I was invited to give a graduation address to a small school's graduating seniors. This is what I shared.
Before I begin, I’d just like to thank a few people: Thank you to [redacted] and the fantastic staff here for hosting us. Thank you to [redacted] for inviting me to speak. Thank you to the [redacted] Family for planning such a great event. Thank you and congratulations to students for be- ing here. And finally, thank you parents for supporting them all the way through their high school years and likely, many more years into the future...
Just two weeks ago, I flew back to the United States for four days for my 10 year high school reunion. I was fortunate enough to attend a great high school called Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, USA. Every five years the alumni are invited back for a re- union, filled with pomp and circumstance and eating and dancing, and of course, learning how we can best support the school’s financial future through donations.
My five best friends and I rented a nearby house for two days before the reunion to prop- erly spent time together before diving back in to reconnect with the other 45 classmates we had who would later attend the reunion. The house was nothing fancy, but it has a grill outside and a small fire pit, to which we crowded around and talked until the early hours of the morning, looking up at the stars, and watching the sparks crackle from the fire before eventually disappearing into the crisp spring air.
Around the fire, just like you might imagine from a Hollywood movie, though a really long and boring one, we shared all that we had learned over the last ten years since graduating from high school, what we had enjoyed, what we wish we had done differently, and where we hoped the next ten years would take us.
Of course there were regrets about drinking too much beer in college from one person. Another said he didn’t drink enough beer. One said he wished he had spent more time attending classes. Another said he should have cut class more often to enjoy time in the area surrounding his college campus. One is about to get married to his long-time girl- friend later this year. Others have expressed their youth still has another decade before wanting to settle down.
Although not entirely surprising to me in the moment, nor likely to you sitting here today: everyone has a remarkably different college and post-college experience and I think there are few pieces of advice or sage wisdom that will apply to everyone here today. Whereas I might share the old adage, “follow your passion” or perhaps the opposite, “pre- pare yourself best for a stable career,” I think in 50% of these cases my advice may fall on deaf ears, because you may have already decided to do one or the other.
Instead, what I’d like to do today, rather than share direct advice or guidance to you, is to share three lessons I learned in and after college. I hope that you can take away from these lessons I learned something that can also help you, whether you are planning to study fine arts, accounting, computer science, or even Ancient Greek next year at your school.
And by the way, to the non-graduates in the audience today, can we please give a warm round of congratulations to our fine graduates, who with the help of [redacted] will next year attend many of the World’s top schools. Congratulations!
All of you are traveling soon and embarking on an adventure whose true goal is personal growth. Whether that takes the form of a certification, subject-matter expertise, in- creased maturity, finding the love of your life, or figuring out how to earn enough money to buy your parents that home in San Francisco they so desperately want, personal growth will be at the heart of your journey.
So, you might be asking yourselves, what exactly did I learn in college related to personal growth?
I showed up in the fall of 2008, just ten years ago, to Hanover, New Hampshire, to attend my first term at Dartmouth College. I was pretty set on pursuing something mathemati- cal and engineering focused, I thought. My favorite subjects in high school were math and physics and my senior year graduation project was to build a solar-powered electric car from scratch with the help of classmates. Statistics and calculus were never supremely easy to me, but they were never that challenging either. I thought that I was going to pur- sue a maker or builder career and one in which numbers would play a crucial role.
Little did I know I would never finish a single math or physics course in my time in college.
Instead, during my freshman year, I changed my focus to Philosophy, Economics, and Asian Studies (specifically religions of East Asia). Had I stayed for all four years of school, I would have graduated with a triple major, but as I will share with you momentarily, what I learned is that reflecting on plans and pains can lead to growth in unexpected places.
So, although I did not finish any math courses, the lessons I learned were still mathemati- cal. Here is the first one:
Pain + Reflection = Growth
The old adage, “No Pain, No Gain,” is certainly true. But what they don’t tell you is that pain without reflection is a waste. In order to grow from your mistakes I found that with- out reflecting on my mistakes, I could not improve at all.
Academically, I found that during my first year in college I spent little time or effort actual- ly engaging with professor’s comments on my work. I would receive a paper back, glance through it, look at the grade at the bottom, and shove it into a desk drawer or folder. It was my interpretation that only the weaker students actually approached the professor for extra help and guidance. Instead, over the rest of my time at Dartmouth, I learned that it was the top students who explored more deeply how they could improve their writing and project work through long discussions with professors and by submitting written re- flection pieces on what they could have done to deliver a higher-quality finished product.
Athletically, I was fortunate to play on a competitive NCAA Division I athletics team. We dedicated nearly 30 hours per week to training and competition and during peak season, often over 40 hours per week. Our coach encouraged all of us to keep training guides and journals, working with our trainers and strength coaches to examine exactly how, where, and when we were lagging behind in our fitness tests. Without reflecting upon key areas of strength and weakness with those who are perhaps more capable or more informed than you, it is so challenging to grow.
To this day, I spent 60-90 minutes per week (generally on Mondays) reviewing my previ- ous week, documenting where my life is wonderful and where my life is just less than that. Honestly spoken, most of us live a very charmed existence. You would not be here today if you were not already in the top few percentile of the entire country of both personal capability to achieve and family capability to support your achievements. But that does not mean you cannot strive for greater and greater versions of yourself at every moment.
I’ve personally found that these weekly reflections not only give my reflections a sense of rhythm and regularity, but also that I am more easily able to hold myself accountable to them.
Pain + Reflection = Growth
The second key lesson I learned is:
Stress + Rest = Growth.
As a competitive collegiate athlete, both my body and brain were continually put under stress: Academic stress from my courses and athletic stress from my sports. What I did not learn until too late is how important Rest is to growth. In much the same way that Pain without Reflection is just Pain. Stress without Rest is just Stress.
The best athletes in the world, such as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant often sleep 10-12 hours per day to let their bodies recover. While this seemed preposterous to me, it seemed less so after I took a course in college where I learned that the net positive bene- fits your body gains from hours 7-9 of your nightly sleep are just as valuable and if not more so than the entire first 7 put together. Unless you are within a 5% minority of the population (so basically of all of us, only the front row here), then you need need need need need to rest to maximize the benefits of the stress you put yourself under.
On a micro level, I found this was also true. Going into college, I was used to spending 3, 4, 5, hours straight working on assignments in high school without breaks. Of course, by the end I was a nervous wreck and completely exhausted. In college, I learned to work for 50 minutes and take a 10 minute break every hour. Soon, I was able to spend an entire day, from 8 am - 8pm, productively working (with a break in the middle of the day for my athletic practice and meals). I could often complete an entire week of homework in one day and then spend the rest of the week enjoying myself. Sometimes I spent a few days in a row studying and then took two or three weeks off from class (Of course in hindsight, that was a big mistake).
What I also found is that staying up all night with friends talking, playing a game, or eating late-night snacks always seems like the right idea. And frankly, in 9 out of 10 times, it is. But sometimes I required the courage to tell my friends, “Hey guys, I need to get some rest. Big day tomorrow.” They might protest for a moment, but in the end, everyone un- derstands the necessity of rest. I wish I knew earlier in my college years not to feel awk- ward or lame or weak by telling my friends I needed to sleep. As a freshman, I tried to cul- tivate a reputation as someone who was “always ready and willing to have fun.” That sounded great in practice, but then when I needed to actually deliver on my reputation, at the expense of my rest, it was unsustainable. I learned the hard way:
Stress + Rest = Growth
The final key lesson I learned is, and probably the most simple mathematical formula of them all:
Your Community = Growth
More than anything I learned in college, I found the people who I invested and spent my time with defined who I was more than anything I studied or place I visited. I’ve also since discovered that the most important decisions in my life have not been about my career, but in fact about my friends, my significant other, my colleagues, and my family.
Research from the National Institute of Health in the USA shows that if you have a friend who smokes, you are nearly 50% more likely to start smoking. If you have a friend of a friend who smokes, you are nearly 20% more likely to start smoking. The people around you shape what you say, do, sound like, walk like, and are interested in. For me, I realized too late that the people around me were the most important influence on my life.
As a freshman in college, I sought role models in all the wrong places, unfortunately. Many of them are still friends of mine to this day, but they were not the types of people I truly wanted to become. My closest friends, to put it mildly, were ‘party animals.’
My classmates who loved spending time with competitive, hard-working, and smart peo- ple found investment banking and management consulting were great options. My classmates who loved preferred to spend time with people who valued their health and well-being over making more money are now perhaps working in a fitness or lifestyle brand. And here’s the dirty secret - most them are both equally content with the choices they’ve made.
In my experience, it is the college classmates, teammates, and housemates around you that will generally define your happiness. Looking back, I wish I had:
Selected my early friends more carefully - these are the ones who truly define you.
Spend time with older people in the community - these are the ones who show you the paths of your future.
Strived to actively meet people who are very different than me - these are the ones who cause you to re-evaluate yourself and the beliefs you hold so dearly.
I was fortunate enough to graduate from Dartmouth after only three years because I had worked hard and had enough course credits to graduate. So, rather than stick around on campus, I moved to China and spent seven months in rural Anhui province learning Chi- nese and exposing myself more to Chinese culture. It was in this moment, when every single person around me was very different than me, that I truly realized the meaning of your community defining you.
I realized that you find comfort among those who are similar to you and growth from those who challenge you.
Your Community = Growth
You will come out of college or university a different person than you went in. This is ac- tually the goal of college or university, believe it or not. And if you remember these three simple mathematical formulas, I hope you will find the growth you are looking for in your- self.
Pain + Reflection = Growth Stress + Rest = Growth Your Community = Growth
Rather than seeing college as a time to tick boxes and prepare for the next step, please view it as an opportunity to grow as an individual. The habits of growth you form during college are likely to define how quote unquote successful you will be in your twenties and thirties.
These habits of growth are: to reflect on your mistakes and grow from them, to take enough rest when you need to, and to invest time with only the highest quality people you can surround yourself with.
Please let me close with the following: I believe that [redacted] is an amazing place and creates such an amazing [redacted] family for these exact reasons. Encouraging you to reflect on your mistakes, taking time for yourself, and investing time with the best people. To close, please help me simultaneously congratulate all of the graduates and thank the amazing [redacted] team and family for their amazing accomplishments, year in and year out.
Have a memorable afternoon, everyone. Congratulations to all!