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Never, never allow anyone tell you that you can't

May  21, 2012

(Transcript of the speech by 2012 Commencement speaker Phillip McKinley '73. The college's 152nd Commencement took place Sunday afternoon, May 20, 2012, at the i wireless Center in Moline, Ill.)

Thank you, Jeff, for that introduction.

Oi, there are so many of you.

Now, before I begin, I'd like to make sure you do not turn off your electronic devices. Power up your iPhones, your iPads, your Droids, your Blackberries. Keep them on. Record, photograph, text all that happens on this day in the next few minutes. Be my guest. Then later on today you can compare your tweets, your Facebook comments, so you can determine if anything memorable really did happen.

President Bahls, honored faculty, alumni and trustees, and, most importantly, family, friends, and members of the Augustana College Class of 2012, I am honored and grateful for the invitation to speak to you today. And I have to say, I am humbled to be here to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think of people who have been in this position before me, from people like Representative Bob Michel, to the Nobel Laureate Dr. Dan Tsui, to jazz musician Louie Bellson, I can't help but wonder, what has happened to this place? I mean, I really am deeply honored to receive the degree, but as an alumnus, I have to say, surely we can do better.

But, it has always been a dream of mine to receive a doctorate, and to know that today, without putting in any effort, I will. It is incredibly gratifying to know that from this day forward I will be able to ask my colleagues, friends and family to refer to me as "Dr. Phil." Hopefully Oprah is waiting in the wings.

Seriously, I have to admit to everyone here, I am very nervous. Ask me to organize and direct a benefit of 342 Broadway performers to be broadcast on CNN World News, no problem. Ask me to direct a circus with 148 performers and 144 animals, including elephants, tigers and clowns, I got you covered. Ask me to take a $76 million failing Broadway musical and turn it around in three weeks and make it a success, I'm in my zone. And ask me to deliver a commencement speech, and, oh boy, I'm out of my element. But, I have made it a point in my career to never say "no." So here I am.

I had to come; I just had to be here, because I have found that nothing is worthwhile unless you decide you are going to tempt failure. So here I go. Today is a celebration. It is a celebration of your success. Class of 2012, you have succeeded. You've made it. Celebrate your success. Celebrate your hard work. All the late nights of studying, all the extra jobs you took, and all the loans your parents signed have led to this moment. And now, here you are. So congratulations to the graduates and to your family and friends who supported you. This is truly a milestone in your lives to have succeeded.

And now it's time to step into the world and fail. Failure: What a great word. It has been for me one of the most important motivators of my career. It has enabled me, encouraged me, and inspired me to pursue my dreams. And why? Because I believe there is only one way to succeed, and that is to fail up. Not to fail down; not to fall; not to see it as a negative, but as a positive. Fail up. At some point in your life, you are going to fail. You will lose. Believe me; you are going to suck at something. Embrace it. It is inevitable. In order to succeed, you must court disaster. In my business - show business, the business of show - we fail every day.  Actors audition and are rejected on a daily basis. Directors spend years putting together productions that are beaten to the ground by the few published words of a newspaper critic. We fail on a regular basis, and yet, we pursue our dreams.

Ask yourself, how can I fail up in my career? How can I fail up to pursue my dreams? Unlike your mother's good china and silver, don't save your dreams. Don't wait to take them out to be used for a special occasion. Use your dreams, try them out. Test them as often as you can. You don't want to end up at the end of your life having saved your dreams for good.

Les Brown, a well-known motivational speaker, expresses it best. He eloquently says, "Imagine you are on your deathbed, and standing around your deathbed are ghosts representing your unfulfilled potential. The ghosts of ideas you never acted on, and the ghosts of talents you didn't use. They're standing around your bed, angry, disappointed, upset, they say, 'We came to you because you could have brought us to life, but now we have to go to the grave together.'"

I want you to ask yourself every day or at least once a week -  schedule it - make a date with yourself. How many ghosts will be around my bed when my time comes? So how do you pursue your dreams? First of all, you dare to dream. Dare to imagine the impossible and make it possible. My tenure at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus taught me more about dreaming than any other directorial job. Circus performers dream the impossible and they pursue that dream with every ounce of commitment and persistence they can possess. They risk their lives. They walk tight ropes 30 feet above an arena floor. They ride motorcycles around steel globes. They enter cages and face Bengal tigers. I did that once. Eight Bengal tigers; it was exhilarating and scary as hell.

One performer I know sets himself on fire and then soars 80 feet across an arena as a human comet. In fact, he did that in this arena. Now there's a dream. And how did he do it? He failed up. Now, I don't advise you rush home and try this, but these are examples of people who dare to imagine the impossible and make it possible. They followed the words of Thomas Edison who once said: "I haven't failed; I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."

Secondly, never, never allow anyone tell you that you can't. There is no other four-letter word in the English language that I find more destructive then the word 'can't.' The word 'can't' destroys motivation, destroys creativity, and destroys success. 'Can't' represents someone else's limitations of their imagination. When someone tells you that you can't, tell them "Can't is a definition of your limitation, don't make it mine." Never let someone's inability to pursue an idea stop you from pursuing yours.

Other advice for all of you dreamers of tomorrow: Be open to collaboration. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you. They will change your life and you'll feel less alone. Don't be afraid to listen. Be willing to say "yes, yes, yes" when opportunity strikes. If you make choices, make big choices. Do things that scare the hell out of you; fear is a wonderful motivator. Make sure you play with people who have your back. You can always do it alone, but learn to succeed and fail with other people. Besides, you can blame them when it goes wrong.

As you become older you will become more fearful and less flexible. Learn to stay young, even when it hurts. Stay away from words like 'always' and 'never': They are close relatives to the word 'can't.' And even though you are smart, you are allowed to say "I don't know," or, "let me get back to you on that." This will come in very handy when your parents ask, "When do you plan to move out of the house?" "I don't know; let me get back to you." Remember, you don't have to be rich and famous; just make your parents proud.

So today proves that you have the training and the talent to succeed. However, if you don't dream, you are missing the rewards of the unknown. If you don't fail, you're not even trying. Take today off, but start tomorrow. Start failing up. Dare to dream and embrace the idea of making the impossible possible. You have the ability, and the talent, and the imagination to make your dreams of today the realities of your tomorrow.

And so, class of 2012, it's time for me to leave. Dr. Phil has spoken. I will end by saying thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. I have only one wish for each and every one of you: May you have a life filled with dreams beyond your imagination. The road of risk may not be easy but it will never be dull. Enjoy life's rollercoaster. I guarantee it's one hell of a ride. And remember: To get something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done. Thank you and God bless. 

Keri Rursch
Director of Public Relations
(309) 794-7721
kerirursch@augustana.edu