Yao Ming at Commencement 2024

yao ming 2024 commencement
May 19 2024

Dear Chancellor Tong, Vice-Chancellor Lehman, Provost Waley-Cohen, President Mills, the Class of 2024, parents, and distinguished guests! It is a great honor to receive this medal of honor, and I am extremely honored to be with you to witness this important moment of so many young graduates.

Seeing so many graduates in their caps and gowns makes me think back to my own commencement. The last time I was dressed in such academic robes was when I received my bachelor's degree when I was 38. Thus, it fills me with immense delight to see you all donning these ceremonial robes in the prime of your youth. Leaving campus with pride, you all are poised to take steps into the vast expanse of the world, a monumental step indeed.

Youth means infinite possibilities, which means everyone here has more opportunities to try, to gain, to lose, and to adjust your goals after setbacks. I still remember in my first regular season match in the NBA– 11 minutes, 0 points, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 3 fouls– it was obviously a terrible way to start, especially with all the attention on me. I told myself at that time: everything has a beginning, and this is how I begin my game. Everything I can reach and achieve in the future starts from this point. Of course, I didn't have much time to adjust. I had to play the next game in two days. Fortunately, I made the first shot of my NBA career in that game. But unfortunately, that was the only one shot I made in that game.

But that's at least some positive change, isn't it? When we think about our failures and mistakes, it's easier to take them in stride and even joke about them as if they were no big deal. Many people think that it’s cool only when successful people talk about their setbacks. On the contrary, it’s only those who are brave enough to face them who can get the ticket to success, because when you refuse to face your setbacks, setbacks become eternal.

Mandela once said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Oftentimes we can get too obsessed with making the right choices, but there are times that with a few mistakes under our belt, we can gain even more: Through our errors and mistakes, we can acquire the right approach that can pave our path to success the next time.

In basketball, there's a term called "missed field goals," which refers to the number of shots you’ve missed. Some organizations have made rankings, and interestingly enough, the top ones are all legendary athletes: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone (current ranking: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter). They fail shot after shot and keep improving until they hit the next one. What makes a legend is not just how much they accomplish, but that they dare to face their failures and start over again.

Today, I don't want to elaborate on the stories of superstars in great detail. Instead, I would like to introduce a lesser-known player - Andre Ingram. After graduating from college at the age of 21, he wasn't drafted into the NBA. He played in the NBA G-League for 11 years, even going to Australia to play basketball. He holds the record for the most three-pointers made and games played in the NBA G-League. It wasn't enough to earn him a good income, and he even had to work a part-time job to make ends meet. He drove an old beat up car with a broken air conditioner to tutor students at their homes. Despite facing such circumstances for 11 years, he never stopped pursuing his dream of making it to the NBA.

On April 9, 2018, Ingram seized the opportunity to join the Los Angeles Lakers and signed a short-term contract with the team. The following day, the 32-year-old Ingram made his NBA debut, scoring 19 points and sinking four three-pointers. Ingram told a New York Times reporter, "Back when I was 25, I wasn't in the NBA, and I felt I had failed." Indeed, he wasn't a prodigious player, he lacked exceptional physical attributes and he didn’t come from a privileged family background. Throughout his career, he had to face failures and setbacks, much like many of us in our lives and jobs. However, what is truly moving about Ingram is his ability to recalibrate his direction and hit the road again after each failure.

On the basketball court, the simplest way to avoid making mistakes is to hold onto the ball, do nothing, or pass it to a teammate. This way, you'll avoid errors, but you'll never score. The same principle applies to life. No matter how foolish your decisions may be or how reckless your actions are, the biggest mistake is to stand still and do nothing.

In every mistake we make, we have the opportunity to gain strength, the power to overcome fear. Our reluctance to make mistakes stems from the fear of the consequences. In reality, humanity’s deepest fear lies in the fear of the unknown. Conversely, when we take action and make decisions, regardless of the outcome, we naturally will find a clearer direction. It is only then that we can walk forward with greater confidence.

Of course, I believe that any student graduating from NYU Shanghai can understand the significance of mistakes. We are not encouraging everyone to make mistakes, but you need courage to face and overcome them. Graduates, from today onwards, you are about to embark on a new journey. It is a journey filled with unknowns, constant changes, and a mix of disappointments and surprises. On this journey, there are no surefire shortcuts. What matters most is to take each step bravely. When we look back, behind every shining moment, there are countless footprints of trial and error. At this moment, I challenge you. Make a mistake and let it cheer you on. Thank you.