AAF-KC President Delivers Commencement Address at NWMSU

AAF-KC President Delivers Commencement Address at NWMSU

May 1, 2012

[Photo Credit: Kari Kolts]

This past weekend Kevin Fullerton, president of AAF-KC, delivered one of the addresses at this year's commencement ceremonies at Northwest Missouri State University. Kevin is a proud graduate of NWMSU and gives much back to his alma mater. In recognition of this, he was recently honored with the 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award. What follows is the text of his remarks.

Good morning.

President Jasinski, honored guests, proud parents, bored siblings, faculty members itching for summer break, guests praying I keep this short (and I will), and, most importantly, our Northwest Missouri State University class of 2012:

I’m truly honored to be speaking to you today. It takes me back to my graduation day in this very place and our commencement speaker. I believe he was a man. He said something about something and something. You know, important stuff. Good stuff. And as I took in his every word, as I’m sure you’re doing now, I thought to myself:

I have a big head. A really big head. I was wearing the cap they gave me and it sat at the very top of my head like a beanie. I sat through my entire graduation holding the cap on my head, looking as if I was trying to keep my head from floating away.

Sadly, that’s probably as deeply as I thought that day. I was too excited to think about much more. That day, graduation day, I achieved everything I had been working towards since I was a little kid. Everything I had sacrificed for. The previous four years – okay, five years (I never count my freshman year since I can’t remember any of it) – the previous five years I had focused on reaching that one day. Graduation. The problem was, I hadn’t thought about what I would do the day AFTER graduation.

On that day, my clarity of vision was gone. My all-encompassing goal was behind me. What laid ahead of me was an uncertainty I had never experienced before. “Now what?” I asked myself. It excited me and terrified me at the same time. As I’m sure it does you.

Facing that uncertainty, I experienced, how can I put it nicely, a temporary bout of overwhelming stupidity. It is my hope that I can serve as a warning to you.

I think I truly believed that employers would come knocking on my door. “Are you Kevin Fullerton? We have a job for you.” As you can imagine, that plan didn’t quite pan out.

My job search ended up taking several months – at a time when job searches didn’t take that long. Eventually I figured things out and was offered a job. And then another. And another. Three job offers within 24 hours. THAT’S how you do it, I thought. It will be easy going from here on out.

Ummm... Wrong. Oh. So. Wrong.

You see, I made one critical mistake. Of the three offers, I took the safe job.

The problem is, playing it safe doesn’t challenge you. Playing it safe doesn’t lead to growth. Playing it safe never, ever, ever, EVER leads to great success. (Did I mention NEVER?)

If you want to be truly successful, you have to take chances. Scary chances. Crap-your-pants chances. You can’t wade into opportunities. You have to leap boldly.

In my safe job, I barely grew. I was hardly challenged. And while it was safe short term, it had the potential to be disastrous long term.

Once I figured that out, I started interviewing for other jobs. If the job didn’t scare me, I turned it down. And THEN I interviewed for the job that terrified me. They had very high expectations. They only hired smart, talented people. And I wasn’t convinced I could do it. In fact, I was sure I couldn’t. It would be a huge leap. A bold leap. So I gave it everything.

Fortunately, perhaps miraculously, they hired me. And pushed me. Challenged me. Frustrated me. Rewarded me. Saved me. Helped me realize the safe choice is seldom the smart choice.

From then on out, I refused to accept a job, or make a major decision, unless it had what I call the CYP Factor (that would be the Crap Your Pants Factor). It has to scare me. Or I’m not interested.

Now, I always try to leap boldly. No more dipping my toe in the water. It’s full-on cannonballs. Okay. With unfortunate, yet highly entertaining, belly flops thrown in here and there.

When it comes to leaping boldly, there are three rules I try to live by. (I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t say 20.)

First: Tempt failure.

People are terrified of failure. As if it is the end result, rather than simply part of the process. Think of a child learning to walk. How many times do they fall down, pick themselves up and try again until they succeed?

To achieve great things, you have to take big risks – and big risks tempt big failure.

Babe Ruth hit over 700 home runs. He also struck out almost 1,400 times. He failed twice as often as he succeeded. However, few consider Babe Ruth a failure.

Henry Ford hit it big when he opened Ford Motor Company. After failing at the car business twice before that.

My hero, Walt Disney was practically run out of Kansas City after his first animation studio failed. I hear he did okay for himself after that.

To understand someone’s successes, you have to know their failures. It’s their failures that truly make them.

We learn from failure. Because, frankly, there’s not much to learn from success. What we do wrong teaches us oh-so more than what we do right. Also, failure strips away the inessential. Failure shows us who we truly are. Failure fuels us.

Here’s the thing, if you don’t fail, you aren’t trying hard enough. Playing it safe may limit your failures, but it limits your successes even more. So, don’t half-ass it. Fail big. Gloriously big. Going-down-in-flames big. Dear-Lord-what-was-he-thinking big. Bold failures teach us. Timid failures chip away at us.

Besides, if you risk it all and aim for the fantastic, but don’t make it, you might still end up doing something great. That’s the kind of failure to aim for.

In order to make your own way, you have to make your own failures. Success demands it.

Second: Give while expecting nothing in return.

Generosity is an crucial part of leaping boldly. And I don’t mean money. I mean generosity of time, knowledge, spirit, even patience. The bold life is only bold if it is shared with others.

When you give, expect nothing in return. Otherwise you are not truly giving. You are simply making a trade.

Give because it is important to you. Give because it’s the right thing to do. Give because you want to make a difference.

Giving only when you want something is selfish. And selfish people don’t make a dent in the universe the way selfless people do. Selfless people have a positive ripple effect on those around them.

I hope to one day be like my teacher and friend, Laura Widmer. After all she’s done for me, she never acts as if I owe her a thing. When, in fact, I owe her everything. As do many other people. Some in this very room. She’s the person who showed me what bold living is about.

How do you want people to think of you? As someone who matters? As someone who makes a difference in their lives? I’d take either of those and consider myself a resounding success.

And finally: Get in over your head.

As I mentioned before, don’t half-ass anything. If you’re going to do something, go all in – or don’t bother. Success requires an almost unbelieveable commitment to what you are trying to achieve. Bold failure – taking risks – is acceptable. Timid failure – not giving it your full effort – is not.

Even if you don’t quite know what you’re doing, dive in, figure it out and find a way to make it happen. Whatever it takes. (Dear Lord, that’s the story of my life.)

Years ago, a boss and I were discussing a particularly difficult project. I told him “I keep running into a wall.” He laughed and responded “I know you, and one day I will come in here and there will be a Kevin-shaped hole in that wall.” And eventually, there was. And yes, it was as painful as it sounds.

It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to give up. There is a great cost to giving up.

Ever heard of Ronald Wayne? There’s a reason. He was the third founder of Apple Computers, along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. He didn’t believe Apple would succeed so he got out and sold his shares for all of $2,300. Those shares today would be worth almost $60 billion. That’s billion. With a “B.”

Leaping boldly might be frightening, but acting timidly costs you. It may not be $60 billion. But there is a cost.

Don’t get me wrong, there is also a cost to leaping boldly. But it’s a cost worth paying.

Sometimes you’ll fail spectacularly. Do it anyway.

Sometimes people will take advantage of your generosity. Do it anyway.

Sometimes you’ll get in way over your head. Do it anyway.

Sometimes people will wonder what is wrong with you. Do it anyway.

And sometimes it won’t be enough. Again, do it anyway.

Today, celebrate your achievement. For tomorrow is your turning point. You decide what kind of person you want to be. What kind of life you want to lead. Will you leap in cannon-ball style? Or slowly wade in testing the waters?

My fellow Bearcats: I appreciate your attention and wish you all bold failures that lead to spectacular successes, a life filled with overflowing generosity and crap-your-pants adventures.

Class of 2012: I dare you to leap boldly.

Thank you.

To view Kevin's address, you can watch the video below. Start at the 27:50 mark for Kevin's introduction and his remarks.