Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

My Graduation Speech

Last week I had the privilege of giving a commencement address to several hundred graduates from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.   I was invited to speak by Dr. Roger Enoka the department chair, who is a world leader in the study of human movement and muscle fatigue, and I was hosted by Dr. Douglas Seals who is world leader in the study of human aging. Roger and Doug have been friends and colleague for more than 30 years. The venue for the address was the beautiful neo-gothic Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado Campus which dates from the early 1900s. I don’t have a transcript of the talk, but here is what I covered in about 10 minutes on a beautiful spring afternoon in Colorado.


Something Different

Most graduation talks have themes like:

  1. Our generation has screwed the world up pretty incredibly and we look forward to dumping the mess we made on you guys to solve……
  2. You think our generation has screwed the world up pretty incredibly but welcome to adulthood so you can see how hard it really is……. We really have been trying.
  3. How I “made it” by walking 4 miles uphill both directions barefoot in the snow to elementary school……
  4. Or, the generic be a better humanitarian lecture……


However, I wanted to do something different, so I focused on five lessons and ideas I have picked up over the years. Many of these lessons I saw in action in the person of John T. Shepherd who was my teacher and Sensei when I first came to the Mayo Clinic. The five lessons go something like this:


  1. Have 1 sharp knife
  2. Questions & energy are more important than answers
  3. Master money before it masters you
  4. Lead from behind
  5. Learn to ignore


Have 1 Sharp Knife

This lesson is pretty simple and it is about being good at something and engaging your passion. In other words don’t feel compelled to be well rounded. Having a “sharp knife” is especially important as life and work catch up with you and all sorts of potential distractions impinge on your focus. Also, if you can master one thing you will develop a generic set of skills that can be applied as you pursue excellence in other areas.


Questions & Energy Count More Than Answers

Usually school is about mastering information, facts and concepts. However knowledge and ideas and the “right answer” turn over. In medicine for example perhaps 30-40% of what is state of the art care is superseded every 10 years. I am sure this happens in other fields, so if you want to stay at the cutting edge you need to ask good questions and be prepared to have old ideas and dogmas replaced.


Master Money Before it Masters You

We live in a world obsessed with metrics and return on investment thinking. Slogans like “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” abound. However, my guess is that what you can’t measure is what differentiates the outstanding from the good or even success from failure. The other thing we should all remember is that rather than obsessing about what we can afford to do perhaps we should ask if we can afford to not do something. To me embracing calculated risks vs. worrying too much about resources seems like a better way to live.


Lead From Behind

Under most circumstances most of us are not the smartest, wisest, or most experienced people in the room.   If you commit yourself to harvesting and facilitating the good ideas of others and delegating authority you will be “more successful” and you will be part of a team that can do way more than any individual can. Some of the best and most innovative people in history like Steve Jobs have essentially stolen, borrowed and/or adapted the ideas of others to great effect.   If you can do these things in an inclusive way like John Shepherd could you will be even farther ahead. Additionally, you will be able to lead no matter where you are in an organizational hierarchy via the leverage you generate.


Learn To Ignore

Higher education is about learning to learn, but at least part of life is about learning to ignore. Ignore your own self-doubts. Ignore the ankle biters who are waiting for you and others to fail and be simply average. Also we all need to learn to ignore the difficult side of talented people we might be working with. Frequently talented people are hard driving and passionate. They care, but they can also have ego-centric and difficult sides and resist micro-management. Thus, the question is can you work with these people in a way that their egos are levers and not barriers? This is difficult, it takes patience, and it takes self-control.   However, if you can take a calculated risk and help the truly talented get beyond their own egos and chase their dreams there is an upside for everyone.   Good coaches understand the value of getting their best players more touches.


Closing Thought

As you look over the five lessons above, I am sure you can see that they are all connected, but a phrase I have heard from my wife (that she heard from her dad) is that “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.  When I think of the five lessons it seems to me that one way or another they are all connected by caring.


One Response to “My Graduation Speech”

  1. May 19th, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Mike Pascoe says:

    Hello Dr. Joyner,

    I’m one of Dr. Enoka’s PhD trainees and I was very excited to hear that he invited you to speak at the IPHY commencement. True to form your speech did not let me down. I only wish I could have been there in person or that a video surfaces from one of the many smart phones in the auditorium at the time. You took a page from my graduation speech when you spoke to the value of asking good questions. I teach human anatomy at CU Anschutz and have a strong interest in understanding what makes students ask good questions. I completely agree that those individuals will never fall behind in their profession as they have the skill to look forward with an insightful and inquisitive mind.

    I just subscribed to your blog and look forward to many good future reads…

    Best from Colorado,

    Mike Pascoe

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