Note: This column is based on a commencement address I delivered to the Lycee Francais in Chicago last month.
Although I've been the President & CEO of two 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. My mother used to say that, “Being an entrepreneur isn’t a profession, it's a genetic condition.”
I think of it as a passionate "disease," 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. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious force multipliers.
Entrepreneur, C'est Moi
Whatever "entrepreneur" means these days, the real news is that you will all have to become entrepreneurs. Over 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.
Throughout your career you'll have to repeatedly invent and re-invent yourselves to meet the constantly changing demands of the workplace. Forget about working for any one business or company for your entire life. 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.
As I suggested earlier, all the passion, energy, and 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 very hard. 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." You get ahead by outworking--not outsmarting--everyone 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 has nothing to do with anything. The smartest bets are on competence, not chance.
Two other important points about working hard: First, if you don't put the work into something, you'll always suspect its value; and second, 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.
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 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. By all means dream big, but remember to start small and sure and scale quickly.
A Lesson From Literature
People generally think of me as a technologist rather than an 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 single most important course I took was in French romance literature. The single most important book I read was The Red and the Black by Stendahl, and the single 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 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 and with passion and 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.
Stendahl also said that, "One can acquire everything in solitude, except character." I think that his observation is even truer now, in our massively connected and interdependent world, because today no one succeeds at anything by themself. Teamwork is critical, collaboration is crucial, and the ability to build consensus and create supportive communities around your ideas is absolutely essential to any kind of real success.
There are two essential talents you need in order to be successful: One, you need to respect others and to be able to earn their respect through your words and actions; and, two, 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, or circumstances, or 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. 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.
So my story can be summed up with the "5 P’s": Passion, Preparation, Perspiration, Perseverance, and Principles. 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.