I’m honored to be here today and to share your celebration. I’ve decided to deliver my remarks in English rather than French for much the same reason that I have once again declined this year to play Center for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs. I’m confident that each of these endeavors would have met with roughly the same degree of success although I’m sure that you’re a much more polite audience than the Bulls fans.
But I do have other long-standing connections to the French as you will see.
First, although, in the last decade, I’ve been the President & CEO of two different major colleges, I think of myself primarily as an entrepreneur – a word that we stole from the French long ago – and one which – like much of the French language – defies easy translation or definition. My Mother used to say that “being an entrepreneur wasn’t a profession; it was a genetic condition”. I think it’s a passionate “disease” and it’s definitely one that offers its victims very few options and little choice. People become entrepreneurs, not because they want to, but because they have to, and because they couldn’t keep a decent day job working for someone else if their lives depended on it. They’re basically unemployable agents of change, and they violently love what they do which is ultimately the bottom line. You’ll spend way too much of your life (and your waking hours) working to have a job where you’re not able to show up every day and do something that you love and can be whole-heartedly enthusiastic about. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious force multipliers.
And whatever “entrepreneur” means these days, the real news is that – in your lives and careers to come – you will all have to be entrepreneurs as well. Because - in the next several decades – you won’t simply be able to go out and find a job or fill a position – you’ll have to help create the new jobs and opportunities that will define the digital and global economy of the future. And throughout your career, you’ll have to repeatedly invent and re-invent yourselves to meet the constantly-changing demands of the workplace. It won’t be easy – it’s a flat-out and worldwide race – and they won’t be waiting for you or anyone else. In addition, you can forget about lifetime employment working for any one business or company. In fact, many of you (as well as over 40% of the country by the end of the decade) will be working as freelancers – basically for yourselves – so get ready.
But here’s some good news – you have a rock solid educational foundation; you have a whole world of choices and opportunities ahead of you; and, as you leave this special place, you can be sure that you’re as skilled and well-qualified to face what’s ahead as anyone your age can be. In fact, the only thing you can’t do as you look ahead is to get younger – at least not yet. And, believe me, while that preparation alone is not sufficient to get the job done, it’s a huge leg up in the process and on the journey. You may not completely believe that at this moment, but you will come to understand and appreciate what has been done to you and for you here and what your own commitment and hard work have accomplished. Just as Rick said to Ilsa in Casablanca (years before even I was born): “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” And, as your parents know for sure, he also said: “We’ll always have Paris.” So we’ve got that French thing going again.
Second, as I suggested earlier, all the passion, all the energy, and all of the enthusiasm in the world – as well as all the talent, tools and technology at your finger tips – won’t get the job done without a willingness to work your little butts off. Hope is not a strategy for success. In the real world, you get what you work for, not what you wish for (I call this The Perspiration Principle) and you get ahead by outworking (not outsmarting) everyone else. Good genes and big brains are nice to have, but ultimately effort trumps talent – this means that in the end hard work conquers everything else.
Regardless of what you may have heard, there are no “shortcuts” and no “tricks of the trade”. Life isn’t always fair, but hard, purposeful work is always rewarded. You get what you deserve – not through place or privilege – but through your own best efforts and through practice, preparation and perseverance. Luck, among other things, has nothing to do with anything. The smartest bets are on competence, not chance. And you’ll also discover two other amazing things: (1) if you don’t put the work into something, you’ll always suspect its value; and (2) once you determine that you can do something well and do it repeatedly, you get to move on to bigger and better things. Flukes and accidents and even good fortune and things that fall into our laps aren’t solid foundations or a firm footing for any kind of future.
Third, don’t mistake a clear view for a short distance. Good things take time. Patience is often more powerful than pushing – especially if you’re trying to push a rope. It’s great to know exactly what you want (of course that will change a million times between now and your college graduation) and it’s great to strive aggressively every day toward that goal. But it’s equally important to understand that good things don’t happen overnight – they’re the product of an iterative process. Try, fail, advance a bit, try, fail, pick yourself up, and try again. So by all means dream big – but remember to start small and sure and scale quickly.
Fourth, people generally think of me as a technologist (rather than an academic educator) and that’s certainly true and consistent with a large part of my background and training, but - when I think back to my college days - the singly most important course that I took was in French Romance Literature – the singly most important book that I read was The Red and the Black by Stendahl – and the singly most important passage (this was a tough call) was the description of a woman which read:
“…she was reluctant to let a moment of her life go by
without occupying it with some remarkable deed.”
Quite a standard and quite a formula for a life well-lived and one that I’ve kept in mind every day for more than 50 years.
You’ll learn soon enough that life isn’t about making a living; it’s about making a difference. I try to approach everything that I do with a vengeance – with the desire to be remarkable – with a passion and with a complete commitment. I hold out this same hope for each of you – to have a dream – to make it real – to make it matter – to make it about something more than just you – to make it special – and to never stop looking for the next challenge.
There’s even another modest moral embedded in this little story – French Romance Literature wasn’t a course I had to take – it wasn’t even an easy course – or one which was extremely popular with very attractive women. It was a course I took solely to learn about things I had never been exposed to and it was a wonder and also became the foundation for a desire to keep exploring and learning new things throughout my life. Education, at its best, isn’t about pouring a bunch of facts and figures into your heads as if you were an empty jug; it’s about igniting a fire and a desire for learning that – if you’re lucky (as I have been) - will last your entire lifetime.
And Stendahl wrote another very powerful statement which has a great deal to do with your school and the underlying values and principles that are so important here. He said: “One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” And I think that his observation is even truer today – in our massively-connected and interdependent world – than it was when he first wrote it. Because today – no one succeeds by themselves at anything. Teamwork is critical – collaboration is crucial – and the ability to successfully build consensus and to create supportive communities around your ideas is absolutely essential to any kind of real success.
And there are two essential talents that you need to have in order to be successful: (1) you need to respect others and to be able to earn their respect through your words and actions; and (2) you need to be responsible for and accountable for your actions at all times and in every way. I like to say that “there’s no such thing as a good excuse”. It’s easy to blame others, the circumstances, plain bad luck, or even the weather, but it’s a waste of time and breath.
Strong personal values and the truth aren’t fluid concepts; they’re not optional or things to consider when it’s convenient; they are the fundamental foundation of your good name and your reputation and you only get one of those in a lifetime. I know that these ideas aren’t new to you because they are some of the central values of your school. But I want you to understand how central to everything thing else solid values really are. The truth is that you can’t create anything of real value if you don’t have a core set of beliefs and values to start with. The good news is that, because you’ve been here where real values do matter, you’re all set to go. Hang on to them.
So that’s my story – 5 P’s – Passion, Preparation, Perspiration, Perseverance and Principles.
Now, let me close by just giving you three small pieces of advice about college.
College is about learning how to think critically and for yourself; not about what to think. You’ll want to focus on the analytical process; not the politics or some professor’s personal agenda. Later you can make up your own mind about what you think. Too many fancy faculty members get confused about this distinction and simply lose their way. They don’t understand that quality education isn’t about what they teach; it’s about how and what you learn. You’re the customer – make sure you get your money’s worth.
College is about learning to handle your dreams and your fears. Everyone worries at college. It’s probably something they add to the drinking water. But worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair and furiously cranking it back and forth. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Here’s what the best entrepreneurs do when they face major problems or challenges - instead of worrying. They put their heads down; they buckle up; they work twice as hard as before; and they roll right over the obstacles. Obstacles are just those ugly little things that you see when you take your eye off the ball. Action conquers fear. And in the end, your faith (especially in yourself) needs to be stronger than your fear.
College is about learning to focus on a few important things and forgetting about the rest. You’ll learn that the most important and impactful choices you make are the things you say “no” to. It’s easy to say “yes” and be part of the crowd; but this isn’t a popularity contest – it’s your life in the making. Ultimately, our lives are determined by the sum of all the choices we make. Make good ones; make them yourself; and make them about what’s right for you.
So now go forth. We have great confidence in you. We believe that you will each make your mark and make some history as well. And, most importantly of all, we know that you’ll make us proud.
God bless each and every one of you.