Hamilton College. A Prestigious institution. Past speakers have included Al Gore, Vice President of the United States; Hank Paulson, head of Treasury and Goldman Sachs; A.G. Lafley, Chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble, and Class of 2013, you get the Hangover guy. The U.S. News & World Report ranking is just shooting upward. Sorry about that. You spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on this education and you get me. It’s like getting steak knives at the end, but —
One thing I would just like to take a moment and say, besides being a very special day at Hamilton, it is also Memorial Day Weekend, so I wanted to just take a second and remind all of us that we all stand here today in the safety of our country because of the unbelievable dedication of the armed forces, the men and women that make us all feel safe and that have given the ultimate sacrifice.
And at the risk of starting this like three or four times, I also wanted to mention Suzanna who was up here just a few minutes ago. Unbelievable. I was fired up just sitting here listening to you — very inspirational. I was with you on the poison frogs. Tigers? They are misunderstood so give them a shot.
So when I was asked to give the commencement speech- I do a fair amount of public speaking for corporate events and things like this. And generally I just go up and talk. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s kind of what I do. And when I was asked to do this, we have these corporate communication PR types that said to me “you cannot do that at the Hamilton College commencement. You cannot do that. We’re going to get you a fancy speechwriter, they’re going to put a thing and you’ll read it —” and I refused to do that, because I feel like I could have emailed that to you. So if I screw this up it is all on me, a hundred percent. You’ll know that I should have read their speech.
The story that I’d like to share with you, that Steve talked about in the beginning, could not have been more unlikely in terms of my own route to where I am today. I grew up about two hours away in a place called Binghamton, New York. My mother worked two jobs as a dental hygienist to make sure that we had food on the table and a place to sleep and so forth. And one thing that was amazing to me now as I look back is if you were really successful you had a job at IBM. And the idea that you could affect culture or politics or invent something or have that type of an impact on the world was just not part of my experience. My mom had taken some courses at a local community college, and going to a place like Hamilton was just not on the docket for our family. That’s not really what happened. Thankfully, and this is a running theme that you’ll see, I was just ignorant enough to think why not? You know, Hamilton seemed like a great place. I transferred here. And one of the things that hit me like a ton of bricks right away was incredible — not only the intellect of the students and the professors — but all of a sudden I felt like I was in the ecosystem of the possible. Things that hadn’t occurred to me before suddenly were all over and in front of me. There were students from all over the country and the world that talked about doing amazing things, professors that would poke and prod you; they would challenge you to think bigger and broader. The thing that I’m very proud of from coming here is that Hamilton truly was the beginning for me. It opened me up to possibilities, to start to think bigger, and to try to be thoughtful and well-rounded. I’m grateful for the liberal arts education that I have.
Try to be as audacious as you can be, as you think about the road ahead. Because, you know, it’s a lot more fun to be adventurous I think. And, as I hear about some of the students you have today, I’m blown away by what this college is producing. If somebody had told me, when I was a kid back in Binghamton, while I was mowing lawns at 14 years old, “don’t worry about all this. I know it doesn’t look great today and it’s a tough road, but someday all the things that you love as a kid: Batman, Superman, and soon-to-be Godzilla, your passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I know you think you can play for them one day, that’s not going to work out, but you’ll own part of the team and get a Super Bowl ring —” I would have told the genie to get back in the bottle and stop drinking whatever it was drinking because it’s just ridiculous.
A lot of those things were stirred up here. They talked about 42 — I learned about Jackie Robinson for the first time up the road in Cooperstown, New York when my uncle took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame at seven; and then here as a college senior I distinctly remember talking to my roommates about what this man endured, about what it would be like to be thrust into that kind of situation and how any of us could even imagine or pretend that you would know what that felt like.
The other thing I distinctly remember from my senior year, and please do not do this or I’ll get a bill or sued or something, but somebody painted the Alexander Hamilton statue like the Joker. And so somehow this is all coming back full circle to me. I guess part of my point is that because you go to such a prestigious college, scholarship is important to you, you demand evidence. You live in a world where you can go online and in two minutes if somebody says “did you see what happened?” It’s probably up on YouTube. Somebody probably videoed it, or they’re commenting as it’s happening on Twitter.
Much more accomplished speakers have stood on this stage, I’m sure for decades, for two hundred years, and told the graduating class “you can do anything. Anything you set your mind to you can do.” That’s fine. I am here to tell you today I am absolute living breathing proof that you can come through anywhere, sit on this exact stage and accomplish things that — if they haven’t occurred to you yet maybe they will in the future — but I am telling you that all those things are absolutely true.
My other message would be don’t be afraid, to as they say, punch above your weight. The times that I felt like I had absolutely no experience with this I have no idea what I’m doing and I am not sure how this is all going to end, that’s when it’s been the most fun and when it’s worked out the best.
I’m going to tell you a story that happened to me just about eight weeks ago that I promise you is absolutely true, because this again is a general theme through my life. I was in Cabo, Mexico with my wife over the weekend and she’s a lot more attractive than I am, right? It’s okay. It’s not even close. It’s very obvious. And so we get down there and over the first 24 hours, like three people say to us “how is your honeymoon going?” And I said “well that’s very nice, it looks like we’re close, everything’s great but we’ve been married actually for quite a while now.” And so we went to dinner one night and as we’re going in the maitre d, the manager of the restaurant turns to me and says “how is your honeymoon?” And I said “well we’re not on our honeymoon but that’s very nice of you to say something like that.” And he stops and he looks at her and he looks at me, he looks at her and he looks me dead in the eye and he says, “you must be very rich, sir.” That’s a true story, unfortunately.
So with that, as you come here to Hamilton you end up with your degrees, make sure that you go after your dreams, goals and aspirations. If you find yourself in graduate school, I don’t care if it’s at Harvard Medical School, Columbia Law School, whatever it might be, if it starts to feel like you’re doing that for somebody else, stop. It doesn’t matter if you decide that you want to be the head of a major corporation or you want to go to a small town to be a school teacher to impart what you’ve learned at Hamilton. Do those things. Because as far as I know, we get one trip around the track. And if you find that momentum is taking you to a place where you’re trying to meet the expectations of friends or families or it just doesn’t feel natural, from my experience, it is not the right thing to do. Follow exactly what you think it is that you should do, and this great gift that you’ve received and this education, and pursue it with vigor.
I’ll also tell you that nobody, even the most accomplished, amazing people sitting here, your roommates that you think that they have it all together; nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen. So if you feel nervous or have anxiety today that you don’t know how this all ends, don’t worry about all that. I promise you everybody, even if they tell you they have the perfect plan, none of that works out very well.
I’m reminded of a story that I heard because some of the times in my life that I’ve thought I failed at something or it was a terrible tragedy, something I wanted to do, sometimes turned out for the best. There’s this Zen master in a village. And there’s a young boy in the village at 12 years old on his birthday, they give him a horse. And the villagers say to the Zen master, “isn’t that wonderful?” And he says, “We’ll see.” The next day the young man falls off the horse and breaks his leg, and they all say to the Zen master, “isn’t that terrible?” And he says, “We’ll see.” The next day a conscript of soldiers comes by and says “we’re going to take every able-bodied young man off to the war” and he can’t go. And they all say, “How fortunate.” And he says, “We’ll see.” And you see how that goes.
So you never know what path is going to take you where, or how all of this ends. When I started Legendary, the year before I was in negotiations with MGM to buy Orion Pictures. I wanted to buy this library, make small movies, and had a big plan; except that MGM ended up selling the company to SONY and some private equity folks. I was absolutely devastated. I could not believe the time and effort and money and energy that I had put into this, and all I wanted to do was to make movies. My friends on the east coast almost had an intervention with me and said, “you have absolutely no experience in Hollywood whatsoever. You’ve never even worked at an agency, and you’re going to screw all this up. Take this as a sign that you should stop.” But again I was just ignorant enough to keep going, and instead of doing that deal our first movie was Batman Begins at Warner Brothers, and the rest is history. So sometimes when you bump up against something just keep in mind that you don’t know how it ends, so just be as relentless as you can with your pursuits.
The other thing I’d like to mention, especially as you go out with a clean slate, listen to your inner compass. Make being a good citizen and a good person part of how you measure yourself and how you think about success. Again, we live in a very complex world. You have incredibly complex problems that you’re going to come up against, and I think if you can constantly think back to whatever those things are that are important to you, as hokey as that sounds, those are the moments that I think that, it is an immeasurable strength to make sure that you make the right decisions.
The other thing I would like to say, that I learned the beginnings of here at Hamilton, there are going to be plenty of moments in your life that you feel that things aren’t fair, that maybe you’ve been slighted, maybe circumstances were stacked against you. Don’t ever be a victim. We always like to say “point the thumb, not the finger” and always ask yourself what could I have done differently? What could I have done to put myself in this situation so that you can always learn something and think back and grow from that.
So as you prepare to go out into the world, I’ll kind of leave you with this thought. Be very, very grateful for the education that you received here. I cannot tell you how important it is to me and how honored I am to be here today. Hamilton will always be a very important part of my life, and the things that I’ve learned here have enabled me to do the things that I’ve been lucky and fortunate enough to do.
So what am I going to do now? Well I’m going to go back to Mexico and I’m going to find that restaurant manager, and I’m going to tell him that I now have two degrees from Hamilton College, so I am very rich indeed.
Thank you very much.