought it was easy. When spelling “failure”… F-A-L…. At that that very point, I realized that I blew right past the “I.” 

And in one second, in my mind, the word and my perception of that situation were one and the same.

Of course, it was not just losing the contest, but more the embarrassment of losing on what should have been an easy word.  

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin believed that “… pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.”   

Once I stepped back from that spelling bee experience, I realized that there were many lessons to learn.

A major lesson was simply this: Don’t concentrate too much on the mistake, but appreciate the accomplishment. In this case, I made it that far in the competition.

And another thing I certainly learned from this early experience is that attention to detail is everything.

Well, today, my spelling bee memory provides a great comeback whenever I suggest an initiative to a colleague or student who doubts its chances of success. I can say with confidence, “I can’t even SPELL failure!” And it’s true!

So, how do you learn life lessons to prevent mistakes? Well, as an African-American administrator, I find it helpful to learn from my predecessors. The writings of early 1900 African-American educators are helpful. People like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Carter G. Woodson, and, more recently, Johnnetta Cole, Shirley Ann Jackson, and Ruth Simmons.

There is a quote from Booker T. Washington, the pioneering educator of black people in the South and past president of Tuskegee University. He said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he [or she] has overcome while trying to succeed.”

This is insightful, because it recognizes that our strength is a function of the barriers that we overcome.

Benjamin Mays, a prominent African-American scholar and administrator with past leadership roles at Howard University and Morehouse College, also spoke on failure and accomplishment. He said, and I quote, “The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”

I love this outlook, because it implies an unquenchable eagerness for accomplishment. And it reminds me that achievement is so much a definition of distancing yourself from the fear of failure.

Look at my resumé:

  1. Georgia Tech electrical engineering major
  2. First black and youngest department head at Georgetown University
  3. George Mason’s first PhD to be provost at a Top 100 research institution
  4. And, the one credential I often mention to my wife: my 25-year “Safe Driver” rating from State Farm Insurance

But here’s the reality….

  1. I failed my first digital design course at Georgia Tech.
  2. I was not immediately appointed department head in Georgetown’s computer science department, although I had a majority vote from the faculty.
  3. And, by the way, I flunked my driver’s test on the first attempt.

Drs. Washington and Mays would know what to make of that. They’d advise: Don’t over-define failure, don’t over-celebrate accomplishment, and don’t be complacent.

Another memory of mine about over-defining failure recalls my early high school years.

Coming from the small town of Savannah, Georgia, I knew that being a doctor or a lawyer were considered the top professions — with architect and engineers being, well, second-class.  

So, from an early age, I wanted to be a physician. Then, in ninth grade, I had an epiphany. While my best friend and lab partner was dicing the liver of a guinea pig seven ways, I was in the bathroom trying to keep my lunch down!

That day, I knew medicine was out — and I’d already dropped the idea of becoming a lawyer. 

I went home from the lab really disappointed. Then, like it was yesterday, I remember my mother – may she rest in peace – telling me with complete confidence, in fact, confidence like I have never seen before or since that, “You can be anything that you want to be.” That has remained with me because I remember that, and, frankly, I believed her.

So, let me ask you, if someone told you that you could do whatever you set your mind to, be whatever you wanted to be, why wouldn’t you believe them? 

As you contemplate that, let me offer a couple of points of advice …

First point: Challenge the norm

Another transformative decision in my life came during freshman year at Georgia Tech. Not sure why, but I always wanted to be an RA in the dorms. Must have been a calling.

During my first quarter, I went to a meeting conducted by the resident director, who was recruiting RAs for the next academic year.

He made it clear that first-year students were not eligible to become RAs. I remember waiting anxiously until the end of the presentation, and then challenged him: “Why can’t freshmen be RAs?” I said. He replied that he thought freshmen needed to “acclimate” to the campus first before taking on the RA role.

Without missing a beat, I told him that I begged to differ, because, if all of the RAs are (quote) acclimated, then the overall role of RAs would just continue to stagnate.

He said that he appreciated my comments but maintained his stance.

Well, about two months later, toward the end of the winter quarter, I arrived at my dorm room to find a message: The resident told me that an RA in our dorm had left the university and that he wanted me to become a freshman RA, starting at mid-year.

Yes, I was nervous. Nonetheless, I agreed to do it, and I suspect they never had an RA put together so many freshman-crazed programs.

The lesson of this story? Well, the story continues. Years later, I was applying to more than 50 companies for my first engineering summer internship.

The best of the bunch was General Electric, and so I was thrilled to get a call from a recruiter who was coming to campus. And it turns out, that recruiter went to school with the resident hall director, and even had lunch with him before my interview. When the recruiter sat down with me, she began to tell me about me.

I got the position and, through a turn of events, this internship led directly to my first job at General Electric’s Edison Engineering program – which allows you to work and go to graduate school for your master’s. It was while at GE that I decided to pursue a PhD, and that led me to academia.

Every time I am in a business meeting and I want to zone out …

Every time I am at a conference or a dinner and I want ignore the crowd ….

Every time I disagree with someone but think that sharing my opinion would be fruitless…

I think of the time that I challenged the norm about freshman resident assistants, which ultimately defined my career.

Think about that: The next time you voice an opinion, it could change the course of your life.

Bottom line: Don’t miss that moment!

Second point: Consider excellence first and concentrate on quality

This might seem simple, but my advice is “do not simply check the box” or “accept the status quo.” Base your actions, your decisions and those resulting actions as they are defined by excellence. Concentrate on quality in all that you do.

I also learned this lesson early in my career when I worked as a software programmer. I absolutely loved being a programmer, so I spent a great deal of time not only programming software at work – with Lockheed Martin, at the time – but also experimenting with new technologies at home. 

I was particularly fond of creating the most elegant algorithm that I could. And when a colleague once asked me why I included only minimal comments in my code, I told him that “the code is its own comment” – meaning, just read the code. (The problem was that, as elegant as the programs could be, no one could read them … not even me, a year later.) 

My manager later gave me good advice. He said your colleagues define you based on the quality of your work. He told me that I should make sure to concentrate on the highest possible quality in each deliverable and that is exactly how people would define me as a professional. It is so important that the perception of high quality follows you throughout your career.

Let me leave you with just a few more words …

As you walk away today and ultimately change the world … 

Pay attention to the details …

And this world will be animated by your actions and your commitment to seeking the truth.

Remember, challenge the norm and concentrate on excellence.

Channeling my president at Drexel University, I also want to recommend that you please support your alma mater with your time and resources.

And, please kindly remember your fellow alum – a guy who couldn’t spell the word “FAILURE” – remember him telling you on this day that you can be anything you want to be.

So, now, take the world by storm …

And, go, Patriots!

 

Topics: Graduation