The following is adapted from a graduation speech delivered earlier this spring to Macquarie University Business School Class of 2017.
Where I come from (New York, the US) graduations are referred to as ‘commencements’. However, applying the term commencement to a graduation used to confuse me because commencement means “the beginning of something” whereas a graduation, in many ways, feels like an end. It’s easy to forget that it’s really a diving board and you are on the edge, above very deep water, poised to dive into the future… and no one (not you, not me) really has any idea what that future will hold.
So, in considering what to say today, I remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. In the opening pages, the narrator seems to question the usefulness of his broad education and concludes, and I quote, “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.”
I used to hate that expression. It seemed so narrow, so dismissive and so overly constrained as if it were suggesting that only those with a very particular vantage point could really see the world.
Then a few years after reading that book, I was visiting my uncle, an architect and a photographer, who had finally gotten the chance to design and build his own house on a stunning ridge above Napa Valley in California. The view in 360 degrees was extraordinary but Uncle Dave, being Uncle Dave, had decided the view needed to be framed. Consequently, the vast window in the foyer was contradicted by a really small window on a landing in the stairwell… whole stunning vistas completely walled out.
And here’s the thing: Uncle Dave was right. The big window took your breath away with its sweeping views of mountains and pine trees and distant vineyards; but what the small window offered was profound. You focused and somehow saw deeper, recognised the play of light and shadow on the land, noticed particular features as if for the first time.
This is what Fitzgerald meant. You sometimes see more by seeing less, by setting limits on what you let in and framing the world within very specific requirements.
That is what happens, when you become a professional in something —just like you are all about to. You take a body of knowledge and apply it in a practical way and you frame the world through this practice.
And that’s why when it came to writing this speech, I realised the most valuable thing I have to share with you is the thing I do everyday: using communication to work with startups.
Communication is a very human thing. And it has taught me that business is a very human thing.
Build Communication Into Whatever You Do.
I spend a lot of time helping companies communicate with the rest of the world, with their markets, their partners, their potential buyers, but to make things really successful, a company has got to communicate with itself first, it has got to have its messages straight, its vision shared and consistent. And the only way you get this kind of communication consistency is by working hard at it and being relentless in confronting those things which contradict the message. And the only way you can do this is by taking time to listen and then acting on what you hear.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job Until You Absolutely Have To.
This one is pretty straightforward and it’s especially important for those of you who are considering giving a try at a startup (and I strongly encourage you to). I don’t care how great your startup idea is, it will almost always take longer than you think to get it off the ground. So go slow, don’t quit your day job if you’re lucky enough to have one. Much of the planning and even early running of a startup can be done while you have a full-time job, but what really hurts startups is the desperate need for cash.
Don’t Work With A**holes.
This is a rule that I strictly follow. A**holes are people who are typically selfish, they’re demanding in unproductive ways, frequently, but not always, incompetent, and absolutely no fun to be around. They bring their dysfunction into every situation and relationship and will inevitably cost you time, money and your peace of mind. The latter is especially precious. A**holes can be individual people or they can be entire organisations.
Whatever they are, they will drain you.
When you work with or for them you discover that you bring them home with you after work, poisoning precious hours, and, if you work with others and have obligations to them, you will find the demands and mental space taken up by the a**hole will hurt these people too and the work you do for them.
That’s why, I am very up front with our no-a**hole policy and if I detect that one has somehow slipped past our stringent vetting process, then we end the relationship as soon as possible because the most important thing is to remove ourselves from his, her or their presence. I can’t stress this rule enough.
Now this rule is not always easy to follow, because sometimes it might seem like your whole life is hanging in the balance, the money’s too good, the opportunity too valuable to walk away, the risks too fearsome, the personal confrontation too hard to stomach. This is not about being unkind, intolerant, fussy or thin-skinned, this is not about being precious —if I have to make this decision once a year that would be a lot— this is about identifying when someone or something is toxic to you or your team and then decisively moving on, cleanly and completely. It’s a statement of confidence, and positive intent and it can actually inject health and clarity into your work and your life.
I’m sure you’re already aware of this, but prepare to be disrupted, prepare to have the career that you imagined for yourself, your profession, et cetera, turned on its head by technology.
Artificial Intelligence and automation is moving at an extraordinary pace and it is climbing the food chain fast, picking off everyone from radiologists to lawyers. We’re hearing 40 to 60% of all jobs are expected to be automated within the next two decades —but what the hell does that even mean? My grandmother was born when horse and carriages crowded the streets of Washington D.C. and the lamplighter made the rounds every evening to light the gas lamps. Something big is happening right now, bigger perhaps than that great leap, the twentieth century, that was the life span of my grandmother, and we don’t know where any of us will land.
But that’s okay. We can look back and see that past disruptions have more often than not meant new and more opportunity, not less.
Ultimately, we will all have to survive and often we need to fight to survive. Reality has always had sharp edges and demanded a response. Luckily, human beings are resilient, and we have an unbroken record of solving big problems before they totally destroy us.
So remember that resilience —the resilience of all of our ancestors, the resilience that is your inheritance, the resilience that you have proven because you are sitting here, right now.
There will always be an opportunity for work that is creative, fulfilling and positive. Work that commits to meaning. Far from preventing you, AI and automation may very well enable this work, amplifying your power to grow and affect change.
So go and find this work and if you can’t find it, create it.
About the author
Jonathan Englert is the founder of AndironGroup. He is a noted communications strategist specialising in disruptive technology, cybersecurity and the sharing economy. He has pioneered a new communications model that harnesses data science and the qualitative strengths of the immersive journalistic method to drive outsized and lasting gains for a range of organizational needs.