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May 6, 2022

Podcast: Listen to Steve Smith’s convocation address

Spartan basketball great Steve Smith tells graduates there’s a difference between achievement and fulfillment.

Good afternoon! Go Green!
President Stanley, Provost Woodruff, and the Board of Trustees: 
Thank you for inviting me back home.
To the administration, faculty and staff; to the proud families and friends who traveled here to celebrate your loved ones; to my forever dorm-mates from Wonders Hall; and to each and every one of you in the resilient, inspiring class of 2022: I am so proud to be your fellow Michigan State alum. Congratulations!
I am deeply honored that you have let me be a part of your special day. And I am so grateful for this honorary degree.
We all came to Michigan State for different reasons. I came for two: Magic Johnson, and my mama, Clara Bell Smith. 
I wanted to be on this campus because I wanted to stay close to family. By the time I graduated, the people I met here had become family. To this day, they still are. 
They’re my closest friends. They were my groomsmen. They’re the people who call me when things are going well and who show up for me when the going gets tough.
Above all else, graduates, I hope that many years from now, you will still feel as close to one another as you do today. 
Even through the long, lonely months that kept so many of us apart, you went through this once-in-a-lifetime chapter together. And these Spartans will always be there for you.
Now, maybe you didn’t choose Michigan State because of Magic or because of your mama. But in coming here, you chose to surround yourselves with good and giving people: your roommates and friends, your classmates and teammates, your professors and T.A.s. 
You’ve chosen to surround yourself with smart and supportive Spartans. 
Spartans who stand up for what’s right and who speak out against what’s wrong. 
Spartans who are courageous and effective, and who deserve credit for pushing the school to be more multicultural and more inclusive — and to take nice words about diversity in a strategic plan and make sure they’re made real.
And as you walk together this weekend — in the same way that you’ve stuck by each other through an extraordinary and exhausting experience — you are fulfilling my favorite proverb:
“They who walk with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm.” 
In choosing to come to this campus, you chose to walk with the wise. When you cross the stage and take hold of your diplomas, you’ll be doing it one more time. And when you stay in each other’s lives in the years ahead, you’ll grow even wiser thanks to one another.
But once you go out into the wider world, how can you make sure you’re still surrounding yourself with good, giving, grounded people? How do you even figure out who is wise — and who to walk with?
Here’s one thing I know for sure: you can’t tell that by someone’s age, race, or gender. You can’t tell it by their degrees, their title, or the car that they drive. You certainly can’t tell it by the number of followers they have.
One thing I know for sure is that while it sometimes feels easier to walk with people who look and think like you, that’s not the wisest way.
The equity and inclusion we value has many dimensions: race, nationality, gender, wealth, education. At its heart, it’s about giving everyone an opportunity. Everyone.
So as you leave Michigan State and go on to great things, I hope you’ll find a way to give an opportunity to someone who doesn’t look like you.
Another thing I’ve come to realize about the people I want to be around — and the person I want to be — is something I learned from my coaches, including Johnny Goston, Jud Heathcote, and Coach Izzo, who made me his first recruit 35 years ago. It’s something that I found myself learning all over again from the kids I’ve coached, covered, and cheered for, including my sons. And it’s what I want to talk with you about today.
President Stanley was kind enough to recall that when I graduated, I held Michigan State’s all-time scoring record. 
I can remember the intensity growing as I got closer and closer to that number. A teammate told me how many points I’d need to average my senior year. Reporters noticed when I was 200 points away, and then 100, and then when I was in striking distance.
And then the big moment came. [pause]
Usually, this would be the part of the story where I tell you about the feeling of breaking the record.
How it felt to charge down the lane, lose my defender with a half-spin move, and see the ball swish through the net.
But here’s the honest truth: 
To this day, I don’t know if it was a free throw, a floater, or a three from downtown. I don’t know if it happened in the first half or the second. I truly don’t remember the shot.
And maybe that sounds surprising. But here’s what I do remember:
My mind immediately flashed back to playing in my backyard on Detroit’s East Side. My dad Donald Smith, had poured concrete behind our house and put up a hoop. On that little court, I learned to dunk by jumping off milk crates and learned how to pivot and dribble around the cracks in the concrete.
That’s where my mind went at the end: it went to the beginning. To my fifth-grade championship at Courville Elementary. To the pickup games, the Hawthorne Rec Center scrimmages, the high school tournaments playing for Pershing, and to the practice drills.
All of those baskets were part of this record — even if they weren’t recorded anywhere but in my heart.
People like to celebrate the shots you make in the last game of a season, or the closing seconds of a game, or in the final moment as you mark a milestone. But what I remember, more than those last shots, are the thousands upon thousands I took at the start.
The reason, I think, is this: there’s a difference between achievement and fulfillment. People like to collect accolades and polish trophies. And yes, gold medals might be valuable. But that’s not what makes them meaningful.
The work is what makes the achievement feel fulfilling. And loving the journey is what makes us happy.
The truth is, I wasn’t ever trying to break anyone’s record. I was only pushing myself to see how high I could climb while doing what I love.
So when I think about walking with the wise, I think about walking with people who know these two truths:
First: the joy is in the journey — not in the result. 
And second: you should only compete against yourself — not against anyone else.
Watching people who love their work, respect the process, and find joy in the journey is one of the reasons I love covering college basketball as a broadcaster and coaching youth teams. 
A few weeks ago I was covering March Madness – and I noticed a certain look in so many of the players’ eyes. Some of them knew they were playing in their last game ever. They were playing for the pure joy of it.
Years ago, when I coached my sons Brayden and Davis’s teams, I saw the same look. 
Kids who were living in the now and giving it their all — not in pursuit of any trophy or title, just enjoying the journey of getting better.
As I watched them learn what they were capable of, I learned something, too — and it’s this lesson:
The thing about most achievements is that someone else created them, and someone else is doing the counting.
So if you’re asking, “Who is the best at this?” or “Who is the most successful at that?” you also have to ask, “Who decides what those measures even mean?”
When we define ourselves by someone else’s goals, we might miss out on the experiences that matter the most to us as individuals. But when we write our own definition of success and compete against our own limits, we can’t lose. We can only grow.
What stuck with me most about breaking the scoring record wasn’t the experience of getting to the top — it was the experience of going to the top. And the moment I broke it, I started thinking about what I could top next. Not because I wanted another achievement, but because I needed a new journey.
The reality is that anyone can work really hard at something and still not reach the top. 
You might study really hard, research really hard, practice really hard — and still not be the best, fastest, or greatest.
In fact, by definition, only one of us will be the best at something. 
So how do you still find the drive to push yourself? How do you still sustain excellence?
That’s the second trait I’ve found in the people I consider wise: They make sure that the person they’re competing against the hardest is themselves.
A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that in the NBA, practice was harder than games. That’s because it was just about the work, the work, the work. There’s no score, no fans, no cameras. It was just us versus us. 
I tried to keep that mentality when it mattered.
One year, in the NBA playoffs, I was matched up against Michael Jordan for an entire series. Sports Illustrated called it my “week of hell.”
But that’s not how I felt about it. The only way I could play my best against Michael was to not think of it as competing against him at all. The competition was to see if I could be the best I could be.
Every night, I walked out onto the court and said, “Today, I’m better.” And on the nights when Michael got the best of me, I didn’t let that change my mind.
No matter what, I always said to myself: This is the year, this is the day, this is the game, this is the play, this is the moment. And thanks to that competition with myself, I did have my moments – it’s just that Michael had a few more.
I used Michael to push me. But I didn’t let him define me. 
You can set high standards and use them to motivate you, too. But they’re only useful if they focus you, not if they distract you.
It’s good to set goals. 
But Class of 2022, I’m asking you to remember that it’s more fulfilling to find purpose in the process — and in that process, to know that you are your most important competitor.
There are a lot of mountaintops we won’t reach. 
We can strive to be selfless, but we can always do more.
We can dream of being a perfect person, but we will always find flaws.
We can fight for a more equal society, but we will always have more work to do.
Perfection isn’t a realistic goal. 
But growth? Growth is always a worthy one.
Achievements shouldn’t be our only measures of success. 
But fulfillment? Fulfillment is undefeated.
When you find fulfillment, you’re more likely to find wisdom — and, in the end, you’ll be the kind of person who others want to walk with, too.
Congratulations, graduates, and good luck!

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