Vaughn advises UT Martin graduates to ‘Hug the Cactus’

Dig your well before you’re thirsty, hug the cactus and lead at the respect level. These ideas for success in life might seem unrelated, but University of Tennessee at Martin spring commencement speaker Cary E. Vaughn connected the dots to these and other life lessons May 4 at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. Vaughn shared his thoughts as he spoke to 607 graduation participants during 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ceremonies in the Elam Center’s Skyhawk Arena.

UT Martin Chancellor Yancy Freeman presided over both ceremonies and noted the occasion as the first organized graduation for many undergraduate students whose high school commencements were canceled because of the pandemic. This was Freeman’s first UT Martin spring commencement and marked the conclusion of his first full academic year as chancellor since assuming the post last summer. 

Freeman introduced Vaughn of Millington who holds a bachelor’s degree from Lambuth University (now the University of Memphis Lambuth) in Jackson and is CEO and president of Love Worth Finding Ministries Inc. The worldwide radio, TV and internet ministry reaches 196 countries, audiences across all social media platforms, and broadcasts on 2,500 radio outlets. Vaughn is a 2012 UT Martin WestStar Leadership Program graduate, a member of the WestStar Board of Directors and is past chair of the WestStar Alumni Council. A major university donor, he also serves on the UT Martin Ned Ray McWherter Institute Board of Directors.         

Vaughn recalled at the 10 a.m. ceremony his own commencement 30 years ago when the late Kemmons Wilson, founder and board chairman of Holiday Inn hotels, talked about his “20 Tips for Success” that he wanted the graduates to know, and despite the years since hearing the address, Vaughn still recalls three of the 20.

“Number one: you can work half a day. It makes no difference which half – either the first 12 hours or the last 12 hours,” Vaughn said. “Number four on his list: Remember we all climb the ladder of success one step at a time. Number 11 on his list: A person must take risks to achieve.”

While Wilson delivered a lengthy graduation speech three decades ago, Vaughn promised a quick summary of ideas for success based on three “lessons to live by” told to him by “Ms. Donna,” a valued mentor during his college years.                              

“She would say, ‘Cary, always dig your well before you’re thirsty,’” he told the audience. “What she was saying to me was, ‘Be relational. Be intentional in building relationships with every single body.’ In life, we get there by relationships. It’s not just the grades you make, it’s the hands you shake.”

He reminded the graduates that they will pursue different careers and paths in life, but everyone is in the people business. He referenced the book “Never Eat Alone” written by Keith Ferrazzi, who said that “every single person I meet goes into the Rolodex” or in today’s world, a database.

Earlier in life when Ferrazzi was a golf caddy, he kept a record of everyone he met and built a relationship with on the golf course. These individuals became friends and almost like family, and through those relationships the middle-class Ferrazzi attended Harvard and Yale universities and became a well-known author, speaker and consultant.

“People matter in life, and they matter to me, and they matter to you. And if we’re not careful, students, we get caught up in how many ‘likes’ and how many ‘followers’ (we have on social media) and not enough relationships,” he said

“In essence, sometimes we trade the ‘likes’ for the love, and so I want to encourage you to dig your well before you’re thirsty.

“But shake the hands of people today. Look people in the eye. Get to know them. Get to know their wants and desires and their fears.

“Get to know something about them so that you can make a difference in life, not only by your skillset, and not only by your keen mind but through the people that you have formed a wonderful rapport with. Hey, if we want to walk fast, we walk alone, but if we want to walk far, we walk together.”        

A second life lesson offered by his mentor is to “hug the cactus.” No one in the audience admitted to hugging an actual cactus when he asked for a show of hands, so he explained: “Embrace animosity. Pull in adversity. Don’t run from it – receive it almost like a judo punch and then turn it back around,” he said.

“Every lesson that I’ve learned in life has been through some type of mishap, some type of mistake and some type of failure, and I’ve had to hug the cactus. You can cry in the storm, or you can learn to dance in the rain. I choose to dance in the rain.”

Vaughn said that people generally are in one of three stages in life: entering a storm, in the eye of a storm, or emerging from a storm. He applied these stages to the challenges faced by leaders. “Leaders do the things that other people don’t desire to do,” he said. “And so, embrace animosity, don’t run from adversity.”                                                 

He remembered his senior year at college when he received a 5:30 a.m. call on a Saturday from his grandmother saying that his father had died, and he experienced a long, lonely drive from Jackson to Memphis to be with his family. It was his time to “hug the cactus, embrace the loss, endure the pain.”

“Remember, we get there one step at a time,” he said. “Just because you’re facing a storm of life today doesn’t mean it’s final, and we keep pushing forward because you are the future leaders of West Tennessee.”

Vaughn focused further on leadership as he offered Ms. Donna’s third and final life lesson: “Lead at the highest level. Lead at the pinnacle level, at the summit level. We call this the respect level.” People can pursue different leadership paths to earn the respect level, some more desirable than others.

He said a person can lead at the role level because he/she has the title, or they sign the paychecks, or their name is on the building.

“People follow me because maybe they have to, not so much because they want to,” he said. “And so, we can lead at the role level, the position level, or we can lead at the relationship level. Dig your well before you’re thirsty.

“People follow you because they know you, they like you, and they trust you. That’s a level that I stay at in my occupation, in my profession.”

He also said some lead at the reward level where people jump on the bandwagon and follow winners. Then there’s leadership at the reproduction level in which people prepare others to follow them.

“So, graduates, not only are you graduating today, and you will embark in life, but you’re also handing the baton to the person behind you – that junior or sophomore or freshman – that you’re saying, ‘Hey, go and do. Leave this place better than you found it,’ and so the reproduction level is a wonderful level to lead by because you’re mentoring or discipling other people.”

Vaughn recalled his final conversation with Ms. Donna at the Lambuth University campus before she passed away and recalled her saying, “‘Cary, you can take all those lessons to live by and all those lessons in life and you can wrap them in a bow of encouragement. Always, always, always be a lifelong encourager.’”

He closed by reminding the graduates, “Dig your well before you’re thirsty. Hug the cactus every once in a while, lead at the respect level, but take all of that and tie it in a bow of encouragement, and leave people better than you found them.”

Others participating in the two ceremonies and congratulating the graduates included Carey Whitworth, vice president for government relations and advocacy, representing the University of Tennessee System; Faith Pilkington of Ripley, Student Government Association president and a graduating senior; and UT Martin Alumni Association President Andy Collins, chief operating officer with Security Bank and Trust Co. in Paris.

Both ceremonies are archived on YouTube at


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