President Rochon's Commencement Speech

Be the CEO of Your Own Life

I know some of you came to Ithaca College within the last two or three years, as a transfer student or graduate student from another university. Some of you first came to IC five or more years ago. But most of you arrived on campus August 22, 2010. And I’m going to bet, there are probably many details from that day etched in your memory as if it were yesterday: saying goodbye to your family, walking into your room for the first time, meeting roommates and others on your hall, waking up the next day, quite possibly after only a little sleep, and realizing that you are now a college student. You will have woken up in your residence hall knowing that this is one of those moments in life that is a turning point and there is no going back.

At the same time, that date probably seems unimaginably distant from where you are now. You may remember your Convocation held the following Monday morning, the formal ceremony in the Hill Center at which you were officially welcomed as a student at IC. At that Convocation I narrated to you Plato's allegory of the cave, in which he reflects on the limits of human awareness. You might remember that Plato pictured people chained in a dark cave, with their heads immobilized so that all they can see is a wall of rock in front of them, on which is reflected the flickering light of a fire somewhere behind them. They see shadows reflected on the wall in their limited frame of vision. And the wall and the shadows are their entire reality. They do not know they are in a cave. They have no idea that there are actual people behind them casting those shadows. They have no concept of what the activities and thoughts of those people might be. And they certainly have no inkling of a world beyond the cave.

Plato imagines someone who manages to get free of the chains, and who then proceeds to explore the cave and even to go out into the sunlight. He pictures how disoriented that person would be, all their assumptions about the world shattered as they saw things in a more complete way. He imagines they would have at first a limited understanding of what they are seeing. And if they returned to those still chained in the cave, if they told their former companions what they had seen, the response would be disbelief and derision.

I suggested at your Convocation that your educational experience at IC would be, if fully successful, like the experience of being unchained in Plato's cave. I said that if you are going to get everything possible out of your time as a student here, then you must bring with you the spirit of a fearless explorer, willing to go not just where others tell you to go but instead where your own path takes you. You would need to have a spirit of risk taking, of intellectual adventurousness, of being willing to expand your boundaries of sight and knowledge, of being willing to exit the cave and look at the sun.

I forgot to tell you that the sun only shines in Ithaca 2 or 3 days per year!

If a prisoner in Plato’s cage exited the cave in Ithaca they’d probably come back and tell their prisoners no big deal it’s not that different out there. It’s drier in here. Plato created the allegory of the cave for the original Ithaca, not the one in New York. It works better there.

He did that more than 3,000 years ago, and I wonder if you would allow me to make the same point with a more current metaphor. Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of Disney as well as an Ithaca College alum—yes a graduate of the Park School of Communications, and he met with the IC Board of Trustees just three months ago, in February. During our conversation, one of the points Mr. Iger made was that the job of a CEO boils down to three main tasks.

  1. First, do you have a pencil on you? That wasn’t the first task, do you have a pencil on you. First, you must define the company: what is its mission?
  2. Second, you must develop a strategy for the company: how will it fulfill its mission?
  3. And finally as CEO, you must set the standards of performance: are you seeking excellence in accomplishing the mission or do you just want to do well enough to succeed?

The metaphor is this: we are each the CEOs of our own lives. We must each define who we are and what our mission in life will be. We must each develop our strategy for how we will achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. And we must each decide for ourselves what the standards of performance will be: what level of accomplishment are we aiming for?

To be the CEO of your own life is to live your life in a conscious, reflective way rather than allowing yourself to be defined by the opportunities and the disappointments that will surely confront you, just as they confront everybody.

To be the CEO of your own life is to break free of the chains that confine you to seeing only the shadows cast on the wall directly in front of you.

To be the CEO of your own life is to have the opportunity to explore not only the rest of the cave but also the sunlit lands beyond.

To be the CEO of your own life is to accept the possibility of greatness, not as determined by others but as defined by the standards you have set for yourself.

It is my privilege to leave each graduating class with a quotation that I hope will inspire you at key moments in your life to come. And that quotation is engraved on the reverse of the medallion you have been given to mark this commencement day. Nelson Mandela talks about the possibility of achieving greatness as a generation. He himself was a prisoner who broke free of the chains that confined him to a cave. He went into the sunlight, and then he showed his countrymen how to follow. Nothing, not even the power of the apartheid regime, could prevent Nelson Mandela from being the CEO of his own life.

From this moment forward you will be the CEOs of your own lives. From this moment forward you will also be Ithaca College alumni. Because of those two wonderful facts, I will always look forward to hearing from you and to knowing how you are faring ... you, the Ithaca College class of 2014.