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Looking To The Future
On May 16, 2010, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon gave the commencement address at Syracuse University. It was a rather controversial visit, to say the least, with many students protesting the appearance of such a big banker (Dimon has a daughter attending the school currently). But I thought the following was pretty good advice for college grads in my audience, as well as other young people. For the rest of us, it is largely too late (wrote your editor with a grin).
I am honored to be here today, but I also know that some of your fellow students have raised questions about me being your commencement speaker. When I heard about these protests, I wanted to understand what was behind them, so I called one of the students leading that movement, and we had a good conversation…I heard her concerns about me, the nation’s banking system and about capitalism itself. Some I thought were legitimate, others I disagreed with. But whether I agree with her or not, I say “good for her;” I’m proud of her for speaking up. In fact, it is completely appropriate to hold me accountable. But what does it mean to hold someone accountable, and how do you make yourself accountable? Today I will talk about what it takes to be accountable, in the hope that it might be valuable to you in years to come.
I want to point out that in sharing my views with you, I do not mean to imply that I did it all right; I did not. Many of the lessons I’ve learned I’ve learned by making mistakes. It takes courage to be accountable. Throughout my life, throughout this crisis in the past three years, I’ve seen many people embarrass themselves by failing to stand up, being mealy-mouthed and acting like lemmings by simply going along with the pack. I also saw plenty of people under enormous pressure who always did the right thing. Graduates, you will soon leave this wonderful community and venture into a new world to get ready for new jobs, new opportunities and new lives. Along the way, you’re going to face a lot of pressure. Pressure to go along, to get along, to toe the line, to look the other way when you see things that aren’t right, and pressure to do things simply because everybody else is doing them. Never give in to that pressure. Have the fortitude to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Don’t be somebody’s lapdog or sycophant. Have the courage to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular, and have the courage to put yourself on the line, to strive for something meaningful, and even to risk what would be an embarrassing failure.
I think Teddy Roosevelt understood this nearly a century ago when he said, “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man – now the woman – who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without erring and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
It takes knowledge to be accountable. Having the ability to speak up is important, but it is not sufficient. If you have the guts to take a stand, what you think is a principled stand, then have the brains to face the facts and analysis and critical thinking….There’s a temptation to come up with simple and binary answers, especially when it couldn’t possibly apply. We should remember what Albert Einstein once said: “Be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Acquiring knowledge must be a lifelong pursuit; it will lead to wisdom and judgment. It will never end. You will learn by reading – and read everything you get your hands on – and by talking to and watching other people, and you especially learn by listening to the arguments on the other side. It is your job to constantly learn and develop informed opinions as you move forward in your lives….
Abe Lincoln used to say, “Good things may come to those who wait, but only those things left by those who hustle.” If you want to be a leader, act like a leader. If you want to be respected and trusted, then demonstrate you deserve it by earning it every day. If you want to be known as honest, not telling lies is not sufficient. Don’t even shave the truth, and make sure your friends and colleagues will always bring you back to earth when you – like we all do at times – are deceiving yourself….
(How) you deal with failure may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. Some of the greatest people of all times – I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi, Abe Lincoln and many others – faced enormous setbacks and have persevered, often against seemingly impossible odds….
The first step to dealing with mistakes is to actually acknowledge them, and it is true that many in (the financial crisis) have denied any responsibility. But in this crisis, there are also many who take responsibility and do something about it. At the darkest moments when it seemed like the whole system was unraveling, I saw men and women in my company, and in many other companies and in the governments around the world who took extraordinary action. They didn’t whine or complain, and when they got knocked down they got up and tried to do something about it….
It takes humility and humanity to be accountable. We all stand up on the shoulders of those who came before us. Humility is the realization that those who came before paved the way. Never fool yourselves into thinking that our success is yours alone. Your success is the result of your parents, the family that sacrificed to give you a better life, your professors and administrators who help you get through your time here at Syracuse, your friends, your neighbors, those who encourage you. In fact, this wonderful country, whose bounties we all benefit from, was built by so many people who made endless sacrifices, often the ultimate sacrifice, before most of us were even born. It’s important to respect what they have done, and to be grateful for it….
In the words of the poem that I love by Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch, yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
And so it takes courage, knowledge, a strong sense of self, a capacity to overcome failure, and a healthy amount of humility and humanity to be truly accountable. These qualities are at the heart of our success as a nation. I’d like you to keep one concluding thought in mind: America’s success as a nation is not a God-given right. It is something that we all must work hard to achieve. If you’ve studied history, you see nations and empires rise and fall. The United States and the world has faced many challenges, some far tougher than the ones we face today. And I am confident that we will recover in the short run. But in the long run, you – the next generation – must continue to conquer the challenges we face. We must confront our health and education systems. It should not be acceptable that in the United States of America, only 50 percent of our inner-city school kids graduate high school. We must develop a real, substantive energy and environmental policy. We have had three major energy crises – it is not acceptable to have a fourth. We must build the infrastructure of the future. We must continue to welcome the best and the brightest from around the world to our nation. These are all serious issues but if we work together, we can fix them.
You all have the ability to carry the responsibilities you face in life. In so many ways, all of us in this stadium are truly blessed. We are lucky to live in this country and to have the opportunities we have been given, but that brings obligations. As you go about your life, remember your country. Regarding what you do, and what you achieve in life, try to leave everything and everybody that you touch a little bit better than they were before. Continue to be true to yourself and your values, be resilient, be honest, be humble, never stop holding yourselves accountable, and you will not only have the kind of life you wish and deserve, you will also do your part to make this country and the world a better place for generations to come.