Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, John Legend, delivered a stirring commencement address at my son’s college graduation last weekend. With his signature tenor-baritone voice wafting over Wallace-Wade stadium, he shook the sleepy students out of their slumber with expletive-filled acronyms DDMF and GTHC familiar to anyone who’s watched a Duke-Carolina basketball game. Clearly, it wasn’t going to be another “life lessons” speech from a famous rich guy struggling to connect with restless undergrads waiting to collect their diplomas.
Legend knows how to read the room.
“The fact that you’re here today, graduates of one of the world’s greatest universities means that you’ve had to approach life with a certain competitiveness,” explained Legend, who related his own experience academically competing to graduate second in his high school class, attending the University of Pennsylvania and securing a job in management consulting (Boston Consulting Group).
“That path required this constant drive to push harder, reach higher, do better —to be perfect, or close to it. I’m sure it sounds familiar,” added Legend, who regrets he was “too cool to care” during his own college graduation ceremony.
Legend reminded the students that over the past year, they were forced to pause and suddenly see themselves, not in competition with one another, but in community with each other. Imagine that.
“We all had to slow down. Social distance. Cover our faces. Stop filling our days with maximum productivity, and simply keep each other safe. Keep each other alive. Care for one another,” related Legend.
While the competitive drive that gets students into (and through) highly selective universities can get in the way, added Legend, a multi-talented EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and philanthropist.
“If you let that competitiveness take over your thinking, you start seeing life as a zero-sum game—i.e. for me to win, someone else has to lose.”
Legend reminded us that America’s history has long been marred by dangerous zero-sum thinking: Those in power suppressing people with no voice, no power, and no opportunity including workers, women, indigenous people, black people, immigrants, the LGBTQ community. But in reality, Legend argued that when more people made more money, rich business owners didn’t suffer. They got more customers! Prosperity increased for everyone.
Karen J. Koch, CPA, MT, (Bedford Cost Segregation) told me she agreed with Legend’s view on zero-sum thinking: “In the world of business and entrepreneurship, it is about encircling ourselves with a team of not only bright people, but people who have a heart and passion for the success of others. Creating an environment where we all win, is when we can live in a world without fear, a community with justice for all.”
Unfortunately, many professions pressure young workers into thinking the only way to get ahead is to outwork their peers, out-network them and bill more hours. But if this last year of remote work has taught us anything, it’s that “work life and home life can be successfully intertwined,” observed Randy Crabtree, CPA, (TriMerit Specialty Tax Professionals). “By getting a glimpse into our co-workers’ family lives, we have gotten to know them in a way that we couldn’t previously,” Crabtree told me the other day. “The more we get to know about the lives and passions of the people we work with, the more motivated and productive we all become.”
Valentino Sabuco, Executive Director (The Financial Awareness Foundation) told me we have been “mis-led and mis-educated” all these years that it must be a win–lose world. “I win you lose or I don’t succeed. It really doesn’t have to be that way. Wouldn’t it be great if CEO’s and ‘C’ class executives would communicate this message to their employees?” asked Sabuco, whose organization has championed financial awareness and financial literacy for all for over 40 years.
According to Sabuco, the 26 wealthiest people on the planet own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest! And powerful people are spending a lot to keep it that way. “Think what this might look like if we can help the nearly billions of people around the world living on less than $10 per day to reach even lower middle-class status. “If we could double the buying power of the middle class, global equity markets would skyrocket,” predicted Sabuco. “Everyone would win big, including the ultra-wealthy. The people win by improving lifestyle and quality of life, business people win by making more money equitably, and the world can win by having a safer cleaner planet!”
Sixty years ago, John F. Kennedy said: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Or as Legend observed, “We all do better when we all do better.” As Legend reminded the new graduates, a commencement marks the beginning, not the end, of your next phase in life. You can’t do any better than that.
#JohnLegend, #DukeCommencement, #equality, #ZeroSum