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Commencement Speaker Jeri Muoio '69

Jeri Muoio '69

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Good morning Class of 2019, President Battles, esteemed faculty, proud parents and graduates,

Wow. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be standing here today delivering the commencement speech at my alma mater. I am truly honored.

Graduates, congratulations on a job well done!

As you leave behind your days here at Geneseo and face a future unknown, you will bring with you all the hopes and dreams of those here in this room today. We are proud of you.

Remember, also, we are all rooting for you. We are rooting for you to make a difference in this world. To find your passion and your purpose, to understand what gets you out of bed in the morning, what makes you happy, what brings meaning to your life. To know what drives you to excellence, and to realize why you are here on this earth.

Up until a few weeks ago, I served as mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida. My job required me to speak in front of groups of all kinds and sizes. On any given week, I might chair a City Commission meeting from the dais at city hall, I might speak to a group of business leaders or community leaders. I might even find myself staring down the lens of a television camera or two or three.

But speaking at a commencement is a big responsibility. And speaking at this commencement; well, I’m not really sure how to describe how honored I am.

As a Commencement speaker, I am expected to provide some sort of guidance or advice as you head out into what we call the real world.

As I looked back on my own journey, in preparation for this speech, I realized the best advice I can give you is that those people, those companies, those cities, those organizations that are clear about their purpose, clear about their why, are the most successful.

Fifty years ago, I sat where you are sitting today, soon to be a graduate of SUNY at Geneseo. My proud parents were in the audience looking forward to seeing their first born graduate from college.

At that time, Geneseo was known for graduating outstanding teachers. I came from a family of teachers, so the last thing I wanted to do was teach. As it happens, I was one of the first liberal arts graduates from this university, and my major was Psychology. Yes, I know — all you parents out there are asking, “What does one do with a liberal arts degree in Psychology?”

I headed home that weekend without a clue. When people asked me what I was passionate about, I didn’t know how to answer them. Once home, my father, a teacher himself, gave me a brochure for the school psychology program at SUNY Oswego.

I applied, was accepted, and little did I know that I was on my way to a purpose-driven career — making a difference in the lives of others.

In preparing for this speech, I sent out a request on Facebook for graduates to share how their time at Geneseo helped them find their purpose. Here are some of the responses I received:

  • I found my true self at Geneseo.
  • I had a professor who encouraged me to choose a different major. That was life-changing.
  • The effect was not immediate but powerful.
  • Being a student at Geneseo fostered personal growth.
  • Geneseo solidified the concept that in order to be a productive member of the community and beyond, you must first develop your own self: physical, spiritual, professional, and social emotional.
  • During my years at Geneseo, I went from a dependent young adult to an adult.
  • Geneseo allowed me to step out into a variety of different directions and to find the right path.

The consistent theme in these responses, and in my own experience, is that we came to Geneseo as young adults, without a clear picture of who we were or our future, and left prepared to begin our journey to find purpose.

In their book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about the difference between passion and purpose.

Passion they note is Individualistic — it is an internal feeling — it is the feeling of excitement you have about your work, whereas purpose is outward facing. Purpose is defined as the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning. (Heath, p. 217)

Passion often drives purpose.

In a study conducted by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, lifeguards were split into two groups upon beginning their work at a community center.

The first group, the personal benefit group, was given several stories to read about how, as adults, lifeguards benefitted from the skills they learned as a lifeguard.

The second group, the meaning group, read stories about other lifeguards saving the lives of swimmers.

The results? The meaning group voluntarily signed up for 43 percent more work hours and were overall more interested in their work. (Heath, p. 219)

That is the power of purpose.

As a young school psychologist, I became frustrated with the inability of schools and teachers to adjust to the unique learning needs of each student.

After five years as a school psychologist, I knew that I wanted to be, needed to be, in a position to shape the school culture, to address the failings of our education system to be able to reach all students.

To be a part of the school reform movement, I needed to be in a decision-making position, and so I entered the Ph.D. program at Syracuse University in Special Education Leadership.

My passion for social justice became a deep and abiding purpose of making schools a great place for all kids. As a leader, my job was to unite people around this purpose, people with different passions connecting around the purpose of making schools great for all.

As Director of Special Education and later as Assistant Superintendent, I worked with teachers, principals, and parents to build inclusive schools.

I recently reconnected with a man who is now an assistant professor at Syracuse University. I hired him back in the late 80s to teach an elementary special education class with the charge to create an inclusive school environment — where all kids belonged. He told me it was the best job he ever had. It helped shape his life’s work.

We worked as a team with the principal, the teachers, and parents toward a shared purpose. He was and is passionate about his work. But passion was not enough. Working toward that shared purpose was what he remembers. We did something that mattered.

University of California at Berkeley professor Morten Hansen wanted to better understand passion vs. purpose and which would have the greater impact on job performance.

He studied 5,000 employees looking at those who were both high in passion and in purpose, those who were both low in passion and in purpose, those who were high in passion and low in purpose, those who were high in purpose and low in passion. Not surprisingly, he found that the high passion, high purpose group out preformed all and the low passion, low purpose group scored in the lowest 10 percent.

Makes sense, right? But what about those employees with high purpose but low passion and the ones with low purpose, high passion? Which has the greater effect, passion or purpose?

Well, he found those with high purpose and low passion far out ranked those with low purpose and high passion. (Heath, p. 216)

So "purpose trumps passion." (Heath, p. 218)

Many graduation speakers before me have urged graduates to find their passion. I urge you to find your purpose.

So you are probably wondering how I went from school leader to mayor of a city. A city in Florida, no less.

To pursue your purpose, you must do things outside your comfort zone and running for elected office was way outside my comfort zone. The only thing I had ever run for before was president of my sorority here at Geneseo. I lost.

But I knew I wanted to be in a position to make our city a place where city employees are actively engaged in serving our residents and to make our city a place where people want to be — to live, work and play.

We had lived in Florida for four years, and I was working for a software company when a position on the city commission became open.

I was asked to apply for it, it was not an election because it was to fill an unexpired term. I applied, so did eight others — all men. I was appointed and subsequently elected to two terms on the commission for four years, and then due to term limits, the position of mayor opened up.

In West Palm Beach, we have a strong mayor form of government, which means the mayor is the CEO of the city. A city of 1,600 employees with an operating budget of close to $300 million.

I thought about running long and hard. I wasn’t sure I had the courage. Then a friend asked if I would regret it if I didn’t run. The answer was yes!

I also knew that after many years of being in an assistant position, I wanted to be the one in charge. I wanted to know if I could be successful as a leader.

So I ran and experienced one of the most grueling job interviews ever: A yearlong campaign against three opponents. I wanted to be mayor to make a difference in our city, to shape our work culture, to lead with integrity. And fortunately, the voters recognized my potential.

When I first became mayor, I looked up the role of the CEO because I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t in charge of a department or project; I was in charge of everything. I knew I wanted to make our city great and live by the motto that even on our best day, we can be better.

There are 1,600 people who work in city government and I quickly realized that my job was to make sure they had what they needed to do their job, whether it was moral support, a safe environment, clear vision, a strategic plan, stable fiscal management, and above all, purpose.

I came to work every day focused on how our West Palm Beach team could make our city a world class city where people want to be, to live, work and play. It is the driving force behind my desire to try new things and to push West Palm Beach — often excitedly but sometimes kicking and screaming — in the direction of a modern, successful, vibrant urban future.

A future that puts people at the forefront of its design and mobility, a future of greater economic opportunity for all, a future that cherishes our diverse history, and a future that creates a sustainable and resilient West Palm Beach.

My job was to unite people around this purpose.

I am proud of what we accomplished during my tenure as Mayor. I am proud to say that our property values rose 45 percent over the last four years. I am proud to say that we have seen a 20 percent growth in jobs in our city and that our unemployment rate is at three percent. I am proud that we are a nationally recognized green city committed to resilience and sustainability. But I am proudest of our employees.

I saw so many examples of our employees living the purpose of making our city a great place for all.

Let me tell you about a cashier in the water department where residents come to pay their water bill.  One day, very near Christmas, a resident came to the cashier and confessed she didn’t have the money to pay her bill. She was worried about having money for Christmas gifts for her children. She was crying. The cashier paid her bill with her own money.

Every year our police department sponsors Shop with a Cop. It is one of my favorite events. Police officers are given money from our Police Foundation and escort a child from a struggling family around Target to buy Christmas gifts for his or her family.

During one of these shopping trips, a child admired the police officer’s watch and said he would love to give his father a watch just like it but didn’t have enough money to buy one. The police officer took off his watch and gave it to the child.

Two firefighter/paramedics went out on a call for a woman who was having severe issues with her diabetes. They helped the woman and wanted her to go to the hospital. She couldn't afford to go. They left and went to the grocery store and brought her back bags full of healthy food.

I can tell many other stories about city employees making a difference in the lives of the people they serve. Knowing their purpose and doing something that matters every day. Making a difference.

"Because a sense of purpose sparks above and beyond behaviors." (Heath, p. 221)

And so graduates, my wish for you is that you find your purpose, that at the end of the day you can say I did something today that made a difference, I did something that mattered.

I leave you with a quote by William Barclays. “There are two great days in a person's life — the day we are born and the day we discover why.”

Thank you.