Thank you Tim.
Tim, Cynthia, The Board, Parents, Teachers, and of course graduating seniors, I’m truly honored to be here with you during your commencement from one of the great academic establishments. Today is truly a monumental day.
Whenever I have the opportunity to speak, I always take a moment to thank those who have had positive influence on me after all, we are nothing without our people. Joe and Laura who I believe are still in the house from the PE department and Shannon from computers. If we ever had any doubt about the influence teachers have on their students, I and many are proof that the right teacher at the right time will have monumental influence. I of course must recognize my parents and give a great big shoutout to my wife who’s also in the house. Lastly, I think it’s only appropriate to give a big warn round of applause to all parents and grandparent - Many thanks to all of you .
Jon Lennon once sang, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead”
I think that just about sums up why I’m here today with all of you.
About 20 years ago today, I was sitting where you are. Looking at my watch, counting down the minutes - I know you’re raring to go. If you lend me your ear for about 15ish minutes, I promise you may just come away with some new ideas that positively alters your road ahead.
Tim invited me into his office this Spring and asked if I’d be interested in giving the commencement address. I of course sprung forward with delight and quickly accepted. That afternoon was a perfect spring day, 70’s with much needed direct sun. I decided to walk home to consider what I should say - how can I be relevant to all of you.
The world is very different now. Not better, not worse, just different. How we connect, how we discovery new experiences, how we consume content and the larger world is totally different. So much of how we engage as a society is from a small device that resides in our pockets - very different from when I was 18. Then it dawned on me. I will do what I’ve managed to do all my life and something Churchill ingrained in me - examine the situation, keep it simple and make it my own. In fact, one of our very own Learning Difference masters, the great, Albert Einstein said "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” So true. So true.
When I think about the last 37 years of my life, I tend to spend much of that time reflecting on my own experiences. Life in many ways can and should be examined through ones experiences. Some great, some not so great and every once in a while, whether expecting or not, an experience happens that totally shifts your perspective and as a result changes the course of your life. An interaction with a teacher, a parent, a job, a poem so profound it shifts your prior outlook and presents an entirely new perspective or opinion. You likely don’t always know when it’s happening and in my experience, it may take years to recognize such shifts have even occurred. Perspective is truly one of the great wonders of the human experience.
Seniors, we are so fortunate to have shared such a similar experience - I can relate to you in ways many cannot. I know what you are capable of based on our shared paths and my (20 years of perspective). With that, I can provide a lens, a glimpse into what the Churchill experience did and continues to do for me and as a result, over time, know with great certainty the positive impact it will have on all of you. All you need to do is trust yourself and your capabilities..
The competitive advantage you have as you enter the next phase of life was and is your family and Churchill - it many ways, you’ve already won. Consider for just a moment having a tailored education, suited to your needs. A curriculum that enables you to focus on your gifts and interest, while providing extra support where needed. You’ve had the great privilege of experiencing what every learner wishes they could have but many sadly never will. Do not doubt that and do not spoil that - with this experience, you’ve truly begun to acquire the greatest gift of all - to learn the way you learn and think the way you think.
When I reflect… it is so clear that Churchill fostered my creativity for computers, my passion for athletics and above all, encouraged me to learn and think differently.
Opener, bicycle for the mind
If you were to analyze over the course of human evolution and measure the efficiency of locomotion (the condor, a high soaring bird, used the least amount of energy to move a kilometer - humans came in about a 3rd of the way down the list, not so impressive when you consider the size of our brains. It was then retested for a person on a bicycle and it blew the entire field out of the water - nothing even came close. I think of the Churchill education as a bicycle for the mind. Wildly efficient, tailored to your needs and encourages you to think differently.
My wife has rolled her eyes at me more than a few times, when I’ve proposed a documentary on an engineerings marvel or a podcast on compounding interest or some fascinating historical non-fiction book on a leaders new approach to solving a humanitarian problem. I do have a keene appreciation for people that challenge the norm, solve hard problems and think differently. My list of thinkers is long and it was impossible to curate but I wanted to share a specific relevant few.
Steve Jobs - As a youngsters struggled to get through grade school and by all accounts, barely made it out of high school. Left college to explore and find meaning in the world around him. Founded Apple - which became the most valuable company in the world but likely more important to him, created totally different products that delighted users in ways only envisioned by Jobs. Jobs was well known for being Dyslexic.
Michael Phelps - By age 10, teachers told his parents he’d never amount to anything because he ‘can’t focus, struggled with reading and math. By age 31, became the most decorated Olympic athlete by figured out new ways to enter the water, swim strokes and what he says, learn complicated math through swim training. Arguably the greatest athlete of all time. Phelps, dyslexic and ADHD
Barbara Corcoran: - An NYC local legend and self proclaimed D student, Corcoran turned a $1000 loan into a 5 billion dollar real-esate empire and recently a co-host on the popular show - SharkTank. Corcoran is very vocal about her dyslexia fueling her famously fiery entrepreneurial spirit. She goes on the record as saying, her learning difference is what made me who I am - I saw where others didn’t.
And finally, Casey Neistat, a personal friend who a few years ago mentioned to me he was going to create a vlog a day. Casey went on to become the most influential modern day creator - was awarded Youtuber of the year and single handedly changed the way modern marketing and brand development was done. Casey, left high school early to follow his passion - Dyslexia, ADHD
How about a few notable mentions:
Keira Knightly -
Keanu Reeves - The Matrix Trilogy
Steven Spielberg - Jaws
We could be here all day people..
So how did they do it?
It was an acceptance of who they were, of how they learned and saw the world. It was a different perspective, a different approach. Their ‘difference’ enabled Jobs to envision a world where the iPhone could be built. That same difference is what enabled Phelps to become the greatest athlete of all time.
When you consider the number of great thinkers that struggled in school, that simply could not conform to poorly defined, narrow standardized approaches, that broke their own path - acknowledge for a brief moment the company we share with these brilliant, different people and truly let that fuel your fire.
A little about me:
In the spirit of being and thinking differently and our inherit bond, I want to share 3 short stories of my life that have truly shaped its entire direction - Churchill, Radimir and HappyFunCorp.
I’m here like you because of a learning difference, or as I usually refer to others, a learning gift.. When I was in 2nd grade my mother noticed I was developing differently. I walked before I crawled, spoke in sentences and as my mother described, had more of an abstract approach to learning than my siblings - I still don’t know what she meant, but I’ll take it as a compliment.
One of 5 children, she knew before my teachers that I was a different type of learner. By age 6, I found myself on the top floor of a brownstone on 95th st. in a new classroom with new peers, scared sideways. I can relate to the emotional turmoil of being pulled from a ‘mainstream’ school, where you’re normal, have your friends and appear to have everything on lockdown.
School is hard enough, but to be told you’re different at such a young age, leaves scars. You are not alone with those feelings, we are all in this together - and while the struggle was and is at times real and painful, it’s an important building block of life. There is beauty in the struggle, you just need to begin to look..
3rd grade started and the rest is really history. As parents usually are, they were right. Churchill’s supportive, inclusive curriculum enabled me to dive deep into my interests of computers and athletics, while providing the individual support needed to help me learn new and different methods required for me to process material I was reading. Once a day for 45 minutes, I was given private help to explore and drill-in new approaches for not only reading processing, but also looking at and exploring situations my own way. It was a remarkable opportunity.
As I reflect on those private one on one experiences over the years, it is clear I was learning deeply competitive, nuanced ways to analyze situations and materials in creative and different ways - as a result, enabled me to solve challenging problems and find solutions where others simply do not.
Contemplate for a moment those sessions you’ve had at Churchill and the impact they may have on you, as you approach the next phase of your life - it is likely ‘where you find your magic.’
As you leave Churchill, it’s expected to be feeling overwhelmed with many different emotions and likely even a sense of uncertainty for what’s next. There’s a really simple formula that I use and one I believe is especially relevant for young adults during lives transitional phases.
Wander and Wonder a bit. Try many different things fairly quickly and look for signal, i.e positive feedback. Once you find that strong signal, do it a lot more and stop doing a lot of the other things - begin to focus the funnel / rinse and repeat. This formula helps cut down the noise of everyday life and provides a framework for finding what you’re passionate about.
I took to athletics at a very young age. My father, a former athlete he and my mother encouraged me to explore sports. As the grades faded away and I become a more equipped athlete, I was prodded to take my athletics to the next level.
Readmimr, a two time bronze medalist in Judo was my coach and mentor for my high school years and someone I consider to be hugely influential in my life. He challenged me mentally and physically and introduced spiritual concepts early into my life, that have stayed with me to this day. I spent 3 years training with him before school - and while at the time I approached it like other school related subject - with reflection, the methods he taught carries deep into all aspects of my life today.
I learned a lot of strategic skills from my years in athletics. Most notably, sports, like life are filled with disappointment, failure and a path unknown. A lot has been said over the years about sports and life but what I think sports have really given me is my ability to assess risk.
As a society, we’re programmed to consider risk in a very short term framework and as a result have biased to a conservative, safe path. Short term catastrophic risk forces you to not take risks, to not fail. If you look at short term risk and expand it out over the horizon, what you see is risk being a paralyzing mechanisms that can stifle opportunities and careers.
You build risk tolerance like any other muscle - you practice. If you’re off to college, take a class each semester that challenges you. If you’re doing something other than college, find a job that pulls you out of your comfort zone or explore the world in areas you never thought possible. Start slow but promise yourself starting tomorrow, you will take more deliberate risk. Neurons that fire together wire together - for better or worse.
HappyFunCorp is a business I co-founded 10 years ago. We were a few years ahead of the iPhone and right at the beginning of the growth curve of social media. We saw an emerging market taking shape, assessed the risk and jumped in, the timing as we hoped, couldn’t have been better.
We have worked on and helped shape many of the products that reside in your pockets.
The past 10 years has been filled with incredible luck, hard work, substantial failure and monumental success. Entrepreneurship has a way of keeping the world raw and honest while delivering the most brilliant moments.
Entrepreneurship in many ways is built for those of us who appreciate challenging the norm and refusing to accept the status quo. Entrepreneurship rewards those with the different approach and holds no judgement or prisoners. Whether you’re aware of this or not, you have spent the last decade refining such entrepreneurial skills and you may find that this is the right path forward for you - I believe it is.
In many ways, HappyFunCorp has been the perfect expression of engaging and leaning into the way I think. Everyday, I make an effort to look at how I’m doing life. My work, my marriage, how I engage with my son - not to be self critical but to always consider alternatives. It is so easy to fall into expected paths, to conform to what we as a society deem as ‘right.’
One of the great observations I’ve witnessed from my parents and through my career is that rules and boundaries are built and put in place by people like you and me. You can look at those boundaries and begin to gently push and challenge. What exists outside of those boundaries are what Jobs, Phelps, Corcoran and Neistat also found, a new approach - their approach. It’s where opportunity meets the way you think. It’s where you find your magic.
-Wander and try a lot of things fairly quickly
-Take more deliberate risk starting tomorrow
-Push on those prescribed boundaries
I owe a great deal of gratitude to Tim and all of you. Writing this over the past few months has provided a much needed period of self reflection and exploration.
As I conclude my time with all of you, I’d be remiss to not share my top 5 approaches to life:
Learn the way you learn
Love who you love
Do what you can’t
Pay it forward, whenever you can!
For the next 10 years, go through doors that open more doors
When I graduated in the late 90s the world was different. Not better, not worse, just different. There are new opportunities to pursue and challenges to explore. It is clear the way we have solved these problems in the past, will not work for us today or in the future. As you move forward - be deliberate in your approach and lean into the way you learn and see the world. More than ever, your difference is what matters the most.
Thank You, Good Luck and Go Hawks!