Speaker Ryan Commencement Speech at Carthage College

John Boehner

Yesterday, Speaker Ryan delivered the commencement address at Carthage College. Below are his remarks: 

Thank you very much. To the class of 2016, congratulations. This is a big moment in your life. And no matter how much fun you have tonight, you’re bound to remember some of it. If you forget this speech, well, that’s no big loss. I’ll get over it eventually. Just remember one thing: Remember the people who got you here.

There’s an old saying which I might have made up a few minutes go . . . that marriage is for the couple; the wedding is for the family. I’d think of your graduation the same way. It is their achievement as much as it is yours. And yet they have gladly given you all the credit. So if your mom or your dad or your brother or your sister or your grandparents or your cousins . . . . if they get a little teary-eyed . . . or let out a few sniffles . . . or just break down and sob . . . bear with them. Thank them. Appreciate them. They love you more than you will ever know. So to all the faculty, to all the family, I just want to say to you, “Job well done. Fantastic.” This is what gives us all hope for our country, our society, our community.

You know, it has been ten years ago since I spoke at this commencement the last time. The last time I was here was basically my first encounter as a Catholic with our new then bishop, His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who was then the archbishop of Milwaukee. He did the prayer; I did the speech. I wanted to keep things casual, so my topic was the need for truth in the modern world. As expected, it was a total hit. I got wild applause. I mean cheering, shouting, crying—and that was just from the archbishop. Later, he came up to me . . . and said, “I loved your speech. It was so . . . short.” We’ve been great friends ever since. So if you’re feeling a little stir-crazy right now . . . rest assured: I will get right to the point.

The biggest piece of advice that I’d give to all of you is this: Don’t worry too much about the plan. Go where you can make a difference. Sometimes fulfillment lies in very unpredictable places. All your life people are going to hound you about the plan, the plan, the plan . . . Have you found a job? Are you going to graduate school? Where do you see yourself in 20 years? It will seem like nobody cares what you do so much as where you end up. And you will start to wonder whether you shouldn’t care either. But beware: Careerism, in the wrong way, is cynicism in perpetual motion.

Before donor services drags me off the stage, let me clarify what I’m saying here: I am not telling you to reject that job offer and move into your parents’ basement. What I am saying is, wherever you end up, the work itself is the reward. Treat it that way. Because the truth is, life can put your best-laid plans through the paper shredder. You may never get that dream job—or if you do get that dream job, it may turn out to be a nightmare. But maybe you’re meant to do something else. What seems to you like catastrophe could end up becoming opportunity. Don’t be so quick to dismiss that opportunity if it doesn’t fit into the plan. When you come to a fork in the road, and you are deciding between two paths, instead of thinking, “How do I stay on course?” think to yourself, “Where can I do the most good? Where do I get real fulfillment?” If you realize it is the detour, then take it.

That, in a nutshell, is my advice. But it would be rude to give a three-minute commencement address, so let me just proceed to elaborate.

When I was your age, I had a plan. 1992. It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it? I thought I had a plan . . . . I wanted to be an economist—which goes to show just how much fun I was in those days. The plan was, work in public finance for a few years. . . . Get some experience. Go to grad school. Get my PhD. Join a think tank. And then I’d give policymakers advice. . . . A few years in, everything was going according to plan. I was working in economic policy . . . getting ready for grad school. And then, life intervened. The congressman who represented my home district decided to run for Senate. . . . He asked me to be his campaign manager. That’s just not my thing. I’m a policy guy, not a political guy. When I declined, he said, “In that case, you should run for my seat.”

I said, “Run for your seat? That’s crazy. I’m 27 years old.”

He asked me, “Why not?” I told him I was young and no way could I win. It wasn’t my plan. And he said, “You know, if I listened to all the people who told me what I could not do, I’d never get anything done in my life. What do you care about? What do you believe in?”

I told him I believed in the principles of our founding fathers. I loved public policy because I wanted to solve problems. Well, that was all he needed to hear. He told me, “Then, run.” But I still wasn’t convinced. I called my mentor. I lost my father when I was a kid, so I grew up with mentors. One of my best mentors was a guy named Jack Kemp, a former congressman from New York. I asked him, “Should I do this?”

And he said, “Absolutely. You can make such a difference. You’re a Wisconsinite, but you’re a public policy guy. Go do it. ”

Then I called another mentor of mine, a guy named Bill Bennett. And I asked, “Does this pass the laugh test?”

And he said, “Yes . . . barely.” Actually, he was quite encouraging.

Then I called my mom and I told her what I was thinking. She thought I was crazy. She said, “. . . really? You would want to do that?”

So ultimately, I ran and I won. But soon, I had another plan. Soon, I realized in the House of Representatives, where I wanted to go, where I wanted to carve my space and make my difference. The issues I cared so much about, the issues my employers were telling me they wanted me to work on were the issues in front of the House Ways and Means Committee: the tax code, health care, retirement security, poverty. My goal was to become the chairman of that committee because I thought I could . . . at least make a big difference in these areas that I cared about. So I worked for years to achieve that goal. And finally, last year, in 2015, I  became chairman of that committee. But seven months in, the speaker of the House, John Boehner, resigned unexpectedly. The next in line . . . Kevin McCarthy, dropped out of the running. And my colleagues drafted and asked me to run.

I never wanted to be speaker, and I had said so in no uncertain terms many times before. I was a policy guy. I didn’t like the idea of spending my time on other things. I live with my family in Janesville. Every weekend I am here with my family. Yesterday was turkey hunting and track meet and then dinner at my mom’s. Today, here in Kenosha with you. I couldn’t give those weekends up. But John told me, if you don’t like the job, then change it. Keep your weekends at home. Focus on policy. Make it work. Turn it around. So, I took his advice, and soon I realized: I can do this. I actually liked the job. Now, I feel like the dog that finally caught the car that —except I wasn’t chasing it in the first place.

And you see? We have something in common: At the beginning of your senior year, I also didn’t know what I’d be doing after graduation.

This job isn’t anything I ever expected—or even wanted. And yet I’m still doing what I love: public policy. I learned eventually in my journey that public policy was my vocation, public service was where I found fulfillment.Through all the twists and turns, that has been the consistent theme of my life. Now you have to figure out what is yours. It may change as you get older, but the only way you will find out is if you take your work seriously. It is your contribution to our country. Now, when I say this, I’m not saying that your work is what you get paid for. Your work is all of your responsibilities, like your family and your friendships and your community. It is funny but as life gets more complicated, it gets a whole lot simpler as well. Status will matter less, and doing your part will matter more.

So don’t worry too much about the plan.

As I was preparing these remarks, I had a mild panic attack that my advice wasn’t sufficiently practical. So, for good measure, let me put it in a quick three-part postscript.

First, a lot of people will tell you not to fear failure, but learn from it—and that is a great piece of advice. I would also say that you need to forgive it too. You will make mistakes, and so will other people—your friends, your coworkers, your family. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Take it in stride. It is good life advice. It is also good professional advice. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. Nobody likes somebody that is lecturing all the time. There are lots of smart, young, talented, hardworking, ambitious people in societyyou among them. Attitude is everything. Have a good attitude. Be an uplifter. Fill the glass, don’t take from the glass.

Second, read as much as humanly possible. John Adams once told his son, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” I was always more of a history and economics guy. But the lesson still applies. The greatest asset you have is your mind. But it really is like a muscle. You have to keep it in shape. Don’t forget that.

Third, if you’re believer, keep going to church. Don’t let that fall by the wayside. I know that might sound a little preachy or even a little cheesy. But you don’t have to make a big show of it. Just go. Prayer has sustained me in many difficult moments of my life. I think it will do the same for you.

Because as you get older, you realize that life does actually follow a plan. It just may not be your plan. It is God’s plan. And coming to accept that fundamental fact—not begrudgingly but peacefully—that is the essence of faith. You might not be able to make all the changes you wanted. The question is, did you make a difference wherever you could? Did you meet the moment? Did you look yourself in the mirror that morning or that evening and think “Yeah, okay. I am doing this the right way.” Are you endeavoring to be fulfilled and be a good person . . . in all of your works of life? 

So if you remember one word from this speech, let it be “faith.” That should be all the planning you need.

May God bless you and keep you in His care. Congratulations once again. And thank you all very much.

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