The Gift of the No

Editor’s note: Since 2010 Marben Bland has had the honor to deliver a commencement address. Contact Marben if you have an interest in him delivering an address for your school.

On this glorious day when everything is possible, I am humbled and honored that you have selected me as your commencement speaker.

In this role, I am under no allusions. I am just the warm up act to the main event of your walking across this stage, receiving your diploma, greeting family and friends, and at last taking off this hot robe! Perhaps I don’t have all of these events in the right order, but I know we are all looking forward to taking off the robe!!!!

However, as hot as this robe maybe, wearing this robe today is a mark of achievement. It means that your have successfully navigated the challenging academic mountains, personal hills, and financial valleys required of today’s 21 century student.

Wearing this robe today means that you are now ready to contribute more fully your time and talents to the greater good.

Wearing this robe today means that you are prepared to engage the world, not as a spectator, but as a full partner, which means that you are now required to make your voice heard, you are registered to vote, and you will vote in every single election.

Wearing this robe today, as hot as it may be, means that you are no longer a kid depending on your parents for financial support. As the Scripture tells us, it is “time to put childish things away.”

There are those of you in this class who are not wearing a robe today. Instead you are wearing a uniform, and wearing that uniform means that you have taken up the noble calling of protecting our nation and its values. For making that choice, we all thank you for future service to our country.

This ceremony that we call Commencement is both an ending and a beginning. We all know about the ending of this special time of college, which has been mixed with heartbreaks, triumphs and learning.

But want about the beginning of the post undergraduate life, where some will go on to more studies for graduate degrees, others will go on to work, or go on in the search of that illusive first real job. While those in uniform will go on to serve our country which may include a trip to the battlefield.

Whatever happens next, all of you will be confronted with a word and a concept that will shape your destiny and will build or tear down your inner drive. It is a word with which you already had to deal. However, this word will increasingly become a constant companion, defining what is possible and impossible. That word is No.

You will hear and experience the word No in all of the contexts of life:

No – You did not get the job.

No – You were not accepted.

No – You will do it the way we have always done it.

For many, the word No means that is the stopping place; it means an end of dreams, opportunities, and perhaps life itself.

For those of you in the robes and uniform that comprise the class of 2014, I would like to challenge you to view and handle the word No as a gift.

Yes, a gift that if you view and handle it properly, the word No will provide three shinning dividends that will give your life greater meaning, greater purpose, and greater joy.

The first dividend that the gift of the No can provide is integrity

Slightly over thirty years ago, in 1974, your parents and I saw firsthand how the failure of using the word No to establish personal boundaries and integrity brought down a President of the United States, Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal brought shock waves to our national being from which we are still in recovery.

In 2008, as many of you were entering high school, the lethal mix of not using the word No to set professional boundaries along with pure greed set off a financial crisis that nearly wiped out the global economy. We are still reeling in the effects of this failure of integrity: How many of you lived in a home that was foreclosed? How many of your parents lost their jobs? How many of you found that financing your education was difficult.

In 2012, during your sophomore year Lance Armstrong, the winner of a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles, an icon not only in cycling, but also in medicine for beating cancer, and as a philanthropist raising millions for cancer research with the Livestrong Foundation was found to be a fraud. Faced with overwhelming evidence gathered by the United States Anti-or Doping Agency, Armstrong admitted that he had deceived the world for years about his doping activities that he denied vigorously.

Every day in ways, large and small, the word No provides us with the dividend of Integrity, members of the class of 2014, the “truth will set you free!”

I challenge you to take up the dividend of integrity and create your personal “No” zone of ethical, moral, and personal commitments that you will not breach, not for power as Richard Nixon did, not for greed as those unnamed and unpunished kingpins of finance did, and not for fame and glory as Lance Armstrong did.

Creativity is the second dividend derived from the Gift of the NO

I have found, in nearly 40 years in business, which most of the times, when I was told No, it was about a proposed solution to a problem.

No: We have tried that before and it did not work.

No: It will cost too much money

No: Because I said no!!!

Psychologist Karl Duncker reminds us that the best solutions solve the most problems. Steve Jobs proves to us that creativity eradicates the word No.

In 1985 Steve Jobs lost a power struggle and was told No that he could not run Apple, the company he founded. In the decade in which he was away, Apple writhe on the vine. When asked to return to save the company, Jobs could have easily met that request with his own No, but instead, he returned to Apple, wiser for having been away and equipped with a new-found creativity.

The real story of Steve Jobs has less to do with technology and more to do with creativity. When faced with the No’s that will come in our lives, the Steve Job’s model of creativity is worthy of study and imitation. Therefore:

1. Have a clear vision of what you want.

We are often stopped by the No because of our failure to be clear about what we want. When we are clear, we gain an important creative advantage over the word No. That is, we gain the the ability to be persistent. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his decade-long banishment, he outlined clearly and persistently his vision for the company with his “Think Different” manifesto. The document not only provided direction, but more importantly, gave everyone the courage to say No to established customs and norms.

2. Trust your intuition

You will find that data will drive most decisions in all walks of life. While data are necessary, important, and useful, Steve Jobs found that personal intuition, mixed with data, enable us to make great decisions. Jobs traveled around India in the mid-1970s for 7 months, and in the process, discovered Zen. His discovery of Zen influenced his thinking and instilled in him a confidence to trust in his intuition when it comes to making decisions. One of Jobs’ famous quotation is, “You can’t ask customers what they want and then give it to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new”. Trusting your intuition is about anticipating needs and having the confidence to rely on intuition to complement market and consumer understanding, even in the face of the No.

3. Keep it Simple

The word and the concept of No is rather simple; it means stop. While the concept is simple, the reasons why you receive an answer of No can be often very complex. What Jobs teaches us is to make our ideas so overwhelmingly simple that only a fool will say No to solution to the problem we have proposed.

Jobs believed in simplicity as a means of engaging people and letting them feel close to something as overwhelming as technology. In an interview to Business Week in 1998, Jobs said, “That’s been one of my mantras — simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean and to make it simple, but it is worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

For Jobs, creativity was about knowing what you want, applying intuition, and keeping the solution simple. Maybe his genius is in how deceptively uncomplicated the solution seems. Yet, at the end his approach to creativity, it required raising the bar remarkably high, inspiring others to do the impossible, and with that they overcame the No. You also can overcome the No.

Defiance is the third and final dividend from the Gift of the No

The United States of America was built on the concept and principle of defiance.

  • Defiance of a King who dared to tax the people without their consent
  • Defiance of Hitler who dared to take over the world exterminating an entire group of people
  • Defiance by African American citizens and diverse supporters who dared the United States to live up to its founding documents and provide equal just to all regardless of race.

For African Americans, the word No was etched in the fabric of our existence as citizens of the United States, despite the words of our founding documents “that all men are created equal”.

Dr. Martin Luther King, in his incredible, “I Have A Dream Speech,” delivered the dividend of defiance in a brilliant argument, explaining why “the Negro” in 1963 would no longer settle for the word No as civil rights are concerned. List to Dr. King’s elegant words of defiance:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

The defiance explained by Dr. King that day in 1963 was the national “coming out party” of a decade of defiance in saying No to segregation.


  • Defiance – The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought us the face of defiance in Rose Parks, who said No when asked to move to the back of the bus.
  • Defiance – The 1964 Freedom Summer, which cost the lives of James Chaney, a black Mississippian, and two white northerners, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who disappeared while visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi,
  • Defiance – The 1965 “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which contributed heavily to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It was the persistent and defiant “No” that won the freedom of African Americans and changed this nation for the good of all citizens.

In a few moments, you will walk across this stage and receive that well-deserve diploma. However, on the other side of this stage is your life:

  • A life filled with potential
  • A life filled with promise
  • A life filled with joy
  • A life filled with No’s

Class of 2014 – Potential, Promise and Joy will be yours for the taking, however, the way you handle the No’s that will come along the way, will make the difference.

Class of 2014 – Take the gift of the NO along with the dividends of Integrity, Creativity, and Defiance.

Class of 2014 – When you take the gift of the NO you can be assured of reaching the heights:

  •  that your God has ordained you to reach.
  • that your education at this university has equipped you ti use.
  • and that your talents and society demanded you to achieve.

Thank you again for this tremendous opportunity and honor to speak to you.

Grace, peace, and love to each of you and may God empower you to achieve your dream by helping you to receive a Yes following every NO..



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