Commencement Address at Babson College May 14, 2011
Creativity is a renewable resource. Be as creative as you like, as often as you like, because you can never run out!
Thank you, President Schlesinger. Your leadership and vision have kept Babson at the very top of its game and I’m honored to be here today. Congratulations graduates! You have earned something special and your journey is just beginning.
When I was a little kid, I told my mom that when I grew up I was going to Babson to become a businessman. Now, quite unbelievably, I stand here with you today. The road I took to get here was not Forest Street. It was my own unique path.
Today, I’d like to share four stories about opportunity, creativity, failure, and empathy. These four stories have companion insights that have colored the way I view business, happiness, and my own definition of success.
My First Story Is About Opportunity
From age six to ten, my mom had placed me in a program called Boy Rangers. It was a predecessor to Boy Scouts—we were modeled after Native American Tribes. We made feathered headdresses, we paid wampum. In order to advance from Papoose to Warrior, we had to learn how to tie knots, we had to perform various feats of strength—it was a whole thing. Because I was in Boy Rangers, I didn’t have time to participate in little league baseball, pee-wee football, soccer, basketball and all the other sports kids my age were playing and learning.
So, by the time I got to high school and I wanted to be on one of the sports teams, I had no idea what I was doing. All the lines on the basketball court were incredibly intimidating. The rules of these sports were baffling to me but everyone else seemed fine. As a result, I held back during tryouts for fear that the coach would realize that I had no clue what I was doing. This of course meant that I was not going to get on any of the teams—what coach wants a kid that doesn’t even try? So I launched an investigation.
My research lead me to discover that there was a sport that my high school did not offer at the time—lacrosse. If nobody knew how to play lacrosse, then everybody would be as clueless as I was. So, approached the school administration and asked, “If I can find a coach and enough boys, can I start a lacrosse team?” They looked at me and said, “Sure kid.” So, that’s what I did—I found a coach, rallied some boys, and formed a scrappy lacrosse team. With my intimidation gone, it turned out that I was really good a lacrosse, the others elected me captain, and we were a good team.
This brings us to lesson number one: Opportunity Can Be Manufactured. Yes, you can wait around for the right set of circumstances to fall into place and then leap into action but you can also create those set of circumstances on your own. In so doing, you manufacture your own opportunities. This is as true for high school sports as it is for entrepreneurism or corporate culture. It has helped me immeasurably.
My Second Story Deals with Creativity
After high school, I went to college to study the arts. I got a job moving boxes on Beacon Hill for a publishing company. They were just transitioning from spray glue and x-acto knives to Photoshop and Apple Computers. One day, when the entire art department went out to lunch. I snuck onto one of the Macs and designed a book cover. I printed it out, matted it up, and slipped it in with the other covers headed for approval by sales and editorial in New York City.
When the art director returned from New York, he held up my work and asked, “Who designed this cover?” With a box in my hands, I said, “That was me.” He looked around and said, “The box kid?” Turns out, my cover was chosen. Then, he ended up offering me a full-time job as a book cover designer. This was my opportunity to work by the side of a master so I made the difficult decision to drop out of college and take advantage of this rare opportunity to be an apprentice.
This man is more than 30 years older than me so in addition to learning about design I would ask him everything ranging from, “How did you know when to propose to your wife?” to, “How much did you ask for your first salary?” People have been asking you questions the whole time you’ve been here—now you’re graduating, you’re done and it’s time for you to start asking your own questions. (It’s amazing what you can learn by being nosy.)
On my first official day as a designer, I walked into the art director’s office and he called me over to his desk. He reached toward a shelf without even looking and took down a color guide. I stood quietly and watched as he slowly flipped through pages and pages of colors. Finally, he stopped in the range of light browns and mocha. He tore out one of the little perforated swatches. It was a chocolate color. He put it down on his desk, placed one finger on it, and slid it slowly toward me. He then stated, “That is how I take my coffee.”
As I was considering how to match that color at the local Dunkin’ Donuts with just the right amount of cream, he laughed and told me it was a joke. So began my apprenticeship in graphic design and a new way of thinking. There is not just one great design for a book cover—there is an infinite number of possible winners. Working with Steve taught me the second lesson I’d like to share with you today: Creativity is a renewable resource. Be as creative as you like, as often as you like, because you can never run out!
Yes, you are all creative, and don’t fool yourself into thinking your not.
Failure Is The Subject of My Third Story
There is a 1987 German romantic fantasy film directed by Wim Wenders originally titled Der Himmel über Berlin which translates as The Sky Over Berlin. Before I continue, a quick heads up—there will be spoiler alerts. You should download this film anyway, the American version is called “Wings of Desire.” Don’t get the remake with Nick Cage. It’s not good.
The movie is in part inspired by the poetry of Bohemian–Austrian-born Rainer Maria Rilke whose haunting images focus on the difficulty of closeness with wonderful things in a time of skepticism, isolation, and overwhelming anxiety. Kind of like the world you are about to enter. So, I thought this observation might possibly be of some help.
The setting is West Berlin in the late 1980s, toward the end of the Cold War. Two angels have been assigned to watch over Berlin—they have been there forever, since before there was a city and before there were humans. Their job now is listening to the diverse thoughts of citizens but they are pure observers who cannot be seen or interact physically with the real world. Their existence as immortal beings is to preserve reality but avoid getting involved.
As you might imagine—things do not go according to plan. Of the two angels Cassiel and Damiel, it is Damiel who falls in love with a talented and lovely but profoundly lonely circus trapeze artist named Marion. He longs to know what it will feel like to kiss her, to taste food, to hold a hot cup of coffee in his hands, in short—what it feels like to live. So, he does the unimaginable. Damiel renounces his immortality and falls to earth—naked and alone. He then pawns his angelic armor (which somehow fell with him—and he gets a pretty good price).
Once he’s bought some clothes, he sets out exploring the city. Eventually, he finds Marion at a bar and they lock eyes as if they had always known one another. Damiel is united with the woman for whom he has pined over and the film ends with, “To Be Continued.” My third lesson to you is taken from Damiel’s decision. In order to succeed spectacularly, you must be ready to fail spectacularly. In other words, you must be willing to die to achieve your goals. For legal purposes let me say, I’m not actually suggesting you should die. I’m just telling you, figuratively, to embrace failure.
My Fourth And Final Story Is About Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Most of us are born with this gift but we’ve not all learned how to access it readily or how to use it in productive and meaningful ways. Over the past ten years, I have been developing large-scale communication systems with social elements such as blogging platforms and more recently, Twitter. In the course of this work, it has been revealed to me that people are basically good and if you give them a simple way to help others, they will prove this to you every single day.
However, people too often consider altruism only after they have achieved financial success. This approach is flawed because it does not take into account the value of helping others. For many years now my wife and I have been helping teachers and students get the supplies they need through an organization called Donors Choose. The cost is often small but the reward is huge. When we help a class, we get an envelope in the mail. This envelope is full of handwritten thank you letters from young schoolchildren. These letters are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. These letters are valuable.
When I was growing up, I understood that helping others was a socially responsible thing to do but I never expected to see measurable results for my efforts. How was my meager contribution going to meaningfully impact poverty, hunger, or the spread of AIDS? Another organization I’ve worked with does an excellent job of demonstrating exactly how big problems can actually be solved by simple choices and small contributions that we all make together.
Product RED shows that two pills a day bring moms, dads, and children from death’s door to health. This “Lazarus Effect” means they go back to school, back to work, back to life. The funding that I thought went into an abyss has a measurable impact. We can watch as an entire geo-economic region comes back to life. When that region is stabilized, we move to another. My final lesson to you today is this: There is compound interest in altruism—the earlier you get started helping others, the more impact you will have over time.
We are all in this world together so when we help others, we also help ourselves. It’s exciting to think about companies running along with this premise. There can be a new way for business to get done with a higher level of ambition, and a more meaningful way of measuring success. Beyond immediate needs, more and more people are discovering the value in selflessness. It’s important that we learn how to recognize value before profit.
In conclusion, I encourage each of you to create your own opportunities, to be infinitely creative, to embrace failure with all your heart, to ask questions, and to take the time to walk in another person’s shoes. Develop a strong sense of empathy and you will grow into wise and strong leaders. Keep these things in mind and you will not only change the world—you’ll have fun doing it. I’m proud of you. Keep up the good work.