H. Irving Grousbeck Speech - President’s Distinguished Speaker Series

September 13, 2012

I am flattered to be invited to this special place. Thanks for having me.

Rather than taking any questions you might have during my remarks from the podium, I will leave ample time for them at the end.

Your instructions to me today were quite broad, so I have decided to talk from the heart about some of my passions.

I open with the following thought for your consideration: “Regret for what you have done is tempered by time. Regret for what you have not done is inconsolable.” 

Let’s begin with the question: What matters? Since I know in only a general sense what each of you cares about, I trust that in offering some personal thoughts, a few of them may resonate with you and help you in your thinking as you look ahead. I decided to focus on what I think constitutes meaning in my professional life, so I leave such personal subjects as the centrality of nurturing and being in loving relationships for another forum. 

I have developed several needs that I think together constitute what matters to me. Though I do not come from a particularly advantaged childhood in a material sense, I was blessed with parents and grandparents who constantly espoused basic values of moral behavior and fair dealing, and from them my first need has become to act in a responsible way, to be ethical in my dealings with people, and to really stand for something. Though I have fallen short on many occasions, I still strive toward the mark for the prize of high calling. Further, I have always had a need to push my capabilities, to grow not only intellectually, but in the exercise of good judgment. 

Like most of us, I also seek some recognition from my peers and from others who matter to me. 

Next, as I was able to move into management positions, I developed a strong desire to teach and to inspire those who worked with and for me. Also, a fundamental need to give back, although put on the back burner for some years as I strove to carve out a career, later resurfaced in spades. 

And finally, the need for professional freedom, that is, having the time and the resources to be able to choose where to apply one’s energies. I love the following phrase, whose author was Bo Jangles Robinson, a tap dancer well known in the 40s and 50s, and friend of Duke Ellington:

“Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like nobody’s watching.”

I will try to touch on these various needs as I talk about entrepreneurship and then move on to some more general topics.

These are indeed extraordinary times. In recent decades the buoyant U.S. economy has created a sense of prosperity that has touched every segment of the working population. Despite a loss of jobs in the heavy manufacturing sector over the past 25 years, our economy is generally vibrant, despite the present sharp downturn, and new employment opportunities are being created each year. Those jobs arise largely from entrepreneurial efforts. They arise because individuals had visions that they pursued, and people in the marketplace were willing to buy the products and services flowing from those visions.

Yet most of us feel that we are destined to become observers, highly-paid corporate managers, sitting just outside this wave of entrepreneuralism. Many of us have hoped that some day we might become entrepreneurs, yet statistically most people do not pursue entrepreneurial careers. Fewer than 30% of Stanford Business School graduates 25 years out of school, according to the data we have, classify themselves as having undertaken something entrepreneurial or been self-employed at some point in their careers. Yet some 90% of entering first-year MBA students express a strong interest in owning their own businesses. What happens to derail these ambitions? 

Well, reality intervenes. “How can I worry about being my own boss? I’m just concerned with getting a good job these days, having a life of some kind, and paying off the huge student loans I’ve incurred,” you say. I understand—believe me, I understand.

I offer for your consideration two of my very favorite quotes. They describe sharply contrasting attitudes, which are likely to lead one into very different careers, and indeed, lives. The first is from T.S. Eliot’s classic, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

   “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
   Am an attendant lord, one that will do
   To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
   Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
   Deferential, glad to be of use,
   Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
   Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
   At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
   Almost, at time, the Fool.

   “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
   I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker.
And in short, I was afraid.” 

Penetrating words: an attendant lord, advising the prince, deferential, politic, cautious, glad to be of use, afraid.

Elegant, evocative lines, but a sad portrayal, indeed. 
In contrast, hear these words of W. H. Murray, who led the Scottish Himalayan expedition:

“Until one is committed
There is hesitancy, the chance to draw back,
Always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation),
There is one elementary truth
The ignorance of which kills countless ideas
And splendid plans:
That the moment one commits oneself,
Then providence moves too.

“All sorts of things occur to help one
That would never otherwise have occurred.

“A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
Raising in one’s favor all manner
Of unforeseen incidents and meetings
And material assistance
Which no man could have dreamt
Would have come his way.

“I have learned a deep respect
For one of Goethe’s couplets:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can,
begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” 

Permit me to talk a bit about entrepreneurship, since it’s from that world of teaching, research, and practice that I come. First, how could I become an entrepreneur if I wanted to?

Are they born, like 300-hitters in baseball are said to be, or can they be made? Well, before we talk about characteristics of entrepreneurs, I’d like to identify one thing that you should not bring if you aspire to your own business. Don’t bring capital. Don’t bring money, you say? How can capital be anything other than an advantage to a would-be entrepreneur?

Well, one of the things we teach is that the functions of the entrepreneur and the capital supplier are very different. Nowhere is it written that an entrepreneur needs to supply capital. The disadvantage of having capital is that one tends to define the scope of one’s venture according to the size of one’s resources. Our working definition of entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources currently controlled. 

Now, if you think you might want to own your own company, match your outlook with five attitudes that we’ve observed in most entrepreneurs.

1. An unending dissatisfaction with the status quo. And that has two elements to it. You’re not happy with your status quo and you think you can do something better than it is now being done and build a business around that notion.

2. A healthy self-confidence. A willingness to be lonely, to make tough decisions, to stand on a level of the organization chart with no peers, to have the buck stop with you.

3. What I would call responsible competence. That you feel good at what you do, you think you can do more, and you’re willing to stretch.

4. A concern for detail. There are very few successful entrepreneurs I have seen who are broad-brush people in all aspects of their lives. They may be broad brush in some areas, but in matters that are critical to success they’re meticulous. And if they are not meticulous by nature, they’re astute enough to find a partner who is.

5. And finally, perhaps most importantly, a tolerance for ambiguity. That should not be confused with a love of risk because the best entrepreneurs I know are constantly asking themselves how to shrink risk out of a situation. But it means a willingness to accept an uncertain future. You’re not sure that you have a job tomorrow, you’re not sure that you have an income tomorrow, you’re willing to give up the corporate environment which you know, the peer group, the customer base, the daily routines, and you’ll take on the ambiguity of attempting to establish in the marketplace your vision of a venture.

Okay, you’ve matched up your attitudes with those that I’ve just described and you pass. Maybe not a perfect match along all dimensions, but a pretty good match. How would you begin to become an entrepreneur? How does one get from here to there? From employment to self-employment. I don’t have an idea, you say, I don’t have money, which you’ve told me is an advantage, and I just don’t know how or where to start. I have to pay off my debts. I have, or hope to soon have, family obligations. 

Well, don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps. 

President JFK, in an address shortly before his death in 1963, was discussing the then-current debate among scientists, and in Washington, about the feasibility of sending a human being to the moon. Kennedy cited a short story written by the Irish author Frank O’Connor, one of his favorites. In that story a young boy passed a high wall every afternoon on his way back from school. He gazed up at it each day, wishing he had the courage to climb it in order to take a shortcut home. The afternoons, and the seasons, passed. Finally, one spring day, as he neared the wall, he threw his cap over it. That commitment having been made, with great effort he succeeded in climbing the wall. Only with that mindset, concluded the President, would our country be able to reach the moon.

I hold firmly the belief that entrepreneurship is a reasonable career alternative. Not for all, but for any who might choose it. You don’t need to be impulsive, head-strong, bombastic or flamboyant. You need no operating experience, though it usually helps. In short, to be an entrepreneur there are no external barriers, only those we internally impose.

I am reminded of these words of Seneca, a sage of ancient Rome: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”

A principal issue for you in charting your career path is, “Will I be in someone else’s company, or in my own?” 

I’d like to tell you a story about parades. We all love a parade. Watching one is fun, and marching in one is even better. Parades are full of flash and grandeur, spectacle and bravado. A display of strength and power, an act of triumph, and pride. Parades are all about falling into line, marching in step, wearing a uniform, getting with the program. Make some noise! Wave flags and blow horns, so that people will notice you and perhaps even clap for you. Most of all, parades are about group consciousness. A one-person parade is no parade at all.

I began practicing my parade form in college and in the five years or so that followed, I marched in more than my share. As I marched, I looked up to the front to see the leaders, wearing colorful hats and waving batons. I was careful to keep in step, trying to emulate them.

As you may have guessed by now, I had joined a parade of would-be corporate managers.

Belatedly I came to realize that being a parade participant was for me an assumed identity. The uniform didn’t fit – it became a costume. Suddenly I did not know how to play my assigned instrument – I couldn’t even read the music. I didn’t belong. I was a failure in the corporate manager parade.

The experience ended silently, and without applause. Thank heavens for that, because otherwise I might still be marching.

Somehow I was able to see who it is that I was, and am, and what it is that I love. How could one wish for a greater blessing than that?

You know, we’re always examining the risks of entrepreneurship. Let’s examine for a moment the risks of employment. While the company that employs you will hopefully challenge you, will promote you, will pay you well, will flatter you and will give you buttons to push and increasing numbers of people to manage, it may also acclimate you to its culture, envelop you, and consume your entrepreneurial ambition, energies and perspective. And remember the uninvited intruder in your lives that doesn’t knock before it enters: risk aversion. It creeps imperceptibly into your consciousness and decision-making.

Many, although certainly not all, larger company executives are anything but free. How many of them would love to leave but don’t know how to, where to go, can’t afford it and in many cases don’t dare to. I’ve rarely met an unhappy successful entrepreneur but I’ve met many unhappy successful executives of large companies and partners of consulting and banking firms. Your career should not only be fun, it should serve your life.

In effect we’ve just described a few of the risks of not following the entrepreneurial path. Tilling their soil in their many locations, creating further value for their stockholders, and when asked, you move or move on. And often not having much fun. 

Indeed, someone else’s company vs. your own is more than a matter of how you will spend your work days; it will reverberate to every facet of your life. And yet the decision to become an entrepreneur is made even more difficult because each of you must labor under the burden of all the high expectations of close friends, and of family, and of yourselves. Some of you are the first in your family to go to college. How’s that for high expectations? And with each success you have there are more chips on the table. With each victory come even greater expectations, and in order not to disappoint others or oneself, a safer, more customary “lower risk” career course is often charted. But now we see that there is no absolute career safety, that risk cannot be avoided. Or, as Clint Eastwood said in the movie, The Rookie, “You want a guarantee? Buy a toaster!”

What are the rewards of the entrepreneurial path?

At the top of my list would be freedom -- to stretch my capabilities, to put my imprimátur on a company, to create something, to have an ethical impact on others and to have freedom and financial independence.

Now, I know that it is unfashionable, even considered déclassé, to talk about making money in an academic setting. Money is a by-product, we all say, with our noses firmly in the air. Well, here is a comment about money that I offer without apology. There’s a big difference between being rich and being wealthy. Being rich is having money. Being wealthy is having money and time. The fundamental difference between income and capital. Financial independence when you’re young enough to enjoy it may be something worth working for. It gives you an opportunity to have a second career and a third career, and to be psychologically able to set out in a new direction. Thus, if you stay with a successful business you’ve created, you do it out of choice, not necessity.

It helps as a prospective entrepreneur to cover the critical skills, the value drivers, of the venture that you propose to enter, either alone or with a partner. It helps to have an experienced advisor at your side. It is essential to maintain one’s reputation and high ethical standards, because, as you well know, it takes years to build a reputation, but only a minute, only one act, to lose it. And once you tell a lie, everything else you ever say to that person is brought into question. It’s important to control your anger, to speak more softly and slowly as you get upset. It is desirable to minimize your enemies, because burning bridges is only an indulgence. And respect for others – all other, regardless of station.

My ninth grade algebra teacher once gave us a 40-minute test. The last question, worth 20%: What is the custodian’s name? Though it was December, and we had seen him every day for three months, no one knew his name. He became a person that day, not just a nameless functionary, and our attitudes were permanently affected for the better.

A query worth posing: How can we make a lasting mark in this world? Through the business success we attain? Perhaps, but can you name more than one or two former CEOs of any Fortune 200 company? What names other than Thomas Watson and Lou Gerstner come to mind when thinking of IBM? And these companies only came into being in the last century. A lasting mark? If you accept the premise that ours are but fleeting footprints, the idea of something lasting becomes laughable. But the idea of impact is meaningful.

This past spring I went to a college baseball game. A vendor there who was circulating through the stands selling, etc. had an old rubber chicken, chicken in the basket, etc., etc. He touched almost everyone with whom he came in contact, drawing smiles and banter, and it was real. He lightened, if only for a moment, the burdens of his fellow travelers. That describes impact. I still remember him.

Hear the words of a poem that was found written on a church wall in Upwalthen, England:

    “I will not wish for you riches
    nor the glow of greatness,
    but where ever you go,
    some weary heart shall
    gladden as you smile,
    or a shadowed life know
    sunshine for a while . . .
    And so your path shall be a
    touch of light,
    Like angels’ footsteps passing
    Through the night.”

It has been said that we all go through life with partly broken hearts. Any definition of a success must include service to others. We have all drunk from wells we did not dig. I reject the prevailing notion that pursuit of selfishness has overtaken the possibility of compassion. I ask you to reject it as well. Not just by giving $500 to your local charity, not just by taking a titular position on a hospital board, but by devoting your time and your skills to something worthwhile. Really pulling on the oars and making a difference in areas where you are best qualified to do so.

I would like to read you excerpts from a commencement speech made by Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Quindlen. She has written numerous columns/speeches, including Thinking Out Loud, Living Out Loud, Black & Blue (novels):

“You will walk out of here today with only one thing that no one else has. There will be hundreds of people out there with your same degree; there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.

“Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on a bus, or in a car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account but your soul. 

“People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the lab test results and they’re not so good.

“Here is my resume (she continues). I am a good mother to three children. I have tried never to let my profession stand in the way of being a good parent. I no longer consider myself the center of the universe. I shop up. I listen. I try to laugh. I am a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make marriage vows mean what they say.

“I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I would be rotten, or at best mediocre at my job, if those other things were not true. You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.

“So here’s what I wanted to tell you today. Get a real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast? Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over seaside heights. Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Write a letter.

“Get a life in which you are generous. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister.

“All of you want to do well. But if you do not “do good,” then doing well will never be enough.

“It is so easy to exist instead of live. I learned some years ago that life is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

“I learned to look at all the good in the world and try to give some of it back because I believed in it, completely and utterly. And I tried to do that, in part, by telling others what I had learned. By telling them this:

“Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived.”

Returning to T. S. Eliot’s image, at the end of my days I don’t want the devil to snicker and hold my coat. If I have led well, and stood for something noble, I will not have to worry.

You know, at many schools, including Stanford, we teach our students lots of things we know they will soon forget, because we don’t know how to teach them what they will always need to know. Compassion, commitment, concern, involvement and love.

I submit to you that the saddest phrase of middle age is “I wish I had.”

That regret is truly inconsolable. How much better to be able to say: “With open eyes I have dared, and cherish no regrets.” It’s undeniably tougher to create your own opportunity than to be part of someone else’s, but I’ve been down the entrepreneurial road and it offers unparalleled exhilaration. If you choose to take that path, ignore the naysayers, because very likely your only supporters will be other entrepreneurs and those with blind faith in you. So do it if you will.

Robert Frost quote: 

    “I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ----
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.” 

I have taken some of your time talking about what matters to me both morally and professionally, including an ample dose of reflections on the entrepreneurial path. Yet I take full note that most of you will not become entrepreneurs. I respect your career choices. So in conclusion, to each of you here this afternoon, I offer the following words of Ben Jonson, written in the early 17th century:

   “It is not growing like a tree
    In bulk, doth make man better be;
    Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
    To fall a log at last, dry, bald and sere;
    A lily of a day
    Is fairer far in May
    Although it fall and die that night;
    It was the plant and flower of light.
    In small proportions we just beauties see;
    And in short measure, life may perfect be.”

Upon graduation from this fine school, you will head out to your arena of choice. In this world it is not given to us to lead perfect lives, but we can attain perfection in short bursts, of altruism, kindness, and compassion. My parting wish is that each of you will strive toward that mark, for the prize of high calling.

Thank you.