My commencement address at Eaglebrook School on Friday
"If you are a dumbass, there will be consequences!"
Believe it or not, I used that line (what I tell my daughters is the "#1 Immutable Law of the Universe") in my commencement address on Friday at my alma mater, Eaglebrook, a private 6th-9th grade boarding school in Deerfield, MA. In 7th and 8th grades in 1980-81, I was a day student there, and it was a transformative experience for me: for the first time, I experienced what a first-rate education was.
Over the years, I've kept in touch with the school and was deeply honored when the headmaster invited me a few months ago to give the address at this year's commencement. There were just under 100 graduating students, plus younger students, family, friends, teachers, etc. – a total of maybe 400 people. This is what I saw from the podium:
I've done so many TV appearances and speeches over the years (mostly about investing and education reform), but this was the first time I'd spoken to young adults. Oh, the stress – what could I say that was both meaningful and memorable to 15-year-old boys?!
I ended up speaking quite a bit about my work in education reform and my experiences with Teach for America and KIPP. In fact, other than discussing my "#1 Immutable Law of the Universe", the rest of my advice was all related to KIPP's motto, "Work hard, be nice."
I worked so hard on this speech – and was making major edits right up to the very last moment! I'm really happy with how it went and have gotten lots of nice feedback.
Below are excerpts and I've posted the entire speech (7 pages) here, including an appendix (8 pages) with all of the things I wrote and wanted to say, but didn't have time. Enjoy!
Excerpts from my Eaglebrook commencement address
So with that, I'd like to talk to you about three things I've learned, based on my own experiences as a young man, being a father to three teenage daughters, and my involvement with education reform for the past 27 years.
The idea for the first one came from my youngest daughter, who just turned 14. I've done lots of public speaking, but I've never addressed an audience of young adults like yourselves, so I asked her what I should say. Her suggestion was: "Tell 'em about your #1 Immutable Law of the Universe," which is something I've been saying to my daughters for years. Against the advice of some of my friends, I decided to share it with you in its all of its unfiltered glory, so here goes: "If you are a dumbass, there will be consequences!"
I like it because it's memorable: I'm pretty sure that the word "dumbass" has never been used in any commencement address ever. The question is, is it meaningful? I think it is.
…the foundation of a successful life is playing defense – and by that I mean avoiding the obvious mistakes that can really set you back.
I'm not talking about the big, general things: if you're mean to people, don't expect to have many friends; if you're lazy and dishonest, you won't have much of a career; if you don't take care of your body, of course it's going to break down…
No, I'm talking about the blindingly obvious things, ranging from touching a stove to see if it's hot (I did that once) or touching an electric fence to see if it's live (I did that too), all the way up to things that can derail – or end – a life.
By now you're probably thinking, "Jeez, what kind of commencement speaker is this? What a downer he is! When is he going to tell us how great we are, how we should put on our sunglasses because our future is so bright, and how we need to seize the day?"
Well, you are and you should – but the reason I started with these stories is because the foundation for a successful life is playing good defense. If you want to get ahead, you have to start by not falling behind.
So now let's turn to the fun stuff: playing offense and being successful in life. I have great news for you: the fact that you're graduating from Eaglebrook means that your odds of success in life are already off the charts. You've received a great education so far and will surely continue to. The vast majority of you have families who love and support you, and you have never known (nor will you ever know) violence, hunger or homelessness – the kinds of things I saw up close growing up in Tanzania and Nicaragua, that I see when I visit my parents and sister, who live in Kenya today, and that I see every time I visit a school in an inner-city neighborhood in the U.S.
So congratulations: you are well on your way to winning the game of life…but you're still going to need to make a lot of good decisions and avoid a lot of bad ones along the way. I have plenty of experience with both, so I'd like to share two more pieces of advice.
But relax: I'm not going to lecture you! Instead, I'd like to tell you a few stories about my life and experiences that I hope will help you to achieve some of the success and happiness that I'm fortunate enough to have.
All the little things you do dozens of times every day – your habits – define who you are – and once these patterns are set, they're really tough to change.
So if you remember anything from today, I hope it will be this: it's critically important to develop good habits early in life.
I'm not going to spend any time today talking about obvious good habits like eating healthily and exercising regularly, as important as they are. I'm only going to talk about two: work hard, be nice.
This is the motto of KIPP charter schools.
…On the walls of every KIPP school is the slogan, "Work hard, be nice!" [It's also the title of a great book about KIPP.] It's so simple that you might dismiss it, but if you think about it, those four words capture an awful lot of what you need to be successful in life.
And here's the ending:
My parents always told my sister and me (and this is from an email my mom sent me this week): "You have been born into the best time in world history and, mostly by accident of birth, have been given every opportunity – love, education, health, exposure to the world, and a decent living standard. If you take these gifts and use them to simply enrich yourself, then you – and we – will have failed. To be a success, you have an obligation to make the world a better place."
I know it's a cliché, but as the saying goes, "if it's trite, it's right!" And there was an important added bonus: I discovered that the more I gave, the more I got back in return.
For me, giving back – becoming a giving machine – has been a combination of big things like full-time jobs, starting new nonprofit organizations, and serving on boards like KIPP, which I've already talked about, but it's also lots of day-to-day little things.
There are so many examples I could give, but here's one I do every day: if I find a mess, I clean it up – yes, even if I didn't make it. My pet peeve these days is my daughters leaving their dirty dishes in the sink.
Trust me, if you go through life leaving messes for other people to clean up (like I used to), they're going to resent you. In contrast, if you not only clean up after yourself, but others; if you do more than your fair share, offer the other person the bigger piece of dessert, remember their birthday, give them an unexpected gift, it will make such a difference.
Since I started becoming a much more giving person about 20 years ago, the quality of my life has improved exponentially.
Why? For starters, it makes me feel good. I also have many more close friends – and they forgive me and stay my friends even when I screw up and do something that makes them mad at me (which I'm prone to doing more often than I'd like). When I ask a favor of someone, they're more likely to say yes. A month from now, I'm climbing two famous peaks in Europe – Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn – to raise money for KIPP, so I've been hitting up all of my friends – and they've already donated nearly $100,000. Lastly, while this may sound crass, having a well-deserved reputation as a good guy really helps my business. Other investors are more inclined to share investment ideas with me, and my investors are more likely to stay in my fund rather than yanking their money when my performance stinks, as it has over the past year.
To repeat what I said earlier: the more I give, the more I get back – and it leads to an immeasurably happier life.
I've thrown a lot at you here, so let me quickly summarize: defense wins championships, work hard, and be nice.
If you do these things, I promise you that you'll lead a long and rewarding life, filled with love, laughter and happiness.
It's yours for the taking.
Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2016!
PPS—Of course I had to take some shots at Trump (though only in the appendix):
The successful loner
Another myth out there is the individual success story – the guy who, solely through his own brilliance and hard work, rises to the top – someone like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk (Donald Trump, laughably, would have you believe this about him). None of it's true. Nobody gets anywhere on their own. Every person who has achieved anything in life has done so by standing on the shoulders of others, usually starting with parents, then teachers and other mentors.
Another true measure [of a person] is how they handle mistakes. Everybody screws up sometimes; what differentiates them is how they handle it. It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is for so many people to admit a mistake, apologize for it and, if possible, try to make up for it. Look at Donald Trump: has he ever admitted a mistake in his life (and he's made plenty)? As a result, what a mentally and emotionally crippled and noxious person he is – he's like a five-year-old!
PPPS—Here are the headings of every section in the appendix:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The impact Eaglebrook had on me
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Skating through high school and college
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Hard work (and working half days)
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The habit of patience or delayed gratification
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>More on playing defense and getting ahead
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Generalize and then specialize
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>More on good habits: eat healthily and exercise regularly
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Nice guys finish first
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The successful loner
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>What I learned from Michael Porter
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Co-founding the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and how money doesn't equal happiness
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Arrogance vs. humility
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Buffett and Munger's definition of success
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Build deep friendships
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The two more important decisions you will ever make
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The true measures of a person
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>How I try to make a difference in the investing world
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The little ways I try to be a giving machine
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>More on me being a dumbass as a kid
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>More on Genarlow Wilson