SUNY Oswego College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Thank you, Madame President.
Almost all commencement addresses are about advice. While profound on rare occasion, more often they are some combination of trivial, pompous, self-serving or incoherent. But they all have one attribute, un-memorability. I have sat through a dozen for commencement addresses myself, and you know, I cannot remember one single word of that advice.
What could I tell you today that would be memorable? I tried a thought experiment in contemplating my task today. I asked myself, could the 61-year-old Peter Bocko of 2014 offer advice of pivotal value to the 21-year-old Peter Bocko of 1975 as he set out into the world? Pretend with me for a minute that this advice could travel back in time and show up as letter in the Riggs Hall mailbox of my younger self in the spring of 1975. Think of the bad decisions that could be rectified, of missed opportunities that could be seized. I actually wrote this time-traveling letter. Would you like to hear it? I brought it with me. (Graduates, I’m trying to be interactive here.)
The letter reads: “Never mind, I know you wouldn’t listen anyway.”
So, instead of unmemorable advice, what I will try to do is present three facts, three useful, actionable facts, and, I hope, three memorable facts.
Here is your part, graduates. You only have to retain these three facts for the next six months, a year tops. Can you do that?
Now, for the facts. Here’s one: Wherever you go, whether a job or grad school, the first people who will engage you will be the cynics, who can’t wait to tell you how screwed up this place is. They will start something along the lines “let me tell you how things work around here.” Do not listen to them. Shun them. Their path is how you become a victim buffeted by life’s injustices. Cynicism only feeds itself.
If you are like me, starting a new job where you are the bottom of the food chain is intimidating. How to act? How to fit in? The fact is that you have more power to create your working ecosystem than you know. I speak with certainty as a senior corporate executive that, while leadership is important in setting the tone and in modeling desired behavior, organizational cultures are built from the ground up, brick by brick. It is how people at every level interact with each other. Your role in leadership starts today, not when you get that first promotion or big assignment or have a business card that says “Senior this” or “Manager of that” or you achieve tenure, if you decide to be an educator.
Act collaboratively and generously and you will create the environment that you will enjoy being a part of.
Is this a new insight? No, it is just a re-articulation of the Golden Rule. Remember? Do unto others . . .? But the fact is, take it from me, it works.
Second fact: We live in a profoundly interconnected world that seems to progressively trivialize the human connection. I have seen in my career how workplace communication has regressed from intelligently reasoned memos, business letters and civilized debates to PowerPoint bullets . . . to emails, emoticons . . . to pidgin texts and tweets.
I confess that I have made my career on contributing to development of consumer electronics technologies that facilitated this trend. These are my sins, and I will pay for them. But the fact I want to share is that there is no substitute for human-to-human connection. When you get out in the world, before you text or craft a punchy, witty email, try walking down to that person’s office and look them in the eye and connect. Or pick up the phone and talk. As a business leader I can assure you it is more efficient. And as a career philosopher I also know that the wonderful and terrible things that you will accomplish in your working life are merely ephemera, and the only thing left that endures is the positive mutual influence that is achieved though sincere and unselfish human connection.
Final fact: You, the Oswego grad, can compete with anybody in this world. I say that with indisputable certitude. What modest achievements I’ve made in my career have been because of my four years here by this lake, not in spite of it. There is something special here. I am so happy that it is as it was 40 years ago. Meaningful relationships that are sustained among professors, students and staff . . . an unpretentiousness that you will not find in the “name” schools . . . a great blend of worldliness and upstate New York values. What are upstate New York values? That which needs to be done can be done together.
Four years ago, you had chosen well. And, because of it, you will thrive. It’s a fact.
(Posted: May 17, 2014)