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On Commencement . . . The Value of Life's "Intangibles"

April 2010

Donald E. Powell
Commencement Speaker

I’m delighted to be here. This is a special place for me. I left my grandson last night who is in Colorado. He looked at me and said, "Papaw, see my hat." I said, "I do Dane." He said, "See the words 'Texas Tech' on it, that’s where I am going to school." So chancellor, be sure he gets in will you? I have got to get him in.

I want to share with you for a few minutes some of the experiences in my life. The chancellor gave his age. I am 68 years old. Sometimes there is an assumption that guys my age, that women my age, when they appear before you, they have done everything correctly. I have not. And I want to share with you a little bit about some of those life’s experiences as you go down the journey of life – beginning tomorrow.

I am reminded of what Albert Einstein said. "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." What does that mean? I think he was referring to life’s experiences. And you have attended one of the great universities in the United States of America and you’re prepared. Intellectually you’re prepared, you’re ready to go. As I told the chancellor, not only do you have the value of a quality education, you have other skills that will serve you well in the days ahead: work ethic, character, attitude – all those intangibles – trust me – that employers are looking for.

I have seven other intangibles that have served me and served me well. The first of these: Find a mentor.

Self-assessment is not one of my virtues. I need someone to go talk to. I need someone I can trust – someone I can pour my heart and my soul out to. Find a trusted mentor. Find someone that understands what you want to do in life. It’s terribly important.

Incidentally, I hope you know that you have branded yourself today. And, you will continue to brand yourself going forth. Perhaps your mom, your dad, your grandfather, your grandmother said to you, “you are known by who you associate with.” You will forever be known as a Texas Tech graduate. And believe me that is a brand that is recognized well in the marketplace. People understand what the TTU brand stands for and means. You now have that brand – you share in the TTU reputation.

Returning to the notion of a mentor, find someone that you can share your thoughts, your dreams, your desires, your problems, and your shortfalls with. I have a mentor even though I am 68 years old. In fact, I have two. I have an older mentor and I have a younger mentor. I have one that is in the profession I have chosen. I have one that I go to about life. Find a mentor. Find a trusted mentor.

My second intangible? What is your shelter when the storms of life occur? You may say, "You know, Don, I haven’t had any storms." But, they’re coming and they’re coming faster than you would like. So, find a shelter for the storms of life. It’s very important. Family, friends, and yes one’s faith, are terribly important shelters from the crises of life. You’re young, and disastrous things have probably not happened to you yet. But, there may well be storms just in the next few years.

Try going to the major hospital in the city where you live and spend one day in the intensive care unit. Don’t bring a book, don’t bring a newspaper, and you will determine and understand that you are not completely in control of your life. You may be used to – as I am – to being a control freak. I have wanted to control everything. But, it is impossible. There are storms headed your way. Make sure that you have a rock to hold on. Faith, family, and friends are very important as shelters from life’s storms.

The third intangible is one that I struggle with. I simply refer to it as: "Stand up, raise your hand, when it’s the right time and it’s the right thing to do."

You have been faced with decisions in your life and you have to make decisions. Most of those decisions relate to "where will I go to school," "where will I live," about boyfriends, girlfriends, careers, and things of that nature. It is probable, however, that you have not had to face the critical decisions of right versus wrong. Some may have. I did not when I was young. But, in the last 45 days, I have participated in a decision-making process where correct won out over what was the right thing to do.

I often tell people that there are certain things in life that I don’t want my grandchildren to know about me. Let me share with you a couple of them. One, is I have asked the question in business meetings: "Did we violate the law?" That’s not the best standard. It’s what’s right, is the law. C.S. Lewis said it well, "education without values only makes for a smarter devil." You’re educated, you are smart. Make sure you stand up and raise your hand against things, situations, and events that are not right.

Don Powell

I don’t have to tell you what is happening in the business world in America today. I have not read today’s Wall Street Journal, but I will assure you that there are at least four stories therein about malfeasance, about stealing, about violating laws, about violating regulations. It’s very important that you distinguish between right and wrong. Ayn Rand noted, “Learn to distinguish the difference between the errors of knowledge and breaches of morality.” It’s not a popular notion. Truth and principle trump economics and relationships. Truth and principles always trump relationships and economic reality. Do the right thing.

My fourth intangible? It’s terribly important that you become involved in your community. We are all interdependent. I don’t know of an independent man. I don’t know of an independent woman. We’re all dependent upon each other. That means that I have to serve, that means that you have to serve and assist and help those that need your help. Become involved. That means giving, not only of your time, your energy, and your money, but of yourself. It is very important to become involved. The prophet Jamal noted well, "All that you have shall someday be given." It’s very important.

My fifth intangible is confidence. The educated man or woman of today is not the educated man or woman of tomorrow. It’s critically important that you be confident. I love to quote my eighth-grade football coach who said "fake it until you make it" is garbage. You can’t fake it in today’s world. You have to be confident. That means you have to educate yourself each and every day. I congratulate you on where you are today in your life. But tomorrow the world will be changed and confidence in facing change is extremely important.

My last two intangibles are attitude and enthusiasm. I love a winning spirit. I love someone who approaches life with the proper attitude and enthusiasm. Winston Churchill said "Success in life is the ability to go from one failure to another failure with no loss of enthusiasm." You are going to be knocked down; get up! Be enthusiastic. Have a great attitude. It is very, very important that you do that. Tomorrow is a new day. God’s given you a new day. Don’t waste it because you are paying the price for it. Live in tomorrow with lots of enthusiasm and a great attitude. Swing the bat, run hard, go to the top level of the diving board, shoot the basketball, and never, never punt the football. Thank you for considering my life’s intangibles.


Donald E. Powell served as Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2001 to 2005. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed him as federal coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding. Powell is a long-time resident of Amarillo and served as president and CEO of the First National Bank of Amarillo, which he founded in 1997. Currently, he is serving as a Class I director of Stone Energy Corporation, an independent oil and gas company with headquarters in Lafayette, La. This paper is based on his Aug. 8, 2009 commencement address to Texas Tech University graduates in Lubbock.