Adult Learning and Development

The Phoenix differentiation: Rising above and remaining relevant in a turbulent environment


Note: The below transcript is from my commencement address at the graduation ceremonies for Pacific Air Force Command from the University of Phoenix, presented on Saturday May 11 at the Camp Butler Marine Corp Base in Okinawa and Saturday May 24, 2013 at the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo,


Graduates, faculties, dignitaries, spouses, mothers, fathers, children, relatives, friends, and associates.

I am honored to have an opportunity to speak with you today about the Phoenix Differentiation, meaning, what about you, as a Phoenix makes you rise above and remain relevant in turbulent environments and in a competitive marketplace.

Transcendence [Macro]

Abraham Maslow (1987), a founding father of humanist psychology and a forefather of the emerging field of integrative psychology observed:

The yearning for excellence [is] perhaps a universal human tendency.

[However,] We must appreciate that many people choose the worse rather than the better, that growth is often a painful process.

In other words, almost everyone wants to grow; but most people choose not to grow because growth is hard.

This is unfortunate for the many, because science is helping to clarify the constant nature of change in ourselves, others, and context.

From a general dynamic system theory perspective, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1969) helps us recognize that we cannot not change. The quest for a stress-free static state is not only impossible for a living system, achieving a static state means that a system is dead. Life, survival, growth, excellence, transcendence; these require turbulence, effort, resilience, and adaptability.

From this perspective, if we are not growing we are in a state of decline. If we achieve the stress-free state that seems to be a goal of popular American culture, we are dead.

However, the path of the many illuminates a key Phoenix Differentiation. As a Phoenix, you are among the few who choose to grow despite challenges. You have not chosen an easy path, but you know that it is worth it—especially because the growth path provides you with a means to differentiate yourselves in a highly competitive marketplace.

Further, choosing the growth path means you can face challenge as developmental opportunities, you strengthen resilience so you can rise above turbulence, and prolong creative longevity.

Lifelong neurogenesis [Cellular]

Emerging discoveries in neurology are helping to clarify this concept of perpetual growth opportunities at a cellular level.

The hippocampus is part of our brain that plays a fundamental role in memory and learning by filtering and categorizing experience, then reassembling data as memories. Recently, Princeton neurologist Elizabeth Gould discovered that the hippocampus is also a brain cell factory that daily generates thousands of stem cells, which act like seeds of new brain cells. Our actions and choices determine if those stem cells sprout to become viable brain cells or if those stem cells dissolve. Doing nothing means, the seeds of development liquefy and we start to decay.

In other words, actively learning and making correct decisions encourage new stem cells to strengthen, sprout branches that connect with existing brain cells, and become viable cells that foster creative longevity and perpetual development. This suggests a key to fostering lifelong growth:

  • Choose challenge.

As stated by Hebrew University neurologist Idan Segev (2013), the more challenging the task the more neurons we develop. These neurons associate with new behaviors and improvement. This offers important implications for perpetual development and transcending potential:

  • We can learn new skills regardless of our age.
  • We can learn to think in novel ways.
  • We can liberate ourselves from genetics and conditioning.

As stated by Gunjan Sinha (2004), susceptibility is not inevitability. Individual choice and behavior not only influence brain development they also influence gene expression; our interpretation of experience influences which genes are activated and how.

  • By strengthening resilience, we can tap challenge as a force for growth, productivity, adaptability, and wellness.

Understanding the roll of challenge and being aware of the emergent microscopic potential within may allow us to influence perpetual development throughout.

The key message for the Phoenix: The more you use it the longer you can keep it and the more you can get. Actively learn. The more you use your brain the more it grows and the more viable it becomes. If we settle as passive learners or choose not to grow due to perceived challenge, our brains will start to die, sending us into decline.

This means that we do not avoid things because they are hard. We recognize the growth opportunity in challenge, and choose the challenging because we know it will make us strong.

Meaning of diploma

At commencements around the world, scholars are pontificating that a diploma is a key that opens doors to opportunity. As an adult learner with a firm grasp on reality and a sharp capacity for critical thinking, the Phoenix understands this cliché as more myth than fact.

A diploma is not a key that opens doors. A diploma is a potential pass that allows you to approach some doors. Your knowledge, ability, and character will cause some doors to open; how you apply those may allow you to stay.

The Phoenix internalizes William Bridges’ (2004) edict to make sense of life’s changes and find purpose in life events. Graduation is neither end game nor destination. Your diploma represents a milestone--a new beginning.

Even as we receive our diplomas, the context continues to change and the market becomes increasingly turbulent. Beyond graduation, the Phoenix perpetually develops, transforms, transcends.

Today, you start this new beginning with the assumption of challenge and change. You understand what Scott Peck (1978) meant when he said that expecting an easy path while failing to accept the difficulty of life is the cause of neurosis; an assumption that reality should adapt to our limitations.

As a Phoenix, you recognize challenges as opportunities for continuous transformation and growth. You are a lifelong learner with the capacity for perpetual development, adaptability, transformation, and influence. As a perpetual learner, you strengthen resilience that fosters creative longevity through turbulent environments.

The Phoenix [Micro-local-you]

This brings us to the level that is you, the Phoenix. Let us start this level by considering how the mission of the institution becomes you; how incorporating that mission differentiates you.

Phoenix mission fosters perpetual development

You have achieved a significant milestone by taking advantage of a demanding higher education opportunity that enables you to:

  • Develop knowledge and skills,
  • Achieve your professional goals,
  • Improve productivity in your organizations, and
  • Provide leadership and service to your families and communities.

Additional mission dimensions at the Asia Military Campus

In the Asia Military Campus, we have additional mission dimensions that provide deeper meaning for our work. As faculty, administrators, and students we work to do the following for personnel in the military community:

  • Foster adaptability,
  • Strengthen resilience,
  • Influence mission readiness.

Competencies for life success

Becoming a Phoenix has had little to do with preparing for tests and harvesting grades. Being a Phoenix has had everything to do with developing the competencies to achieve your personal and professional goals despite a turbulent and evolving competitive environment.

We can find these core competencies in the learning goals that laid the foundation of your curriculum and activities in the University of Phoenix program. Let us briefly review those goals and consider how they apply to your perpetual growth beyond graduation (University of Phoenix, 2013).

Professional competence & values.

  • Immediately apply new learning for success in the workplace, family, and community.
  • Access to premium lifelong developmental resources will keep you current and competitive.

Critical thinking and problem solving.

  • Reason clearly and analytically.
  • A problem solver who can assess situations, identify alternatives, and select optimum solutions.
  • Not stuck to a solution; monitor and adjust through implementation so you do not escalate commitment to a failed course of action.


  • Rather than spending years mastering test preparation skills that are irrelevant in the workplace, you have honed vital communication skills for life success, including writing, presenting, speaking, facilitating, teaching, leading.
  • You have fostered insight for facilitating shared meaning among diverse perspectives.
  • You have honed your ability to express your ideas with clarity, meaning, and impact.

Research and information utilization.

  • Knowledge era: Knowledge is on the network. Virtually impossible to absorb everything we need to know.
  • A key to success in the knowledge era is the ability to locate and sort relevant data, and apply new knowledge to solve complex problems.
  • Key differentiator for the Phoenix: Lifetime access to a rich pool of premium data that is not available to others. Let the rest of the world sort through Google and Wikipedia; continue to differentiate yourself using the premium knowledge and data available to you through the Phoenix Library.


  • As leader and member, you collaborate with diverse individuals to gain deeper understanding of complex problems and generate innovative solutions.
  • You understand that leadership is not telling others what to do, but a process of influencing the dynamic phenomena among leader, follower, and context (Fiedler & Mahar, 1979; Yukl, 2010).

As suggested by Margaret Wheatley (2006), you can look beyond command and control to see the invisible phenomena that influence and define human dynamics and relationships.

  • You know how to align the activities of diverse individuals to work together for mutual development; not by sacrificing the individual for the group but by putting I back in Team.

You accomplish this by

  • Using tools and strategies for recognizing and rewarding individuals according to their contributions to the group, and
  • Aligning the interests of diverse individuals for mutual development to synthesize greater output than individual contributions alone.


  • The Phoenix: One who chooses perpetual growth; continually adapting to, influencing, and rising above turbulence.
  • Resilience, adaptability, beyond actualization to self-transcendence and lifelong development for yourself, your families, your organizations, and your communities.


  • Choose to grow.
  • Transcend Potential.
  • Be excellent.



Following are thematic terms for the above speech, Phoenix and Differentiation.


When I say “Phoenix,” I do not mean the University but the metaphor. Looking beyond the marketing hype and the red socks, we will consider how the phoenix metaphor defines you and how it differentiates you from others.


We will consider differentiation from the perspective of the marketing field. When building brands for organizations, products, and people, marketers ask two key questions.

What sets you apart?

Why should someone choose you and not someone else?

These are also questions we will consider while defining the brand that is you, and how the Phoenix Differentiation helps you rise above and remain relevant in a turbulent environment—beyond graduation and throughout your life.

Example: Comparing the Phoenix to a traditional graduate, the graduate of a traditional lecture-based institution is trained to take notes and pass tests. That diploma represents courses completed and grades earned.

Despite this blinding focus on test preparation and grades, few of these traditional graduates will hear job interview  questions like, “What grade did you earn in statistics class?” and “What was your score on the final exam of your management class?”

However, most job interviews will provide opportunities for you to demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and character. This is where we find the source of the Phoenix Differentiation.


Bertalanffy, L. V. (1969). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life's changes,. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Fiedler, F. E., & Mahar, L. (1979, March). The effectiveness of contingency model training. Personnel Psychology, 32(1), 45-62.

Peck, S. (1978). The road less traveled: A new psychology of love, traditional values and spiritual growth. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Segev, I. (2013, May). Neurons as dynamic devices. Synapses, Neurons and Brains. Jerusalem: Hebrew University/Coursera.

Shors, T. J. (2009, March). How to save new brain cells. Scitentific American, pp. 46 - 54. Retrieved from

Sinha, G. (2004, March/April). The identity dance. Psychology Today, 52-95.

University of Phoenix. (2013). University learning goals. Retrieved May 10, 2013, from

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.