To the Graduating Class of Fowler High School…

My brother Chris and I were very honored to deliver a commencement speech to Fowler High School’s graduating class this morning. (Check out these posts about it- here and here.) As I’ve been writing about the event here, I thought it would be nice to share our speech. Unlike everything else I’ve posted to my blog, this work is not my solely my creation. This was written by my brother and me. As you read this, you should remember that both Chris and I are very funny. Really.  😉



Thank you for that introduction and warm welcome. And thank you for inviting my brothers and me to join you here today in celebrating this important milestone. And a special thank you to my middle school and high school guidance counselor, Ms. Levin, for the sage advice and incredibly useful, well, guidance over the years.

Please accept my apologies that my younger brothers, Matt and Joey, couldn’t be here this morning. They both live in Florida, and they were unable to travel this weekend. I suspect they are too busy avoiding the heat and humidity, and trying to stay cool indoors. So, you’re stuck with Todd and me. The good news is that when he and I were asked to speak, we came up with very similar – and short – lists of advice we thought would be worthy of mention to you. We are definitely on the same page.

Our goal is to provide you with some useful advice as you transition out of high school and begin the next leg of your journey. Hopefully, some of you will find this advice very helpful, and hopefully none of you will be bored…for too long at least. So, let’s begin, and we promise to move efficiently through this list. Thank you in advance for indulging us.

This is my much, much older brother, Todd. Todd graduated from Fowler way, way back in 1989 as valedictorian of his class. During his junior year, he had the honor of serving as a Congressional Page in Washington, D.C. [I remember my dad sitting in front of the TV, watching C-SPAN, patiently waiting to catch a glimpse of Todd handing something important to someone very important. It was indeed a dynamic year for television programming in the Panek house. But I digress.]  In his senior year, Todd had been voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his peers, but he also was the leading vote-getter in the hotly contested “Best Eyes” category. Back in those days – and perhaps still today, you could only be chosen for one of the Class Superlatives, so, of course, Todd decided to be dubbed “Best Eyes.”  Todd went on to serve in the United States Air Force, with tours in the Persian Gulf and Korea. [He was what they call a “K-9 or dog handler.”  Basically, Todd was trained to use a bomb-sniffing dog… and a very long leash.]  For the last seven years or so, Todd has been enjoying a successful career in management at a national insurance company, and he’s doing his best to be a great spouse to his wife and a loving, supportive father to his three sons. Life is good.


Chris had almost as much success as I did and graduated in 1990 as Salutatorian. Chris had also been voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his peers. They also chose him as “Class Smile” but, like me, he had to pick one. Today, Chris is an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. He tries cases in federal court representing our nation’s consumers. Recently, he was a part of a team that settled a $40 Million case against Sketchers.

Our brother Matt, the third Panek brother, graduated two years after Chris as Valedictorian and was also dubbed “Most Likely to Succeed”. I should also note that he was a serious contender for “Flattop of the Year.”


Our youngest brother, Joey, left Fowler early, but he was a very talented member of the drama club, appearing in several of Fowler’s plays and musicals before even getting out of middle school. No doubt about it. Joey was – and is – talented. If you don’t believe me, just ask him. He will tell you it’s true. Joey later finished school, and earned a college degree in Communications. Now he lives in Florida, making his living doing a variety of social media marketing and other endeavors. And I think it’s safe to say that Joey is at least a “D” list celebrity . . . in Sarasota.

Okay, so that’s all well and good. But the reason that I think Todd and I are worthy of your time and attention today is our collective back-story. Our stumbles. Our failures. Our missteps and mistakes. What you don’t know is that we actually stumbled quite a bit.


School came very easy for me. I could recall things I’d read only once and, as a result, I left high school without developing good work habits. I didn’t need them in high school. I went to the University of Buffalo as an Honors student but I wasn’t prepared to apply myself in college. I came back home after my freshman year and ended up working as a laborer in heavy construction.

After trying and being unsatisfied with a variety of jobs over the next few years, I enlisted in the Air Force at the ridiculous age of 25. With the Air Force, I really became focused on developing myself professionally. I went into Law Enforcement and became a K-9 handler. I was proud to be assigned one of the Air Force’s Explosive Detector Dogs- a Bomb Dog- and spent a number of years protecting military personnel in the Persian Gulf and the President, Vice President and foreign Heads of State alongside the Secret Service while I was stateside.

When I left the Air Force, though, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I worked a few jobs but nothing seemed to click for me. I worked in Logistics for Wal-Mart, another stint in heavy construction and a couple of years investigating insurance claims as a private investigator.

I recognized that I wasn’t on any kind of track that I was interested in and so, about 7 years ago, decided to start over. Again. I took an entry-level job with The Hartford- the company that I work for today.


While I think it is only fair that my younger – absent – brothers decide if and when to tell their own stories to the world, I will tell you about my own less-than-proud moments.

After high school I attended a pretty competitive college in Cleveland on a partial scholarship. When I was 18, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to be. I had my sights set on becoming an engineer. [I didn’t exactly know what engineers did, but that’s what I was going to be.]  But college was hard for me. And I made it even more difficult. I spent too much time playing pick-up basketball during the day and attending my fraternity’s parties at night. As you might imagine, I found very little time to attend classes, and none for studying and doing homework.

I had a very tough time keeping up with my Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics classes. And it looked like everyone else at school was having an easy go of it. I was lost. School had come somewhat easy for me until then, but not anymore. After a couple years in college, and after changing majors (at least) twice, I decided that it just wasn’t for me. It was too hard, and I didn’t have what it took to succeed. I dropped out. I will never forget my report card for that last semester. Zero point zero zero. I was a failure.

I came home to my parents’ house and started working full-time, but I had no direction. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was headed nowhere, quickly, and I needed to do something. But what? School used to be easy. I was smart (or so I thought). Why was college so difficult? What had I been missing?

Eventually I went back to school. I promised myself that I wouldn’t miss a single lecture or a single homework assignment for the rest of my time in school. It was hard. But I kept my promise (to myself), and I went to every single class and did every assignment. I remember walking to class one morning when the snow and wind were so bad that I was the only one to show up. Not even the professor made it. It was one of the snowiest days on record in Cleveland. (Sure, it’s no Syracuse, but wow, we get a lot of snow in Cleveland. But hardly any in June or July.)  But I had promised myself I would go to every class. So I did.

I finally figured out what I wanted to do, and I graduated a few semesters later with a solid GPA and an awful lot of student loan debt. But I was fortunate to get a good job out of school, and I started my career. I won’t bore you with any more details, and I will admit that repeated this same process several times. Not again with such dire consequences, but there were definitely stops and starts along the way, and I’ve changed careers more than once.

But I was setting good goals, working hard, sometimes failing, and then working even harder and eventually enjoying a little bit of success. As I have gotten older, my goals have changed, and my definition of success has changed several times, but I have worked very hard to make sure that I am moving towards goals that I’ve set all by myself. I’ve learned the power of working hard even when – or especially when – it isn’t easy. I also celebrate my successes; and I place tremendous value on the love and support of my family and loved ones.

I don’t think these stories apply only to Todd and me (or else we wouldn’t have made you sit through it). There are endless examples all around us of people continuing to work hard toward their goals, even when they seem out of reach.

Our advice to you (and to ourselves too, really), is to remember these three things:  First, write your own definition of success; it is the best way to ensure you’ll be happy when you get it. Second, work very hard to achieve it, and don’t despair WHEN you stumble. Third, celebrate your successes and use them as fuel for achieving your next goal.

So, here we go.

Write your own definition of success. Have a frank discussion with yourself and find out what will make you truly happy. Reevaluate it periodically. There is a great chance that the way you measure success when you’re 18 is very different than when you’re 38, and I strongly suspect they’ll be different at 58 and 88 and beyond.

And just because you’re going to write your own definition of success doesn’t mean that it will be – or necessarily should be – different from how the people around define it. As long as the definition you’re using is truly yours, it is okay if your friends agree. Just remember to define success and set your goals through your own eyes, not everyone else’s. If you are honest with yourself about what gives you the best chance at happiness, you’re much more likely to enjoy it when you finally get it.

And yes, write it down. Write down your goals on paper, and hold yourself accountable as you work toward them.

In 2005, Steve Jobs, the former face of Apple and the pioneer of the iPhone gave the commencement address at Stanford University. Mr. Jobs had been battling pancreatic cancer, and he had this advice for the graduates:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important: have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

So, Fowler graduates, your definition of success is the right one. Working toward that self-defined goal is your best shot at enjoying success once you achieve it.


That second point- work very hard to achieve your goals. You should expect to stumble. The question is- what are you prepared to do to succeed?

There are lots of factors that people associate with success- intelligence, talent, luck, connections- these are all great things to have in your corner. But it’s my experience that the single most important factor that determines success is something that you have 100% control over- and that’s determination.

But don’t take my word for it.

In 1998, two Columbia University psychology professors conducted a series of studies involving 412 fifth graders from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.  The students were divided into groups and were given a task to complete, then praised either for intellectual ability (“Wow, you’re so smart!”) or effort (“Wow, you worked really hard on that problem and you did great!”).

The students were then given a much more difficult task to perform, and the difference in results was profound.  The students that had been praised for their intellect or their innate ability were more likely to become frustrated and believe that maybe they weren’t so smart after all.  The other students, the ones that had been praised for their hard work, were much more likely to blame their lack of success on poor effort and demonstrated a clear determination to learn strategies that would improve their performance next time.

And virtually all of the findings were similar not only for boys and girls, but also among children from several different ethnic groups in rural and urban communities.

So I’ll ask you again- what are you prepared to do to succeed? Are you a quitter? I’d bet that you’re not. Because you’re sitting here today, graduating.

That’s where your determination comes in. I’m telling you- I’ll bet on that person determined to succeed- despite any challenges or failures along the way. Intelligence, talent, luck, connections- in my opinion, they take a backseat to determination every time.

So that’s the good news! If you are determined to succeed, nothing can stop you. I’m not discounting any of those other factors for success. The world’s a tough place and you’re going to need to use every advantage that you have along the way. But it’s determination that makes you get back up after you’ve been knocked down.


Third, and finally, celebrate your accomplishments.

Once you’ve become an expert at dedication and perseverance, avoid the tendency to become so focused on achieving the next goal or starting the next project, that you don’t allow yourself a pat on the back for your efforts. When you have finally achieved your measure of success, congratulate yourself. Recognize that you’ve accomplished something that you had identified as a worthy goal, and you’ve accomplished it through hard work and diligence.

So today, spend time with your family and close friends. Celebrate THIS success. Celebrate what you have done. Your hard work has led you to this point – and it’s okay to admit that it took hard work to get here – and it feels oh-so-great now that you’ve crossed this stage and crossed this goal off your personal “to do” list.

Celebrate!  Put down your smart phone and step away from your computer. Don’t text today. Truly connect with the people that have helped and supported you in getting here, and will likely be there to support you as you move on to your next goal. I can assure you that the most meaningful relationships in your life will involve face-to-face connections, not texting and tweeting.


Who’s in your corner?

You’ve got plenty of challenges ahead of you. Expect that you’re going to face adversity. Expect that you will stumble and fail during your journey.

Who do you have cheering for you?

Remember that your family- however you define your family, whatever that word means to you- they are the people that believe in you and support you. They are the ones you will lean on when you get weak. Well, maybe not annoying little brothers but, you know…

So whatever your next step on the path to success, make sure you’ve charted the course yourself and that you work very hard to keep moving in that direction.  But today, stop and embrace those people that have helped get you here. Because they’re going to help you in the future.

And someday in the future you’ll get to experience one of the ultimate joys as an adult. You’ll be in a position to help someone achieve their success. And that is pretty sweet.



Filed under Essays

6 responses to “To the Graduating Class of Fowler High School…

  1. Very proud of you boys. Wish I could have seen your delivery, but very glad I could read it. Good sound advice. You two should take it on the road. Happy to be your Aunt !

    • Thank you! The entire process- talking about it with Chris, writing our pieces, sharing them with each other and editing, then delivering the speech was a lot of fun.

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