Students and relatives exit Rutgers University after attending the 250th anniversary commencement ceremony on May 15, 2016 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
I have been asked to give exactly one commencement speech. It was 16 years ago, and as I recall, I talked about saying yes to opportunities even if you don’t think you’re quite ready. It seemed to be well-received, but I felt like an imposter giving it, because I do not have a compelling life story.
I’ve just been lucky.
I would like to be able to say I worked long hours and pulled myself up and bravely went where no one else dared go, but come on!
I grew up with two parents who stayed married for life in a suburb where the only temptations were lawn mowing jobs.
When my parents saw my interest in electronics, they bought me science kits. I was put in the college track in the third grade and stayed with most of the same kids through high school. We had one of the first school cable TV stations and I was chosen as a host.
One of the teachers became editor of the local newspaper and hired me to write commentary when I was 16; my science teacher advised me to apply to Cornell, wrote a recommendation, and by December I was in – early decision!
When I got there in 1969, the campus was in turmoil, and I started reporting for the local radio station. I’ve been working ever since.
So the only advice I can legitimately give to young people is get lucky, which is pretty useless advice.
Therefore, I will direct my remarks today not to the graduates, but to the people whose job it is to hire those graduates. My speech to them would be this: Look for a graduate who could use the kind of breaks that I got. Look for ways to level the field.
Understand not every talented kid is lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to have involved teachers or a stable family, or to have grown up in a neighborhood without dangerous temptations.
Remind yourself that talent is sprinkled everywhere. If you’re able to see the potential that everyone else missed, you can change a life, as well as end up with a pretty good employee.
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