Graduation season is upon us. For those of you set to sweat through hours of boring commencement speeches in the coming weeks, my condolences.
But they’re not all bad! I was asked to deliver the commencement speech at Coastal Carolina University’s Wall College of Business, where I taught for several years. So today, I’m sharing an excerpt from my “anti-commencement speech.” By all means, feel free to pass it around to the young adults in your life.
As much as this is a commencement speech, it is also an anti-commencement speech because all commencement speeches are generally the same. What do commencement speakers tell you to do? Go out and change the world. Well, that is garbage advice. And the reason it is garbage advice is because if you spend your time trying to change the world, you will be a very unhappy person. Because the world doesn’t change, people don’t do what you want them to do, and you will be frustrated and miserable. Look at the people who get into politics—they don’t seem like very happy people to me. The goal isn’t to sacrifice your happiness for a cause greater than yourself—the goal is to be happy.
I would say that instead of going out and changing the world, you should instead focus on changing yourself. If there is a person, place, or thing that you find unacceptable, you should accept that person, place, or thing as being exactly as it is supposed to be at that moment in time. Trying to change the world is a bottomless pit of hopelessness and despair. And if you do end up changing the world, it should be incidental to gratifying yourself. Get a job. Make some money. Buy a house. Get promoted. Make more money. Start a business. Have a family. In other words, mind your own business.
The world becomes a better place through each of our collective efforts by working for our own individual benefit. When you start a business, you are paying employees, paying taxes, and you are satisfying customers. By doing these things—getting a job and making money, you are actually making the world a better place. It is when we intervene in situations that we do not fully understand that we actually make the world a worse place.
The other thing that commencement speakers will usually tell you is that money does not matter and that you should pursue your dreams instead. Pursue your dreams. I am here to tell you that money actually does matter, that material things bring us happiness, and that it is very important to have creature comforts and for our material needs to be met. It is nice to have a big house. It is nice to have an expensive car. It is nice to have a big pile of cash in the bank for your retirement. Yes, you should pursue your dreams, but I hope that by pursuing your dreams, you will also be meeting your material needs.
In my case, my dream is to be the best financial writer in the world. I also make a lot of money being a financial writer. My avocation is my vocation, which is another way of saying that what I do is really fun, and I make money in the process. That is all you can hope for out of life.
Money is important. And the amazing thing about money is that we all get to choose how much money we have. I’m being serious. If you want to make a little money, you will make a little money. If you want to make a lot of money, you will make a lot of money. Jeff Bezos chose how much money he has, Mother Teresa chose how much money she had, and everyone in between.
I chose how much money I have. I did not grow up with a lot of money. I grew up in a 1,200-square-foot house in a depressed town in eastern Connecticut. Sometime around age 24, I decided that I wanted money. The path to money at the time was to work in an investment bank. So, I spent two years of my life working 20-hour days, sleeping 2–3 hours a night—yes, this is a true story—in order to get hired on Wall Street. I made tremendous sacrifices. Money continues to be a choice for me to this day. Even now, there are things I could be doing to make more money, but I choose not to do them because they are too hard or I would compromise my ethics. Once you come to this realization, then you have to ask yourself: Do I want money?
Now, this is the business school commencement, so presumably, you are here because you want money. The question is: how much? Because the possibilities are limitless. The United States of America is flawed in many ways, but the one reason we continue to attract the best, most talented people from around the world is because there is no limit to how successful you can be. America is one of the few places in the world where you can drive a Ferrari down the street, and someone won’t throw a rock at it. So, if you want to succeed, there is no limit to your success. And hopefully, you learned something here at Coastal that gives you the theoretical basis to be successful in the future.
But part of being successful is taking risks. When I was 34 years old, I walked away from that job on Wall Street that would pay me seven figures in order to start my own business. And I did this in the middle of the financial crisis. I started a financial newsletter business in the middle of the financial crisis. That doesn’t seem too smart. And it was not going well. I would come into the office every morning, and the first thing I would do was puke in the trash can. Every single morning, I would puke in the trash can because I felt so sick that I walked away from over a million dollars to start this stupid business. But I kept at it. And guess what—over the course of fourteen years, it has grown to become one of the biggest, most well-known financial publications in the world. I bet it all on myself, everything I had, in the middle of the worst economy in the last 80 years, and it paid off huge.
And if you start a business, you will have those days where you ask yourself, “Why the hell did I do this?” And then you solve one problem and another problem and another problem, and then at the end, you get to have some money. That’s all business is—solving one problem after another.
I’ve worked for the government, I’ve worked in big business, and I’ve worked in small business. And I can tell you that being an entrepreneur has been the most fun—by far. There’s nothing like building something, creating something, and being your own boss. You take credit for all the successes, and you take the blame for all the failures. Most of you are probably going to go work for organizations of various shapes and sizes, but I hope at some point in the future, you will get an idea, and that idea will grow into an obsession, and you will take the risk, and bet it all on yourself. And even if it is a failure, you will have so much fun, and you will learn lessons for the next time you decide to take a risk.
I’m also here to tell you that things won’t always be wonderful. Life throws some curveballs at you sometimes. Divorces. Addiction. Mental illness. Sick children. Losing your job. I’ve been through it all. I’m a 9/11 survivor. I’ve been through so much trauma and come out the other side, and everything that has happened to me has only made me stronger.
The one gift we have is that we can choose our response to any situation.