Life in Reverse

It’s the time of year when many of us celebrate the high school or college graduations of family and friends. I’ve long dreamed of giving the commencement address at a major university. What an honor that would be. I have no illusions that I’ll ever get that opportunity, but I’m ready, nonetheless. In fact, this is what I would say…

Dear graduates,

Find your passion, live a life of integrity, and put the concerns of others before yourself. If you can do those three things consistently for the rest of your life, then your life will have been significant. Your life will have made a positive difference in the world. In essence, from this day forward, you should live your life in reverse, keeping in mind that everything you do will impact your legacy – how the world will remember you. Someday your grandkids will ask, “What was my Grandfather like, or what was my Grandmother like?” How do you want that question to be answered? That is your legacy. And everyone has one. Good or bad, noteworthy or unimpactful, everyone creates a legacy. It is unavoidable.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about each of these three components of building a meaningful legacy.

Find your passion… Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without passion. Building lasting relationships and successful careers both require passion as a renewing source of energy, drive, and commitment.

Live a life of integrity… Make your word your bond. Be dependable and reliable, especially when it is inconvenient. Don’t make excuses; show up on time, all the time.

Service before self… This may be your most difficult challenge, as we live in a self-absorbed world. But try anyway. Just trying will make a big difference.

Thank you very much and good luck.

Too short? Should I have spoken longer, told more inspiring stories, perhaps? Does anyone ever remember what any commencement speaker actually said? What about the speeches, commentaries, sound bites and tweets we are bombarded with every day? Who remembers?

OK, here’s page two of my revised commencement address…

Consider living off the grid. Move to a small town where there is no Internet, no cell phones, no social networking. People actually get to know their neighbors, kids ride their bikes to school, everyone in town gathers for the high school football game. Life is slower, quieter, more meaningful…

As I stand at the podium, I begin to realize no one is listening any more. I’m a dinosaur, hopelessly out of touch with reality. But it doesn’t bother me.

We each have the right to speak the truth as we see it. That is a hallmark of our democracy.

This fundamental principle is being tested across corporate America in the form of shareholder activism. In fact, one of the fastest growth areas for many leading investment banks is providing consulting services to Fortune 500 companies who are fending off attacks from activist investors. The relationship between a corporate behemoth and a small group of activist investors is intriguing, if nothing else. In theory, every shareholder has the right to express his or her opinion of management decision-making. Own enough shares and other people start to listen to these opinions, especially when the performance of the target company hasn’t quite been up to snuff.

Not surprisingly, given the stubbornly slow growth economy, general distrust of large institutions and growing frustration with crony capitalism, shareholder activism is on the rise. And, like most movements, it can have both positive and negative effects. In some situations, large corporations do become complacent and bureaucratic, stifling creativity. These organizations need to be disrupted in order for necessary change to occur.

In other situations, corporations suffer from forces largely out of management’s control, as competitive dynamics create winners and losers despite the best efforts of management. In some of these cases, shareholder activists can be a costly distraction more than a catalyst for positive change.

The difficulty lies in determining whether shareholder activism, like any expressed opinion or viewpoint, will ultimately have a positive or negative impact.

But there is something even more fundamental to commencement speeches, legacies, shareholder activism and free speech – the unending search for truth. Absolute truth, not politically correct, watered-down truth, but unassailable, undeniable truth.

In our world today the truth is elusive. It is almost always relative, multi-defined, and at our worst times, it is completely absent from the fabric of discussion.

Aha, maybe this should be my conclusion…

Graduates, your task is daunting. You have to determine the truth. You have to cut through humanity’s collective BS and find absolute truth. What really matters and what doesn’t. What is worth living and dying for and what is simply crapola.

And once again, good luck, you will certainly need it.

I think this could work…