Lighthouse Prep Academy Commencement Address

I was honored yesterday afternoon to give the commencement address to the Lighthouse Prep Academy Class of 2018. Lighthouse Prep is a great little private Christian school in Jefferson City that is doing great work. 100 percent of its graduates are going on to college, the military, or, in one case, a gap year before college.

Here’s the text of the speech, as prepared:

Good afternoon. It was is great to see all of you again. The last time I saw you was impromptu and I spoke perhaps a little bit too long. As you sit here today, your parents are all very proud of you. It is incredibly impressive that your class has a 100 percent success rate in that every person here is going on to college or military service.

But I have news for you. Life is only just beginning. When you go off to college or the military, Mom and Dad won’t be there every day to make sure you do the little things – or the big things – to make you successful. If your life is going to be a success, it’s going to be up to you. Not anyone else.

And so, this afternoon, I want to speak with you about two big ideas: the first is something called GRIT. The second is moral fortitude. Both of these are types of character. And if you have each of these, I guarantee you will be a complete well-rounded success in life. If you lack either of them, you will not.

Let’s start with GRIT. What is grit?

It’s the quality of never giving up. It’s the thing that makes someone persist through a task – even when it gets difficult and even when it gets boring. It means that when you start something, you finish it.

In America, more than anywhere else, if you work hard and show real grit – if you never give up – you will be successful in life.

This is an idea backed by research which shows that students who excel in college and life are not necessarily those who excelled on high school tests. Instead, the people who are most successful are those who are the most optimistic, persistent, driven to success, curious to learn new things, and able to work well with others.

The most successful people in life are those who are able to bounce back from disappointment. Those who fail, and, rather than give up, resolve to do better next time. Those who never accept mediocrity or low expectations.

There’s actually a test for this now – and like any test, it’s not perfect, but I want to share it with you this afternoon.

It was devised by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth and it’s called the Grit Scale. The researcher who developed the scale put it to the test at West Point – the Army’s college. Incoming freshman to West Point were evaluated by the Army according to what they call the “Whole Candidate Score” which takes grades, physical fitness, and leadership capabilities into account. And they were scored on the self-reported Grit Test. At the end of their summer training course, the Grit Scale proved to be a more reliable indicator of success than the Army’s lengthy and involved measure.  Basically, if you scored well on the Grit Test, chances were very good that you’d be successful in the Army.

So, what is the Grit Test? Here are a few of items on which to evaluate yourself. I hope you find them interesting and resolve to improve your own ratings on these questions. 

  1. I aim to be the very best in the world at what I do.
  2. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  3. I am ambitious.
  4. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  5. I stick to ideas or projects for the long-term.
  6. I am a hard worker.
  7. I finish whatever I begin.
  8. Achieving something of lasting importance is the highest goal in life.
  9. Achievement is NOT overrated.
  10. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
  11. I am driven to succeed.
  12. I am diligent.

There are other questions as well. But these get to the heart of the Grit Scale. Sometimes, the secret to lifetime success can be failure at a young age – but only those failures followed by resolved to do better.

What can you do to improve your score on the Grit Scale? Push yourself beyond your own limits. Set long-term goals with short-term measurements and resolve to accomplish them. Turn that A- into an A. Or the A into an A+.

So that’s GRIT.  From Monday to Thursday January to May, this building is full of people who scare high on the GRIT scale. But I would argue that GRIT is not enough to live a successful, well-rounded life. There’s another quality that’s equally important – and its moral fortitude.

What do we mean by that?

It means the willingness to do what is morally right – no matter if its unpopular, no matter if its difficult, no matter if its embarrassing.

There’s a saying chiseled into the walls of the Senate chamber that hits at this quality. “Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong.” That extends beyond the Missouri State Senate – and public service. It extends to your entire life.

And there’s the greatest source of all for the idea. In Mark 8:36, Jesus asks, “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

Success gained through immoral action or for immoral purposes is not true success. It is hollow – and will come to an ignominious end.

Be honest and earnest in everything you do. It may not always seem cool or expedient, but it’s what you must do to live a good life.

GRIT can make you a success on paper. But only GRIT plus MORAL FORTITUDE can make you a true success in life.

I know from what I know about Lighthouse Prep and from the explanations on the program that most and probably even all of you have an above-average level of GRIT and MORAL FORTITUDE as you graduate and leave your parents.

My challenge to you is that you not only keep those qualities. But you grow them. You make them stronger. You go home this evening or sometime later this week and look up the GRIT scale on the Internet. Then print it out. And will yourself to having more GRIT. And I challenge you that, when life gets tough, when you face difficult moral decisions, you think about the moral teachings you learned from your parents and Lighthouse Prep. And you pray for the wisdom to make the right and just decisions for yourself and others. If you do those things, I am confident that all of you will meet the world with great success.