Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, families and friends, teachers and administrators, Dr. Reyes, and most importantly Class of 2017,
Thank you. Thank you for letting me be here today. It’s truly an honor to be with y’all on this special occasion.
Before I begin, I’d like to get a better idea of who is all here today, so I’m going to make a series of statements and if the statement is true for you then I want you to stand up and yell. Ok? Here we go:
I’m from San Antonio.
I’ve spent too much time at Starbucks.
I’ve taken a nap a time or two at the John Peace Library.
I’m in the military or going into the military.
I’m excited about starting a new job.
I’m excited that my son or daughter is starting a new job.
I’m a proud member of the class of 2017.
I’m going to live tweet Will Hurd’s speech today.
What, no one is going to live tweet me? I see how it is. Rude. But If you wanted to though my handle is @HurdOnTheHill, but whatever.
Actually, there is an official hashtag for Commencement. It’s #UTSAgrad17, let’s get it trending on Twitter. Everybody take out your cell phone.
(Hurd proceeds to take a selfie.)
Now, I’m going to be real with y’all. It’s been 17 years since I was sitting in your seat and I don’t remember anything my commencement speaker said, but I do know he was brief. So I will try to do the same. I’m going to:
1. Give you the best piece of advice I’d ever been given,
2. Tell you the most impactful thing my dad ever told me, and
3. Let you know the most important thing I’ve learned on my own.
I was given the best piece of advice I’d ever been given after I had suffered one of the absolute worst failures in my life. To understand how important this piece of advice was to me you have to understand where I was when I received it.
As Dr. Reyes told you, I was born here in San Antonio, like 10 minutes [from here] in Leon Valley, and I studied computer science at Texas A&M University.
I had never really been outside of Texas, and during my freshman year I saw a sign that said take two journalism classes in Mexico City for $425 and I had $450 in my bank account. So I went to Mexico and loved it. It was awesome being in a different culture and learning about things I had never known about.
When I got back to College Station, I added international studies as a minor, and during my first international studies class I listened to a guest lecturer who was a retired senior officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, and he told the most amazing stories. The next day I went to his office and asked him to tell me more. This began my interest in intelligence and my desire to join the CIA.
Preparing for graduation, I had applied for several jobs. Throughout most of my life I thought I was going to be a computer programmer for IBM. I had done an internship with them and applied to work for them when I graduated, and I was offered a really good paying job when I was done with school. I also applied to be a member of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA and ultimately got a job offer with them.
It wasn’t a good paying job – the salary was one-third of what IBM was offering me, but I accepted anyway.
My dad thought I was crazy. Up until this point in my life my father had never told me what to do but once – before I left San Antonio to attend Texas A&M, he told me to break up with my girlfriend who was staying in San Antonio. I was outraged.
I had a meltdown that only a 17-year-old teenage boy could and less than a year later we had a messy breakup. I wish I had listened to my pops. This time my dad thought I should accept the IBM job. It paid more and there was no danger involved. He eventually realized why I made the decision. He knew I liked a challenge and that I wanted to do something meaningful.
I joined the CIA and loved it. I was the dude in the back alleys recruiting spies and collecting intelligence on threats to the homeland.
I lived in D.C. for two years, India for two years, Pakistan for two years, New York City for two years, and Afghanistan for a year-and-a-half. I chased al-Qa’ida all around the world. I helped more than 1 million girls go to school in Afghanistan by helping to rid the country of most of the Taliban and I helped the United States government better understand the plans and intentions of the Iranian government.
It was a great job – I saw things and did things I had never imagined I would do. It was a really hard job, and being part of an organization that dealt with the most important national security challenges of the day was rewarding. It meant a lot to me to be in a position to help make the world and my country a little safer.
One of the other things I did when I was in the CIA was brief members of Congress. I briefed probably at least 100 members from both parties, most of the 50 states and both men and women
My momma always says that you are either part of the problem or part of the solution, so I decided to leave a job that I loved and was really good at, in order to run for Congress. This was back in 2009. Everyone thought I was crazy. I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew I could do it.
There were five of us in the primary and after about nine months I came out on top.
Folks were shocked, but they were also saying in the press that I was the next best thing. I didn’t receive 50% of the vote so we had to go to a runoff. The folks that followed elections thought I would beat my opponent in the runoff pretty easily. The opponent’s staff had sent out résumés because even they thought we would beat them pretty easily. But we lost that runoff election by 700 votes. We lost because I had made a decision that was a strategic error.
The press went from saying that Will Hurd is the next best thing to, “How did Will Hurd lose?”
I was devastated. Losing sucked. But what was worse is that I felt like I had let everyone down. I didn’t leave my house for a few days. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to do anything.
I didn’t have a Plan B.
I thought I was going to win and that was that. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. Some of y’all might understand that. Some of y’all might be in that position right now. Some of y’all are nervous about the next phase of your life. Get used to it, because you are going to be in this position again.
You will feel this way many times in your life, so figure out a way to deal with this situation that you can repeat whenever you find yourself contemplating your next move.
For me, I decided to ask as many people as I could for advice. I asked 75 people the same two questions. Number One, if you were 32 again, what would you do? Because at the time, I was 32. And Number Two, if time and money wasn’t an issue, what would you do? After asking those two questions about 75 times, do you know what I learned?
Not a damn thing. It was really disappointing.
However the 75th person I had talked to was the father of one of my best friends that I had known since I was 13 years old. He said, “Will, I don’t know what you should do, but as long as you do something meaningful and hard it will all work out in the end.” Meaningful and hard. I thought it was really crap advice at the time. It was too simplistic.
After that I decided to join some former colleagues of mine at a consulting firm to help build a cybersecurity company. I did things I had never done before. I was helping companies add employees to their payrolls by helping them grow in markets they had never been in before.
I was helping banks protect their customers’ money from cybercriminals and state sponsors of hacking. I was doing something meaningful and hard again, and I loved it.
The opportunity came to run for office again in 2014, and I left a job I was really good at and I really liked in order to run. This time I won and, let me tell you something – I’ve been in office for two years and a few months now and I can tell you that it is meaningful and hard and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You have just finished doing something meaningful and hard, and we are here to celebrate that today. But I want you to continue this trend. I want you to do something meaningful and hard every day. There is a Teddy Roosevelt quote that beautifully captures this sentiment. He said,
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy [much] nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows [neither] victory nor defeat.”
When you do something meaningful and hard you will suffer defeat, but you will taste victory and it tastes so sweet.
My dad is 85 years old. Growing up he would tell stories about his time as one of the first black salesmen in Dallas. He was working for American Tobacco Company and he was trying to sell Lucky Stripes to gas stations back in the early ’50s. He would pull up in a company car with the company logo on the side and he would be in a fresh pressed suit and right before he would walk in the door of the service station he would look up into the sky and imagine the face of the guy he was about to talk to and say, “Buddy, today is your lucky day.”
He did this even though he knew as soon as he would walk in the store the attendant would curse at him, call him terrible names, and demand him to leave. This is what always happened, but my dad always stayed positive, because he knew to be successful he had to get behind the counter where the attendant kept the cigarettes, his money, and his pistol. My dad knew he would convince the guy to let him behind the counter and by the end of the visit the attendant would be shaking his hand and begging him to come back. My dad believed in himself and always stayed positive. He said the secret to his success was to have a PMA – a positive mental attitude.
So when you are doing something meaningful and hard, make sure you are like my pops and do it with a PMA.
When someone is in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, like I was, you are a collector of last resort. Which means, when the president can’t get a piece of information any other way – with a satellite or through cracking some code or through a diplomat – he turns to the CIA to get it done. When the president tells you to stop al-Qa’ida from blowing up a building or stop the Russians from stealing some secret plans you don’t say, “Hey boss, no we can’t do that, it’s just too hard to do.” Or, “Mr. President, no we can’t perform that mission because we don’t have enough money or we don’t have a big enough team.” What you actually do in that situation is you go out and do the thing that most people think can’t be done.
All my life, I’ve had people tell me that I couldn’t do the things I did. When I was at university and thought about running for student body president people told me I didn’t have a chance. When I was thinking about joining the CIA I was told that I wouldn’t get in. I was told I was crazy to leave a job that I was good at to run for Congress, because besides, a black dude couldn’t get elected in a Hispanic district. When I wanted to start an initiative to get more middle schools in my district to offer coding class, I was told it couldn’t happen because it was too expensive and the schools wouldn’t take it but next fall 5,000 kids are going to be exposed to coding that wouldn’t have without the help of my team and I. I was told to forget about re-election because there was no way I could pull it off, and I won by more votes than my first election.
You are going to have doubters and haters too. So many people will tell you that you can’t do something. That you aren’t smart enough, that you don’t have the right last name, or that you don’t have the right experience. You are even going to doubt yourself, but don’t listen to them because they are wrong. Don’t let anyone tell you “no.”
You have just written the preface of your book. You get to write the book of your life any way you want to.
I just hope that when the book about your life is finished …
it is clear …
that for your entire life …
you did something meaningful and hard,
with a PMA,
and that you never took no for an answer.
God Bless you, God bless your families and may God continue to bless these United States of America.