Graduation Speech at the University of Maryland
Transcript of the Commencement Keynote Address I am giving in the Chapel at the University of Maryland, College Park for the Department of Communication Class of 2011.
Now the chances of winning Powerball are miniscule. Making your own ticket for your own jackpot – well, that’s a different story. This jackpot comes from a sense of accomplishment and you can dramatically change those odds in your favor. It starts with something you already know very well: communicating.
In my experience, you can actually create your own luck by doing three things: 1) get a mentor, 2) do something to stand out, and 3) make a bucket list – that’s a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket.
So I’d like to share a few stories that embody these three actions and hope they will inspire you.
Get a Mentor
When I was in my 20s and trying to figure out how to start a business, I realized that I needed help. I read about a local mentor/protege program where first-time entrepreneurs are paired with experienced business people for one-on-one mentoring. I applied for the program and was interviewed by Barry Friedman, the CEO of a local accounting firm. Note that mentors don’t have to be in your field.
Barry wasn’t much for small talk. He couldn’t pronounce my name so he just nodded and showed me the chair. From the moment we sat down, he started grilling me with lots of tough questions while taking notes on his fresh new pad of paper.
I stumbled to respond to this barrage of very legitimate questions. I started to question myself. In my mind, I felt that I knew very little. In hindsight, I was right to think that.
Finally, the interrogation ends and Barry asks me in a dry voice, “Do you have any questions?” By then my head was spinning. I was very nervous. I felt small. And I had to go to the bathroom. I told him it that was clear I would learn a lot from this opportunity. Then I asked him, “So, what would you get out of doing this?”
He immediately put down his pen and turned soft. “I was once in that chair,” he said pointing to me. “I know you need someone to hold your hand and show you the ropes. I think I can do that for you.”
Barry acknowledged my fears, understood my pain and appeared to be willing to help. He said he had some more people to interview and that he or the program’s director would be in touch.
On the drive home, all I could think about was the benefit of working with Barry. I wanted him to pick me out of the pool of candidates he was talking to. More than wanting it, I envisioned it. I started to visualize both of us working together. I could feel it happening and it felt great.
When you buy a lottery ticket, how do you feel? That ticket bought you the opportunity to dream about how your life could change, how you could get what you want.
To me, working with Barry was that ticket – so I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. That night, I sent him a handwritten “thank you” note. My attitude was now completely different – very positive. No more thinking “why would he pick me?” All I could think was “of course he is going to pick me.”
He picked me.
Sometime later, he revealed to me that I was the only one who sent him a “thank you” note. Nobody else he interviewed even bothered to follow up.
Two years later, Barry and I formed a new venture together called GovCon. We grew to be the largest web portal of its kind and eventually sold it to a publicly traded company.
It all started by saying “thank you” the old fashioned way – in writing. That was 20 years ago. Barry and I have since moved on to build other companies. We still meet for lunch every month to learn from each other.
You don’t need a structured program to get a mentor. If a high school student came to you and asked for advice on going to college here at Maryland, what would you do? Almost every single one of you would help. It is our nature as human beings to help others.
So dream with me for a minute. Thanks to the Internet, we have all sorts of tools at our disposal to meet people. First, clean up your Facebook and Twitter profiles – employers check those. Then, create an account on LinkedIn and search for the type of person you want as a mentor, perhaps a Director of Communication or another executive. Reach out to them.
Tell them you just graduated and that you are looking for a mentor – not a job. Tell them that you admire what they have accomplished and that you would like to model your career that way. Ask if you could take them out to lunch to get advice. If they’re too busy for lunch, ask for a 15 minute phone call. Be prepared to ask them questions.
Do this with 10 people, maybe 20. I guarantee that you will get several meetings. I would even bet that the executives you meet will pick up the tab for lunch and that some will even connect you to people in their circle who can accelerate your career.
All you have to do is ask. The worst that can happen is they don’t respond or they say no. No big deal.
Be confident when you ask anybody for anything. If you pose a request like this: “I’m not sure if you have the time or want to do this, but I was wondering if you could you look this over for me?” you are predisposing a negative response.
On the other hand if you say something like “I’m looking for a little guidance on an idea I’m tossing around and I think you would be the perfect person to hash this out with. Do you have a few minutes Tuesday afternoon?” you dramatically increase the influence you have. These little techniques completely change the luck in your life. Use them to make and to nurture connections.
The next thing to create your own luck: do something to stand out.
As I grew my first company, I started to attend a lot of networking events to meet people and build my base of contacts. A quick tip: print up some business cards with your phone number, email and LinkedIn page and keep them with you always. You never know when you will make a connection.
At one large event I attended – about 400 people, Tim Draper, the venture capitalist who funded Hotmail, was asked to listen to one-minute business pitches by three volunteers from the audience. The first two gave their pitch and Tim provided his comments. Last at bat was Frank Llosa. Frank knew that one minute to pitch a business idea was very short. He needed more time. He needed to create a memorable moment.
When the clock started, Frank just stood at the podium. He looked calm, though he was probably nervous. He didn’t say anything. He casually looked at the audience, then his watch. Thirty seconds ticked by and he still hadn’t uttered a word. By then the audience had started to giggle, some were laughing. He knew he had everybody’s full attention.
With fifteen seconds left in his minute, Frank started to blurt out his pitch as fast as he could. He sounded like the Fedex guy in those old commercials. He barely finished when the buzzer rang and he had the crowd in stitches. After the event, Frank had a mob around him. He had bought more time. His tactic isn’t appropriate for every opportunity, but he took a calculated risk and he stood out.
You will have so many opportunities in your life to stand out. You just have to recognize them. One time I interviewed a young man recently out of college for a position at my company. Damjan Pelemis came dressed in a tie, had his cell phone on mute and had several spare printouts of his resume handy in case someone needed a copy – and someone always does.
We talked about his capabilities to make sure he could do the work we needed done. Then, I gave him the opportunity to ask questions. Instead of rattling off the usual list that every manager hears from candidates, Damjan did something completely unexpected. My company makes an online email marketing tool which has a free trial option. Prior to the interview, Damjan had created a trial account, tested our service, and printed out pages that he thought we could improve. Instead of asking generic questions, he was able to ask very specific ones.
We were blown away, but there was more. He had created trial accounts on several of our competitor’s services and brought printouts of those, too. We ended up having a long dialog about how to make our company’s products better than the competition’s. This experience was so different than every other candidate we spoke with. By the end of the interview, Damjan had me eating out of his hand. We offered him a job immediately.
All it took on his part was one or two hours of preparation. That’s it.
If you say to yourself “This won’t happen for me, I can’t do that,” you are right and the universe responds with “This won’t happen for her, she can’t do that.”
If you say “I’m definitely going to do that no matter what it takes,” you are also right and the universe responds with “she’s definitely going to do that and blow past any obstacle in her way.”
Your attitude is critical. So is deciding what you want.
The third action to creating luck: make a bucket list
When I sold my first company, I was 35 years and 2 weeks old. In my wallet was a large check I had written to myself 3 years prior – the amount on that check was my goal. During my rough moments when I was feeling beaten down, and there were a lot of those moments, I would take that check out as a reminder to myself that the struggle was worth the goal – that the juice was worth the squeeze.
The date on the check was my 35th birthday. I had no way of predicting the timing of our sale and it happened to land within 2 weeks of a mental goal I had set.
I can only imagine what I might have accomplished had I set concrete goals – with dates – right out of college.
If you want something – anything, make a plan and go get it. Don’t wait – it won’t get handed to you. Don’t complain – nobody like whiners. Envision who you want to be and start acting today as if you have already become that person. The universe will take care of the rest.
I mentioned that there were three actions to creating your own luck: get a mentor, do something to stand out, and make a bucket list. There is a fourth. Tell stories. Stories paint a picture. Stories connect with people’s emotions.
In the story, Alice in Wonderland, Alice said to the Cheshire Cat, “Which way should I go from here?” The Cat replied, “That depends on where you want to go.” “I don’t care much where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Today is a big day. Congratulations on your achievement!
Now it’s time to tell your story. Thank you very much.