The Magic of Enthusiasm

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“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Henry David Thoreau

Another commencement season has come and gone and recent college graduates are now settling into their roles – hopefully! – of the gainfully employed and out-of-the-basement wage earners every parent dreams they will become. Just around the corner is the start of another academic year as we welcome new classes of first-year students to campuses across the country – and the rhythm of another school year begins anew.

While much has changed in my twenty-plus years of working in higher education, one thing remains constant: graduation weekend is still the highlight of the year. I love the energy on campus as families, friends, and loved ones descend on our community to celebrate the singular accomplishment of each graduate. There is nothing quite like it.

At a place like Eastern Kentucky University, many of these graduates are the first in their family to earn a college degree. Think about that – they have changed the trajectory of their own lives, to be sure, but also of those who will now follow. They have done something no one before was able to do, for whatever reason, and theirs is now the obligation to DO something with this education and to make a difference in the world with the knowledge and skills they have acquired.

Horace Mann, back in the 19th century, called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” This statement could not be any truer today.

As graduates left our campus this past May, I tried to encourage the departing seniors to leave with an extra measure of enthusiasm. Because yes, there IS there is magic to enthusiasm.

Consider these words of Henry Ford: “Enthusiasm is the sparkle in your eyes, the swing in your gait. The grip of your hand, the irresistible surge of will and energy to execute your ideas.”

Sixty-four years ago last May, a gangly bee keeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary, and his Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first confirmed human beings to summit Mount Everest.

When asked how he managed to do what many thought to be humanly impossible, Hillary replied in his typical self-effacing manner: “I don't regard myself as a cracking good climber. I'm just strong in the back. I have a lot of enthusiasm, and I'm good on ice.”

Just a few months later, yet another physical feat heretofore thought impossible was accomplished — and the world of running has never been the same since. I recall the first time visiting the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England, as a graduate student in 1991 to see the stopwatch that recorded what took place on that site in May of 1954. Roger Bannister did what no other human had ever accomplished: he broke the 4 minute mark for the mile: 3:59.4. What followed, of course, was a string of runners who have bested that time to the point that today’s record is an astonishing 3:43.13, run by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

But one only need skim today’s headlines to be reminded of the barriers being shattered and barriers broken all around us. Our graduates are truly living in the midst of transformational change at nearly every level of human endeavor.

Case in point: on May 6, 2017, in Monza, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came within 24 seconds of doing what everyone thought was completely unthinkable: shattering the 2 hour mark for the marathon.

The marathon is a grueling test of mental and physical stamina over 26.2 miles. But to break two hours means one would have to run at 4 minutes and 34 seconds per mile over the entire course. And Mr. Kipchoge came within 26 seconds of doing exactly that.

And while Kipchoge might have failed in his daring attempt to break what most have considered physically impossible, consider his response when asked what has made him the world class athlete that he is: "A champion is not made when he succeeds, a champion is made when you look back at the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months he has spent preparing."

In this day and age of “being cool” and “playing it mellow”, one may be scoffed at for being enthusiastic. Some may laugh at those who possess an extra measure of zeal or earnestness.

At those times, I encouraged our graduates to remember the immortal words of America’s last great adventurous president – the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. . .”

The world is in dire need of more doers: people imbued with enthusiasm and a belief that they, indeed, can make a difference. While critics may abound, I believe one of my jobs as an educator is to inspire students to be willing to step into the arena — whatever it might be — and strive to dream big, work hard, and achieve anything.