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U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton inspires Fall 2018 graduates to grow through challenges

a man wearing a suit and tie

Cotton inspires Fall 2018 graduates to grow through challenges


Long before he earned his current rank, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton remembers passing through the main gate of Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and seeing a declaration that could also be interpreted as a challenge.

“Only the best come North,” reads the sign over the security checkpoint.

Then a young second lieutenant and missile crew member, Cotton hoped to live up to that expectation as well as those of his father, a former Air Force master sergeant.

“It’s a completely natural human emotion to wonder if you’re good enough,” Cotton said while serving as Auburn University at Montgomery’s Fall 2018 commencement speaker. “Do I have what it takes to be successful? I’ve felt that throughout my life, wondering if I’d taken the right path, questioning if I’m going to be successful in the face of significant challenges.”

a man wearing a suit and tie

It’s fair to say Cotton followed the right path. After beginning his career at Minot, he progressed to the Pentagon, Cape Canaveral, Fla., and an abundance of accolades along the way, including the Defense Superior Service Medal and Legion of Merit. Not so long ago, he watched over the nation’s land-based nuclear missiles, commanding some 15,000 airmen and 450 intercontinental ballistic Minuteman 3 missiles spread across four states and more than 33,000 square miles.

In February 2018, he became commander and president of Air University, the intellectual and leadership development center of the U.S. Air Force based at Montgomery’s Maxwell Air Force Base. Air University graduates more than 50,000 resident and 120,000 non-resident officers, enlisted and civilian personnel each year.

“I thought leading 15,000 airmen and controlling our nuclear force was tough, but having a portfolio of being the lead educator for the United States Air Force … that had a little anxiety,” he said.

Cotton encouraged Auburn University at Montgomery graduates to embrace challenges as learning experiences. He said that it’s natural for new college graduates to struggle to find a sense of place and to feel “pressure to perform,” whether it’s grounded in the desire to please family and friends or the reality of having a family to provide for. In speaking to the graduates, Cotton drew on the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

Cotton also encouraged graduates to view adversity – and even failure – as opportunities. Walt Disney, for example, was once fired by a newspaper editor for lacking imagination. Entrepreneurs, inventors and filmmakers, including the likes of Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, all faced rejection or experienced failure in some form before finding their professional calling.

“Each mistake, each error in judgment, each flaw in execution allows us as human beings to analyze, improve and overcome,” Cotton said. “In the same way a sword needs sharpening steel, the human spirit needs to be tested. Those who are never challenged never grow.”

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