In his address at Hamilton College’s Bicentennial commencement, A.G. Lafley ’69, former chairman and CEO of the Procter & Gamble Co., urged the Class of 2012 to embrace the choices life hands them because they will learn something from each one they make.
“While you can’t control the twists and turns that will push and pull your life in unanticipated directions, you can control the person you choose to become,” Lafley said. “You can take advantage of every critical choice to reflect your personal values and to achieve your personal aspirations.” He shared a few things he’s learned since he graduated from Hamilton in 1969.
Lafley, chairman of Hamilton’s board of trustees, gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Sunday, May 20, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 462 students received bachelor’s degrees. Lafley was awarded an honorary degree, along with author Peter Cameron, a 1982 Hamilton graduate; Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Letitia Chambers, president and CEO of the Heard Museum; and Eugenie Havemeyer, a life trustee of Hamilton and founding trustee of Kirkland College.
Also specially recognized was graduate Josephine Jones, a direct descendant of George Albion Calhoun, Hamilton Class of 1814 and the College's first graduate.
In his speech, Lafley described the twists, turns and choices in his own life that brought him to where he is today, starting with his family’s move from a small town in Upstate New York to Chicago when he was 15-years-old. This was followed by his first “meaningful life choice” – attending Hamilton College.
Lafley described how, after Hamilton graduation he expected to earn a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance European history from the University of Virginia; instead, “my studies had barely begun in Charlottesville when I won the first draft lottery for the Vietnam War,” he said. Lafley enlisted in the U.S. Navy, starting out in military intelligence in Washington, D. C., and through another twist, ended up being sent to run retail and services businesses at an airbase outside Tokyo.
“This was my first chance to work in a real business,” Lafley recalled, “and surprisingly I loved it.” The business was a retail and service operation for a “small town” of about 10,000 Navy, Marine Corps., and their families.
“Customer service standards were high,” Lafley noted, “But profits mattered because they paid for the recreational services like golf, tennis and swim clubs, movies and bowling alleys.” Lafley said this experience inspired him to apply to Harvard Business School; after completing his MBA there two years later, he accepted a job offer from Procter & Gamble.
Lafley listed for graduates the seven things he wishes he had known that would have helped him “work though some of life's twists and turns with less drama and stress.”
He advised, “Choose to know thyself; who am I? What do I believe? What do I really care about?” Lafley said when he was in his 30s he became aware of the value of a personal mission statement. “It helped me think through my whole life and my whole self….It helped me begin to set personal goals – to coordinate them with my professional goals.” Lafley cautioned that it’s “not a to-do list or a bucket list. It’s a working statement of personal aspiration. What you want your life to be about as you start down that twisting, turning road.”
Lafley suggested that graduates “Choose to be clear about and to live your values. Personal values are non-negotiable,” he said. “There’s little reward in a life of accomplishment that comes at the expense of your integrity and core values,” Lafley remarked. “People watch and judge what you do… not what you say. It’s essential that you earn – and never lose – the trust of those around you.”
Lafley also advised to “accept that change is the only constant in life... I’ve found that those who learn to embrace change will thrive.”
“Choose to see things as they are,” he continued. “There’s no more liberating experience – even if it’s painful – than facing up to reality.” He advised graduates to “Surround yourself with people who will always tell you the truth… With their help you’ll be able to see things as they are,” he said. “When you do you’ll see more opportunities and you’ll make better choices.”
Next, Lafley said, “Choose to become a master in an area where your talents and passion come together. “The best way to identify potential for mastery is to explore areas where your passion and your talents converge…Once you know where to focus you can seek out the people… to help you achieve the mastery you seek.”
Lafley also urged graduates to “Choose to lead the change you want to see in the world around you. Leaders choose to lead because they see an opportunity to make a difference and they act on it.” He said that challenges faced by this generation will “demand leadership – that begins in the communities and neighborhoods in which we live and work.”
The final choice, Lafley concluded, “is where all the other choices come together: choose to be yourself.” He explained, “While you can’t control the twists and turns that will push and pull your life in unanticipated directions, you can influence and control the person you choose to become. Your journey begins with knowing yourself,” he said, “but it’s defined by the courage to be yourself.”
Lafley concluded his remarks with some excerpts from Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go.
Also speaking at Commencement was Valedictorian Yinghan Ding (Beijing, China), who told his classmates: “When I first came to the United States at the age of 15, I was an AFS exchange student in a small town called Tryon, N.C. I attended the local high school, and I was amazed by the well-rounded approach to education in the U.S. ... I value highly the education approach here, so I decided to apply for college in the United States. When I searched through colleges on CollegeBoard.com, I was deeply discouraged by the reality: the high cost of attendance would be unbearable for my family.
However, he said, “Because Hamilton respects diversity, it offers equal educational opportunity for young people of all family backgrounds, even international students, whom it can train to become future leaders. Through the generosity of alumni and parents who came before us, Hamilton makes college affordable for all who qualify and want to join, and young women and men are admitted based on their merits and not on their ability to pay.
“That commitment to diversity, opportunity, and leadership has helped Hamilton build its great reputation as ‘a college of opportunity’ and has attracted thousands of talented young people to come and join. I can feel the love from Hamilton, because Hamilton is the place that has made my dream come true.”
Jacob Sheetz-Willard, (Bryn Mawr, Pa.), recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize, also addressed his classmates. He said “As you, Hamilton College’s 200th class, prepare to enter the world, recognize also that this privilege comes with responsibilities. We are called to be stewards of this nation and this planet – politically, socially, and ecologically – and we cannot shirk our obligations.
“As members of the millennial generation, we may easily feel disunited, disconnected, and cut-off. Technological innovation and political centralization have drawn us away from the communal bonds that have formed the bedrock of human identity since time immemorial.
“What we need now is a bit of humility and a holistic conception of the self to inform our vision of the future. Our actions have consequences that extend far beyond our own lives. We cannot afford, therefore, to live as atomized individuals. As members of a human community, we have the opportunity, as well as the obligation to care for our neighbors, and those less fortunate than ourselves, to promote freedom in all of its manifestations, to ensure the longevity of democratic political institutions, to live conscientiously, and to make ethical choices in our everyday lives,” said Sheetz-Willard.