Last month, I got an invitation to give the commencement address to a public high school in the Bronx, New York. I immediately accepted, both because it’s the right thing to do, as as importantly, because I’m a product of the New York City Public School System, and was honored to be asked to give back to that which started me on my path, so many years ago.
The difference between this speech and the countless corporate keynotes I give each year was simple: I was actually worried about giving this one! High School kids, especially NYC high school kids, have a massive BS detector – plus, they were graduating – Would they even bother to listen?
So I did something I’ve only done two other times in my life when preparing for a speech: I wrote it down first.
It went well. The kids listened and seemed to be paying attention, they laughed, they clapped, (as did their parents,) and afterwards, the school principal congratulated me for “really reaching them.” It felt good.
Here’s my speech, in its entirety. Perhaps you’ll like it, or know someone who you think might get some value from reading it. Either way, here we go.
Proud parents, teachers, administrators, friends, and of course, GRADUATES of West Bronx Academy – Good evening – And congratulations to you all. My name is Peter Shankman, and 29 years ago TODAY, I was graduating a NYC public high school myself – LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, to be exact. And you know what? Other than all of us interrupting the Principal’s speech to sing “FAME,” I don’t remember a thing about my graduation day. I’d just been handed a piece of paper that said I survived 13 years of being told what to do, just like all of you have a few minutes ago. So yeah, I won’t blame you if you don’t even remember so much as my name come tomorrow morning. But knowing that, I did write a few things down that I wish I’d known 29 years ago. Perhaps they’ll help you as you move forward. And I promise, I’ll do my best not to be boring. I’m just gonna tell you a few stories, and I promise to be quick. And because of how my brain works, they probably won’t be in any particular order, so just bear with me.
See, I don’t know about you, but I remember what school was like for me. I spent way too much time as a kid worrying about fitting in, worrying about not being popular (spoiler alert… I WAS NOT popular. AT ALL.) worrying about being cool… (again… Nope.) See, I was always different. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had MASSIVE ADHD. Still do.) But back when I was in school, ADHD didn’t exist. You know what did? “Sit down, you’re disrupting the class” disease, and “dude, why are you so weird,” syndrome. And I had both of them BAD. I was always speaking before I thought, I was always the kid who never shut up, who talked too much, who tried too hard to be liked, who always had to prove himself, but usually just wound up alienating himself.
Here’s a secret, though: All those things about me that caused me to get in trouble, to get beaten up, to get made fun of when I was in school… All those things that made me “different…” It’s those exact things about me that have led to every single bit of success I’ve had in my adult life. Now, today is about you, not me, but I figure I should give you ten seconds of my background, so you can determine whether I’m worth listening to. Like I said, I’m a born and raised NYC public school kid. After barely squeaking through both high school and college, I got my first and only job where I worked for someone else. When that ended, I realized that I simply wasn’t cut out to do the “normal” thing and get a job, do it for 40 years, retire, etc. Since that moment in 1998, (and with no experience when I first began) I’ve started, built and sold three companies. I’ve written five books, four of which became bestsellers. I’m a corporate keynote speaker, who flies over 250,000 miles a year giving speeches to huge companies around the world. I’m a single dad to an amazing six-year-old girl, a licensed skydiver with over 500 jumps, and I’m a talking head on CNN at least once a week. Oh, I also host the #1 podcast on ADHD, where I talk with globally famous people about how their ADHD is a gift to them, and not a negative.
Here’s the thing, though – I guarantee you that I wouldn’t have been able to do ANY of what I just told you, if I hadn’t first decided to EMBRACE what makes me different and use it to my advantage, instead of constantly fighting to squash it so I could “fit in.”
What I’m saying is, reconsider how you think about the things that make you different. Start seeing them as your superpowers, not as weaknesses. Talk too much? Maybe you belong on a stage in some capacity! Been labeled “overbearing” or “controlling?” Those are the strengths of every executive producer of any movie that ever broke records at the box office. Any of you the geek who likes to code? Go create the next Pokemon Go app. (Secret: The fifteen guys who created that app each own enough stock in their company to make them billionaires. Billionaires. From sitting in front of a computer and creating a game.)
When I went out on my own after getting laid off from that first and only full-time job, I was living in a studio apartment roughly the size of… well, like, this chair, and I had zero money or savings, apart from my rent money for next month, and I think, twenty extra dollars. That was it. But I knew I wanted to try doing my own thing, and if it failed, I’d just get another job. It was the summer of 1998, and the Internet boom was starting. I knew how to talk and promote – I figured maybe I could start a public relations firm for startup internet companies. But again – No money or experience. But… There was a movie… (titanic t-shirt story.) End result: TRY. You can always get another job, you can always find ways to make money if you fail, to keep you going until you try your next idea.
There are only three “true” mistakes you can ever make: Not taking a chance on your idea because you’re afraid of failing, having a better idea about how to do something, but then doing the same way it’s always been done, “because that’s the way it’s always been done,” and finally, and most importantly, not listening to your gut. Your gut, that feeling in your stomach that tells you something is either right or wrong for you, should always be your final decision maker. A gut is our instincts, and humans were given instincts for a reason – back in caveman days, instincts kept us from petting a saber-toothed tiger and getting eaten, and today, they stop us from taking that dark-alley shortcut, or saying yes to something we simply don’t feel right about. Never ignore your gut.
Whatever you do, stay humble. When I sold my last company for a LOT of money back in 2010, I came home and for the first time, actually started to believe I was worth something, and maybe wasn’t a complete loser. In the elevator ride up to my apartment, I was all like, “man, I got money, I’m the bomb, I’m awesome!” By the time I got to my floor, I was all “yeah, I’m the man!” and such. And then I walked into my apartment to discover that both my cats had gotten into a 25 pound bag of dry food, eaten as much as they could, drank as much water as they could, walked over to my living room rug, and puked it all up. Multiple, multiple times. I spent the first three hours of my life as a millionaire, on my knees scrubbing cat puke out of my rug. That was the universe telling me to remember where I came from. Stay humble.
What else? Always volunteer to do things that others might not. I was asked to speak to you today by your classmate Anfernie. I immediately said yes because it’s the right thing to do. As you become successful in your lives, never forget that it also becomes your responsibility to send that elevator back down and be a force for good for others, as much as you can.
Expect greatness, prepare for utter failure and NEVER be unwilling to change. You’re going to have incredible moments of greatness in your life, I promise you. The things you’re going to do successfully in the future are so incredible, your little high-school brains can’t even begin to process them now. You’re going to be amazing, I have no doubt.
As you pack up your things, and spend the summer getting ready to head off to college, or other new challenges somewhere, remember that you’re coming from an upbringing in the greatest city in the world. That means you’re going to be light-years ahead of whomever you meet in your future who are not from where you are. But… Don’t look down on them. While you’ll definitely be ahead of them from a “city street smart” perspective, never forget that they’ve got eighteen years of experiences of their own to share. You can learn from them, if you let yourself. This goes for everyone you meet throughout your life. The ability to stop talking, and actually listen once in a while will be one of your greatest assets. I promise you this. Don’t let it take you 18 years to learn.
The bar is so low in this world that I don’t need you strive for awesome. I need you to strive for just a little bit better than everyone else, and you’ll win all the things, all the time.
Remember this: Nothing you ever do will ever be more important than what you do with yourself. The longest relationship you’ll ever have in your life will be with YOURSELF. None of the amazing things you’re going to do matter at all if you’re not in the right place to enjoy doing them, physically, mentally, or emotionally. What do I mean by that?
Don’t get sucked into the “convenience culture” that permeates our lives 24/7. Eat real food – not processed into the shape of a burger. Eat real meats, eat TONS of vegetables. If you’re on the soda and chips express, GET OFF IMMEDIATELY. You don’t see it in yourselves now, but take a look at me. I’m constantly striving to lose those last 20 pounds, and it sucks. I’ve done 25 marathons and even a full Ironman, and it kills me to think about how much faster I’d have been if I had started eating healthier at your age. I’m not saying don’t treat yourself now and then, but if you’re not taking care of your physical health, (and that includes working out multiple times a week by doing something physical that you love to do so it doesn’t feel like “working out,”) then everything else you try to do is going to be just that much harder for you, and there’s simply no reason to let that happen.
Don’t be afraid to talk to someone when things go bad – because they ARE going to go bad – More than once. And if you don’t have a tribe – trusted friends – a support system to whom you can turn when you need a shoulder or advice, it’s going to be that much harder. There is NOTHING wrong with admitting that you need a little help to move forward. If you broke your leg, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to go to a doctor to get it fixed, right? It’s the same thing with your brain. Feeling depressed, anxious, or something similar? Go find someone to talk to. Make it a PRIORITY. We can’t, as a society, afford to lose any of the brilliance I see in front of me simply because you were too embarrassed to ask for help. Promise me that.
Just a few more things, I promise: You’re going to screw up the likes of which you never thought possible. Wow, you’re going to screw up. And it’s not going to be a one time thing, either. You’re going to screw up so badly, you’ll want to hide under a rock and never, ever come out. You’re going to make decisions that looking back on them, you’ll wonder what you could have possibly been smoking – no one is that stupid! But you’ll be that stupid. I promise you. We all were. I especially was. Hell, I still am now from time to time. But here’s the key: The secret to surviving it is two-fold: You’ve got to learn from each moment of stupidity. If you don’t, that only compounds the stupidity. But if you learn from it; if you say “hey, I messed up, here’s what I did, and here’s how I’m going to make sure I’ll never do it again,” and finally, if you’re not afraid to say you’re sorry, then the mistakes are worthwhile. And secondly, you’ve got to surround yourself with good people. I mean, really, really good people. People who you trust, people who you know will be there for you, no matter how much of a screw-up you’ll manage to be from time to time, people who will never, ever let you down. But here’s the caveat: To surround yourself with people like that, means that yes, you have to be one, as well. And you’ve got to be forgiving when they screw up, too. Because they will. We all will.
Lock down all your socials, and always take a ten second pause before posting ANYTHING or agreeing to be posted anywhere. Do you have ANY idea how grateful I am that social media didn’t exist when I was your age? No phones with video recording ability! I did incredibly stupid stuff all the time! We all did! Fortunately, none of it was caught on video and put online. I know you’ve already been warned that what goes online stays online forever. And that’s so true. (AND PRIVATE MODE, PRIVACY, AND “OH, IT’S JUST FOR YOU AND ME, PROMISE,” ARE NOT REAL THINGS. Privacy died 25 years ago. And as you head off to the next chapter in your lives, YOU SIMPLY MUST BE SMARTER THAN MY GENERATION WAS ABOUT THIS STUFF. There are going to be countless opportunities for you to do some pretty stupid stuff, that WILL NOT SEEM STUPID AT THE TIME. And I’m not saying don’t live your lives or have fun. Live your lives and have a blast! But try to always do so according to the belief that everything you do and every action you take, whether good or bad, will probably end up online. Just for kicks, I counted the number of basic security cameras I passed from when I got off the subway until I got here. Or, I did for the first three blocks, until the number passed 100. You are always on camera, and it’s no one’s fault but your own if the world winds up seeing you doing something stupid, something that will follow you around forever, something that will impact everything that happens to you in the future. In the past 18 years, three people in my professional network have changed their names exactly because of this. Live. Just be careful. Have fun, but be careful. OK? PS: Put down the damn phones every once in a while. Hard to believe, but the world is even cooler when it’s not viewed through a screen.
Remember Karma. Karma is real, and it really, really works. When you have the choice between doing something good for yourself or doing something good for someone else, always choose to do something good for someone else. It’ll come back to you ten-fold, I promise.
Travel and explore new places across the globe as much as you possibly can. There’s an entire world out there full of people different than you, full of experiences and adventures that will grow you into a better person. At some point, come back home and try to make a difference in the life of a child and in the life of an animal. Both will reward you more than you can imagine.
Finally, the last thing I have to offer: Always try and find the fun in everything you do. Laugh. No matter what happens, laugh. Try and love someone, and try and let someone love you. Know you’re going to get hurt, but also know that you will always be strong enough to get through it. And finally: Know that no matter what happens, no matter where your travels take you, no matter who enters your life or who leaves it, no matter whether you become famous or obscure, whether you’re rich or poor, just know: You’re you. You’re unique. You’re made up of beautiful and amazing stuff to which no one else can ever, ever lay claim. And no one can ever take that away from you.
Congratulations again, graduates of West Bronx Academy. I so very much envy the journey you’re about to take.