[This is the speech I made during the National Honor Society induction at Riverside High School in Wathena, Kansas, on March 27, 2014.]
From the NHS website: The National Honor Society (NHS) is the nation’s premier organization established to recognize outstanding high school students. More than just an honor roll, NHS serves to honor those students who have demonstrated excellence in the areas of scholarship, leadership, service, and character. These characteristics have been associated with membership in the organization since its beginning in 1921… Chapter membership not only recognizes students for their accomplishments, but challenges them to develop further through active involvement in school activities and community service.
A history of second best… my father was salutatorian of his high school class, my oldest sister was salutatorian of her high school class, my other sister was salutatorian of her high school class, I was salutatorian of my high school class. My three brothers went to high school, too…
Excellence does not require competition. Competition is about winning, comparison to others, “beating” someone else. There are some goals that absolutely require competition: district/regional/state championships; being valedictorian. Excellence does not require competition against others; it requires you to conquer yourself and dedicate yourself to an ideal. I can be an excellent student, writer, preacher, racer without ever winning anything. But I cannot be excellent at anything while being lazy, indifferent or apathetic. Excellence requires dedication, purpose, focus and perseverance.
Excellence, for most of us, does require work and effort. There are several things that I am good at… or used to be good at. Even though I was only five-nine my senior year, I was the leading rebounder on our basketball team. I was an excellent rebounder because of my natural aggression on the ball court, jumping ability and timing. I was not an excellent basketball player because I never dedicated myself to the hard work of perfecting free throws, jump shots, passing and defense. I was pretty good at dribbling because of my natural ability. I could have been an excellent basketball player but I was not willing to invest the work necessary to become outstanding. I could claim the excuse that no one encouraged me to do that as a kid or as a teenager but I was the person who decided not to devote myself to the game. I did devote myself to public speaking and writing and those are the things that I eventually became pretty good at.
Excellence is not required in every single aspect of your life… but you need to choose pretty carefully what things at which being mediocre is good enough. I am not excellent at finishing drywall but if I take my time, pay attention and spend enough money on sandpaper, I can do pretty good work. I enjoy bass fishing but I’m not ready to pay $500 to enter a tournament. I have a lot of fun using the front loader on my little Kubota tractor but I’m not the guy you want to hire for excavation work. The point is this: there are many worthwhile things you can enjoy without being excellent at them. Having to be excellent at everything is obsession and is a recognized mental illness. Having to be best at everything is another one…
You don’t have to be excellent at everything but you must be excellent at some things or else you will waste your abilities, your talents, your potential and your life. Be excellent at cooking or sewing or softball or hunting turkeys. Be an excellent friend, an excellent helper, an excellent family member, an excellent citizen. Be excellent at something that matters, something that makes a difference, something that contributes. Be excellent at welcoming new people, be excellent at standing up for the weak, powerless or unpopular, be excellent at telling the truth, be excellent at accepting responsibility for your own choices and actions, be excellent at forgiving people, be excellent at doing the right thing.
Know and remember that the values of the National Honor Society matter. They matter now and they matter all the way through life.
Scholarship: choosing knowledge over ignorance; dedication to knowing and understanding a particular thing. I study mud runs, I study the obstacles, I study the terrain, I study the situation. I know that a running start up an incline wall gets you over it faster than working your way up along the rope. I know that a lateral traverse on a cargo net goes faster if you cross one foot over the other instead of using a step and slide technique. I know that a “gator crawl” gets you through an 18 inch mud pit faster than crawling or swimming. I know that running downhill cuts off more time than running uphill. I know that at least 80% of your climb energy/effort should come from your legs, not your arms. I know that keeping your palms turned toward you and your arms bent on an overhand traverse reduces the stress on your shoulders. There’s nothing at which scholarship cannot help you become better.
Leadership: the willingness to accept responsibility, to set an example, to be first in getting something done. Leadership doesn’t mean that I have to be the first team member into the mud pit; it does mean I don’t leave until the last member is out. Leadership includes a willingness to accept criticism and grow from it instead of retaliate for it. Leadership involves appreciating and encouraging others. Leadership involves sharing knowledge and experience and knowing that sometimes others know more than you do. It’s about bringing people together and helping them see how good they are and can be, not about showing them how good you are.
Service: the willingness to dedicate your time and effort to something that benefits other people at least as much as it benefits you. Most of the obstacles that I tackle in mud runs are things I can do by myself. I can climb over the barriers, under the barbed wire, through the trenches. I take a bit of pride in being able to do some of those things better or faster than a lot of people who are one-third of my age. (And some older than me who can do them faster and better than me!) But I also recognize that there are some challenges I can’t do alone. In the race in Smithville, Texas, this weekend, we encountered mud pits with high mounds built up between them. They were so high and the footing was so slick that you couldn’t get enough traction to jump or enough grip to pull. We had to let someone else step up on our knees and push them up while someone at the top reached down and gave them an anchor to pull up against. Some people would accept the help and then run on, barely taking time to mutter “thanks.” That is selfish ingratitude. Most of us would take a turn at the bottom and then another turn at the top, helping other racers that we didn’t know. It was a way of paying back the community and that is what service is: helping other people who may or may not be able to help you in return.
Character: doing the right thing even when no one would know if you did or not. Character is living parallel to what you believe and not giving up when the going gets tough. Someone said, “Character is what you do when you think no one is looking.” In the race this weekend, most of the trail was on gravel. Sometimes, it was a gravel road, sometimes it was rocky terrain and sometimes it was like running through a gravel quarry. Some of the rocks were the size of acorns and some of them were the size of baseballs. Not only was the terrain uneven and rough, it was covered with objects designed to resist traction and stability. I tweaked my ankle about three-fourths of a mile into the three-point-seven mile race. It didn’t really hurt, just a quick roll and keep going. Then, soon after the two-mile point, I rolled it over pretty hard. Not hard enough to cripple me but hard enough to hurt. I was with my sons and quasi-daughter-in-law and I had just passed a bunch of people at a narrow part of the trail running downhill through the woods. I wasn’t about to limp over to the side and quit in front of them. It hurt but I kept running. It hurt every step for the next two miles but I still kept going. That’s character. (With maybe a little bit of pride thrown in…)
There will be times when taking responsibility hurts. There will be times when telling the truth hurts. There will be times when it will be easier to not do the right thing. There will be times when it will be easier to let someone else do it, to copy off someone else, to let someone else write your paper. Yes, you will see a lot of other people lie, cheat, steal and cut corners. Many of them will tell you there’s nothing wrong with it and make fun of you if you disagree. I see cheaters in nearly every race. I don’t have to live with them; I have to live with my choices. If you choose to be a person of character, you will stand out in a crowd of job applicants, promotion candidates, or whatever. Keep your word, do what’s right, even when no one’s looking.
In summary, you don’t have to be the best to be excellent. Sometimes being second best is pretty darn good. (Except for marriage proposals.) Carefully choose what’s worth the effort of being excellent and then get rid of all the excuses, take responsibility and put in the work it takes to achieve excellence. This may not make sense to you now, but be excellent at the kinds of things your grandkids will like to see in your obituary. Take the values of the National Honor Society seriously. Live them. Apply them. Demonstrate them: Study, lead, serve, honor your beliefs.