I’m honored to be here and to help share your celebration. It’s a little depressing to be a teacher (or a graduation speaker) because each year you’re at least a year older and all your students are, of course, the same age. But it’s not that bad because at least the speaker gets to talk and everyone else has to (at least) pretend to be listening.
So, speaking of listening, I wanted to start my remarks today with a lesson I learned about listening (and learning) recently while I was teaching my class of 9th grade “entrepreneurs to be” at the Dyett High School for the Arts. We were talking about why it’s important to be a good listener and I was referring to a blog post I had written about my favorite waitress who is the best listener I’ve ever met. She repeats everything you say to her and then carefully writes it down.
I asked my students why she does that. As I expected, they gave me two reasons from my book: (1) she listens carefully to be sure that she gets the order correct; and (2) she repeats it so that you know that she’s paying attention to you and that she cares about getting the order right. Nice answers and right on the money. I was ready to move on to the next topic because I thought we had covered the question.
But then another of the students raised his hand and said that he thought there was a third reason to listen – because, in really listening (rather than just waiting for your chance to talk), you get to hear the other person’s point of view and – lo and behold - you might even learn some new and important things.
I know that I learned at least three important things from him that day:
(1) Even the guy who wrote the book can always learn something new which is why we all need to be lifelong learners – your education isn’t over – as you move into high school, it’s just the beginning of the next phase – and, as we say at 1871, there’s no finish line;
(2) You never know who’s going to teach you something new (or bring you your future) so you need to be open to everyone – to make room for people – and to understand that everyone has something to offer – some people will be good examples and others not so much – but every encounter with another is an opportunity to learn; and last
(3) It really pays to pay attention.
So that’s Rule Number 1 – PAY ATTENTION. Focus your energies and your attention on what matters. It’s way too easy to fool yourself into thinking that you can do many things at the same time. Studying, listening to music, watching a video and texting as well, etc., etc. But I’m here to tell you that multi-tasking is a lie. You can try to juggle a lot of things, but you end up doing each one of them poorly. So, slow down, take a deep breath, focus on the job that’s in front of you, think about what you need to accomplish, pay attention to the details and to what you’re doing, and do the very best job you can on the task at hand before you move on to the next. Do it right the first time – people don’t remember how quickly you did the job (especially if it’s wrong), but they always remember how well the job was done.
Rule Number 2 is to PAY YOUR DUES. Put in the time and the work it takes to be special – to stand out – to make something you’re proud of - to be the first one chosen for the task or the team. You want to be the one who takes care of business, the one who can be counted on, the one people turn to in a pinch. As boring as it may sound, having a reputation for reliability and dependability and getting things done are the best things that people in the real world can say about you.
Regardless of what you may have heard, there are no “shortcuts” to success or “tricks of the trade”. Good things take time and they don’t happen overnight. Building real strengths and important skills takes years. They’re the product of an iterative, over and over, process. You’ve got to get ready to be successful. It doesn’t happen to you or for you – it’s something you make happen and it’s how you make a life. You try, you fail, you advance a little bit, then you try again. The trick is to get up one time more than you trip and fall.
Two of the most important Perspiration Principles (which I talk about all the time) are Preparation and Perspiration.
First is Preparation. You get what you deserve in life – what you earn - not through place, pride or privilege – but through your own best efforts and through preparation, practice, and perseverance. The smartest bets are on competence, not chance. All the best athletes, scholars, entrepreneurs, and leaders will tell you the same thing – it’s about the time you take, the mistakes you make, and the lessons you take which add up to the moment in time when you’re ready to overcome whatever the challenges may be.
And, as you’re working through this process, you’ll also discover two other amazing things:
(1) if you don’t put the effort and work into something, if things come too easily, or if you settle for less than your best, you’ll always suspect the value and importance of what you’re doing; 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. You earn the right to do more. If you want to get ahead, you need to get started, keep getting a little better every day, and keep at it for the rest of your life.
Next is Perspiration. We entrepreneurs sometimes talk about “sweat equity” – but what we really mean is a continual commitment to working as hard as you possibly can. All the passion, all the energy, and all the enthusiasm in the world – as well as all the talent, tools and technology at your fingertips – won’t get the job done without a willingness to work your butts off. Each day, every day, all day.
Life isn’t always fair, but hard, purposeful work is always rewarded in the end. Sometimes the rewards are money, sometimes it’s praise and recognition, but mainly it’s the satisfaction of knowing in your own heart that you did the very best that you could do. That you brought it – full speed ahead – and that you left nothing in the locker room or on the practice field.
In the real world, you get what you work for, not what you wish for and you get ahead by outworking (not necessarily outsmarting) everyone else. Good genes and big brains are nice to have, but ultimately effort trumps talent.
Rule Number 3 is to PAY IT FORWARD AND BACK. President Clinton used to tell me a story about seeing turtles sitting on top of fence posts in Texas. He’d say you never knew why they were there, but the one thing that you knew for sure is that they didn’t get there by themselves. And that’s a lesson for today as well. Today – no one succeeds by themselves at anything. Teamwork is critical – working with others is crucial – but having people who have helped you, supported you, and who have had your back and always been there for you is the most important consideration of all.
Now’s a good time not just to say, “thank you”, but to do something more for those folks in your lives who made today possible for you – to return the favor – to show them that you appreciate the sacrifices they made and the time and care and love that they devoted to you.
One of the best ways to pay it back is to show them that their investment in you was a smart one that will pay dividends far into the future. You do this by making yourself not just a success, but also a shining example of the right way to do things. And you do the kind of things that make a difference – not just to you or simply in your life – but in the lives of those around you as well. When you get out of school and start working, you’ll quickly see that it’s not just about making a living (although that’s important), it’s about making a life that’s complete and meaningful.
And it’s also important to pay it forward. Everything – even today – isn’t simply about you – it’s about what you can do to help others – to give more to the world than you expect to get – to leave something behind each time you advance – and to help those who will come after you. You want to set a great example and set the bar high and you want to shoot for the stars. It’s not the easiest way to go, but it’s the one that’s the most important and the most worthwhile in the long run.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the entrepreneurs who are the rock stars of today. Although I’ve been the president of two different colleges and the CEO of a dozen businesses, I think of myself mainly as an entrepreneur. My Mother used to say that being an entrepreneur wasn’t a profession; it was a condition. And I myself think of it as a passionate disease.
People become entrepreneurs, not because they want to, but because they have to. They fall in love with the idea of making something new and important. They’re basically agents of change who discover things that need to be made better and they set out to transform their wild dreams and crazy ideas into concrete realities. Entrepreneurs are creating the new jobs and roles that will define the digital and global economy of the future.
And while each of you won't necessarily have that job title in the future, every one of you will need to be entrepreneurial - to have the attitudes, the tools, and the skills that every successful entrepreneur quickly develops and then spends a lifetime of hard work sharpening.
Entrepreneurs have many skills, but the most important one is how they manage the highs and lows in their journey and handle the constant tension between their dreams and their fears. You’re about to enter a new world, HIGH SCHOOL, a place that can be exciting and scary at the same time, and a place where everyone worries. It’s probably something they add to the drinking water. But worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair and furiously rocking 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 get busy. 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 always conquers even the most paralyzing fears. And in the end, your faith (especially in yourself) needs to be stronger than your fear.
And the other thing that great entrepreneurs do is make the right choices. Not all the time, but a lot more than most folks do. High school 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 your education and your future aren’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 by and for yourself; and make them about what’s right for you.
So that’s my story. We have great confidence in you. We believe in you. And, most importantly, we know that you will all make us proud.
God bless each and every one of you.