I was recently asked to give a keynote address at an annual dinner held by my college fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. The dinner is a mix of alumni and college undergraduates, and on the night of the speech I found myself standing in front of a room full of college kids. I hoped that I could hold their attention for fifteen minutes; a tall order in today’s distracted world. The essay below is adapted from that speech.
It seems like only yesterday that I was a bright eyed senior in college with my whole life in front of me, and yet I have somehow reached the point in my life where people think I might have something worthwhile to say to a room full of college students. So I tried to put myself in your shoes and think about what I would want to hear if I were you. First and foremost, I would want to know, How long is this guy going to talk? – well don’t worry, I know the restless mind of an undergrad and I promise to keep my points brief. The next thing I would want to know is what can this person tell me about the road ahead. I know when I was about to graduate from TCU, I was full of energy, hope, and excitement because I knew the world was mine. The only problem was that I had no clue where to start or what to expect. If only someone could give me some insight on what lie ahead.
So that second item – What can this person tell me about the road ahead? – is what brought me to what I want to talk about tonight.
But before I go there, I should give you a little more background about myself. As was mentioned in the introduction, in addition to being a partner in a consulting firm, I also wrote and published a book a couple of years ago called Our Beating Hearts. (Still available on Amazon!) Writing is something that I have done my whole life, but it was always something private, just for me. But in 2016 my wife of 15 years died tragically after a twelve-year struggle with a heart condition and final three-month battle in the hospital, and for reasons that I still do not fully understand I felt the only way to honor her life and deal with my grief was to write a book about our story together. During my time of writing the book, I spent a lot of time reflecting and thinking about everything that had happened in my life since college and I can tell you that a tragic loss has a way of putting everything in perspective. I was 42 years old and an unexpected single father and it was during this time of writing, thinking, and reflecting that I made a list of all the things that I would tell my 22-year-old self. And as I thought about my speech tonight, I realized here was my opportunity. I now had the chance to tell you the things I wish I someone had told me all those years ago.
I actually made a list of “22 things I would tell my 22-year-old self”, but in keeping with my first promise to you tonight, I will only give you the top nine.
Number 1 – The first thing I would tell my 22-year old self is to relax, there is plenty of time to conquer the world. In today’s hyper-paced world where youth is celebrated, and young tech entrepreneurs and overnight sensation social media stars are all you hear about, this may seem like the wrong piece of advice. But in reality “overnight” success is a myth or at least an extremely rare outlier. To be fulfilled in your life and your career, take the time to get good at something and don’t worry if you see others moving at different speeds. They say it takes 10,000 hours of effort to become a master of any one thing, so this means when you start your first job out of college, it will likely be four years before you really understand how to do your job well or even what is really going on. Success is rarely attributable to any one thing, but instead it is the cumulative effect of thousands of individual choices made over many years. So, the key is to be intentional about how you choose to spend your time and what you choose to do. If you lean into your work and into your relationships, success will happen, I promise.
Number 2 – Conquering the world is not what you think it is. I used to think that conquering the world was all about your title and your status at work. Finding meaningful work and a fulfilling career is important and when you are young it is good to focus on these things. You should spend those 10,000 hours becoming the best at something professionally. But, that’s not everything. Relationships matter, friends matter, family matters. Being successful can feel pretty lonely if you have no one to share it with.
Number 3 – Listen more, talk less. In my twenties, I was so certain of myself and the rightness of my opinions and I would share them with anyone who asked, and some who didn’t ask. Trust me, there are some people here who knew me back then and they will probably vouch for me on this. I thought if I wasn’t vocal and stood my ground on all things then I was a pushover and I was not being “true to myself”. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that you can still have strong convictions, but you need to listen to other perspectives and show respect to other points of view. You can learn a lot when you stop and listen, and I mean truly listen, to others and where they are coming from. Besides, in our current age of yelling past each other, quiet certitude and openness will stand out.
Number 4 – 99% of the things you worry about won’t happen, it’s the stuff you don’t see coming that will get you. I used to worry, a lot. I’d worry about world events. I’d worry about messing up at work. I’d worry that I did something to let someone down. I’d worry about all the little things that could go wrong at any given time on any given day. And you know what – none of the things I worried about ever happened. It was the things I never thought about that went wrong. My wife getting diagnosed with a severe heart condition when she was 30. I didn’t see that coming. Becoming a single father and widower at age 42. I can assure you that was never on my list of worries when I was in my twenties. So, I’ve learned that bad things are going to happen, and we can’t predict them. The best thing to do is to live your live and be prepared. Don’t waste time worrying.
Number 5 – On a lighter note – I would give anything if someone had told me that the internet is not a fad, buy Google and Amazon stock. I think that one speaks for itself. I thought that people would get bored staring at screens and clicking on things. I totally missed that one. And I’m telling you this to illustrate a point – don’t be so sure of yourself and your opinions. We all have blind spots, so it pays to test your ideas and assumptions. Some new ideas are good, and some are bad, but you should at least consider them. You might learn something new and not miss out on a great opportunity.
Number 6 – Here is a big one that you need to know. It’s that faith, friends, and family can get you through anything.
I call these three things the “infrastructure” and here’s why. Imagine a city with good roads, a good local government, and functioning hospitals, police, and fire departments. It would be a lot like Fort Worth, which is a great place to live. Now imagine the city gets hit by a massive tornado that goes straight through downtown and devastates the place. (This happened to Fort Worth about 20 years ago.) It would be a terrible experience and rebuilding the city would be difficult, but because the infrastructure was in place, the city could withstand the hit and it would rebuild. If the infrastructure wasn’t maintained and had fallen in to disrepair, there’s a good chance the city would never recover.
Well, belief in a hope greater than yourself, a family you love and who loves you, and friends you can rely on are your infrastructure. These things make life better when it’s going well, and they are what will get you through the darkness when the storm hits. Like roads, hospitals, and fire departments, it takes work to maintain all three, but the benefit of doing so far exceeds the cost. And like our example of a city, the infrastructure needs to be there before the storm his because after the storm it’s 100 times more difficult to build these things if they weren’t already there.
Number 7 – Here is one that is extremely important to understand when you are just starting out. It’s that the world will give back what you put into it, but it owes you nothing.
We all come into this world literally with nothing and that is exactly what the world owes you – nothing. It’s harsh I know. I also know that it doesn’t seem that way most of the time because if you are lucky you have people in your life who love and care for you and look out for you. But I’m afraid it’s true – the world owes you nothing. But here is what else is true. The things you put into the world are what it will give back to you. If you put love, charity, and loyalty into the world then this is exactly what you get in return. If you put hate, selfishness, and back stabbing into the world, then you’ll get that back too. So, you must make a choice – what will you put into the world?
Number 8 – Nothing beats a good pair of boots.
For me one of the best things in life to own is a good pair of hand-made boots that will last at least thirty years. They fit great and look great and are timeless. Of course, they aren’t cheap but if you wear them a thousand times, they are a great value. And while boots may not be your thing, the point I’m making is to invest in things that last. Don’t waste money on fleeting experiences and things that leave you hollow, but instead seek out experiences and things that have value and meaning and make you want to be better than you are.
Number 9 – And finally, here is the big secret of it all, the truth that will make you happy and successful; the special knowledge that will give you the edge over all your friends – hustle and grit are what it takes.
For most of us there aren’t any shortcuts, and the secret to reaching a fulfilled life is to relentlessly show up every day and give it your best. You have to put the 10,000 hours in to become the best at something. You have to work on your faith and your relationships. You have to listen and learn. You have to put your best stuff into the world and invest in those things that last. In short – you have to hustle because there is a lot that needs to get done.
And inevitably you’re going to hit a wall and face setbacks. You might not get the job you want, or someone may let you down. And it’s even possible that the worst-case scenario that you didn’t see coming might happen to you, or to someone you love. It won’t be fair, you won’t like it, and you will definitely not understand, but that will not change the reality. And it will take grit to get though it. And what’s another word for grit? It’s persistence – and I learned a long time ago when I was just a fresh eyed undergrad who was ready to conquer the world, that nothing can take the place of persistence. And twenty-five years later having lived a little life, I can tell you that it’s true.
Persistence, grit, resilience, call it what you will but this combined with the infrastructure that I talked about earlier is why I’m still here today. After my wife died and I grieved her loss and I wrote the book, I resolved to keep showing up no matter how hard it was. I had to for my daughter, but I also had to for my family, my friends, and myself. And through God’s grace and a lot of help from a lot of people I made through the grief and the pain of losing my wife. I also met an incredible woman, fell in love and got married again last year. Nothing can take the place of persistence. And I’m grateful for that dusty old Calvin Coolidge quote I learned when I was a brand-new Fiji pledge all those years ago.
So, I hope you found something of value in these words tonight and that your time was well invested, and most of I want to wish you a safe and prosperous journey on your road ahead.