2013 Commencement Address

Commencement address by Arne Sorenson, class of 1980

Good morning.

Congratulations.  You made it.  Whether it has been a four- or five-year journey -- or a 14-year journey -- you have reached the conclusion of your time at Luther College.  You are here to celebrate that conclusion, with the receipt of a degree and the best wishes of your families, the staff and faculty of Luther College and from all the other friends of Luther here this morning.  Enjoy this day.

Let me add my thanks to Rick and Judy Torgerson.  Your retirement is the end of an era at Luther.  From all of us who love this place so much, thank you for your stewardship.  You leave Luther stronger, greener and more fully dressed than when you got here.

Based on my own recollections about the graduations I have been through, there is not a thing that I will say today that you will remember in a few days, let alone when you get to be my age.  In this respect, graduation speeches are a little like parenting.  We just keep giving advice, long after the need has passed.

Since we all must play our roles, some last advice you will have.  My advice to you, quite simply, is to be bold.  Leave Luther with boldness.  Be bold about what you believe, confident enough in what you believe that you can be curious about what is around you.  Use that boldness and curiousity to take risks, at home, at work and in your communities.  Be so bold as to believe you can change the world.  You can.

This is a special morning for me.  As Rick mentioned, I am a Luther alum.  I graduated in 1980.  I was among the third generation in my family to attend Luther.  My grandfathers, Otto Austin and Morris Sorenson, finished here in 1912 and 1920.  My father, Bo Sorenson, graduated in 1949.

I wish at least my father could be here this morning.  He would have been my biggest fan and it would have been very special for me to be Luther's commencement speaker with him in the audience.  While he is not here, I am blessed to have good family support this morning.  My mother Dorothy Sorenson is here.  She is not a Luther alum, but she has been visiting here, sending two of her sons here and supporting Luther for many decades. 

My wife Ruth and her parents Paul and Lois Christenson  are also here.  None is a Luther alum, but all have deep connections to this place.  Paul and Lois served at First Lutheran Church here in Decorah for many years in the 70's and 80's.  They had a second parish, perhaps better known than First Lutheran, called Whippy Dip.  Based on the line there yesterday, it is still a vibrant community of faith. Thanks for coming. 

My youngest son Lars is also here.  Lars will be starting as a freshman at Luther this fall, bringing us to four generations of Luther students.  Lars, your mom and I are incredibly proud of you and wish you the best for your years at Luther.

When you hear about one family spanning four generations at Luther, it might be tempting to conclude that this is a place where little changes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When my father was here, the Debate Club was central to campus life and Roscoe's was called the Green Parrot.  He was fond of saying that "Luther is a place where men are men and the women are glad of it." I wasn't sure whether anyone would laugh at that line -- from this era, it seems like a line to offend virtually everyone.  He certainly didn't mean it that way.

My views about boldness are heavily influenced by what my parents did after my father left Luther College.  Born in 1927, my father joined the Army in World War II.  Fortunately the war had just ended when he arrived in Japan in 1945.  After brief service there, he came back to the US for college here and then to Luther Seminary.  And then it was back to Japan.  For a country boy from rural Wisconsin and his wife from a small town in Nebraska, they had the boldness to travel half-way around the world, immerse themselves in the most foreign of languages and cultures and to communicate their beliefs in a strange land.

I left Luther with barely a fraction of that boldness, moving to Washington, DC, not to Tokyo.  Of course, Washington may be as strange a culture to you as Japan was to them in 1949.  Our local sport, politics, seems to be getting stranger and stranger, in fact.  Maybe a story will illuminate that:

A woman in a hot air balloon realized she was lost.  She lowered her altitude and spotted a man in a boat below.  She shouted to him, “Excuse me, can you help me?  I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man consulted his portable GPS and replied, “you’re in a hot air balloon, approximately 30 feet above sea level.  You are at 31 degrees, 14 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49 minutes west longitude.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “you must be a Republican.”  “I am,” replied the man.  “How did you know?”   “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but totally irrelevant to my life.  You’ve told me where I am but I am still lost.  Frankly, you are not much help to me.”

If you’re a democrat, this is the place you want to stop the joke if you intend to retell it.  If you’re a Republican, the punch line for you is still to come.

The man smiled and responded, “you must be a Democrat.”  “I am,” she replied.  “How did you know?”  “Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are – or where you’re going.  You made a promise you have no idea how to keep.  You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but somehow now it’s all my fault.”

This story is funny because it seems so aptly to capture the perspectives of opposing political enthusiasts.  On another level, the story is a sad reflection of the state of political affairs and our society at large.

When we look at politics today, we see politicians everywhere who seem willing to communicate bold beliefs.  But, too often, those beliefs are being used as a shield to block any other point of view from being considered or even heard.  Used as a shield, this kind of boldness leads to the demonization of those who disagree.

Of course, it is not just politics where we see these trends. At the risk of making us a tad bit uncomfortable, let me use some examples of the same trends at work in the world of Lutherans.  Look at the years since the ELCA's statement on sexuality.  We have watched far too many congregations throw away generations of shared faith to leave the ELCA on this issue alone.  More recently, we have been pulled into a debate about whether a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is capable of being tolerant enough to be a leader at Luther.

This is not how our community of faith should respond to issues like these.  We can and should discuss and debate, but ultimately we must embrace, even with those who disagree with us.

The point here is not to suggest that you avoid having views about these issues.  If they interest you, you should definitely have a point of view. And you should be willing boldly to explain that point of view.  But use those beliefs not as a shield but as a foundation -- a source of strength and personal identity that allows you to seek out and hear, without being threatened, the views of others.  You don't have to demonize those that disagree with you.  With strength of conviction, in fact, you can and should hear everything you can that offers deeper understanding and greater breadth.

Let's get out if the risky world of politics and religion.  In fact, some of the best advice you might follow, advice which maybe I should have followed this morning, is never talk about politics and religion in mixed company.

Be bold to reach conclusions in your work world as well.  To do that requires first that you bring a curiousity to the workplace that allows you to understand and reach a point of view about how your work should be done.  There is no better way to succeed in your career than to be curious about everything around you. Understand why things are done the way you’re trained to do them when you start a new job.  I'm not saying that you should respond to the first assignment you get by saying "why?" That might not be the best way to start a new job.  But, over time, understand the why's, understand the context of the work you do.  

Watch what’s happening around you, not just those things that are formally part of your work, but those things that are part of the enterprise’s work.  Wherever you work, try to understand the role of the enterprise, the challenges the enterprise as a whole is experiencing and the opportunities for addressing those challenges. 

If you simply let work happen to you, passively trying to complete the tasks that have been given to you without ever understanding the context of those tasks, you will get much less joy, much less impact and much less success from your work.

This brings me to my second bit of advice for you. Whether in religion or politics or work, you have brought the passion of inquiry and learning that you have learned here at Luther and began to reach conclusions -- beliefs -- about these things.  Use them for strength as a foundation to become comfortable taking risks.  

In so many areas of your work and personal lives, you will be confronted with the need to choose, to make decisions.  Every decision is an exercise in risk taking.

Sometimes the risks are not well understood.  I was in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago.  It was hot and humid, but beautiful.  We had had a wonderful 48 hours in the country, seeing existing and potential tourist destinations, listening to all the voices we could hear, even meeting with the President of the country, where I boldly told him he had to take much bigger steps to put the Tamil war behind Sri Lanka.  There was risk in that conversation, but what struck me a few hours later was discovering the risk in selecting a fresh fruit juice at arrival at one of our competitor's hotels.  Offered a choice between juices colored orange, purple and green, I took the green one.  What could it be?  It tasted great.  In the heat, it disappeared instantly.  Then, the juice man told me, "It's a laxative."

Right now, in your lives, the decisions facing you are not about which juice to pick, but likely immediate questions about where to look for a job or whether to take a job that is offered to you or whether to pursue another degree. These are important decisions and you should try to make it well. But in many respects these are the easiest decisions you will have to make because it is obvious you need to make a decision now. Once that decision is made, the next decisions get harder because it isn't always obvious that a decision needs to be made.  For example, should I go for that next job?  Should I suggest a way to do our work better? Should I tell my boss what I really think when he or she asks me?  Should I accept an assignment that I am not totally confident I am ready for?  Even, should I quit?

Taking risks is not just about what kind of job or assignment to seek or accept, it is also about how you approach your work.  You have all heard the phrase that you need to take ownership over your work.  Approach it as if you are solely responsible to deliver the best result.  I am not preaching against teamwork.  You will always need the help of many others to be successful.  But don't limit yourself to safely going along with whatever seems to be the expected behavior.  Use what you have learned through all that curiosity to decide what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.  It is only through this willingness to stick your neck out and take risks that you will find that you have stepped into a leadership role.  And all of you should aspire to being leaders.  You have the training, so you can be leaders.  While the risks to leaders may be higher, so are the rewards -- not just the financial ones, but the pleasure you get from your work.

Let's go back to politics for a second.  We use the word leaders to describe most of our politicians.  Because they have stature and power and their positions are proof of success, the word leader seems to fit.  From my perspective, however, the shortcoming of too many of our political leaders is precisely the lack of leadership.  They don't want to take the risk that comes from exercising their own judgment because it might offend their political base. Instead, they pander to that political base even when it is obvious to everyone around that there is a need for a more nuanced solution.  When you have mastered being curious and taking risks, then you can step in and provide some political leadership.  Just be quick about it.  We need you now.

Whether you decide to save us from our lack of political leadership or not, let me close with my last bit of advice to you.  Take the breadth and depth you have gathered from your curiosity and the leadership skills you have honed from taking risks, and change the world.  It is a big phrase: change the world.  It is a phrase we shy away from using because it seems either too sappy or too arrogant.

I use it deliberately because in neither a sappy nor arrogant way, we – and you -- can change the world.  Just after Thanksgiving last year, I flew to Haiti for the ground-breaking ceremony for a new Marriott in Port au Prince.  It will be a 175-room Marriott.  It will take about two years to build and when it opens it will employ about 175 new Marriott associates.  There is no doubt in my mind that the lives of those associates and their families will be changed profoundly for the better.  In that way, that hotel will change the world.

I know that I have a fancy job and it might be tempting to think that you should start to worry about changing the world when you get your fancy job.  Don’t.  The credit for the hotel in Haiti does not belong to me.  It belongs to roughly 2,000 Haitian associates working in our hotels in the US.  Some of them are managers in our properties.  Many are hourly associates, who do not have fancy jobs.  Collectively, they raised their voice to encourage their Company to build a hotel.  They did not wait for a fancy job to change their country.

One more story about changing the world: A few years ago, a friend of mine was celebrating the publication of his new book on the Amazon.  When he was young – and curious I might add – he spent a summer in Brazil and was taken by the place.  More than 40 years later he was publishing his second book on the Amazon.  After the celebration, we were at his house having pizza and watching the Super Bowl.  He had some Brazilian friends there, one of whom was the Governor of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.  The Governor asked me whether Marriott would help preserve the Amazon.  I said I would be thrilled if we could but that we would need to find a way to connect it to our business.

After months of effort, we decided to adopt 1.5 million acres of the Amazon, a forest area now known as the Juma Reserve.  Our idea was to connect our customers to the effort, making it easy for them to either contribute to the effort as a way of offsetting the carbon impact of their hotel stay or, more simply, giving them a vehicle to help save the Amazon.  I had the chance to visit a small village called Boa Frente in the Juma Reserve a few years later.  Obviously, our work, with the help of our customers, will help change the world if it is successful in avoiding deforestation of the Juma Reserve.  That is a big thing. It is the kind of change a big company can do because of its scale. 

What stands out more for me, however, is not the grand concept, but the memory of seeing about a dozen children in that village ride down a slide that had been built in front of a new schoolhouse, over and over again.  These kids had never seen a slide before.  We changed the world for them.  Seems small now, but seeing those faces of pure happiness for hour after hour was a big deal.  That change any one of us could make happen if it was what we had started out trying to do.

Enough words from me.  

Leave Luther will boldness, the boldness to believe, to reach conclusions, the boldness to be curious.  Use that boldness to get comfortable taking risks.  Take the extraordinary training that Luther College has given you and, boldly, with a scientific discovery or a new non-profit or a new slide for children, change the world.  And don't forget to take a ride on the slide for fun.

Congratulations.  I wish you all the best.