My advice to grads: Follow entrepreneurial examples

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve long harbored an unusual fantasy. No, not that kind of fantasy. I want to be a commencement speaker.

Each graduation season renews my yearning to join those invited to campuses to shower graduates with their wit and wisdom. I can almost hear the raucous laughter that follows a deftly delivered punch line. I can almost see the tears wiped from eyes moistened by a poignant anecdote. I can almost feel the thunderous ovation of a crowd caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Yeah, right.

I’m neither famous — nor infamous — enough to be a commencement speaker. I’ve never been elected to office or managed a corporation. I’ve never starred in a movie or written a book. More problematic still, I’m not even sure what I’d say or how I’d say it. I’d want to say so much, of course, to articulate in clear and compelling fashion that which I hold dear and believe to be true. But in attempting to deliver something akin to the Gettysburg Address, I’m afraid I’d offer something more like shampoo instructions. Not four score and seven years ago, but wash, rinse and repeat.

Nonetheless, I’ve devoted considerable thought to commencement speeches over the years as if there were a plausible possibility I could be called upon one day to actually make one. I’ve read speeches and noted their various approaches. There’s plenty of practical advice to go around. Wear sunscreen. There’s encouragement to pursue life with joyful abandon, to dance like there’s nobody watching. Carl Hiassen takes yet another approach in his new book about graduation speeches: assume the worst.

What advice could I share? What enduring message could I impart?

At the least I could offer some observations from my vantage point as editor of a business journal — not so much in recounting my experiences, but sharing the collective wisdom of the entrepreneurs it’s been my privilege to interview over the past 20 years. Never wasting the opportunity, I’ve asked them all to divulge their secrets of success. Not surprisingly, some common themes emerge.

Here, then, graduates, are four points I’d contend are worth your consideration. And if business owners and managers draw either inspiration or affirmation as well, then so much the better.

Pursue your dreams. What drives entrepreneurs is their steadfast belief they can not only provide better products and services, but also do so faster and cheaper than their competitors. Entrepreneurs are so confident in their abilities, in fact, they’re willing to assume incredible risks in the process. At the same time, though, they’re also willing to work harder and sacrifice more. Think long about what you want to accomplish. Think longer about what you’re willing to do achieve your goals.

Learn from your mistakes. Continually strive to do your best and resist the temptation to settle for less. Then get ready to fail miserably anyway — at least at first. Most entrepreneurs describe their most instructive experiences as those involving not successes, but failures. Here’s the thing about failure: You’ll learn something that will ensure success if not the next time, then the time after that or, more likely still, at some distant moment when you least expect the revelation.

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Entrepreneurs cite the golden rule as the basis for everything from delivering quality customer services to engendering employee loyalty to developing productive networking connections. It’s an idealistic, but also practical, principle in fostering good relationships of all sorts. Moreover, it will promote personal satisfaction. You’ll feel better about yourself and more secure in the kind of person you’ve become. Here’s a related proposition: What goes around, comes around. Be gracious to one another. Treat the people you meet with respect and kindness. It’s a small world, and you never know when you might encounter those people again or under what circumstances.

Give back. Nearly without exception, entrepreneurs who do well also do good in giving back. That includes philanthropy on a global scale — think the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That also includes charity on a much smaller scale — think of all the mom and pop businesses that donate merchandise for the various fund-raisers here in the Grand Valley. The cynical might argue entrepreneurs remain more motivated by profits than altruism and deem benevolence as nothing more than another marketing opportunity. But I’ve never found that to be the case. If anything, entrepreneurs feel obligated to support the communities that have supported them. Share your time, skills and money. Others helped you get where you are today. Return the favor.

On second thought, perhaps I would know what to say if I ever fulfill my fantasy to become a commencement speaker. I could just pass along the advice I’ve received over the years. What are, in actuality, the not-so-secret elements of success apply not only to business, but also life.