I've always loved a good story. As a kid, I dreamed up stories and poems, sometimes to avoid doing homework, sometimes just for the fun of messing around with words. My first real story, written when I was seven or eight, was called--wait for it--Autobiography of a Big Tree.
Commencement speakers always advise graduates to follow their dreams--and you should. But I want to offer you some practical advice on how to make that journey.
The first key is to know your dream clearly. That means looking inside - asking yourself what you truly love - rather than looking outside. Remember: Dreams come from inside, not outside. They must be owned at the level of your soul. When you are clear about your dream, then set yourself on that path and start walking.
In middle school, I produced my own little magazine with the bizarre title Idiot's Odyssey. (As you can already tell, picking titles was not my strength.) Through college and my years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar I kept writing. And while on the Rhodes, I took a year off to travel with my backpack and journal through Asia and Africa. During that adventure, I began my first novel, and I guess you could say it got a terrific response from publishers. I sent it out to 32 of them--and got 32 rejections!
Which is why the second key is perseverance. Setting aside my dream of being a writer, I went into business--and wound up as the president of a private equity firm in New York City. But even as busy as I was, I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. to write or scribble story ideas before going to work. Sure, I was aware that doing this on top of my day job, even after all those rejections, meant this urge to write must really be important to me. But it took me a while to work up the courage to pursue my passion full time.
What helped the most was to visualize myself at the very end of my life--when the hourglass of time had almost run out--and to ask, "Did I have any big dreams that I never pursued? Any great passions that I didn't have the courage to go after with all my heart?" What could be worse than coming to the end of your life and knowing that you could have done more to make your dreams come true?
Well, for me, that dream was writing. Now, I had no evidence at all I could write anything that somebody else would ever want to read. But I knew I had to try. Or part of me, an important part of me, would perish. So I had the fun of shocking my business partners and investors by telling them: I quit. They all thought I was crazy. But my wife and I moved back to Colorado, where I grew up, and I started to write. That was 26 years ago--and 31 books ago. Life has been kinder to me that I could ever have imagined.
The point is this: All we have in life is our time and our souls. So why not make the most of both?
This is your life, your soul, your dreams - the most precious things you have. It's worth fighting to keep them wholly alive! If you stay true to them, with a bit of luck, you will succeed. And if you don't succeed, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that at least you really tried. Whatever happens, you'll have a marvelous journey along the way.
All of you have an amazing power--the power to make choices. What you do with your time, what you care about, how you treat others, every choice you make says something about who you are. Our choices become our footsteps on the trail of life, and our footsteps become our journey. And who knows? Maybe the trail you walk will become a hero's trail.
Our society often confuses celebrity with heroism. Celebrities are about fame. Heroes are something altogether different. Heroes (who can also be celebrities) are all about character - the qualities you can't see on the surface, but are revealed by actions. Qualities like courage, perseverance, hope, and compassion. Those are the qualities of heroes - shown every day by every day people -- a caring parent or a devoted teacher or a good friend. Those qualities hold our world together and give our life meaning.
The first hero of my life was my mother, Gloria Barron. She never sought fame. She simply lived the life of a teacher who cared deeply about her children and her community. For over twenty years, she worked hard to create a unique nature museum at the Colorado School for the Blind--a museum where everything can be touched. Blind kids can experience the grandeur of an eagle by touching its wide wings, just as they can feel a hummingbird's delicate nest or a polar bear's rich, soft fur. My mother never sought any credit for this accomplishment, and the only reward she wanted was the satisfaction of knowing that these kids could now experience some of the wonder and beauty of the natural world.
She was my inspiration for establishing the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a prize that celebrates inspiring, public-spirited young people. For more than fifteen years, I have witnessed the power of what young people can do. They overcome huge obstacles to help others, or help the environment or their community or the world at large. Regardless of gender, race, culture or economic background, these individuals have shown that even the youngest among us can make a genuine, lasting impact.
You can be one of those people, too. Each of you is a force - a package of positive energy that could help the world in some way. You may not believe that. You may think it's the craziest idea ever. But it's deeply true.
See your life as a story - yes, a story of which you are the author. Go out and tell it with courage. Tell it with passion. And make it the very best story you can--a story that's alive with your energy and alight with your dreams.