Today, I stand before you as your dean. But I also stand before you as someone who – like you are about to become – was once a newly minted MBA with dreams. Big dreams.
When I was standing in your place, I wanted it all: to maintain my friends; stay close to my family; raise a family; be a good person; pursue my passions and love of sports; take epic vacations; earn plenty of money; pay back my loans; have an undeniably successful career at a great company; and generally have a good life.
As you are about to do, I dared to chase this dream, and it took me around the world. Over 26 years at the management consultancy McKinsey & Company, I traveled to 40 countries, riding the global wave of broadband and Internet and then focusing my work on strategy and leadership development. Ultimately, my pursuit led me to the firm’s peak as a senior partner on the board of directors and then to an amazing new life chapter here at Darden. What I didn’t know then was what a challenge it is to want it all…and stay in balance.
Today, as you contemplate your journey ahead, I believe each of you will be challenged to be an equilibriste.
In French, this literally means a person in balance, but it actually refers to someone who walks the tightrope. As you leave Darden, you begin a journey that will test you as an équilibriste on the tightrope of life.
The hard part is that life is full of constraints: a 24-hour day, many unknowns, and the limited number of seconds each of us has on this earth. You must figure out how to stay balanced on many levels; and it is a moving target.
David Brooks’ recent book, “The Road to Character” resonated strongly with me. In it, he describes that for many, life may can be organized a bit like a business plan. There is a specific answer and objective that can be known in advance. For many of you that may have looked something like this: Get outstanding grades to get into a top college so that you can get a top job so that you can get into a top graduate school so that you can get a better job. As he put it, “If you define a realistic purpose early on and execute your strategy flexibly, you will wind up leading a purposeful life. You will have achieved self-determination of the sort captured in the oft-quoted lines from William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.
However, life may call you in an unexpected way. Some of the elements in the life equation you are solving may move from a given to a variable. The context which had once seemed so stable and sure can morph — such as when a crisis or war or tragedy changes your setting dramatically. While for moments of your life you may be master of your own destiny, life may call you to rise to an occasion, or wake you up to what is really important. For me, when my mother died 24 years ago, my equation changed. Her death made me realize how precious each second is on this earth. Will you be open to what the circumstances of life may be asking you? To reference H. Jackson Brown, Jr., I believe that inside each of you is a hero awaiting the call to action. Be open to the call. Listen to the small voice inside of you. How will you balance self-determination with the serendipity of life?
L’equilibriste considers what inspires him or her. It is hard to be in balance without any inspiration. Take a close look at who inspires you and why. I draw inspiration from my Nana, my astrophysicist grandmother who always saw the good in people. I admire Ron Daniel, the former CEO of McKinsey, who focused the firm on mission, values and servant leadership. I am inspired by Nelson Mandela, who was called to fight apartheid and could have sought revenge, but chose not to.
What do you want to be admired for? How will you measure your success? Will you define yourself by winning at work, or will you seek a broader definition and work to win at what life is calling you to do? The sweet spot is to find both.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege to work at Le Louvre in Paris with Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of “The Art of Possibility.”
We had a lively discussion about the definition of success, which he says is an equation that only you can define.
I found this concept very liberating. When defining my goals, I began to consider not just work but my whole life. My metrics shifted from performance ratings to being a role model for my kids and a greater force in my family. Sure, I needed to work hard and earn money, but by shifting my focus to making others successful, I found greater happiness and balance. The lesson here is that reframing is powerful. You define your life. You define and redefine your success metrics. And you can keep doing it.
The équilibriste must always work to stay on the tightrope. Staying in balance on the journey requires at least three things: (1) tradeoffs and defaults; (2) managing your energy; and (3) staying true to your personal values and character.
1. As you go, be aware of the tradeoffs you are making ... there is always a cost. For example, work will always expand to fill the time you give it. You can stay in balance and steer toward the right tradeoffs by setting the right defaults. Defaults are the passive commitments we make that we seldom notice or even consciously choose. Like immediately checking social media anytime you look at a phone or computer screen. You can reset your defaults to guide yourself toward habits for success. Is exercise a default? Vacation? Investing in knowledge? If your definition of success is happiness, don't forget that it can be as simple as the Chinese maxim: someone to love, something to do, something to hope for...
2. Energy management: L’équilibriste must keep his or her energy in balance. One of my great lessons learned is that managing your energy is more important than managing your time. To paraphrase Jim Loehr, author of the seminal article “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” there are four types of energy: spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual. There are sources and drains of energy, and the équilibriste needs to balance them. I am the kind of person that gives a lot, so it is very easy for me to deplete my energy. My father once told me when I was trying to be superman, that “if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be any good to anyone else.” For me this translated into sleeping a bit more, playing tennis again and singing — three things that give me huge energy to overcome energy drains like overnight travel and negative people. Too many people believe they do not have enough time. By better managing energy, time can be economized. While working on my doctorate, I discovered that I was a much better and more energetic writer in the morning versus the evening. I had assumed I could only write at night after everything else was done. Wrong. I would write so slowly. By writing in the morning, I radically increased my productivity. Managing energy can increase your batting average.
3. Character and values. Dr. Martin Seligman's research on authentic happiness shows that people are most fulfilled when they believe they are leading a meaningful life and are cultivating what is best within themselves. When there is alignment between your noble purpose and your life's work, there is fulfillment. So know why you are doing what you are doing. There is a fine line between working toward a noble purpose versus pursuing some external metric such as money or grades. By focusing on the former, I believe you have a greater chance to achieve the latter.
We each have a moral compass. We need to ensure it does not get out of balance, and Darden has hopefully prepared you well to be a purposeful leader.
Today, we live in a VUCA world — a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I would argue that that is a good thing. It creates many risks, but with risks come opportunity. As you learned in finance, in an uncertain world, the value of options goes up. The same can be said for your career. Invest in keeping your options open. For me, that meant getting my doctorate at age 50.
The world has many huge problems that need to be solved, and business will have to help solve many of them: water, sustainable energy and agricultural productivity for a bigger world, cures for diseases, job creation and ensuring a sustainable capitalistic model. Business can be a force for good if you decide to make it so.
What is the good you seek to make in the world? That’s the big question. Do not worry that you don't know exactly what you will do in 20 years. It would be so boring to know. But do think about whether or not you are investing in yourself and have a plan B.
Your tightrope stretches from the Lawn here at Darden to some unknown future. Life will challenge you and beckon you to fulfill your full potential. May you walk your tightrope as a graceful équilibriste, true to your values, and successful in the life equation you choose to pursue.
In the words of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, may each of you in the great class of 2016 live long and prosper.