Scott Maxwell’s Commencement Address

The Orlando Sentinel columnist on the five life lessons he learned from his kids.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

When Dean Richard asked me to speak today, he mentioned that Elin Nordegren spoke at last year’s commencement. It became immediately obvious that the Holt school wanted to continue its trend of supermodel types—so I’m honored to fill the role.

Still, I know what you guys are thinking: A newspaper guy?

What—the guy who invented the rotary phone wasn’t available? I mean, here you guys are, trying to get started on the next chapter of your professional life, and Dean Richard invites the occupational equivalent of a fax machine to inspire you.

Truly, the newspaper business has changed a lot in recent years, thanks to the Internet… and people getting their “news” from Facebook, Jon Stewart, and Saturday Night Live.

The shift has hit my industry hard. We’ve done a lot of consolidating—even layoffs—through the years. And people know this.

In fact, one day last year, I was on my morning run—and passed the home of former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez—and happened to notice his newspaper was still at the end of the driveway. So I thought: “What the heck?” and decided to walk the paper up and toss it on his front doorstep.

And wouldn’t you know, as soon as I approach, the senator opens the door. He stands there in his pajamas, eyes me soaking with sweat—and looks puzzled that I am also delivering his newspaper. So I just looked at him and said: “Yeah, THAT’S how bad things have gotten.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

So yeah, things have changed. But you know what? I love what I do. I get to make a difference. I get to champion the causes of the downtrodden. Tell the stories of those who inspire. Shine a light on those who corrupt—and help advance creative solutions to long-standing problems.

I just now have to do it all in less than 140 characters—so it can go out on my Twitter feed.

But there is nothing brief, easy, or Twitterized about what got you guys here today. You guys are here because you were willing to do the hard work—to better your chances—OK, and because, for some of you, the idea of 8 a.m. classes made you want to puke.

Still, this is an impressive accomplishment. So I found myself thinking: What can I share with you today that might be of use?

My kids had an idea—cash. They thought I should just shut up, give everyone a couple of bucks and we all meet across the street at BurgerFi.

And that was helpful. But the more I thought about it, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life—some of the most important lessons I can share with you—come from my kids.

So that’s what I’m going to share with you today—5 Lessons My Kids Taught Me.

No. 1: Never let anyone dull your sparkle.

And the first one has to do with my daughter—and glitter. My daughter, Cameron, is a wonderful young lady—now in high school. Smart, beautiful, independent, and confident. And she has always liked cats, horseback riding,… and glitter. So a few years back, when Cameron got ready for middle school, she asked for a sparkly backpack, sparkly shoes—even a sparkly silver beret.

And when she put it ALL on for the first time, she beamed. But then one day she came home and said she didn’t want to wear her sequins anymore. This struck her mother and I as strange. So we asked why. And that’s when Cameron told her that some of the other girls at school had been picking on her for wearing so much glitter… so much sparkle. Well, I’ll be honest: I wanted to strangle those other girls. Yeah, I know they were 12 and that society generally frowns on such a thing. But this really set me off.

So we encouraged Cameron not to listen to anyone else—to be who she wanted to be—and that she was spectacularly unique.

That was all fine and good. And maybe it sunk in. Maybe it didn’t. But I’ll tell you what did. It was something my wife stumbled upon while shopping. It was a sign—made completely out of glitter—that said: “Never let anyone dull your sparkle.”

Well, that shiny sign still hangs in her bedroom today. And it is wonderful advice. For her. For you. For all of us.

There is so much pressure in this world to conform. But it’s not the artist who paints like everyone else who becomes a master. It’s not the scientist who thinks like everyone before him who creates a ground-breaking discovery. It’s not the chef who follows every existing recipe to the letter who becomes the culinary sensation. It’s the trailblazer—the dreamer—the one who sparkles.

No. 2: The bar will always be raised.

Now my 7th-grade son has taught me lessons as well—one of which he learned in band class. For his first year of middle school, he sort of lumbered along with his clarinet. He played. And he was … um … fine. But I’ll be honest: The kid wasn’t going to Radio City Music Hall.

But then earlier this year, he decided he wanted to get better and play better—and move up in the hierarchy of the Glennridge Middle School woodwinds section. So he practiced and competed in the early mornings and finally got all the way to first chair… until the kid who had been first chair then stepped up his game and re-auditioned and then upped Chase and knocked him back to second.

And they’ve gone back and forth since. I was—and am—really proud of my son. But there’s a lesson here for all of us: The game will always change. The bar will always be raised.

What was good enough to land a job, a promotion, or maybe even to earn a degree one week may be status quo the next. Nobody knows this better than a newspaper guy.

When I got into the business, it was a simpler—and, OK, much more vulgar—time. Newspaper people smoked and drank—in the newsroom, mind you. We lived hard, died young, and raged against the machine.

It was like Mad Men… except with people who were fatter and dressed a whole lot worse. And that was only 20 years ago. Today, the idea of merely writing a column sounds like a vacation.

Today, I blog, I Tweet. I do radio and television. I do Facebook and Google+. And I’m going to be honest with you people… I don’t know what the hell Google+ is. I mean, there’s a plus after it … so I assume it’s better than regular Google. But beyond that…

The truth is: I still have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to tell stories and meet fascinating people. I get to stick it to scumbags in gloriously public fashion.

But the job has changed—a lot. And I had to adapt. I learned what my son did with his clarinet—that the bar will always be raised. So you have to adapt.

No. 3: Never make assumptions about what other people know.

I learned another valuable lesson—No. 3—the first time my daughter ever used a toaster oven. She was about 4 or 5 years old. And she asked if she could make her own cheese toast.

Her mother and I thought: “What could go wrong?” Well, those are famous last words. About three minutes later, Cameron answered that question for us.

Smoke began filling the house. And a pungent, noxious smell consumed the kitchen. So we ran to the toaster and found, yes, bread and cheese—but found it sitting on top of a plastic plate—one melting directly onto the oven coils.

Now think about that… think about WHY that was. Well, because every time we had ever served our daughter a piece of cheese toast, we delivered it on a plastic plate. That was the way it came out… that was the way she figured it must’ve gone in.

So what’s the lesson here? Never make assumptions about what other people know.

We all come from such diverse backgrounds. Things you take for granted as common knowledge may be completely foreign to others. I’ve learned that if I want to persuade people to fix a problem, I can’t assume they even know that the problem exists. Whether its inequality, injustice, or indifference. To change minds, you have to first open them. And you can’t do that with assumptions.

No. 4: Don't go looking for unnecessary trouble.

Our son taught us lesson No. 4 with the help of an emergency room attendant. He had been playing on top of the neighbors’ wrought-iron fence—one made out of little spears that stick straight up.

Well, the neighbor told him not to climb this fence. WE told him not to climb this fence. But then one day, he was outside playing on that fence when—you guessed it—he slipped. And one of those wrought-iron spears punctured right into the back of his thigh.

And I started thinking about the greater lesson here—the universal truth we could all glean from his bloody injury. It is this: Don’t climb on fence full of freakin’ spears! Seriously, son. What’s wrong with you? The thing looks like it’s a collection of harpoons used to target sperm whales… don’t treat it like a jungle gym.

On a greater level, though, there’s a message: Don’t go looking for unnecessary trouble. You all are going to encounter so many hurdles and obstacles in life. You’re going to meet some people who are just plain mean.

In fact, in my job, I’m something of a mean magnet. In various emails, phone calls, and letters, readers have written to call me a moron, a dipstick, a bozo, an ignoramus, a doofus, a nincompoop, a loser, a reject, a wanna-be, a dirt bag, an imposter, fraud, and a hack.

And that’s just from mom.

And sometimes I’m tempted to lash back or plead with them to change their minds. Sometimes I even have.

But then I remember a wise line from a Ted Talk I once watched. The speaker said: “Don’t try to win over the haters—after all, you’re not a jackass whisperer.”

Truly, in your journeys, you are going to encounter the naysayers, malcontents, and defeatists. Don’t waste time with them. Don’t let them sap your energy. As we told our son, don’t go looking for unnecessary trouble.

No. 5: Be nice to each other.

And finally, the fifth and final lesson my kids taught me came from both of them—when they were much younger. They had attended a preschool that really stressed manners. So everything they did was: “Thank you for this... You’re welcome for that.”

Well, one day we were watching them play. And playing turned into arguing. Arguing turned into pushing. And then finally, my daughter—yeah, that cute little sparkle-princess I was telling you about—reared back and just socked her brother in the face.

We waited to see what would happen next—when finally Chase said: “No thank you for hitting me!”

In the face of anger, this cute little boy used manners. And I think the lesson here is: Be nice to each other.

We can object without being objectionable. We can lift ourselves up without tearing other people down. (OK, maybe not if you’re a newspaper columnist.)

But for the most part, the world is full of people who want to do the right thing. They help their neighbors. They volunteer for strangers. Some of them are professional graduates—just like you—who chose careers that fulfilled their sense of obligation at the expense of the ones that might simply fill their bank account.

We need to be nice to those people. We need to be nice to each other.

So I think that’s it—the five lessons my kids taught me that I wanted to share with you.

Be nice to each other.
Don’t go looking for needless trouble.
Don’t make assumptions about what other people know.
Always be ready to adapt to changing environments.
And never—EVER—let anyone dull your sparkle.

Thank you very much. And congratulations on your success.