Ultimately, I decided to go for it, because how can you turn down an honor like that? The first rule of public speaking is "know your audience." So, I wrote a little something for people mostly in their early to mid-20's who presumably will continue their education or move directly into the workforce. Here's the text of the remarks:
Good morning, everyone and congratulations! This is a tremendous day. Please take some time to celebrate what you’ve accomplished. Relax a little. Be proud of yourself. Come on, coast for a couple of days. You’ll need the rest, because as soon as you catch your breath, it will be time to start that long climb to wherever it is you’re going.
Where is that, by the way? Many, if not most of you, probably don’t have any idea. No doubt, you’ve heard a lot about the journey ahead and you’ve probably received a lot of advice. Today, on your day, I won’t presume to stand here and advise you. My plan is to tell you a series of stories and maybe, if you actually listen to a couple of them, they will be helpful to you somewhere along the way.Let’s start with a phone call I got a couple of weeks ago.
But first, a little background is important. Starting when I was 18, I spent 27 years working in local media: television news, a little as a morning-show host at an oldies station…and for a long time, I hosted a morning radio talk show while also working at a TV station. I usually had two jobs, sometimes more. I dabbled in the advertising agency business on the side, for instance. So, I’ve spent most of my adult life in a personality-driven world. I’ve crossed paths with more than my share of enormous egos and eccentric, creative people. Don’t get me wrong, most of them were talented, nice people who just would not fit in an average office environment. And don’t think for once second I’m carving myself out of that category.
A consequence of making those professional choices was that my social interactions as a young adult were with co-workers or competitors…people in media. That means most of the women I dated, I met at work. That’s only important because it leads us to our first story. You see, other young ambitious people were in similar circumstances. So, there was a time in the early 80’s when I was involved in a bitter rivalry with another guy for the attention of an attractive female co-worker. She didn’t do us any favors, believe me. Looking back on it, she obviously enjoyed the attention. I guess it was great to have two guys engaging in open warfare for your affection. Ultimately, everybody moved on. I changed jobs, she left town and I have no idea whatever happened to that other guy. The last time I laid eyes on him was in 1984.
And then, that phone call I got a couple of weeks ago. It came out of nowhere from a buddy of mine who is the CEO of his company and he’s hiring. He’s looking over the resume of an applicant and sees that he worked in local TV for a long time. He was doing background checks and wanted to know if I was familiar with this particular applicant. In fact, I am. You guessed it; it was The Other Guy. I haven’t seen him for 30 years. If he were sitting in front of me, I wouldn’t recognize him. I barely knew him at the time….but here I was…in a position to influence his professional future. Crazy, right?
Want to know what I said? I told the truth. I said I barely know him, but back in the day; he was considered a genius at what he did. If there was a problem that seemed unfixable, he was the go-to guy. I said I have no idea if his 80’s-era technical genius would translate well to the 2010’s, but I would like to assume he’s kept up. I said I didn’t think I could be much help. The CEO thanked me, laughed a little, and said “you helped more than you know. I thought there was a chance you knew him and I just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t say he’s some kind of knucklehead.” Yeah, he said “knucklehead.”
This phone call kind of gave me chills. Knowing me in the early 80’s, I hope nobody ever calls and checks on my knucklehead status. But, I can’t control that, and here’s the point of the story: When it comes to you: You can control it, starting right now. The decisions you make today and going forward will resonate. If you get into a dispute with someone, they may forgive but chances are they’ll never forget. If you lie to someone, you will never recover from it. If you misbehave, it will come back to bite you. In short, if you’re a knucklehead, thirty years down the road chances are someone will remember it when somebody else asks about you.
So, some things the knucklehead with the microphone would like to do over if he could: remember, when the guy called me, I told the truth.
If you lie to someone, you will never recover from it. Lies lead to more lies. Cultivating a culture of deception is never a good idea in the long run. But there are ways to tell the truth without getting yourself into trouble. I wish I had listened when somebody told me that a long, long time ago….which leads me to another story.
I was in a meeting with a couple of bosses and a few close co-workers. A consultant had been brought in to examine the way we were doing things. In the history of the world, no consultant has ever come into a business and said “I think you’re doing great. I wouldn’t change a thing.” As a young, arrogant, know-it-all knucklehead, I knew this. But, I thought I was smart enough to deal with it. Having always placed a premium on honesty and armed with a preconceived notion, my brilliant strategy was to listen politely and pretty much keep my mouth shut. That worked until the boss looked at me and said “You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. What do you think of all this?” Uh-oh, right? My answer, in retrospect, was poor. I said something like “I hate it. We’re making changes for the sake of change. We’re wasting money with this consultant. We’re not doing anything wrong and I’m not sure I see any value in what he had to say.” Oh, boy…that did not go well. That was a huge mistake. In my mind, I was standing up for my co-workers because THIS GUY was telling us we were doing it all wrong.
I could have answered truthfully, yet infinitely more effectively, by saying “I think I will do everything I can to work within these new guidelines. We all want to be more successful.” See, isn’t that better?
So, fast forward. Three years ago, I’m invited to a Christmas party with a bunch of former co-workers. At the party was the boss who was in the room with the consultant….the one who said I had been uncharacteristically quiet. We’re sitting around, having a Christmas cocktail and swapping old stories and he says, “Hey, remember the time you basically told that consultant he was an idiot?” He was laughing; but believe me, his eyes weren’t smiling. People never forget. Please remember that. And please think of that when you find yourself in positions of disagreement or conflict. Be honest with your thoughts, but be effectively honest.
You’ve been cautioned over and over again about your internet presence. It’s important, so let’s emphasize that again. Despite my knucklehead nature, I’ve been in a position to hire people. We were closing in on a candidate for a high-pay, pretty prestigious position. We had actually drawn up a contract we were prepared to offer. We were impressed. We liked him. We thought he liked us. This was going to be a job with a high public profile here in Shreveport-Bossier. There would be a lot of conversation about community standards. What I’m about to say is common now, but in the timeframe we’re discussing, internet searches weren’t just automatically done. So, it was novel when in the meeting to discuss offering the guy the job, someone said, “Hey, have we done a Google search on him as a last check?” No one had thought about it, but it seemed like a good idea, so off to the Google! First hit: Photos of the guy in extremely provocative poses and clothing in a public setting. Talk about a chill. The temperature in that room dropped ten degrees in the snap of a finger. Needless to say, given community standards at the time, we went in a different direction. I have no idea if that poor guy ever knew what happed to what seemed like a sure thing.
Melinda Gates, speaking to a graduating class at Duke University, talked about social media. She said “if you make the moral choice to connect deeply to others…then your computer, your phone and your tablet will make it so much easier to do. I want you to connect, because I believe it will inspire you to do something, to make a difference in the world.”
There’s wisdom there, but I’d like to add a modifier: a POSITIVE difference. The guy who posted all those provocative photos made a difference, for sure. I can’t say with confidence it was positive.
You’ll hear a lot in the days and weeks ahead about doing what you love, pursuing your dream, being true to yourself. The trick is figuring out how to do that while getting along with your bosses, your co-workers, and your family.
Two of my closest friends decided in their middle-age years that they needed to go to counseling. Maybe were enduring cliché mid-life crises, but they revealed similar circumstances. Both had spent their lives as pleasers: Doing what mom and dad said, doing what teacher said, doing what the boss said, saying what they thought the wife wanted to hear…just to get along. In the moment, they got along just fine. They strung together decades of those moments; but it wasn’t until they realized that they rarely communicated what they really felt, what they really wanted, that they understood how much discontent they had been masking with their benign disingenuousness.
Be true to yourself as best you can. Compromise in relationships goes a long way toward success, in business and interpersonally. But compromise can’t be one-way proposition. It’s okay to express your preferences in a respectful tone. It’s okay to say “You know what. I don’t feel like fried chicken tonight. Can we have hamburgers instead?” Look, pick your battles. Don’t cave in to the chicken.
Mid-life crisis has been mentioned, but that’s down the road for most of you. You’re more likely experiencing a quarter-life crisis. The first time I ever heard that term was in a John Mayer song, ‘Why, Georgia?” We can quote the brilliant philanthropist Melinda Gates or a cultural icon like Oprah Winfrey, who talks about branding yourself, saying “let excellence be your brand. When you are excellent, you become unforgettable. Doing the right thing, even when nobody knows you’re doing the right thing, will always bring the right thing to you.” I mean, that’s Oprah!
But, on this day, for you…I’ll quote that modern-day poet John Mayer, who seems to capture what you might be feeling.
"I rent a room and I fill the spaces with wood in places to make it feel like home But all I feel's alone It might be a quarter life crisis. Or, just the stirring in my soul. Either way I wonder sometimes about the outcome of a still verdictless life. Am I living it right? Everybody is just a stranger, but that’s the danger in going my own way. I guess it’s the price I have to pay.”
Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, touches your life every day, even after his death. Most people I know don’t go a day without touching an Apple product. He famously said “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice.” That’s exactly what my mid-life crisis friends discovered they were doing. So, take that with you. Remain true to yourself, but respectful to those who are influencing you. Think “what will this person say about me thirty years from now?” It may seem ridiculous right now. It did to me, but trust me…it’s not ridiculous, it’s essential.
Everybody wants to be liked, to be respected. But, here’s a sad fact of life: You will meet people who don’t like you from the beginning. Maybe you look different from them or you think different from them or you love someone and they don’t understand how or why. Maybe you have a different view of religion from them; Or, simply because you are competing with them. Competition is very productive, but it can also be unhealthy and mean-spirited. Those things are out of your control. But you can control how you react to them. Believe me, rivals and competitors have a funny way of becoming allies and co-workers.
Do everything you can to rise above the unpleasantness. Moreover, do what you can to not contribute to it. The best way to be true to yourself is to present yourself with dignity and self-respect. It’s hard to do sometimes, especially when you’re surrounded by enormous personalities.
Let’s go back to that legendary meeting with the consultant. What was the takeaway from the unacceptable behavior displayed in that room? Be prepared accept criticism gracefully. You will be working with and for people who know a lot more about what you’re doing that you do. You might not believe it in the moment, but it’s probably true. There’s a line between confidence & assertiveness and arrogance & egotism. Learn to accept criticism and coaching from people who have been blazing that trail for you.
You can find inspiration in the most unexpected places. My current boss asked me to represent the organization at a luncheon for a local non-profit. I admit I was happy for the free lunch, but my expectations were low. I was thinking “those functions are all the same. They need money.” But, no, they had a keynote speaker who was just excellent. I can’t remember his name, but he had a lasting impact on me when he said “If you’re the smartest person in your circle, it’s time to find a new circle.” I came to that realization late in life, but it’s absolutely true.
Where I work now, every day I encounter people who have far more formal education, world experience, and intellectual heft than I ever hope to have. And you know what? I’ve been happier and more intellectually stimulated over the last decade than I ever was all those years working in a TV newsroom. I had a lot of fun. A couple of my closest friends to this day were made in that setting. I wouldn’t trade those experiences, but if I got a do-over, I would modify my own behavior and choices significantly.
My father-in-law once told me it’s okay to fail. I’m glad, because I’ve done that more often than I care to admit. In your life and career, disappointment is inevitable. Rejection and failure will present themselves to you, and they’re never welcome. Ask for help. Ask for criticism. Ask for coaching. Accept them with grace and then do it for somebody else. That’s really all I want to accomplish in our time together today: to present you with stories of failure and frustration and to let you know that you can overcome them; but it’s better to do whatever you can to avoid them in the first place.
Following one of my legendary knucklehead moments, I was quick to apologize. Remember, people have a great capacity to forgive; but rarely will they forget. In that moment, the person to whom I was apologizing for saying something stupid or arrogant of inappropriate thanked me, but was still mad and said “look you can’t un-ring the bell.” Wow. All these years late, my ears are still ringing from that one.
Remember that, and maybe thirty years from now think of this moment. Hopefully a couple of these stories will have saved you from yourself. I wish great success and happiness to you all. Enjoy your celebration.Sphere: Related Content