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Getting back in the game

Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell delivers the keynote address during the 2021 General Commencement ceremony.

To Interim President Michael Good, the Board of Trustees, the Board of Regents and the Associated Students of the University of Utah, I want to thank you guys for allowing me to join you on your beautiful day of celebration.

Class of 2021, congratulations to you—and to your families!

The determination and hard work that got you here today will be the foundation for everything you achieve going forward. As you start this new chapter of your life and your journey, hold the confidence that you can face tremendous uncertainty, that you can adapt to unexpected challenges.

When life brings you challenges and puts you on the sideline, the question is: How you handle it? How you face adversity? Will you come back stronger? Will you give in to adversity? What will you do?

In high school, I broke my own wrist. Right when everybody was getting ranked and hyped up in AAU, I missed an entire summer. You had the “Ball is Life” mixtapes, everybody had their own little highlight tape and I was sitting there on the sideline watching it all go down. But sitting around, watching everyone else get college offer just ignited a little fire inside of that continued to build, that continued to grow, and when I got my cast off at the end of the summer, we went right back to it.

In this past year, the pandemic has put us all on the sideline.

Today, when you toss your caps in the air, celebrate that fire to get back into the game.

Celebrate that you kept at it, that you did the work to come back stronger than ever. Keep that fire. Let it carry you forward. Let it remind you not to waste a moment on things that aren’t important to you. Let it remind you to bring purpose and focus to whatever you do next—especially when you face obstacles.

And when you’re reaching for the top level in your field, there will probably be someone that says you’re not good enough, that you don’t have what it takes, or says that you’re a “star” in what you do.

Don’t let that stop you.

One of the most important things you can do for your own growth and success is deciding when to listen to feedback and when to not listen to feedback and when to block out the so-called “noise.”

If you have the drive to build a company, develop a vaccine or even found a nonprofit…

If you have the courage to speak up for what you believe in and to speak out against injustice…

If you have the heart to take care of your family and friends when they need you…

…the bigger you make your life, the more people will have an opinion on what you do.

And those opinions can be loud—especially on social media. No matter if you exceed at a young age or you don’t, someone’s there to say you’re not good enough, you’re not a “star” in your field.

So right at this moment, as you prepare for the next chapter of your journey, it is worth making choices about whose voice will shape your life.

There have been times where I’ve had really good games and really bad games. The noise is all the same. People are always going to have something to say. People are always going to find ways to tell you that you’re not good enough to tell you, “you need to do this better. You need to do that better.”

The biggest thing is, you listen to yourself and to the people that care about you. For me, it’s my teammates my family, my coaches. But for you, it may be your family, maybe your business partner, maybe your idol, maybe even your colleague. But be inspired by the journeys of others—but don’t let comparison or criticism on social media discourage you or rush you on your own path.

There are too many times where we allow social media to influence our lives. I tell my sister all the time, “whatever you see on social media, don’t compare that to your own life. Whether you are successful next year or in 10 years.”

Progress isn’t always necessarily linear. You’re not always going to have the vacation photos on the beach every day. There are going to be times where you want to give up. There are going to be times where you don’t feel like you have everything going your way. Don’t let that discourage you. Don’t let other peoples’ live, or whatever expectations of whatever you should be doing at 24, 30, 35, 40… don’t let that affect what you have going on in your life and how you want to go about your own journey to success.

For me, in high school, I was often underrated. As I said, I wasn’t on the list of top-level recruits. I wasn’t invited to the biggest high school all-star games; McDonald’s Game, Top 100 Camp. And if I had listened to people that told me I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t shoot, I was too small, I couldn’t do certain things to get me to the next level, I certainly wouldn’t be here today.

We’ve seen that here in Utah, too. For any of the Jazz fans, you know we’ve been underrated pretty much all season. And that’s okay. This season we are showing everyone what we’re capable of and we’re continuing to grow as a team. And the job’s not finished. We’re not settling for what others think of what we are.

That is why I encourage kids not to let others put limitations on what they can do. That is Determination Over Negativity.

But blocking out the noise is just half the equation.

When you get valuable feedback, when you watch the game tape, Determination Over Negativity is also about the actions you take to rise above, to grow, to improve.

In school, I definitely had feedback from my teachers. I wasn’t the best student. I would try to find ways to get out of homework assignments, papers, tests. So whenever I came and turned in an assignment, there was always “feedback,” for lack of better words.

The biggest thing for me was to take criticism and find ways to accept it and grow and build upon what I could be.

One year in my eighth-grade year, we had to give a big speech for our public speaking. I decided to choose the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech. But then I started messing around, memorized the first page, went back and played video games [and] memorized the last page.

And I figured all I had to do was make up some stuff in the middle about freedom and inequality and so on. It didn’t go over well. I wasn’t taking my assignments and my school work seriously. Needless to say, I had to redo the speech. I was in trouble with my mom at the house and things didn’t go over well.

It took several more years for me to understand the importance of my education and understand the importance of growing and listening to continuous feedback. I almost messed up my future by not qualifying to go play college basketball. It wasn’t until my junior year when I risked not being able to play basketball at the next level due to my low GPA that I realized I had to start taking grades more seriously.

And from junior year on, I was able to progress each year to become a better student.

In my first two years of college, I was able to make First Team All-ACC Academic honors and now I understand the value of education. I understand the value of listening to the feedback you don’t always want to hear and finding ways to grow from it.

You’ve all beat me all to it, by getting a college degree today and that will definitely be part of my own journey to finish and complete my degree.

Basketball is great and provided me with life-changing experiences for myself and my family because at the end of the day, the air will run out of the basketball and all I will have to fall back on is my education. That’s something that is something that will last me my whole life.

Today, what you have achieved is worth a great celebration. Whether your family has attended college or you are the first in your family to earn a degree, this is a momentous step. Tremendous work and dedication went into this moment.

As you start a new job or pursue another degree—keep that spirit of learning. This next year is your rookie season.

A lot will be new. The level of play in your field will be faster, the competition in your field will be stronger. Give it everything you’ve got, but be kind to yourself if you need a little more practice and a chance to find your rhythm, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

For me, my rookie year, and to this day, I called on someone who is a big brother to me and now an [part] owner to the Jazz, in Dwyane Wade. I asked him a million questions. Just on how to become a better player, and just to be a better Donovan as a whole and help me achieve the things I want to achieve and similar to what he did in his career.

So for you, it may be a colleague, it may be a family member, it may be someone that you looked up to your whole life. Asking questions will help you progress and get to where you want to get to in your career or in your life.

Learning is the key to success; it is also key to keeping our country moving forward.

On the homepage of the U’s website it says, “You belong here!” As a city, as a state, as a country, the steps we take to understand, to respect one another are essential so that everyone can feel that they belong. Only if we are committed to learning from the past, from the present, and from one another can our country live up to its ideals.

What would be possible if as a country we watched the game tape and learned from history? What would be possible if we brought the same curiosity and open-minded interest that we bring to studying chemistry or computer science or business and applied it to listening to one another with respect and learning from viewpoints that are different from our own.

As you go forward, you have the opportunity to make so much possible—for yourself, for your family and for the country.

You have the opportunity to make your life bigger than your own professional path, to pursue what brings you joy, and to make a positive difference in others’ lives.

So when the path gets hard. Imagine that the entire crowd of Vivint [Arena] is cheering for you. We all know that the energy in Vivint beats any other arena. That is the energy of Utah.

We are all cheering for you. Congratulations and thank you.