A week ago, I had the honor of congratulating the Uvalde High School Class of 2018 at graduation. I can’t remember what my commencement speaker said 23 years ago when I was in their shoes, but I do know that he was brief so I tried to do the same thing. I simply offered three pieces of advice: one from my father, one that I learned on my own, and the best piece I’ve been given.
My dad is 85 years old. He grew up in Marshall, an hour east of Dallas. When I was a kid, my dad would tell stories about his time as one of the first black salesmen in Dallas. One story that has always stuck with me was about his time working for the American Tobacco Company and he was trying to sell Lucky Stripes to gas stations back in the early 1950s. He would pull up wearing a fresh-pressed suit, driving a company car with the company logo, and right before he would walk into the gas 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 that as soon as he walked inside, the attendant would curse, call him terrible names and demand that he leave.
This is what always happened, but my dad always stayed positive because he knew he had to get behind the counter to take stock of what they needed in order to be successful. My dad just knew he would convince the attendant 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, my first piece of advice to students was to be like my pops and have a PMA.
When someone is in the clandestine service of the CIA like I was, you are a collector of last resort. This means, when the president can’t get a piece of information any other way – with a satellite, through cracking a code or through a diplomat – he turns to the CIA to get it.
When the president tells you to stop al-Qaida from blowing up a building or to stop the Russians from stealing confidential plans, lack of money, resources or manpower are non-options. No matter what the limitations, you go out and do the impossible.
All my life, I’ve had people tell me that I couldn’t do the things I did. When I was at Texas A&M University and considered running for student body president, people told me I didn’t have a chance. When I was thinking about joining the CIA, people told me I wouldn’t get in. When I left my job to run for Congress, people told me that a black dude could never get elected in a Hispanic district. The list goes on.
We all have doubters and haters but those voices are wrong. My second piece of advice for the students was never take ‘No’ for an answer.
My third piece of advice was given to me after I had suffered one of the most public failures in my life. I had recently left my job at the CIA – a job that I loved and was good at – to run for Congress in 2010. It was a great job; I saw things and did things that I had never imagined I’d do. I chased al-Qaida all around the world, prevented Russian spies from stealing our secrets, and helped put nuclear weapon proliferators out of business.
Everyone thought running for office was crazy. I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew I could do it.
I lost the election by 700 votes in a primary run-off. It was devastating, and I did not have a plan B, so I asked as many people as I could for advice until the father of one of my closest friends gave me the best advice I ever received. He said, “As long as you do something meaningful and hard it will all work out in the end.” Meaningful and hard is what I have been doing ever since.
The students just finished doing something meaningful and hard, and we celebrated it together Friday. But I want them to continue this trend and do something meaningful and hard every day.
As these kids write the book of their lives, my hope is that in every chapter they are doing something meaningful and hard, with a PMA and never take no for an answer. Congratulations again to the Uvalde High School Class of 2018.
Will Hurd is the U.S. Representative for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas. The district includes the counties of Uvalde, Zavala, Medina, Val Verde, Dimmit, Edwards, Kinney, Maverick, La Salle, Bexar, Brewster, Crane, Crockett, Culberson, El Paso, Frio, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Loving, Pecos, Presidio, Reagan, Reeves, Schleicher, Sutton, Terrell, Upton, Ward and Winkler.