If you told me twenty-five years ago that I’d be the graduation speaker at Cranbrook, my answer would consist of a three letter word – “huh?”

First of all, I couldn’t imagine being a 42 year-old geezer, let alone the geezer to speak at commencement. On top of that, I have little patience and I hate boring, and graduation speeches are generally long and boring. So here’s my promise – I’ll get to the point, it won’t be boring, and I will call it the way I see it.

Here we go. I’m going to say something that you’ll be saying to yourselves later in life: “If I only knew then what I know now, I would have …” Fill in the blank. I would have done something differently, or not done something at all. I would have kept trying. I would have acted on an idea. I would have remembered when it was easy to forget. I would have been bold when the easy route was being shy.

As your commencement speaker, my job is to tell you what I think you need to know now, so that in twenty-five years, instead of saying “If I only knew then what I know now,” you can say “This commencement speaker kicked me in the ass and told me stuff I really needed to know.”

So here, in no particular order, seven things that I think you need to know now. It’s that easy – seven simple things.

1. Don’t do it too soon – I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying don’t do it too soon.

What is the “it” I’m talking about? It is lots of things. Don’t get married too soon. Don’t choose a career too soon. Don’t commit to a city to live in too soon. Don’t rush it. You have plenty of time. Most of you are 18 years old — use the luxury of the time you have to do lots of trying. Try lots of cities, go on lots of dates, explore things you’re not sure you’re good at. If you want to start a business, take time figuring out what you do well before you dive in. If you’re an artist, have the patience to try lots of different styles and mediums before you devote yourself to one.

For me, I was so sure that I wanted to start businesses, that I never pursued my other great passion, creative writing, the way I should have. Rather than take advanced courses in writing, experience a writers’ workshop, and test my abilities, I focused solely on entrepreneurship and starting businesses. I’m not saying I should have been a writer – although who knows what would have come of it. What I am saying is that I didn’t give many other things a chance. And I wish I had.

Nike tells us to “Just do it.” But I would add, “Just don’t do it too soon.” Now is the time to experiment, to play, to have fun, to ask that girl out that might be out of your league, to pursue that internship that might seem like a stretch, to learn something about which you have great curiosity. Do these things, even if some people would tell you that it is a waste of time. It is your time – use it to try lots of pursuits, and don’t commit too soon.

2. Trust your gut. It is always right. Always.

The problem with each of you is that you are way too smart. Your education is too good, you know too many things, you understand each argument on all sides of every issue - you know so much that you can immediately spot the flaw in every good argument, and can conceive of a good argument to support every wrong position. This is your intellect, and it can play tricks on you – it can make simple situations very complicated, and can cause you to ignore opportunities that are staring you right in the face.

How do you explain the Businessweek magazine survey, which showed that the most common undergraduate alma mater of S&P 500 CEOs is the School of Hard Knocks? That’s right – the most common college of top CEOs is that they did not graduate from college. It shows that while education is a major ingredient in success, there must be something else that matters. I call that something else, “trusting your gut.”

I went to Cranbrook, I went to Michigan Business School, and I went to Michigan Law School. My father, who is also my hero, is here today – he started a law firm and anyone on the outside would think that, after law school, I would go into law and someday join my dad’s law firm. My gut told me that I could only be happy as an entrepreneur, starting businesses and taking risks. And that’s what I did, I trusted my gut, and devoted my life to entrepreneurship, my true passion.

Trusting your gut goes way beyond your career. I’m talking about the daily decisions that will help define who you are as a person. These decisions can paralyze you in endless analysis, or you can ask yourself the question – “What feels best to me”, “What is the outcome here that would make me feel right” – and go with what your gut tells you. Let me put it another way. Everyone around you may be telling you to do what THEY want you to do, but only YOU know the path that’s right for you. Take your own path - trust your gut.

The good news is that even if you make the wrong decision, you will know that it is YOUR decision, one that was made trusting your gut, and you will learn from your mistake and make a better decision next time.

3. If you are not the lead dog, the view never changes.

The artists that change the world are those who do something new. The entrepreneurs we remember are those who think differently, who create entirely new products and industries. Doing something different and new is not easy. But unless you do something different and new, you will always be following someone else.

Here’s what’s easy – taking a job, following a predictable path, stepping into someone else’s shoes. That’s easy, but I propose to you it’s not fun, and it will leave you wondering why you didn’t go for something more significant in your life.

Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m that smart, I just stay with problems longer.” The great poet Rilke put it as only a poet can – “Live the questions, and you will find the answers.” Are you willing to stay with the problems longer, to live the questions? Greatness lies not from following what others say you should do, or taking a path that’s already been paved – greatness lies in staying with the problems until you find a new solution. Greatness lies in being the lead dog.

My lifelong business partner, Eric Lefkofsky, and I started a business in the freight and logistics industry. Everyone told us we were crazy – there was no innovation left to be done in the most old fashioned of industries. They told us we didn’t know enough, that we were not lifelong “freight guys.” Well, Echo Global Logistics, which we started from scratch in 2005, is now a public company on the NASDAQ stock exchange, and has been one of the fastest growing freight and logistics companies in the world over the last seven years. It would not exist had we listened to the doubters, if we had thought the problem we saw could not be answered.

And you? How do you become the lead dog? If you have a great idea, have the courage to speak up and do something about it. If you think things should be done differently – political things, social things, business things – then articulate your vision, and start something to make it happen. That little voice inside your head is the voice of the lead dog wanting to get out.

4. Failure is inevitable. Forget trying to avoid failing; you might as well embrace it.

My job, as an entrepreneur, is to fail. That’s right – entrepreneurs fail -- a lot. At best, only one in thousands of start-ups end up being major break-out successes. In the late 90s, my partner and I started a company, and in less than a year sold it for nearly a quarter billion dollars -- paid for mostly with stock of the acquiring company. Then, a year later, the stock we owned in the company that bought us became worthless when that company went bankrupt. That’s failure. But we kept on going.

Fast forward to four years ago. When Eric and I started Groupon along with Andrew Mason, it was not called Groupon. It was called ThePoint, and after nearly eighteen months, our company, ThePoint, had no revenue and not much of a business. A failure. But we did not give up. We kept trying variations on the business model, and came up with Groupon. And the rest is history – one of the fastest growing companies ever.

How about you guys? You need to fail, you need to learn how to fail, and you need to start now. If you’ve gotten all A’s, you better find weirder, harder classes to take, so you can feel what it’s like to get a B. By the way, it feels fine. If there is something you love to do, in which you always succeed, find a way to stretch yourself in that pursuit so that you are exposed to failure. Fail fast. The best time to fail is now – you are young, and you will learn from your failures. No question – I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes, and in my failures I’ve grown the most.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Here’s what I hope for each of you graduates:

# 1: that you try things that have a high risk of failure, be them business ventures, artistic pursuits, educational goals, to name a few;

#2: That you meet the inevitable failures with the enthusiasm and courage to say “what’s next,” and without any trace of stuff like, “I stink,” “I am not good,” or any else of that nonsense; and

#3: That you constantly remind yourself that a life without failure is a boring life, and the only way to hit it big, is to take big swings.

Beauty all around you will help you remember the beauty inside of yourself, and, no matter what profession you choose, will help ensure that the products or services that you make are beautiful.

5. Find a mentor.

Each of you needs a mentor, or two, or more. In Native American cultures, there are initiation rituals involved with becoming a man, and the way you make it through is with a mentor, a village elder who teaches you what you need to know to be a man in society. This tradition has unfortunately not been well translated to our modern world. The problem is that there are not mentors out there waiting to find you, to mentor you. No mentor is magically assigned to you. You must find them.

Most fast track professionals I meet, even the most focused and driven ones, literally wasted years in their 20s pursuing something that made no sense. How do you avoid this? Find a mentor. At Cranbrook you have a favorite teacher, someone you admire in a topic that inspires you. Well, now it’s up to you to find someone in the world who is in a field that you aspire to, and make that person your mentor. What? You never recruited a mentor at Cranbrook? Not a coach, a housemaster, a favorite teacher? That’s a fail.

For me, I was introduced to Sam Zell when I was a freshman at University of Michigan. Sam Zell, for those of you who don’t know, is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. I made it my business to go to Chicago to meet with Sam, to spend time with him, and to show him my entrepreneurial passion. Sam ended up becoming a mentor, and to this day is a close friend.

Who is your mentor? He or she is waiting for your call, waiting for you to reach out to ask for their help, their guidance. That mentor, whom you must find, will be critical as a sounding board as you face important life decisions. He will be critical as a moral compass, to help you make the right decision when there is a fork in the road. Start searching for your mentor – it is worth the effort.

6. Look to your right, look to your left – right now. These people will matter in your life.

I’m not sure this one needs much explanation. The friends you make at Cranbrook will be important to you as you make your way through the world. This is your home base. These people, on your right and left, are your teammates. You have been through a magical part of life together, and you will forever share this bond. My hope is that you have made some true friends, and that you will someday go to their weddings, you will become an uncle to their kids, and you will be there for each other when it really matters. Like right now, for me, as three of my closest friends from my years at Cranbrook are here to share this very special experience with me.

Cranbrook has provided all of us a place of camaraderie, of tradition, of brotherhood. It is now up to you to make good on the opportunity of friendship, to build for yourselves and each other communities of support, guidance, and perspective. You have been there for each other for the past four years. For those closest friends that you have made at Cranbrook, be there for each other through all of life’s ups and downs.

7. Cranbrook-ize your life.

Cranbrook has surrounded you with beauty, but the world is not always beautiful – you need to deliberately seek out beauty. You can’t help it here at Cranbrook – you walk from one class to the next, you look out any window, and there it is – beauty worthy of coffee table books, worthy of guided tours, celebrated gardens, iconic arches. Well, when you are looking out your dorm room at a small patch of grass, or looking out your tiny walk-up apartment in New York City at the wall of the next building, or looking out your office window into another office, this is what I’m talking about – you need to seek beauty. Cranbrook-ize your life.

Take a walk, sit under a tree, find great architecture, and make beauty a part of every day of your life. Beauty all around you will help you remember the beauty inside of yourself, and, no matter what profession you choose, will help ensure that the products or services that you make are beautiful. We men might discount the power of beauty and design, but the influence of Steve Jobs is enough to remind us of the importance of beauty in life and the power of great design. And you have a head start having lived a Cranbrook life – just make sure you seek out beauty, no matter how hard it is to find.

So, before I conclude, please join me in a deep breath …

As the very last person to give a speech to you at Cranbrook, allow me to offer a final thought to sink your teeth into. You have spent nearly your entire life being told things. Facts, formulas, problems, statistics – this is what school is normally all about. What you may not fully realize is that our school, Cranbrook, is unique in its focus on not just facts and figures, but also on ideas. Facts help you travel the paths that exist, ideas help you imagine entirely new paths and new maps. Facts are the foundation, ideas are the amazing structures that define a life. Unfortunately, facts, which have helped you do well on tests and get good grades, are only the appetizers. The entree consists of ideas, and no one spoon feeds those to you.

Ideas are what happen when you go beyond what you have been taught, and start to figure out what you think. You have learned that 2 + 2 = 4, but it is your ideas that will help you find when 2 + 2 could equal even more. Your values, your instincts, your sense of right and wrong, your vision of what you can do to make this world a better place – these are your ideas, and they will define what you make of this world. Your parents and teachers have told you all the facts that they can – but much, even most, of what they’ve told you will be forgotten. Why? Because they have told you the ingredients, but it is up to you to do the cooking.

Define yourself not by what you know, but by what you can conceive. Define yourself not by what you do, but by what you imagine. Define yourself by taking your own path, following your own vision, knowing your unbreakable determination, trusting in your sense of what is possible. Facts lay out the dots on the page. Ideas connect the dots. Ideas provide the color. Ideas make art. The art of your life. Define yourself by your ideas.

Gentlemen, you have received one of the finest educations available, in the greatest country and greatest civilization ever known to mankind. You are people worthy of greatness, ready to make a difference - you will impact our world in ways you can only imagine. I wish each of you my best on your unique journeys. And to your families, your teachers, and your friends, I wish to you the power to help these fine men reach their highest potential, and the joy of sharing with these good men their kindness, grace, generosity, and love.

And to the graduates, some day you, too, will be an old geezer like me. Over time, you’ll be giving advice to your children, your students, your employees, and hopefully at a commencement speech. Cranbrook-ize your life by passing along the best of Cranbrook – the beauty, the ideas, the passion, the determination, the great friendships.

Aim high!

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