Thank you Ted, and thanks, too, to the Thayer Academy Class of 2013, parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, fellow members of the Board of Trustees, and the honorable Mayor of Braintree, my good friend Joe Sullivan. Iâ€™m honored to be here today.
I was a bit surprised to be asked to speak this year, as I also gave the Commencement Address back in 2007. This tells me one of two things: one, my speech in 2007 was so boring, Ted completely forgot that I was ever here. Or it was so enlightening, there is a bet among the faculty that it must have been a fluke and I am back here to prove that point. Well, Iâ€™ll let the three remaining teachers that I had -- Mr. Pickel, Mr. Neely, and Mr. Levenson -- be the judge of that.
When I gave that speech in 2007, some of you were just finishing up your sixth-grade year in the middle school. Show of hands â€“ how many of you have been together since Day One? A round of applause for the die hards.
When I was preparing for my speech in â€™07, I reflected on some of the most memorable commencement addresses I had ever heard. At my Thayer graduation in 1978, the speaker was Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York Daily News and Newsday columnist. While I do not remember all that he spoke of, I do remember the one particularly resonant point that really stuck with me. He said that, in the course of life, if you choose to simply help other people, you will be a success. Such a simple, motivating thought: if someone who needs help reaches out to you, give them the help they need.
So I thought to myself, “I have to give a commencement address at Thayer. I really could use some help. I think I’ll call Mr. Breslin. Maybe he’ll help me.” So I got his direct line and left him a voicemail message asking for help with my speech.
He never returned my call.
Then there was the 2001 commencement speaker at my college alma mater. In his speech, he said -- and I quote -“As you go forward in life…you will be confronted with questions every day that test your morals. The questions will get tougher and the consequences will become more severe. Think carefully, and for your sake, do the right thing, not the easy thing.”
Ten days later, that speaker, Dennis Kozlowski was indicted and later convicted in one of the most publicized corporate fraud trials in American history.
Then there was my younger sisterâ€™s graduation from Providence College where the then Mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci gave a rousing, inspirational speech. Eight years later, Mayor Cianci began a five-year prison sentence for racketeering, corruption, and mail fraud.
Suffice it to say, I have lived long enough and experienced enough in those years to begin my remarks this morning with a somewhat obvious point:
Commencement speakers are, by and large, full of crap.
And I think that begins with the age-old commencement cliché, which I’ve heard dozens of times, of “Follow your Dreams.” Graduates of the Class of 2013, just follow your dreams.
Now, I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve never had a dream. I’ve never had a plan. I’ve never really wanted something I don’t already have. And I’ve never wanted to be anyone else. I just got up every day of my adult life with a healthy dose of paranoia, thinking that today was the day I was going to be fired, and so I worked my butt off at every job I ever had to make sure that never happened. I tried to learn something new every day. And I surrounded myself with people I liked and respected.
And you know what happened when I didn’t follow my dreams? My dreams ended up following me.
My college selection process is a perfect example. I graduated from Thayer in June of 1978, and a few weeks later I was a plebe at the United States Naval Academy. By the end of the first semester, I was home again. The Naval Academy is one of the most prestigious schools in America, but it just wasn’t for me. So I quit, got a job at the Boston Globe, and enrolled at Northeastern University.
While at Northeastern, a friend of mine who was a high school senior at the time, asked if I wanted to take a trip with him to visit Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, a school of which I had never heard. “Hey, why not?” I said. We visited the campus, he went on the tour, I got bored sitting around the admissions office, so I filled out an application.
A few days later they called and asked if I’d be interested in transferring. “Hey, why not?” I graduated with a B.A. in English and later became Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Not only did they have the good humor to hand me a bachelor’s degree in 1982, they granted me an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree two years ago. All from a school, when I was sitting here at my Thayer commencement, I had never even heard of.
Eventually, I became President, CEO, and Chairman of the second largest advertising agency in America outside of New York City. And if you had asked me what an advertising agency even was on my graduation day, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea.
I don’t want to oversimplify my thesis here, but it is very simple. No matter what you’re asked to do – and I’ve been asked to do some pretty menial tasks in my career – just do it better than anyone else. You cannot control how smart you are or how creative or talented you are. Those are gifts from God. But you can always control how hard you work. And there is nothing stopping you from outworking the person sitting at the next desk. And from that hard work, opportunity will always come knocking.
I once did a television spot with Larry Bird. At the time, he led the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage. I asked him what made him the best at that. He told me that when he was growing up in Indiana, he’d go outside in the winter and shoot free throws. And he always imagined another kid, somewhere else in Indiana, who was out doing the same thing.
Whenever Larry got too cold or it got too late and he wanted to go inside, he imagined his competitor staying outside and taking one more free throw than Larry did. So he kept on shooting. And he kept on shooting. It wasnâ€™t until he was absolutely convinced that no one else would be crazy enough to still be outside that he would take one more shot and call it a night.
When you outwork the competition, itâ€™s amazing how dreams follow you.
One final thought, along the way, make sure you help other people. As Ted mentioned, I am the volunteer Treasurer of One Fund Boston. Since April 16, the fund has received $44 million for the survivors of the Marathon bombings, making it the single largest private victim relief
effort in U.S. history. It goes without saying that this is nothing I had ever dreamed of doing. But it is the greatest honor of my life to play a role in such a generous effort.
In working on the One Fund, I have gotten to know Ken Feinberg, the Brockton-born and bred attorney who volunteered to be its Adminstrator. I believe Ken is the only person in America who could take on such a sensitive and important task.
One reason for that is Kenâ€™s skill and experience as an attorney. But there are oodles of skilled and experienced attorneys in America. What most people donâ€™t know about Ken is that when he attended Brockton High School, he was the lead every year in the high school musical. When you see him on TV over the next month as
we distribute funds, which will surely be emotional and not without controversy, you’ll understand how formative that experience was in making him an effective communicator as well as an attorney. He readily admits that.
So for all of you who were cast members of school musicals or in one of the choral groups or jazz ensemble, perhaps you have a dream some day of performing on Broadway or in Hollywood or Nashville. But you know what? Maybe that experience will be more useful in helping someone who’s suffering to heal and move on to a better life.
With all due respect to commencement speakers across America who implore you to “follow your dreams,” I offer somewhat counter-intuitive advice.
Work hard. And produce something every day.
Do what you enjoy doing, not what others, including your parents, expect you to do.
Surround yourself with nice, smart people.
You only get one name and one reputation in life. Be vigilant in how you protect it.
Always -- always -- treat others with respect and dignity, as you would want to be treated.
If you have children some day, love them the way your parents have loved you.
There are only two kinds of people. There are players and there are spectators â€“ always be a player.
And never be afraid to help those in need, just as Jimmy Breslin told me.
Trust me. 35 years from now, you will not have needed to follow your dreams. Your dreams will have followed you.
Published on Jun 12, 2013