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Kennedy: Have heroes, dare mighty things

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy

It wasn't until later in life that I learned the value of heroes. I wish I had their guiding and inspirational benefits earlier in life. I encourage high school graduates to consider finding their heroes.

Hopefully, you have family members who are heroes. Cherish them. Having well-known heroes whose achievements you admire can also be highly valuable.

One way of sifting through the many options to find the aspiration that will animate you to succeed is to study those you respect. Your search for heroes may help you identify the path you seek to take. Their life stories can identify steps along that path. What did your hero do for summer jobs, study in college, do for their first full-time job? How many career pivots did they have before finding real success? Their choice can provide ideas for your own.

One of the most significant benefits of having heroes is you will find they stumbled often, they had to alter the course they originally planned, they encountered many obstacles they needed to overcome.

After studying many leaders, those that most appealed to me were John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. They all overcame difficulties. JFK suffered greatly from a back ailment and grew up under the shadow of his older brother. Roosevelt was a sickly youth that had to "make himself" and lost both his mother and wife on the same day. Churchill lost three elections in a row. Heroes help keep you from becoming discouraged. As Churchill observed, "Success is never permanent, failure is never fatal, the only thing that really counts is courage."

Who you admire reveals the leadership skills you find attractive and spurs you to adopt them. Only after I embraced these three political leaders did I observe that they were mavericks in their own parties. Kennedy was a rare Democrat to cut taxes, and Roosevelt was a rare Republican to push environmental causes. Churchill challenged his own party for a decade to do more to prepare for World War II. JFK observed, "We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." My heroes encouraged me to accept the "discomfort of thought" in critically evaluating the party line.

Courage exhibited by your heroes emboldens you to take on big undertakings yourself. JFK called us to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. We did. Roosevelt challenged America to become a global leader. We did. Churchill admonished the West in the bleak early days of World War II to never give up. They did not. Being inspired by your heroes taking on a challenge helps motivate you to survey your own community to find how you can initiate an effort to improve the lives of others.

Finally, heroes encourage you to not get too wrapped up in what people are saying about you. They are still writing books about JFK, Roosevelt and Churchill evaluating their legacies. What you need to focus on is this: What will they say about you when you go to meet your maker?

The family you leave will be perhaps your most visible testament. The fruit bore by taking on difficult challenges, however misunderstood or controversial at the time, may become your proudest moments.

JFK's assassination affirmed that he had enemies. The only reason Roosevelt became president is because New York Republicans thought making him McKinley's vice president would get him out of the state and stop causing them trouble. Churchill bore the brunt of ridicule during his decade-long Wilderness Years before being selected as prime minister just as war erupted, only to be have scorn heaped on him as British troops were trapped at Dunkirk (before the civilian flotilla he inspired rescued them).

Your heroes will be different. My hope is that they too help guide your career path, understand that life is rarely a straight line without setbacks, define leadership traits to embrace, encourage you to find a path to tackling a challenge that will benefit others, to not letting the mood of the moment prevent you from achieving profound progress.

Roosevelt observed, "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 nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

High school graduates of the Class of 2018, avoid the gray twilight and dare mighty things by having heroes.

Mark Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota.