Graduation Ceremony in Athens

Graduates, esteemed faculty and administrators, family and friends:

Good evening and thank you for this opportunity to speak to you on this wonderful occasion. It is very gratifying for me and an honor to be among you in this amazing country which is truly the "Cradle of Western Civilization" in philosophy, science, medicine, art, theatre, liturature and, of course, democracy. We are here to celebrate and to recognize the accomplishments of these outstanding young professional people who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to earn their MBA degree. Yes. I said, "sacrificed so much" since they spent countless hours, either in the classroom at night (after working all day) or studying on weekends; away from family and friends. They also paid for this degree through gard work and sometimes borrowing either from precious savings or against future earnings in order to make their future more bright. These young people should be congratulated for accomplishing so much under sometimes trying circumstances. They did this because they are optimistic about their future and that of their country. Before we go any further, however, i would like the graduates to rise and thank those who helped them along this journey to an MBA degree which includes parents, spouses, other relatives, friends, faculty, employers and other mentors. No one can accomplish goals such as earnings an MBA degree without help! 

In preparing for this talk i reflected on the many books that i have read including, self-help books, business books and biographies on famous business or political leaders, and decided to talk about that i recently read, titled, Wait, What?, by James E. Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This is short book that can be read in an afternoon but contains insightful advice that can help you have a more satisfying personal and professional life. The author writes on the importance of asking the right questions in order to get the right answers. A good question inspires a good answer and, in the process, invites a far deeper understanding of issues faced in life and more meaningful connections between people. Asking the right question requires us to move beyond what we think or know about an issue or person and to explore the difficult, the unknown and even the unpleasant matters that we sometimes must address.

By asking these five questions you will have keys to unlock many of the mysteries that sometimes cloud our judgement and our understanding. The right question asked at the right time, can often open a door to something you don't yet know, something you haven't yet realized, or something you haven't yet considered-about others or even yourself!

The first question to ask is "Wait, what?" This is at the root or heart of all understanding, which crucial to a fulfilling and rewarding life, both personally and professionally. Don't assume that you fully understand the issues or know the answers to a problem. Don't assume that you truly understand the people that you come into contact with. When faced with difficult or emotionally charged situations it is easy to react quickly to assumptions rather than pausing to step back and ask yourself if you have all of the relevant facts to draw a fair and objective conclusion. Reminding yourself to ask, "Wait, what?" is a way to guard against jumping too quickly to conclusions. Dean Ryan concludes that, "The world will be a richer place for you the more you understand the people and ideas you encounter in it." Cultivating the habit of understanding first (by listening) and making judgments second will also help you avoid pointless conflicts and create deeper connections with those around you. 

The second question to ask is "I wonder why?" or "I wonder if?" According to Dean Ryan, asking, "I wonder why", is essential because it is at the heart of curiosity, and asking this question is the way to be interested in the world around you and your place in it which, in turn, is conducive to health and happiness. Asking, "I wonder if", is equally essential because it is the way to remain engaged with the world and to being thinking about ways to improve your corner of it. In other words, you are asking how things could be different in the future. Both questions are important and if you fail to ask them you risk missing on the joys and possibilities that you don't even realize exist. 

The third question to ask is, "Couldn't we at least...?" This is the beginning of all progress when attempting to reach a compromise or seek a solution to an issue where people differ on the solution. This question is a way to get unstuck in a debate; to make progress in an ongoing conflict; to pause, step back and find common ground. Asking this question enables us to avoid polarization and extremism by finding ideas through consensus building. How i wish our leaders in America could ask this question more often! Perhaps we could find common ground on controversial issues such as healthcare, the environment, trade, immigration, taxes...What a powerful question to ask! "Couldn't we at least...[agree on]...?" This simple question can nudge people with different ideas to action. It can even spark a movement towards resolving burning issues facing our global society such as the environment. Please understand, however, that deep seated problems cannot be solved with one conversation. Journeys towards the solution of complex issues such as immigration and refugee relocation are long and sometimes uncertain. It takes patience and understanding of all sides of the issues in order to start the dialogue.

The fourth question to ask is, "How can i help?" This question is at the base of all good relationships; a gesture of goodwill. Asking this question is an effective way of nudging others to identify, express and confront their own problems. By keeping the question open ended, it invites the person to take ownership of their own problems. When dealing with a person who has a problem that needs to be solved, don't be too quick to offer your solution to their problem. How many times has a close friend, spouse, parent or boss given you their solution to your problem! Did you sometimes resent their intrusion? Before jumping in with your solution, listen patiently then ask how you can help. Keeping the question open ended changes the dynamics of the conversation by entering the conversation on equal footing rather than a condescending manner. It can establish a more genuine relationship and also signals respect and humility. Try this the next time you are helping someone through a problem. Be a good sounding board for them. Many times by just listening to a friend or colleague vent to you that person can then solve their own problem.

The fifth and final question to ask is, "What truly matters?" Asking this question helps you get to the heart of life. By asking yourself this question, you can determine what is important in your life. It will help your prioritize those things that are important to you in reaching success, happiness and contentment in life, both professionally and personally. There are four basic "bundles" that you need to prioritize which are family, friends, career/work and acts of kindness (giving back). You must ask the question, how can i be a better spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, child, friend, colleague, in order to be able to decide where to put your focus in life in terms of allocating emotional energy, time, resources, etc. There was a neighbor when i was growing up who was one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He traveled the world training the next generation of doctors. They interviewed him after he retired which was shown on national television. When he reflected back on his life (after being asked the question on whether he considered himself successful) he stated that he was very successful in his chose career. However, he candidly admitted that he was not successful in his personal life. He had been married three times - all ending in divorce. He was not very close to his children nor did he have many close friends. He had been unable to prioritize his "bundles" in order to achieve some semblance of work-life balance. When it's time to reflect back on your life i seriously doubt you will wish that you had worked more and spent less time with family and friends or serving others in need. 

And, finally, i would like to impart some observations, reflections and thoughts to you which has taken me many years to acquire so please indulge me for a few minutes more. 

  • Take care of yourself! Develop good eating and sleeping habits. Exercise is a great stress reducer!
  • Don't let negativity take over your life. Stay positive in thought and deed. Stay clear of those who are negative. 
  • Lighten up! Smile a lot - it's contagious! Forgive and more on!
  • If you made a mistake or hurt someone, own up to it and ask forgiveness!
  • Never quit questioning! Certainty is dangerous.
  • Be a lifelong learner! Always work to improve yourself in every category.
  • Take time to thank someone who has made a difference in your life - a teacher, parent, mentor or peer.
  • Volunteer for the tough assignment! Don't be afraid of failure.
  • Pay it forward! Many people have helped you along the way.
  • Don't settle in life! Be bold in beliefs and in deeds.
  • Embrace change - take on challenges and risk!
  • No matter how much you love your career (and i hope you do) your family comes first!
  • And, always keep a good book by your bed!

Thank you again for permitting me to spend some time with you and i wish all of you the best in the future!          

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Harvie Wilkinson
MBA Director
University of Kentucky 
Gatton College of Business & Economics