United States Merchant Marine Academy
Commencement Address as delivered by Admiral Stavridis
Kings Point, New York, June 16th, 2008 10:00 am
“You Never Know”
Thank you so much Secretary Peters, for that kind introduction. It’s truly wonderful to be here at the nation’s most maritime and seagoing Academy.
When Vice Admiral Stewart asked me to make the trip up from Miami to Kings Point, I was happy to come . . . . because he is the only person I know who has been both a 3-star Vice Admiral, which he is today of course; and previously a 2-star Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps … which gives him a total of 5 stars, seriously outranking my four stars … so I could only salute and say, “yes sir!”
I’m also thrilled to be a speaker at one of our nation’s three national sea service academies . . . . because as you just heard I’m a sea service academy grad too. Of course I graduated from Annapolis approximately 1.2 million years ago in 1976 … in real terms, thinking back on my own graduation day, my standing here today would have been like a 1942 graduate talking to my class … we all would have been amazed that someone that old could actually fit in a uniform or walk across the stage unassisted, so I am under no illusions as to how I must look to all of you. In case you are wondering, I was somewhat taller when I graduated …
And if I may, speaking of my own “career” at Annapolis, suffice it to say you are looking at living proof of the power of redemption up here, and I guess you could say I’ll just “play it forward” a little bit. So it is with a great deal of personal satisfaction I’d like to take the speaker’s prerogative to forgive any demerits or marching tours or whatever you guys call such disciplinary things up here. I certainly had my share.
The speech is all down hill from here.
I asked Admiral Stewart what I should speak about … and he said … about two hours? Is that OK? Everyone comfortable?
Actually, I will promise to keep this very brief, because I know you’d much rather be out at King’s Point Park or the Baker Hill Tavern – and probably will be soon.
I do want particularly to congratulate the Class of 2008 for your performance both at sea and on the athletic fields, notably against the Coast Guard Academy – what was that wrestling score again?
And for a sailing team that placed so well in the National Championships – the only service academy in the country to do so.
By the way, if anyone out there can explain to me why all of you have to take the Coast Guard licensing exam but the Coast Guard academy graduates don’t have to take it, let me know. The world wonders.
Before proceeding, I want to thank all the families here today, especially the moms and the dads, as well as all the brothers, sisters, friends and other loved ones. You have been the steady breeze filling the sails of these graduates, and I salute you for it. You deserve a big round of applause for the support, love and effort you've expended...
In preparing to speak with you today, as you can imagine, I reviewed a lot of commencement speeches – and the literature is pretty dismal, candidly. It is generally full of tired platitudes and a bunch of obvious things that tend to range from “be a good listener” … to … “always try your best” … to “do your part to change the world” to … “wear lots of sun-screen.” Good advice, but generally things you’ve already heard from Mom.
The speeches also generally include several profound-sounding quotations from various important people.
Probably the best two commencement speeches that I saw were by the rock star Bono from what people my age think of as the old band U2 – which many of you think of as a submarine, perhaps? – and from Bill Gates the billionaire founder of Microsoft.
Bono said, “Hello, I’m a rock star. Don’t get me too excited, because I use four letter words when I’m excited.”
Bill Gates, who attended but never actually graduated from Harvard, said, “"I’ve been called Harvard's most successful dropout, which makes me valedictorian of my own special class in that I did the best of everyone who failed.”
I’m clearly not a billionaire or a rock star, so let me go in a different direction.
After thinking it over, I decided the best thing I can offer you today are a few thoughts on how suddenly life can come at you.
For most of you, thus far in your lives, my guess is that things have gone pretty much according to plan – grow up, do well in school, come to a fine college like King’s Point, graduate.
Now it gets interesting.
From here on out … in a phrase … “you never know.”
In my experience, life has a somewhat random quality to it that you begin to appreciate more as you motor along. So many things seem to happen that do not seem to be part of the plan – any plan – whether yours, your parent’s, your husband’s or your wife’s, or your boss’s or even the national plan.
You never know where your future will take you.
Look at the three King’s Point graduates who serve as Admirals in the U.S. Navy today – all close friends of mine. Among the 18 Flag and General Officers who have graduated, they are serving in jobs that at moment must seem very different than what they could have imagined.
They are Rear Admiral Phil Greene, class of 1978 … Rear Admiral Buz Buzby, class of 1979, and the senior King’s Pointer in the Navy, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, class of 1971.
They sat where you are right now, over thirty years ago, and they each had a plan that probably involved going to sea, serving in ships, perhaps moving far enough to eventually earn an Admiral’s stars.
But could any of them have predicted where they have ended up once they put on those Admiral’s stars?
Phil Greene is indeed an Admiral – but at the moment, he is very much ashore as the commander of the Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, wearing desert camouflage every day, working hard on stability, security, and indeed enabling some measure of hard-won prosperity in one of the poorest and most devastated areas of the world. A King’s Point graduate … ashore in Africa in the war on terror … you never know.
My very close friend Admiral Buz Buzby, who is here with us today, just finished up a year in command of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, providing humane, transparent, and legal detention of detainees in a “demanding situation” to say the least. He did his work honorably and well and has been selected for his second star. But Buz, I’m thinking that job probably wasn’t in the plan when you sat here at King’s Point in 1978?
And Kevin Cosgriff is a three-star commander in the Arabian Gulf, commanding the largest of the fleets of the United States, engaged in combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Three graduates of King’s Point, serving their country in ways they never could have imagined over thirty years ago when they sat where you are.
In fact, you never know what you’ll end up doing.
Likewise, it is not unusual to find Kings Pointers in civilian leadership positions around the world – some, of course, in the maritime world; but others far removed from it. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is ranked in the top 20 of 550 colleges in producing senior executives for U.S. corporations.
And as we sit here this morning, a USMMA graduate has just returned from sailing the most endless “ocean” in the universe – space – on the space shuttle.
In fact, in this most purely maritime of all our academies, I would argue that the very medium in which the majority of you will ply your trade – the sea – is itself utterly unpredictable. It personifies the phrase “you never know,” something I hardly need to emphasize to this group of true mariners who spend a full year at sea as part of your curriculum.
You know this, but I’ll say it anyway: If there is anything I would tell you after having spent thirty two years as a Sailor and over nine years of my life literally on the deep ocean out of sight of land, it is simply this – with regard to the sea … you never know.
One day it flows light blue and smooth and silken under the stern and … the next it pounds you in a grey-green fury crashing over the bridge.
God lives out in those big rollers, and the cosmic dice are always rolling … one time it’s “sailor’s delight” and the next time it’s “the perfect storm.”
One time it’s a beautiful flat sea near a lagoon like in “South Pacific” … and the next time it’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
We who are mariners respect the sea because … you never know. In the end, the sea is both mirror and metaphor to life.
So if you agree with my premise … that the world is hard to predict and there is a high degree of random quotient to the outcome, what should you do? How do you structure a life?
In a phrase, you have to approach the certainty of change as opportunity to be embraced … not as chaos to be feared.
There will be times when things are flowing along just the way you thought …
But suddenly, you’ll feel like you are trying to read Shakespeare at night in the world lit only by lightning: a wonderful phrase or two illuminated suddenly, just before night falls again.
So the important thing I have to tell you is to remain utterly open to new directions and visions. You’ll have an expanding kaleidoscope of options ahead of you. Keep options open … because … you never know.
Admiral Mike Mullen is the Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of my personal heroes. He would want me to give you one thought, I think, that he passed along a few weeks ago to the graduating class at Annapolis, because it connects with the certainty of change.
It is a simple thought and applies equally no matter what your next job will be after you leave King’s Point: Do not be afraid to question your seniors. Even as the youngest member of the team, you need to have the curiosity, the commitment, and the courage to stand up and be part of the leadership conversation, to at least pose the right questions, especially when you do not think things are going well. Few things are more vital to an organization than young officers and leaders who have the moral courage to help shape the direction in which the organization is headed and then the strength of character to see it through.
We are all counting on you!
A final thought: You are mariners, each of you. Be proud of that always. You may do many different things with your lives that at this moment you cannot know. But whatever you carry away with you from King’s Point, from this gorgeous day, as you embark on the beautiful voyage of your lives, I would guess the sea will remain part of it.
So take some time as you “sail on” to remain connected to the sea. The oceans matter deeply to this country in every way – economically, politically, diplomatically, militarily, culturally – in every way.
Indeed, my view is that the sea will be increasingly vital. The British used to say, “the sea is one,” meaning it is completely interconnected and flows together.
It connects us, challenges us, nourishes us, and the fate of the sea will remain vital to the United States and the world … forever.
The sea will offer both challenge and opportunity in increasing measure in this new 21st century.
So stay connected. You are already vested in the program.
And for those of you in particular who make a full career of the sea -- so as long as you work on the sea – in some part of it – whether in a gritty working port, driving a new and beautiful merchant ship or a coastal break-bulk, sailing to the Arabian Gulf in a warship, orchestrating port security – know that you will be part of a long and unending partnership that stretches back thousands of years since mankind first went down to the sea in ships and learned just how inconsistent life at sea can be.
At the end of F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant and iconic American novel, The Great Gatsby, he says that in the end we are all boats sailing against the current, beaten back ceaselessly into the past.
Beautiful words – but I don’t quite agree, actually. My own view is that your voyage will carry you one day to a port … but until you arrive, you will never know exactly what that port might be.
It has been said that to reach a port, you must sail; at times with the wind, and at other times against it, but sail you must and not drift or lie at anchor. A good thought to close on.
Class of 2008 – as I look at you this fine morning, I know you will reach the port you deserve – of that I am sure.
What you don’t know on this bright summer’s day is just which port it might be. And in that is the excitement and the challenge and the power of opportunity … that lies at the beating heart of the voyage just ahead.
Godspeed and open water to you all …