Thank you Fr. Denning, and thanks, too, to the Stonehill College Class of 2014, your parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends, faculty and administration, and members of the Boards of Trustees and Fellows. I’m honored to be here today.
I’d like to recognize my fellow honorary degree recipients as well. Two PhD's, an Ursuline Sister, and me, a B.A. recipient from Saint Anselm College, which I know most of you refer to by its far more appropriate name, “The Stanford of New England.” So I have a B.A. from Saint A’s, an honorary doctorate from Saint A’s, and now an honorary doctorate from Stonehill. Three degrees. Zero homework. My record is intact.
I have attended my fair share of commencements, and I’ve learned from many of the speeches to which I’ve either listened or endured. At my high school graduation, the speaker was Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York Daily News and Newsday columnist. While I do not remember all of which he spoke, I remember vividly one particularly resonant point. He said that, in the course of life, if you choose to simply help other people, you will be a success. Such a simple, motivating thought: if someone who needs help reaches out to you, go out of your way to help them.
Years later, I was invited to give the commencement address at my high school. So I thought to myself “I really don’t know what I’m doing. And I really could use some help. I think I’ll call Mr. Breslin. I’m sure he’ll help me.” So I got his direct line and left him a voicemail message asking for help with my speech.
He never returned my call.
Then there was the 2001 commencement speaker at my college alma mater. In his speech, he said – and I quote – “As you go forward in life … you will be confronted with questions every day that test your morals. The questions will get tougher and the consequences will become more severe. Think carefully, and for your sake, do the right thing, not the easy thing.”
Ten days later, that speaker, Dennis Kozlowski was indicted and later convicted in one of the most publicized corporate fraud trials in American history.
Then there was my younger sister’s graduation from Providence College where the then Mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci gave a rousing, inspirational talk. Eight years later, Mayor Cianci began a five-year prison sentence for racketeering, corruption, and mail fraud.
Suffice it to say, I have lived long enough and experienced enough in those years to begin my remarks this morning with a somewhat obvious point: Commencement speakers are, by and large, full of crap.
I will try to be the exception to that rule. But don’t count on it.
It’s easy to get up here and speak with young people about their future by sharing personal life and career experiences that appear so well thought out, so well planned. They seem that way because by a certain age, one has the benefit of hindsight, which we all know is crystal clear. I can easily make it seem like anything I’ve achieved, which by any objective measure is greatly eclipsed by the success of my fellow honorary degree recipients, was all part of a master plan that I had when I was your age and which I never, ever gave up on.
Because, as many commencement speakers will tell you, follow your dreams and never quit, because quitters never win. Well, I think just the opposite is true. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is quit what you’re doing and free yourself up to opportunities you never imagined would ever come your way.
When I was a boy, my dream was to play first base for the Red Sox. I gave up on that dream when I made six errors in one Babe Ruth League baseball game. In one inning.
When I was sitting where you are in 1982, my dream was to be a high school English teacher and a basketball coach, to be married by the time I was 25 and be a father by the time I was 28.
0 for 4.
In fact, I lived at home with my mother and father until I was 28. I know what you’re thinking, parents, “Mike, stop ... right ... there.” I got married when I was 39. I know what you’re thinking, parents of Irish descent, “Wow, that’s very young to get married. Why did he rush it?” And I became a father first at the age of 45 and then again at 48. I know what you’re thinking, graduates. “The cost of college is insane, how will you ever pay for it?” For that, I have a simple answer. Life insurance.
I began my career as a newspaper reporter, and a year or two into it, the head of a small advertising agency asked me if I wanted to try copywriting instead. I had no idea what it was, but I figured, “why not?” So I quit being a reporter and started working for the agency. I liked what I did, and eventually, I got better at it. Not because I was particularly talented, but rather because I enjoyed what I was doing, so working hard never seemed like hard work.
Every two or three years, I’d get a bit bored with what I was doing, and I’d quit. Every time I closed a door, another door opened. And with each new opportunity, I got the chance to work in a new medium like radio or television and with bigger and better clients.
By taking one day at a time, working hard and enjoying what I did and the people with whom I worked, I became the Chief Creative Officer and eventually the President and CEO of one of the finest advertising agencies in the country. And after doing that for ten years – ten years to the day – I quit. Make no mistake, I enjoyed what I did. But I had done it. What if there was something else out there that I might like to do? Something I had never thought of? How would I ever know if I didn’t close that door behind me?
A funny thing happened a few months later. I received a blind e-mail from John Henry, whom I had never met before. He asked me if I wanted to meet for breakfast. Finally. FINALLY. My dream job had found me.
John Henry was going to ask me to play first base for the Red Sox!!
Just kidding. He wanted me to play goal for Liverpool.
What he really wanted was my help running the Boston Globe, which he had recently purchased. How could I ever say no? I started my career as a reporter and I paid my way through college working in the Globe library. I saw "The Lion King." I know all about the Circle of Life.
But more importantly, I don’t think there’s an institution in any community with more noble a mission than that of its leading newspaper – serving a free society that is both informed and engaged. Helping to lead the Globe during a very critical time was an open door I had to walk through. But one that never would have come to me had I not closed the previous door behind me.
Today, the class of 2014 will walk through the biggest openest door of your life. Don’t worry about what’s on the other side of that door. Walk through it with confidence, with faith, with excitement, and with a wide open mind. You could not be more ready for what’s ahead. Even though you may have no idea what that is. That’s okay.
With all due respect to commencement speakers across America who implore you to “follow your dreams,” I offer a few bits of perhaps counter-intuitive advice.
First of all, don’t always listen to so-called experts like me. Yesterday, I read a great piece in a great newspaper about Johnny Joseph. Johnny, where are you? Johnny’s lifelong dream is to be a dentist, and next fall he’ll start at UConn dental school. Johnny, you follow that dream. Because in a few years, my dentist will be retiring and I want to be your first patient. Be gentle, Johnny.
Second, just work hard. And produce something of value every single day.
Do what you enjoy doing, not what others, including your parents, expect you to do. Then, you’ll never work a day in your life. Because it’ll be fun.
Surround yourself with nice, smart people.
You only get one name and one reputation in life. Be vigilant in how you protect them.
Always – always – treat others with respect and with dignity, as you would want to be treated.
If you have children some day, love them the way your parents have loved you.
As a graduate of the Saint Anselm and someone whose transcript says he passed theology and philosophy, I would be remiss if I didn’t have at least one quote from a famous 20th century philosopher. You may have heard of him, Kenneth Ray Rogers.
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em.
Know when to fold ’em.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.
And with that, I run.
God bless the Stonehill College Class of 2014!
– Michael Sheehan