The Courage to Take the Next Step

On Sunday, I was honored to speak at my alma mater, Utica College in beautiful Upstate New York. Being back on campus brought back a flood of memories of a very special time during which I learned the fundamentals of communication, established enduring relationships and had a heck of a lot of fun. It also took me back to being a brand new graduate with my whole adult life ahead of me, and all the hopes, dreams and apprehension that came along with that.

In my remarks, I reflected back over my career and offered my thoughts on what I’ve learned and perspective I’ve gained since graduating from college: The Courage to Take the Next Step. While I wrote it for young people about to enter the workforce, I hope you’ll find the advice useful no matter where you are in your career.

Here is my commencement address to Utica’s Class of 2017.

Good morning. Thank you President Casamento, congratulations on a terrific first year in office. Thank you also to the Board of Trustees, faculty and distinguished guests.

Hello graduates — Class of 2017!  I’m excited to be here with you and you should all be very proud of your accomplishment. Parents, family members, aren’t you proud of them?  And graduates, let’s hear it for your parents and the professors that supported you!

It’s great to be back in town…and to be in this arena. It brings back some great memories. It was right here, in 1978, that I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the first time. He was right here.  I was right there. The performance that night was notable because, when he did his legendary slide across the stage, he split his pants. I’ll try not to do the same.

It was great to be back on the campus this morning. That’s a very special place in my life for a few reasons. My sister and I both went here. It’s where I learned to do what I do for a living. Where I learned so much from professors like Kim Landon, who is here today, and Ray Simon who is still with us at nearly 102 years old. The campus is also where I had way too much fun. Who here has lived in South Hall? Did anyone here live in room 260 South Hall? We had a lot of fun there.

Perhaps most importantly, the campus is where, 39 years ago in a crowded, noisy Pioneer Pub, I summoned the courage to walk up and talk to a beautiful strawberry blonde on her very first day of college.  We started dating a month later. Thirty-nine years, two great kids and lot of miles later, Tammy and I have been happily together ever since. I took a chance and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Let’s hear it for Tammy!

I hope your experiences here will always be special for you.

So where do you go from here?  Well, you’re going to go out and pursue your own version of personal and career success. And, doing so will often take moments when you need to summon the courage to take that next step.

And, you know what? I really hope you will take some of the best attributes that I see in your generation and share them with the world.  At Ketchum we hired 625 people last year and about a third were under 25 years old.  What I see from them is that your generation…expects inclusion.  You reject bias and intolerance. You expect your peers and your employers to be dedicated to community service and to have a purpose bigger than just selling things and making money. That all sounds pretty good to me. Our divided world needs a lot more of that. I have high hopes for your generation.

I also see on the employee feedback website Glassdoor that your generation has high expectations for very good in-office snacks and in-office happy hours on Fridays. There, you see? We have already bridged the generational divide: my generation wants good happy hours too.

So how can my generation help yours? Well, hopefully by sharing some of the perspective we’ve gained. So, in preparation for today, I asked myself, “What important lessons have I learned since I graduated 36 years ago?  What do I wish I had known sooner?”

Any thoughts I offer are from the heart, as a fellow alum and as the proud father of two college graduates myself.  And I offer them with humility…as someone who was plenty intimidated and unsure at the start of most of the chapters of my life. College was not pre-ordained for me.  I was a first-generation college student like some of you.  And after college, I didn’t come from a family with connections to the world I was entering.  But I made my way just fine and I’m here to tell you that you’re going to do great out there and I’m honored to offer some thoughts on summoning courage.

You see, as of today, you have given yourself an incredible gift: a head start in life. Only 32 percent of Americans have graduated from a four-year college or university. Bam, you’re in the top third in the country. My advice: don’t squander the lead you have given yourself.

Instead I encourage you to capitalize on your lead and to be courageous because the best things that happen will likely come from taking chances. And remember, as the great Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave person is not one who does not feel afraid, but one who conquers that fear.” Allow me to share four personal stories of my own that I hope will inspire you to triumph over your fears.

My first story is about: The courage to take the leading role.

When I was around 30 years old I was doing very well at an agency in New York when I was offered a big job at another agency across town. It was to be the number two person in their New York headquarters office. I was very intimidated by the job, but I took the leap. We were expecting our first child about a month later, but he arrived three weeks early. So that was on my fourth day on the new job.

You know how they say there are certain life events that cause stress? You want to feel stress? Try changing jobs the first week you become a new parent. I learned the term “provider stress” that week. It had to be the most stressful time in my life. I was freaking out. I lost 30 pounds in a month. I was convinced I had done the wrong thing in making a job move at that time.

You see, sometimes after a big move it can initially feel like you’ve made a mistake. It took a while to believe that I had done exactly the right thing. I joined a great company, loaded with great people and great opportunities. The agency I joined, Ketchum, is the one I lead today.

So my wish for you is to have the courage to take the lead role. Put another way, don’t be the understudy in your own life. What does an understudy in the theater do?  It’s like a back-up quarterback. They study the part of the star at center stage hoping that one day they will get the chance to show what they can do. They watch day after day, night after night as someone else plays the part they want.

Never be the understudy in your own life – standing in the wings, watching others have the life you want. Decide what you want and go for it. Reassess every once in a while if you are in the role you want. If not, envision that role, take the steps and make the changes necessary to get there.  It’s your life. Take the lead.

My second story is about: The courage to bring your true self into what you do.

It’s a popular commencement address piece of advice: follow your passion, only do what you love.  The late Steve Jobs made it the core of his highly admired address to Stanford 12 years ago.  It was first written 2,500 years ago by the Chinese philosopher Confucius who wrote: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  You will love it so much, it will never feel like work. Sure sounds nice, right?

You know what? I think that expecting to love your job every minute of every day might be setting up an unreasonable expectation. You might be setting yourself up to be frustrated and questioning your career choice. Even if you do exactly what you love, sometimes it’s work.

I think a better approach is have the courage to bring what you love into your job. I’m an artist, I like painting, drawing. In my intro you heard that I was the editorial cartoonist at The Tangerine – delivering an acerbic, satirical cartoon every week for two years. I would love to have been an editorial cartoonist for a living, but odds are that would not have been a viable career.  I had a better shot at the NBA. Like it or not, we live in a material world and we need to pay the bills. So I got a real job. Fortunately I like most of it and love some of it – especially directly counselling clients on their creative and strategic challenges. But some of the time it’s…work.

So several years ago I decided to take a bit of a risk and start to build my artistic talent into my role as a leader at the company. It was a way to bring more of what I really like into my job. I started doing rapid whiteboard sketch videos to draw and visually explain creative ideas and concepts to our employees and clients. Initially I worried that none of the other executives were doing it – was it professional or just goofy?  I decided it was good to show that a creative company can be creative at all levels.   And now I’ve done dozens of the videos; you can watch several publicly available on YouTube. It’s helped our business.

So I hope you will bring what you love into you job. It helps you to be more distinctive and it encourages others to be themselves. You’ll enjoy your job more and it will make your company better. We don’t need more people who are exactly the same. Diversity is the heart beat of innovation. So bring your true self into what you do.

My third story is about: The courage to overcome adversity.

We think we tackle life.  Sometimes life tackles us.  When I was 15 our family was in a severe car accident – hit head-on at 60-miles-an-hour by a driver intentionally heading in the wrong direction on the Massachusetts turnpike.  Miraculously, we all survived, but from that moment on, I always knew that your planned path can be suddenly interrupted.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”  While you are pursuing your idea of success, things can happen. Sometimes great things – like huge unexpected opportunities.  Like when UC Professor Ray Simon called me and said that a big PR firm in New York was looking for candidates and was I interested? It was unexpected and a very big break.  But of course bad things can surprise you, like physical or mental health issues. The loss of a job. The ending of a relationship. I believe it’s how you respond to these unexpected events that determines whether it feels like life is positive or negative.

The bad setbacks and your recovery from them are what give you a sense of who you really are and give you confidence to weather adversity even better in the future. It’s what gives you resilience.

Let me ask you, are you a lucky person? I think you are, if only because you’re sitting here today. And in the future whether you’re a lucky person or not isn’t determined by whether good or bad things happen to you. Again, it’s how you choose to respond. I’ve always felt that life is all about great recoveries.  Get good at it and you’ll be the hero in your life, not a victim.

My fourth and final story is about: The courage to make time for what’s truly important.

I’ve traveled constantly for business since my mid-twenties. For years I joked that I always took two bags with me: one was my luggage and the other was the bag of guilt I carried because I was away from my family. So I channeled that guilt into coaching my son’s soccer team for six years and working with my daughter on her many elaborate school projects (made much more elaborate by her frustrated artist father). And we made sure that we took a lot of family trips together. I will always wish I had had more time with my kids, but I’m very glad I made the time I did.

So my last wish for you is don’t let the urgent drive out the important. The urgent always drives out the important. What’s the urgent?  Cleaning your apartment, going to work, Snapchatting, shopping for groceries, getting the car fixed, checking Facebook, picking up the kids, getting to the dentist, paying bills, checking Instagram, buying clothes, doing the laundry, wrapping presents, making dinner.  All the stuff that fills almost every minute of every day.  It can actually fill your entire life.  And next thing you know you’re fifty-seven…and delivering a Commencement Address.

What’s the important?  Family, friends, real relationships with a friend or two that goes beyond Facebook and really means something. A real relationship with your parents or your kids.  A real contribution to your community.  But without some awareness and focus and planning, you won’t make time for the important and the urgent will force it out.  It takes courage to set aside some of the urgent stuff that will always demand your attention to make time for what’s really important. So a few years into the journey, I hope you’ll pause and ask yourself, “Am I focused on the important or just the urgent?”

So, back to the crowded, noisy Pioneer Pub in 1978 and my fateful summoning of courage to approach Tammy. A single moment can indeed change your entire life for the better. So my wish for you is that you are able to summon…

  • The courage to take the leading role and not be the understudy in your own life;
  • The courage to bring your true self and what you love into what you do;
  • The courage to overcome adversity by being the hero in your life story; and
  • The courage to make time for what’s truly important.

One thing’s for sure, Class of 2017, you did something really important today. You graduated. Congratulations on successfully completing this big chapter. Welcome to the rest of your life.  Thank you.

View Rob’s entire speech below…