It’s that time of year again, where we see all sorts of famous people tell the graduating class of 2016 to follow their dreams. These speeches, while often motivational, funny, and uplifting, seldom offer firm advice on how to work in the world. A wonderful exception is Charlie Munger’s commencement speech to the graduating class of 2007 from the USC School of Law. You really should invest the forty minutes to watch this in its entirety. Well worth it. (links to this and other commencement speeches, below)
All the commencement speech watching around this time inevitably gets me thinking. What would I say to the class of 2016? To answer that I apply some Munger tactics (watch the video and you will see what I mean) and flip the question around. What would I want to hear if I were the class of 2016? What advice would I have wanted at that time? So what follows is my commencement speech to the class of 2016. Here goes:
Congratulations! You made it. You now have a piece of paper which says you have acquired a base amount of knowledge in your given field. That degree says you at least have the fortitude to make it through 4 (or 5) years of partying, socializing, and self-discovery, and still manage to find enough time to go to class and pass the final. This is not a trivial feat, however, you have to remember that this piece of paper is not a golden ticket. It is simply the cost of admission. The hardest work still lies ahead.
Most commencement speakers look to inspire. Chase your dreams. Follow your heart. Even for a somewhat cynical realist like myself that is not waste of time. We need to be inspired. If that is what you were hoping for today, however, I hate to disappoint. After this speech, pull up the Steve Jobs Stanford commencement and that will inspire you. J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement is inspiring. I am just saying that what I wanted when I was in your chair was more tactical advice. Something that I could use when I left. What haven’t I learned in the classroom? What will I run into that may be surprising? How I do cope with managers, executives, subordinates, and competition?
Actually, this leads to the first rule; always think as if you were in your audience’s, or your customer’s, shoes. As Charlie Munger says “You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end.” Let me elaborate. Many of you already have your first job lined up and that’s excellent. Right now that is an amazing feeling. Depending on your ambition, and attention span, in 18 to 36 months you will feel different. The magic of being in your career will have worn off, you will interact with professionals there that you may not think very highly of, and you may be getting tired of the day to day tasks of your position. You will be looking for that first big promotion. So how do you get it?
Well you have to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. What would I want from my subordinate if I were in that role? Think about it honestly and seek to provide that. Do not be afraid to go over and above your job description; but do not think that because you killed it in year 1 you are going to be moving up the ladder and be promoted in year 2. It takes time and you have to pay your dues. That sounds antiquated, but you need to provide reliable, consistent value, for a sustained period of time. That’s it. The same holds true if you are an entrepreneur except your customer is the boss. Think as if you were in your customer’s shoes
The second rule is that you have to understand how networks function. In this era, networks of people, machines, and ideas, are more important than ever. It’s not just the old “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” mentality. You have to know the players of the networks you want to travel in. Who are the influencers, who are the power-holders, the gatekeepers, and who are the beneficiaries? What networks run alongside and through your networks. It will be great to get to know the CEO, but aside from that, you should know, who the CEO trusts. What news source do they look at? Understanding the complexities of how these networks affect you and your industry can be a big differentiator.
Rule #3 is to never stop learning. Read constantly. Take additional classes. Get a Master’s degree or a professional certification. Do whatever your employer will pay for and do it right now. And did I already mention read constantly? Remember that your ability to earn wages is your greatest asset and as Ben Franklin said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” (a detailed explanation available here)
The fact of the matter is that when you get into work on your first day, you will have zero years of experience. There is no way to get around that. And in a couple years, when you are looking at other positions a lot of the second level job roles will say something like “requires 5 years of industry experience.” You may look at that and say, “I know I can crush that job. I have all the qualifications except I have only been here for two years!” and that’s right. Since you cannot fabricate years of experience out of thin air, the next best thing you can do is learn from the people that do have that experience. That way you can say to the hiring manager, I know I only have 2 or 3 years here, but based on what I’ve read from (famous person who held desired position), and my talks with (experienced, respected professional who once held the position) I know I can really excel.
Rule #4: Speak to everyone with respect. Never suck up, and never look down. It is appropriate for you to be deferential to the CEO of your company. It is ok for you to be impressed by people who have done great things, travelled long roads, have superior talent or unique gifts. It is not ok to be a suck up. You have to know the difference. It is also ok to be an authority on your topic. It’s ok to be confident in who you are and what you have accomplished. It is never ok to look down on someone just because they have a different line of work, or have not gotten the same advantages as you. Take a cue from Albert Einstein who said “I speak to everyone the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the President of the University.” Do not belittle yourself by passing judgement on a person based on superficial artifices such as title, job description, degrees, or fancy cars.
Finally, the fifth rule is to not fear the risk of failure. Watch Conan’s 2011 Dartmouth address if you want to hear an inspiring story about failing in pursuit of a goal you really wanted. By no means should you accept failure happily. It sucks, and you should pursue the highest amount of success that you can get, but you need to understand that at times failure will find you. And, it will hurt. I remember taking a big exam for a professional certification. It required over 6 months of study which was a lot of time taken away from my family. This was material which was essential to my profession and I feel like I am a fairly smart fellow so I had the motivation, the urgency, and the ability to pass this exam. So when I found out I failed, it was gut-wrenching. It made me question myself. “Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought. What if I need to start looking for a new profession?”
Despite the pain and self-doubt, I was fortunate because I had a wife and two kids to support so there was not much time for self-pity. Therefore, I made a plan. I was going to allow myself one week to wallow in sorrow (I’m not a machine after all), but after that, I would get back to work and double down. I could not take the test for another year, but I could work on other skills that would help in my profession. It was in those moments that I finally got the nerve to join a Toastmasters club and start really working on my public speaking skills. Skills which have been invaluable ever since. Whether I am presenting to boards, giving investment updates, or speaking at community events, I have more confidence in my ability that I may not have had were I not faced with that initial failure. So don’t take it lightly, but do not let the fear of failure paralyze you either. Sometimes great things can come of it.
In closing, one of my favorite movies is Coach Carter. In that movie the coach asks one of his troubled players, Timo Cruz “What is your deepest fear?” Timo answers with this powerful quote adapted from Marianne Williamson’s work.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
It is your moral obligation to be the best and brightest version of yourself that you can be. You owe it to all the friends and family that look up to you. I’m sure many of you have brothers and sisters, or nieces and nephews, and some even now have, or will soon have, sons or daughters. You need to let them know that it is ok to be awesome. How many people can count their mother, their father, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle as a major inspirational force in their life? You are that person that future generations will look up to and you need to take that responsibility seriously. I hope these rules can help in that pursuit. Remember:
1) “Provide to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end”
2) Be Reliable
3) Read and Learn Constantly
4) Never Suck up and Never Look Down
5) Do not fear failure
Finally, remember the wise words of the timeless sage Tyrion Lannister who said. “The mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” So keep reading and keep your mind sharp. It is also good advice to heed something else Tyrion says, which is “A Lannister always pays his debts” Many of you will get lots of experience with that over the next few years.
Until next time….
“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better” – JK Rowling
Links from speeches and movies mentioned above, and some other great commencement addresses
Clip from Coach Carter – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_fDhqRk_Ro
Steve Jobs – Stanford, 2005 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc
Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth, 2011 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmDYXaaT9sA
Charlie Munger – USC Law School, 2007 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Cy7UwsRPQ&list=PL0C30546823FC43B8
Steven Colbert – Northwestern University, 2011 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6tiaooiIo0
Admiral William McRaven – University of Texas Austin, 2014 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxBQLFLei70
Barack Obama – Rutgers, 2016 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkCABjFT32A
Barack Obama – Howard 2016 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K4MctEmkmI