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Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein gave the keynote address at LaGuardia Community College’s 41st commencement today at the Javits Center in Manhattan.
He delivered his address to an audience of around 1,000 graduates from the college.
In his commencement remarks, he talked about his life growing up in the projects in Brooklyn and working his way to becoming the CEO of Goldman Sachs.
He also gave some advice for the graduating class telling them to be confident, find a job they like, be a “well-rounded, complete person”, give back to the community, keep an open mind, surround themselves with ambitious people and put themselves in situations with the opportunity for growth.
Here’s his full speech:
President Mellow, distinguished faculty, friends, family, and the Graduating Class of 2013.
It is a great honor for me to share in your accomplishment and pride today. But I must admit that I approached this address with some trepidation. I suppose that more commencement speeches have been delivered more seriously, listened to more attentively, and forgotten more promptly than any other form of human communication.
So I will try to be brief and practical. My advice is grounded in my own experience. And my own experience, in many respects, is not that different from many of yours.
I grew up with the idea that college was more an aspiration than an expectation. I saw my parents struggle most of their lives and the daily battle to keep afloat sometimes even drained what hopes and dreams they had for me. They didn’t go to college and neither did my only, older sibling.
My father sorted mail for the post office. He worked nights because it paid 10% more than a day shift. My mother was a receptionist at a burglar alarm company — one of the few growth industries in our neighborhood. I grew up in the Linden Houses, which, as some of you know, is a housing project in East New York.
It was and is a tough neighborhood, though it produced some accomplished people who, despite or because of their background, did well. I attended Thomas Jefferson high school, which has since shut down as a high school and operates different training programs for various skills. Up until high school, I shared a small apartment with my extended family, which included my grandmother, my sister and my nephew.
But looking back, I grew up in a world of unlimited opportunity. Each night I would read, and reading opened up the world to me. I love reading history and especially biography. In biographies, you are almost always reading about people who started out unimportant but ended up having a significant life.
What I liked most about biographies then and now is that the person you are reading about is in his or her early life on page 50, doesn’t know about the success he or she will achieve on page 300. They couldn’t see the greatness that lay ahead.
If you think about it, that’s a great justification for the optimism that you should have for the life ahead of you. All of you are only on about page 50 of your biography, with hundreds of pages to go.
Growing up, my biggest goal was just to get out of East New York. I took the college entrance exam and committed myself to getting into college. I did. The day I left for college was one of the first trips I made out of New York City.
College was an intimidating place for me. The other students seemed naturally confident; many had traveled and seemed to understand the world. To this day, I can’t forget how insecure I felt, but it made me work harder.
Once I realized I belonged, I became more ambitious. Ambition is your inner voice that tells you you can and should strive to go beyond your circumstances or station in life. You have overcome obstacles, pressures and self-doubt and you have done it because you have ambition.
You want to succeed for your families and yourselves. And there is no more powerful force through which to do that than through education and know how.
I’m proud that LaGuardia and Goldman Sachs have teamed up to support small businesses. Through this partnership, I’ve seen how many LaGuardia students are juggling school, job and family. And, I’ve seen how these students and all of you push yourselves and persevere.
By virtue of being here today, you have proven to yourself that you belong. And now that you belong, feed off your ambition. That means being focused, disciplined, demanding, self critical and open minded. Your challenges won’t fall away. In fact, they may get steeper.
That, my friends, is life. But just as the struggles are great, so are the rewards. There’s another way to look at it: ask yourself if you really have a choice. You already knew the answer to that question the first day you walked into LaGuardia. We owe it to our families and to ourselves to keep striving.
This is certainly not the easiest of economic times, but there’s always an economic cycle. In the course of the next 50 years of your life, you’ll see alot of cycles, and like this one, you’ll get through it. Don’t get caught up in unrealistic optimism or detached pessimism.
Still, a lot can change rapidly and with a lot of force. Your security rests in knowing how to do a variety of things — and being able to do them better than others.
And that knowledge and ability can be obtained only through a willingness to strike out for something better. That could mean changing careers or pushing for a new idea or strategy in your current one. In either case, push yourself to try something new and to grow with each move.
After college, I went to law school for three years, and then into my dream job at a big NY law firm. But even though it had been my dream, I didn’t like it once I got there.
For the first time, I was feeling financially secure, but I knew I wasn’t passionate enough about what I was doing. And because I didn’t love it, I would never be fulfilled from it, or be really good at it. Someone who loved it more would have greater enthusiasm and focus. For some it was fun; for me it was always going to be a chore.
After five years at a law firm, I decided I wanted to try something different. I came home and told my wife I was quitting, and she cried. And not out of happiness. Anyway, it worked out. I got a new job at a small Wall Street firm, we got bought out by a larger firm, and I ended up remaining at a large firm… Goldman Sachs.
In my career, I’ve been fortunate to know and work with many of this country’s top CEOs and business leaders. I’m always struck by a certain passion that defines them. While they may be wealthy and powerful, their passion goes beyond money and power.
I won’t stand here and tell you those are bad things. They can be pretty good, but only if you have a larger purpose in mind. If you don’t have passion for your work or the drive to make a better life for your kids than your own, then you won’t have what it takes to keep you going.
So, I’d like to leave you with some specific advice that will hopefully keep you going:
First, confidence really matters.
Recognize you have earned the right to be confident. Most of you have made great sacrifices and overcome great obstacles to get where you are today. You built up muscles that others who’ve had an easier time don’t have. Those muscles will serve you for the rest of your life.
My struggle to get to and through college turned out to be an advantage for me. The disadvantages you have had become part of your personal history and track record, all advantages in your later life. So confidence is justified.
Second, find a job that you like.
You’ll be better at it and you’ll last longer in it. Having said that, in a tough economy, or because of family pressures, you may not aways be able take a risk with a job choice. And, no doubt, we’ve all settled at various times.
But, don’t let necessity in a given moment become the excuse for a lifetime of inertia. Keep trying to get yourself to the right place. If I’d stayed a lawyer, I could have made it work for a while, but I would have fizzled out and eventually because I didn’t love it.
Third, be a well rounded, complete person.
many of you will go for further education or career training. Of course, it’s important to learn the things that you need to make a living. But, don’t forget to read, and to learn history, literature and about current events.
You’ll be more interesting to others, more interesting to yourself and you’ll be more successful in your job. Most of the books I’ve read didn’t apply directly to my job or industry, but I’ve applied their lessons in unexpected ways.
Fourth, be involved in the community.
Find ways to contribute to make yourself proud and set an example to your kids. making a living is not life. It is a means to an end, not the end. You have to feel proud of yourself. There are always going to be people who struggle and for whom community work is not a realistic option, but try.
I’ve done plenty to advance myself over the years. But, the older I get, the more satisfaction I get from serving and advancing others. In fact that’s how I first got involved with President Mellow and LaGuardia — through the 10,000 Small Businesses program we initiated at your school.
Finally, appreciate that life is unpredictable, so don’t close your mind to possibilities.
Try to surround yourself with people who are equally ambitious. Put yourself in situation where you can grow — where you’ll not only push yourself but others will push you.
What were the chances that a kid from the poverty would run one of the great financial institutions in the world? You just never know. That unpredictability is the great thing about life. You change. The world changes.
You live in a country where we are still blessed with enormous opportunity. Leave yourself open to the world of possibility. You have the ambition, you have the smarts and you have the toughness. So, turn the page on your biography — you have just started a new chapter in your lives.
Good luck and congratulations to you and your families.