Embrace the Erratic Says Wyden to Linfield Graduates

On Sunday, May 27, 2012, Senator Ron Wyden delivered the commencement address at Linfield College in McMinnville. In the address, Wyden shared the story of the famous 40-ton slab of rock called an erratic, which sits atop a 250-foot hill just eight miles south of the campus.  It traveled 800 miles from Canada, floating on ice along the way, before arriving at its current location.  With the rock's unexpected journey as a metaphor, Wyden called upon the recent graduates to embrace and explore the unexpected journeys in life's paths saying, "Be like that rock" and "Life can you take from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountain. Just don’t be afraid to take the journey."

WATCH the speech:

Prepared remarks of the speech:

Thank you President Hellie and thank you David Haugeberg, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

And thank you Linfield College. This is indeed honor. I deeply appreciate being here to receive this honorary degree and to speak to this year’s graduates.

Sitting there today, I’m sure you’re all coming to grips with the fact that one chapter of life is closing and another is beginning. By graduating, you have taken advantage of one opportunity. Now it is time to take advantage of the next one.

Eight miles south of here, perched atop a 250-foot hill that overlooks a beautiful stretch of Oregon farmland, is a 40-ton slab of rock called an erratic.  

That rock didn’t always sit on top of that hill. It has moved around -- a lot. Which is why it’s called an erratic.

In fact, that rock isn’t even an American rock … it’s a Canadian rock.  Although that was several million years ago before there was a Canada, but let’s not quibble.

In fact, geologists actually believe that this particular slab of rock not only predates Canada becoming a nation -- they believe it predates North America becoming a continent. 

600 million years ago -- they say -- that slab of rock sat on the ocean floor. Over the eons that followed, the earth’s plates shifted, land masses collided and -- over time -- that rock went from being at the bottom of the sea to the top of a mountain.   

By the time the ice age hit, this well-traveled rock found itself frozen inside a glacier. When an ice dam on the Clark Fork River ruptured -- causing the Missoula Floods -- that rock broke free and took off on yet another incredible journey.  

Only this time, it floated on ice.  

Our intrepid rock then traveled more than 800 miles from Canada, through Montana, across Eastern Washington and down the Columbia River until it decided to call that hill here in Yamhill County home. 

And who can blame it. This is a great place.

By now you’re probably asking yourself why a United States senator is standing up here talking about rocks?  

Well, today, each of you is about to embark on your own journey.  Your life is about to commence , which, in an incredible grasp of the obvious, is why we call this day “Commencement.”

And much like that rock, none of you sitting here today can predict where you will ultimately end up.

Now, I know a few of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking: “Gee, Ron, maybe these other jokers sitting here don’t know where they’re going, but I do and I’m going to work really hard to get there.”

Well, I think that’s great.  If you already know exactly how you want to spend the rest of your life and are prepared to work hard to make it happen -- I commend you and wish you luck.  

The best advice I offer you, however, is: Don’t be afraid to change your mind.  

The path you think you are on today will lead to other paths that will take you to places you never thought you would go. 

In his poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost wrote that faced with choosing between two roads:  “I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.”

In other words, don’t stick to one path because you think it’s what others expect of you or because it leads to a fancy title and a corner office.

I guarantee you that NO ONE spends as much time thinking about you as you think they do.....mostly, because they are too busy thinking about what you think of them. 

This is your life.  Make sure that you live it for YOU. 

Investing time and energy into achieving something is never a waste. Even if you fail or choose to take another path, remember that is the sum total of your efforts that make you who you are.

How do I know what I’m talking about? I know because I changed paths.

Growing up, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I wanted to play in the National Basketball Association in huge arenas in front of thousands of cheering fans.

As a kid, I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing basketball, training for basketball, watching basketball or talking about basketball. 

I couldn’t imagine a future in which I wasn’t playing in the NBA. It was impossible for me to want anything more or to work harder to get it.

That dream meant everything to me.

When I got a basketball scholarship to the University of California at Santa Barbara I thought I was on my way. Look out Knicks. Make way Celtics. Move over Lakers. Here comes Ron Wyden.

Well, reality set in at the end of my second year. I looked around and saw that I was too short for the NBA and that I made up for being slow.

I was faced with knowing that no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t going get taller or faster.

Now, does that mean all of the games I played and all the hours I spent in the gym practicing were a waste?  Does that mean if I had it to do over again and knew I would never be a professional ballplayer, I would have done things differently?  Taken up chess, maybe, instead of basketball?  

No.  Not for a second.

Just because all of the work didn’t lead where I wanted it to, doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.  Playing basketball taught me discipline.  It taught me to work as part of a team. It taught me to be competitive and to never be afraid to stand my ground.  

All that hard work on the basketball court may not have landed me in the NBA, but I know it made me who I am and put me where I am today.

In other words, I took the road less traveled and it made all the difference in the world to me.

Trying and failing will teach you what you are made of. 

Just because something you thought you wanted didn’t work out, does it mean it wasn’t worth pursuing.

If your goal of being a lawyer, doctor or writer doesn’t work out it doesn’t mean that what you learned about the law, medicine and the English language was a waste.

These days in Congress, I constantly remind myself that while the “right thing to do” rarely prevails, it has zero chance if no one stands up for it. 

But I stand up, even against the odds, because of what I learned about myself and about life all those years ago in a basketball gym.

Being a few years older than most of you, I am at a point in my life where I can look back and see how all the dots fit together.

I encourage you, however, to not waste your time lining up the dots going forward.

Things change. Plans fall apart or, as with me, reality sets in. Just be careful that you don’t get so focused on what you want to happen that you miss out on life AS it happens.

The reality of life’s journey is that there is no set path.  Even when you set goals for yourself, there isn’t just ONE way to achieve them. There isn’t just one way to be a professor or a doctor, a writer or a park ranger. Or a Member of Congress.  

More importantly -- there is more than one way to be a good person.  There is more than one way to be a good daughter, son, parent or friend.  And there is definitely more than ONE way to be happy and to define success.  

Those are the kinds of goals you should be setting for yourself.  Aim to leave the world a better place than the way found it, but don’t let anyone tell you how you have to do that. 

You will not go through life without regretting some path not taken.  You will all look back and say to yourself, “Gee, if I had only done this or that.”

Just make sure that you have explored as many of life’s paths as possible.

But whatever path you choose, do right by others.  Treat others the way you would want to be treated and don’t be afraid to stand up for the things you believe in.  

That 40-ton slab of rock we talked about a few minutes ago? Well, it isn’t special because it is sitting on top of a hill.  There are lots of rocks on top of lots of hills, many of which are bigger and more impressive to look at than this one. 

What makes this particular slab of rock so special is the incredible journey it took to get where it is today.

That rock did not abide by the world’s expectations of what rocks are supposed to do.  Rocks aren’t supposed to travel 800 miles on their own. Rocks aren’t supposed for float on ice. If that rock had parents, I am fairly certain that they would have tried to talk junior out of taking such a big risk.  

And if that rock could talk, I’m pretty sure it would tell you that growing up, it had never even heard of this wonderful place called Oregon, let alone imagined that it could live here. 

But when the opportunity to float on ice presented itself, that rock made the most of it even though it had no way of knowing where it would end up.

Be like that rock. 

When an opportunity presents itself to do something, kind or brave, exciting or even stupid, I urge you to remember that rock. 

Life can you take from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountain. Just don’t be afraid to take the journey.

Make the most or every opportunity to because that is how you will make the most of you.

Thank you and good luck. I envy all of you and mystery of lies ahead. 

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