Beating the Odds

The commencement speech I'd give

Posted Sep 06, 2016

Anshv, CC 4.0
Source: Anshv, CC 4.0

A college president invited me to lunch yesterday to discuss the possibility of my giving a commencement address. We agreed that a good topic would be "Beating the Odds."

After our meeting, I decided to draft an address on that topic to give him an idea of what I'd say. I thought you too might find it of value so here it is:

I consider it a real privilege to give a commencement speech. After all, to talk with people at the launchpad of their lives? No better time to be helpful.

That's assuming I can keep your attention. I imagine some of you are hungry and can't wait to get your diploma so you can get out of here and go out for a celebratory dinner. I'll do my best to distract you for a few minutes from thoughts of your favorite–mouth-watering–oh-so-satisfying food.

I have three pieces of advice for you. And no, none of them is "Wear sunscreen." All three are on how to beat the odds:

Point 1: Hook up with a rock star

No, I'm not talking about romance with a drummer-- I'm talking a career rock star.

If you don't already have a great job lined up, consider, instead of being a wage-slave, subject to the pressures of automation, part-timing, temping, and offshoring, starting your own business–but do it with a rock-star partner, someone who's great at the things you're not. For example, if you're great with people but aren't the sharpest crayon in the box, find a partner who is.

But please start an easy business. Most hard businesses—like trying to create some biomedical miracle or app number 55,745,699—fail, even if your partner is a Harvard PhD. Most would-be business owners would be wise to do what many of the 750 millionaires discussed in the book, "The Millionaire Next Door" did. They realized that it's far easier to succeed in business if your competitors aren't superstars. So these millionaires ran businesses that few Stanford MBAs aspire to, what the authors called, dull normal businesses: for example, mobile-home park maintenance, sand-blasting, used truck part brokerage. To that list, I'd add what I call cloneable shoestring businesses: like a flower stand at a BART station, which after you've got it running well, you clone and open one at all the BART stations. So Point 1: Consider hooking up with a compatible rock star and starting a dull-normal business.

Point 2: Avoid time sucks

I'm not talking just about video games, golf, or soap operas. I'm talking about relationships that are a poor use of your time. I'd bet you've seen people's career stalled because of a dysfunctional relationship, and that's before they break up. The breakup can be truly dispiriting. And if they were married, the divorcing process can be a long, expensive legal battle that leaves both parties exhausted. If you're going to seek a relationship, please choose wisely. Maybe it's easy for me to say because I'm old but I beg you, yes beg you, to avoid Bad Boys and Bad Girls. They may be exciting in the beginning but sooooh often, the short-term excitement shape-shifts into a long-term nightmare. So, Point 2: Avoid time sucks such as soap operas, whether on TV and especially in real life.

Point 3: Never look back

You may have heard enough Holocaust stories so 'll spare you my dad's even though it was cool–he did escape from a concentration camp. I'll skip ahead. After World War II, he was dumped on a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx, without a penny to his name, no English, no education, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. What did he do?

Like most of the Holocaust survivors I grew up knowing, my dad found healing not through Holocaust remembrances, psychotherapy, or support groups, let alone by demanding trigger warnings to prevent perceived micro-aggressions and safe spaces to recover from them. My dad found his healing, his living, his sense of meaning in work. And no job was beneath him. So he took a job sewing shirts in a factory in Harlem.

And what did he do at night? Get loaded? No, he went to Roosevelt High School night school to learn English, where, by the way, he met my mom, also a Holocaust survivor–Auschwitz. Anyway, he knew that unless he learned good English, he'd always make little money.

What did he do on Saturdays? Say "I deserve a break. I'm going to watch college football on TV?" No, he went to the owner of the factory and asked, "Can I sell the shirts I sewed for you on the street?" And he bought the shirts for a dollar and sold them for $1.50 out of a cardboard box.

And what did he do with the money? Spend it on cool clothes? No. He wanted to move my mom, my sister and me to a better apartment than the Bronx tenement we lived in with the train right outside roaring 24/7. So he saved up until he could afford the rent on some store–All he could afford was the 200-square foot one at 105 Moore St. in Brooklyn, one of the worst neighborhoods in New York.  If New York is the Big Apple, this was the rotten part, with worms in it.

The store was so small that my dad had to display most of the merchandise on folding tables in front of the store. But as I said, it was a tough neighborhood, so on the weekends, kids would grab boxes of shirts and sunglasses and run away. My dad couldn't afford a security guard so when I got old enough, guess who the security guard? And if you think I look nerdy now, you should have seen me then.

The most helpful moment of my life was one day when I was out in front the store with my dad and suddenly this question popped out of my mouth:  "Daddy, how come you so rarely talk about the Holocaust?" He stiffened, which he rarely did, and said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back, always take the next step forward."

Each and every one of us has had bad things happen to us. But I've had the privilege of being career coach to 5,000 people: some real strugglers and some of the most successful people on earth. And one of the key differentiators is that most of the  successful ones followed my father's advice: "Never look back. Always take the next step forward." I can leave you with no better advice.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.