Three Things I Learned on Commencement Day

In the last five years I’ve been at Commencement Day at universities around the world – a few times to receive awards and three times as the commencement speaker. But attending both my daughters’ college graduations this year helped me to see how things look from the other side of the podium.


CommencementFirst, college graduations fall in the category of “life cycle” events. At some major events– your birth and death for example, while you may be the center of attention, the events are managed by others and are more important to the people around you. Other events, like coming of age celebrations, getting your driver’s license, getting married, the birth of your children – are more important to you, and those attending are the celebrants at your event.

While our daughters’ graduations felt important to us, on top of mind was that this day was about honoring their accomplishments not ours. We were there to celebrate with and for them. And we were incredibly proud of what they achieved – through their years as college students, they grew smarter, wiser and more prepared for the world in front of them.

Second, for most students, our kids included, college was a halfway house to independence. The morning they stepped onto campus as freshman it was the first day of their own life –they were no longer just a child of their parents. College was the first place they could taste the freedom of making their own independent decisions – and in some of those “mornings-after” – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

At school they had their first years of taking responsibility for themselves. While it may not be obvious to them yet, their college years were a transition from having their parents make decisions for them to making decisions for themselves. Through those years, we lived through a few crises, tried hard not to be helicopter parents and helped when we were needed.

But as independent as our kids and their classmates felt, going to college is still a known path for 21 million U.S. college students. Commencement Day has a sobering finality in that it’s the end of the prescribed path. From that day forward each of these 21 million students now has to search for his or her own path through life

That brings up my third and final observation. At the commencements I attended, graduates were classified by their academic rankings. Outstanding academic performance was noted in the programs and awarded with special honors. Schools reward their students for a combination of intelligence, perseverance and hard work, in the classroom and on the playing fields. But these metrics don’t help kids understand that great grades are not a pass for a great life.

How many of those “A” students will find that after their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript? In fact, in a decade or two, a good number of those “A” students may well be working for those supposed losers who barely graduated.

It’s at the back of the hall where there were a few who see things differently. Who have no fondness for rules or respect for the status quo—these are the kids who are more likely to grow up to create new companies and new industries and push the envelope in directions not visible to those who follow a more conventional path. Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades.

Colleges may not reward resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity. But as an entrepreneur, they matter a whole lot more than following directions, playing by the rules and getting top grades.

Congratulations to those in both the front and back of the room. Your lives are going to be interesting – through very different paths.

Lessons Learned

  • Graduation was their day. We were there to help them celebrate
  • Commencement Day is the end of the prescribed path. Now they have to find their own
  • Great grades are not a pass for a great life
  • After their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript
  • Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades

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12 Responses

  1. Dear Steve,

    I always enjoy reading your posts and the “Three Things I Learned on Commencement Day” was no exception….

    You mentioned that: Colleges may not reward resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity. But as an entrepreneur, they matter a whole lot more than following directions, playing by the rules and getting top grades.

    How true! I can only add that being genetically pre-disposed to OPTIMISM is probably a very important trait and indicator as well.

    I think that Daniel Kahneman, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and the author of the fabulous book: “Thinking Fast & Slow” said it the best about being optimistic:


    Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person — you already feel fortunate.

    An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything.

    If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.

    Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders—not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks.
    Their confidence in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.”

    With warmest regards,

    Oleg Feldgajer – BASC, MASC, EMBA
    President & CEO
    Canada Green ESCO Inc.

  2. So well done and true Steve. Very profound. Look forward to talking with you soon. Congrats to you, Alison and your family.

    Best, Michael

  3. Interestingly, most of my entrepreneurially minded college students were B or B- students at best. It didn’t take me long to recognize this pattern.

  4. Great and thanks.

  5. This is a GREAT post – especially the third point that echoes the evidence of the difference of high EQ vs IQ in terms of life success. And I am not just staying that because I was a back of the room kid now turned entrepreneur!

  6. This is the reality of life. Unfortunately many struggle through it without ever understanding how these issues affect us! Thanks.

  7. Hi Steve, it is awesome to encourage students with entrepreneurial tendencies to go out and make it happen, to never give up, to stay curious, stay frosty, to not let the man get you down. However, you don’t have to throw the idea of good grades under the bus to do so. In fact, doing will probably just end up ruining a cherished mythology.

    I sat in the back of the room, when I attended classes at all, because I have little fondness for rules or status quo. And I got great grades because I had the capacity to do so and I love to kick ass at whatever I do, not because I was a sheeple or thought good grades were some sort of magical pass to success.

    Saying that entrepreneurship and good grades have “at best” a zero correlation (and thus implying they probably have a negative correlation) seems like an un-lean, data-free view. Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg are sexy, empowering and bias-inducing stories. They are not evidence that the list of highly successful tech entrepreneurs with college degrees and above average grades is shorter than the list of those without. They are proof that degrees and grades are not required, but not proof that degrees and grades are at best “meh” and at worst evidence of a millstone.

    If anything, what those famous examples show is that people with enough vision and enough drive to drop out or skip class despite all the pressure to continue, the crazy ones, are showing strong “entrepreneurial rules and status quo resistance.” But that is correlation with personality traits that become evident because the rules and status quo exist to be ignored in the first place, not causation due to some ethereal benefit derived by skipping class, punting homework or dropping out.

    If it is suddenly considered totally OK to get so-so grades and drop out, then I bet you $1 that any entrepreneurship correlation that may exist will disappear. Strength requires resistance to emerge.

    So, although I am confident I would win that bet, I’d rather you give the $1 you’d owe me to your university of choice for scholarships so more kids to get the privilege of deciding to skip class, make lifelong friends and perhaps even sharpen their minds a little along the way. And if they just end up getting bored, dropping out, sticking it to the man and starting the next MSFT, AAPL or FB, all the better! Somebody has to star in “The Crazy Ones v2 – More Different.”

  8. I see another point on your list Steve – they move from dependency to self-dependency… now grading that ability could be fun 😉

  9. “From that day forward each of these 21 million students now has to search for his or her own path through life”

    Arguably, how reality is presented to us by our forebears is too often that we’re executing a known business / life model, whereas we probably never get to problem / solution fit and should always be searching. Mmm, what would the actionable metrics be, I wonder [that’s enough Lean Startup metaphors – Ed. ;)]

  10. @Eric Larson: Jobs, Bill and Zuckerberg are not good examples as bad students.

    Specially Bill Gates was a very good student. The people from the University wanted him to finish the degree he started several times, specially after becoming super rich and famous(his father was already rich).

    Jobs had no money, but he was dam smart.

    When you are out in the world and meet hundreds of entrepreneurs, like I did, you know that the expression [“at best” a zero correlation] is totally correct. Yes, In reality is negative correlation but Steve wanted to be kind with good students. 😀

    I bet Steve knows thousands instead of hundreds so he has way more data than me.

    @Steve: Nice speech.

  11. I really think there needs to be a bigger push for kids to start generating ideas for businesses while in college. I know that many of the pristine schools encourage this, but I would like to see a bigger push nationwide. You have such an advantage on the fil

  12. of course, a bunch of A students are working for a couple of PhD’s from Stanford, at Google. I know it is fun to extoll the virtues of not being a great student, but the more accurate point is that college isn’t only about grades – it is about more than that – and that our best leaders of companies have more to them than just their excellent academic track record. So, those B students who make time for other interests and personal development (in the broadest sense) may well turn out to be better entrepreneurs than the straight A students. But don’t smugly assume it is so – many who get straight A’s find they still have plenty of time for all the extra curricular activities the dropouts and B students attend.

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