Posted on Jun 13, 1999

President Hull, members of the faculty and administration, parents, family members, friends — and most of all the Class of 1999: it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you today.

As a proud graduate of Union College, and an even prouder parent of three college graduates, I am familiar with the feelings of excitement, joy, and anticipation this day brings.

I recall similar feelings on my very first day at Union, forty years ago, in September of 1959. I had spent most of my life within a radius of about fifty miles of my hometown of Sayville, Long Island. The trip to Union was a big one for me — I arrived on campus with my parents in a black and white 1956 Ford station wagon, and it was the farthest I'd been from home in more than one way. I was the first person in my immediate family to attend college.

It was a different time then — a different world. Alaska and Hawaii had just been admitted to the Union. The Dow Jones was at six hundred seventy-nine — but few people off Wall Street even knew what it was. An epic semi-historical movie, Ben-Hur, was tops at the box office. Today, the Dow is over 11,000, and you hear about it on every street. Today, it's the lines of Europe that are changing, not America. And an epic semi-historical movie holds the box office record. Well, some things never change.

Union too, has both retained its wonderful traditions, yet evolved and grown with the times. I've had the privilege to serve as a trustee, and I've come to all but one of my class reunions. As good as the school was when I was a student, I have seen it become stronger and stronger over the years. The educational experience has advanced, and the campus has grown: it looks terrific. The students — all of you — are far more sophisticated, and even more representative of the best minds in our society than in my day — especially since Union went co-ed.

The first thing I learned at Union was to say, Union College in Schenectady, New York. (Saying it that way pre-empted the inevitable “Union College… where's that?”) Even after the business school (in Cambridge, Massachusetts), I would still say with pride when asked where I went to school: Union College… in Schenectady, New York.

The second thing I learned was that many of my classmates were very, very smart. As an electrical engineering major, I was horrified to discover that so many of them had graduated from Bronx Science, having taken far more advanced courses in high school than I had. I was in a calculus course for two days wondering why the professor was talking so much about special relations — he was from the Midwest — before I discovered he meant spatial relations.

At Union, I pursued things I enjoyed and tried my best to do well. Despite my major, I decided to try History of the English Novel — offered at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. (Yes, they did have classes on Saturdays back then — I told you things had changed for the better.) I'd played football in high school, and at 145 pounds, I expected to play at Union too. And I did, even though the guy next to me trying out for the team was 6'7″ and weighed 250. I also played lacrosse, and was on the wrestling team. But probably the best thing I did was serve as junior and senior class president — because I learned more about my classmates than I ever could have imagined. I was amazed to learn of the variety of their interests — in academia and sports, in civics and the arts. At reunions, it's been great to see what became of these brilliant and creative people who used to be at the Concordiensis or on the football fields or in the labs. I'm always impressed by the people from Union.

I found my time here exhilarating — a time of rising expectations and rising confidence in the future and in myself. Union gave me — someone from a small town –the opportunity to try new things and meet people from diverse backgrounds, expanding my horizons intellectually and socially. I have a great admiration for the school, and I strongly believe that what I learned here has been an important factor in what I've been able to do since. I can see now just how critical my experience was to my career.

After graduation, I joined Eastman Kodak as a development engineer. After a stint in the Army, I went back to Kodak. At that point, my parents thought I was all set: I was an engineer working for a big company, and I was married. When I told them I was going back to business school, they were mystified. The concept of graduate business school was unclear to them, and they wanted to know if everything was all right.

My wife, Gladie, and I were almost unaware of any risk in the venture. We just moved to Boston, armed only with my tuition fellowship. We had no money, having spent all of Gladie's savings the year before to buy furniture, and our parents were not in a position to help. She was about to become our sole means of financial support.

After business school, I took my first job, in management consulting at Arthur D. Little. My parents were again mystified by my career move, and when I told my father I was going to work for a consulting firm, he couldn't get over the fact that at my level of experience, I would actually be getting paid for giving business advice. After a time, my father reached some resolution and said to me one day, “I don't have the slightest idea what you do for a living, but you seem to be doing all right.”

Gladie and I lived then as we do now: with the sense that no matter how satisfied we may be at any given time, we feel that whatever we are doing will not be the last thing we will ever do. We felt then, and we do now, that there will always be another possibility — undefined, but another possibility.

Tom Wolfe has said that the future will be nothing like you imagine. The specific social change that led him to make this statement was one never imagined in his youth — indeed, one that would have caused upheaval and outrage from all quarters at the time. That unforeseen radical shift was the institution in American colleges of co-ed dorms.

The point is, what will seem natural in hindsight may seem unlikely or even impossible now. The developments in my life — these were never things I specifically sought. I just had confidence and a sense of potential. I didn't know where it would lead. I didn't even know that this was the “right” way of thinking — after all, many of my classmates, like many of you, did have specific goals in mind. But the one thing I think I knew even then was that we don't find our paths — we make them. And I started to think about what kind of path I wanted to make — not necessarily where I wanted it to take me. Building that path changed me, and determined my future — just as the choices you make and the paths you build — with your parents, on your own, and with your future family, will determine your future.

I've shared with you a little about my own background this morning — fairly standard, perhaps, for a fellow Union graduate and your commencement speaker. But the point is not what I have become in my life, it's what you have the potential for in yours. In that spirit, I will offer you a few points of advice on your graduation day. After all, it's traditional, and your parents wouldn't feel they were getting their money's worth if I didn't (though I promise not to talk about sunscreen). I've been told on good authority that people can retain three pieces of advice from a speech — but because you're Union-educated, I'm confident that you can handle four.

1) Take risks

I was lucky enough to have a close relationship with my parents, and one thing that my father said to me years ago has stayed with me ever since. He said, “You've always been successful in everything you've tried. So much so, that people expect it from you and take it for granted. I've wondered how you would react if you failed at something.” My father was telling me that I would most likely at some point experience failure and setbacks — like we all do. But what would matter would be how I reacted to them and handled them. This simple observation freed me to take chances, to risk failure, to believe in myself and in my ability to handle the adversity that is inevitable in all our lives.

And I've always found it's better to follow your heart and your instincts, to “dare mighty things” as Theodore Roosevelt put it, even if you do fail. The rewards you reap will be great. And you will find that your greatest opportunities come when you are called upon to take risks or to handle failure. As you build your path, don't always take the safest way, even if it assures easy success. Climb higher, and take risks.

2) Follow your instincts

Many of you are building paths in life that are different from mine — perhaps different from the past experiences of your family, and different from what your friends are doing. Believe in yourself. Follow your instincts. Pursue what you enjoy — whether it's writing or teaching or the arts or the sciences. At my age, no one reflects on his or her life thinking: I probably shouldn't have taken the time to do what genuinely fulfilled me. The only regrets you will have are opportunities not taken.

You may not gain the kind of immediate rewards on which our society places value: fast promotions, high salaries, and so on. Remember, you are building your path, not focusing on specific milestones along the way. Don't just do things simply for the sake of a raise or a promotion or a byline. I forgot this lesson a little while back, when during a conversation with my daughter Beth, I mentioned — as casually as I could — that BusinessWeek had named me one of the top 25 global managers. Her response — which perhaps I should have expected, and I certainly deserved — was, “Oh really? What number were you?”

3) Act ethically

We hear a great deal about ethics and values these days — much of it negative or exclusionary. But when we were young, I think most of us learned basic ethics: Don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal. Share what you have with others. Treat others with respect.

Unfortunately, as we get older, there is a tendency to view things relatively. Don't cheat too much on your taxes. Don't lie to your friends. My third piece of advice: maintain your integrity, your own personal values, and the highest ethical standards.

In our lives, results do matter — as your parents, professors, and graduate school and job applications have no doubt made clear. But equally important — and sometimes even more so — is how you achieve those results. And genuine success depends on your values and your ethics. Always know what you're doing, and why. Sometimes this will be very difficult. Others may tell you that it's impossible to maintain certain values, because that's not the way it's done. For example, some people say that bribery of officials in other countries is part of doing business, and that's just the way it is. Some say that aggressive marketing means bending the rules; otherwise you can't win. I completely disagree. Not only do I think it's possible to succeed while maintaining ethical standards, I think it's the only way.

And treating others with dignity and respect is not only right, but it means that you'll end up surrounding yourself with the best and most talented people. What's more, people will help you in ways you would never expect, or perhaps even know about. People will want to promote you or work for you. Another plus: you'll never have to remember to keep your stories straight.

You may be wondering at this point — Does this advice actually work in the real world — or is it just hindsight? Well, of course it's hindsight — I'm distilling the failures and successes of forty years. But it really does work.

A few years ago, I, like you, embarked on an entirely new adventure — taking a new job at Merck, entering a world in which I was completely unknown, and having to build a new path. The Wall Street Journal reported the investment community asking, “Who is this guy?”

How did I make things work? I made it clear that I was willing to take the risks necessary to lead a company in an industry that was facing difficult times. I made it clear that I was not just in it for immediate results or personal glorification, but for the long haul. I made it clear that I was committed to the values and ethics that informed Merck's 100-year history. I made it clear I was determined to do the right thing — and that I could identify completely with Merck's long-standing philosophy, best expressed by George W. Merck, a former CEO and the son of our founder. He said, “Medicine is for the people, not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear.”

In building your own path, take risks. Pursue your dreams. Don't expect immediate rewards. Pay attention to how you do things, conducting yourself ethically and treating others with dignity, and it will seem natural for you to lead — and you will be asked to lead. High standards inspire the confidence and trust of others, helping to create the conditions you will need to be successful.

Like me, you'll need to inspire confidence and trust among your new colleagues or classmates or professors, and you'll need to get others to share their talents and experiences. This isn't just a management philosophy, it's plain old advice, like I promised.

And that brings me to the final piece, if you've been counting. As all parents know, children rarely spare criticism for their elders, so praise is golden — when we get it. Recently, my daughter Beth paid me a great compliment — without being fully aware, at the time, of its significance to me. We had a guest at dinner who was talking about his experience as a CEO, all the demands on his time from travel and long hours, and his feeling that as a result, he had not been available to his family. Beth said to me later that night, “You were never like that.” Which brought home to me that even if there were some designation of top global manager, it was far more important to my family and to me that I was there when I was needed.

So my last piece of advice is to remember what's really important. As a parent who's been on both sides of a few graduations, I can tell you that regardless of what you achieve according to the measurements of our society or of others, the most important times are ones like today: ones that you share with your family and friends. So let your parents take all the pictures they want to today, no matter how much you want to do something — maybe anything — else. Trust me on this one.

To the Class of 1999: congratulations. You have achieved so much, but you have only just begun. I wish you the best as you build the future, for yourselves and for our society.