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"Work Hard, Live Harder" George Mason School of Public Policy Convocation Arlington, VA
Deborah A. P. Hersman
"Work Hard, Live Harder" George Mason School of Public Policy Convocation Arlington, VA

Congratulations, Patriots, for your academic achievements.

Good evening, family, friends, and distinguished guests. Thank you, Dean Rhodes and the faculty, for honoring me with this invitation to speak to you.

It is a tradition for graduation speakers to give great advice. So I have spent the last few weeks pondering the meaning of life, the importance of public service, and how to impress you with my wisdom and experience.

But in all honesty, I have attended at least a dozen graduation ceremonies and I couldn't remember anything those speakers said.

I'm feeling more confident since you will likely have convocation amnesia, so I got my top ten list of advice to the graduates ready to roll...

1 - Be curious.

Getting your degree is not the end of your education, it is truly just the beginning. Always ask "why." The answers can be really important.

Einstein said, "It's a miracle that curiosity survives formal education," but I suggest that it's a miracle it survives childhood. I am sure many of you can relate to this story:

One night I was greeted at the garage door by my eight-year-old son, Wilson. He said, "Mommy, none of the lights work in the bedrooms upstairs, but I don't know why." As an investigator, I quickly got his brothers to turn states' evidence on him and let's just say, my young Thomas Edison thought that it might be interesting to see if you could illuminate a night light by connecting it to the wall socket with a hair pin.

Perhaps you also like to learn by doing, but when it comes to your career, the places you travel, and the people you meet, be curious. Ask questions and seek answers. Your life will be richer for it.

2 - Persevere.

At the NTSB, our experts are the CSIs of transportation. They work tirelessly to find out what caused a crash, which means turning over every rock, ruling things out, and running down every lead. This painstaking work takes days, months, and sometimes years. But they never give up. If the answer is elusive, they just work harder.

Perhaps the job you have now just pays the bills and you're still looking for the one you really want ... persevere.

I started out as an unpaid intern in a congressional office answering phones. It was a path less travelled to become the Chairman of the NTSB, but perseverance and encouragement by people who believed in me made all the difference.

3 - Pay attention.

How many of you - right now - are on your Blackberries or smartphones? This may say something about my oratory skills, but it may also say something about our society when at a graduation - which only happens once - we must be preoccupied with something else.

At the NTSB, we've seen what can happen when pilots don't monitor their airspeed, locomotive engineers run a red signal, or drivers are distracted.

Life is fleeting and precious. Be present ... be there ... be in the moment.

4 - Choices matter.

So many decisions are seemingly minor; many are unconscious. But you can learn from our accident investigations and manage your risk exposure.

Since I graduated from high school in 1988, more than 300,000 people have been killed in impaired driving accidents. So, if you're celebrating tonight and it involves alcohol, please make the life-saving choice to designate a driver or take a cab home.

5 - Get sleep.

I know that the Ph.D. candidates think that they coined the term, "Sleep is for slackers." But it actually goes back to George Mason's pal, Ben Franklin, who said, "There will be sleeping enough in the grave."

Sadly, in our investigations, too many times we see the consequences of tired transportation workers. Pilots who overfly their destinations and don't respond to air traffic controllers, drowsy bus drivers on overnight trips...and more.

But, the fact is every one of us needs sleep. It is foundational to good health and your quality of life. I guarantee that you'll make better decisions and have better relationships if you are well-rested.

We all need about 8 hours a night.

If you don't get it; you don't get it.

6 - Everything changes.

There are things you want to hold on to... like the relationships that once defined you that are fading away and we all want to hold on to long-time George Mason President Alan Merten.

In transportation, cables and pulleys were replaced by hydraulic systems, and these in turn, are being replaced by electronic sensors.

It has been said that the only thing constant in life is change.

Yes, everything changes. You can resist change ... or you can embrace it. I recommend the latter.

For the overachievers in the room, I encourage you to do something that scares you, take a risk, be the man or woman in the arena, and lead the change.

7 - Work hard, live harder.

When it comes to work, be prepared, be a team player, and don't wait for an invitation... to interview for a job, to participate in an interesting project, or to speak up. Carpe diem!

In life, laugh out loud, really out loud, don't just type it.

Try something new. In the last five years I realized that I love anything mango-flavored. Why did I waste so many years mango-free?

I encourage you to compete in an adventure race (even if you haven't trained as much as you should have) you just might find the hand of a stranger or in my case, a spouse, that lifts you over that last obstacle you couldn't clear.

But in the end, what is most important are family and close friends - the people who love you and who will be with you on your best days, like today, but also on your worst days.

I have been at 19 major accident scenes and there is nothing - nothing - that makes the point about the importance of family and friends more than seeing how things change in the blink of an eye.

We have all experienced it. You can send a loved one off on a routine trip and then nothing is ever routine again.

Treasure each day ... each moment ... each other.

8 - Sometimes you get lucky.

You may land a dream job ... even in this economy. Your soul mate may be the person you went to prom with in high school. Or, you may walk away from a crash unscathed.

But, you won't always be so fortunate. I can guarantee you will experience failure. Sometimes others will disappoint you, and sometimes you will disappoint yourself. Will Rogers said, "When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging."

But remember, what defines us is not how we deal with success, but how we deal with failure.

9 - Public service is priceless.

I don't have to tell you - public service is a noble profession. Aside from the beltway bandits in the audience, you won't get rich bringing peace to the world or working for or studying government, but your payment is the satisfaction of doing work that matters.

At the NTSB I am privileged to lead an organization that clearly makes a difference. Our work saves lives. It doesn't get any better than that.

10 - Lastly, be like George.

Rosalyn Carter said, "A good leader takes people where they want to go, but a great leader takes people where they need to go."

Our university's namesake participated in weeks of debate in Philadelphia, but in the end, he withheld his signature from the U.S. Constitution because he thought it gave too much power to the federal government and failed to abolish the slave trade. He lost his friendship with George Washington for his stance, but he succeeded in advancing the Bill of Rights for all citizens.

That's the last life lesson: Be like George Mason. Be principled. Show integrity. That's how you can really make a difference.

As the legislators here can tell you, sometimes you might do things that are not popular with the general public or even with your family or friends.

You might remember the NTSB's recommendation last December asking the states to pass laws to ban the use of portable electronic devices behind the wheel, which followed years of investigations of deadly highway crashes. It really made for some uncomfortable holiday conversations.

Yes, it can be lonely to take an unpopular position. Yet, like George Mason, your decision can be a game changer for you and for others.

No matter whether you listen to advice, listen to a poll, or listen to your heart, may you always make the right decisions when you have to take a stand.

So class of 2012, remember to persevere, be curious, be like George, get sleep, and make the right choices... ah, who am I kidding, of course, you're not going to remember what I said.

Congratulations! Now, go work hard and live even harder.