Hey readers. Jesse here.
My high school, Red Creek Central in Red Creek, NY, asked me to speak at their graduation this year.
Below is my speech as written. It’s 98% the same as what I actually said.
But if you want to watch the video version, you can find it here on YouTube.
Greetings, thanks, and congratulations to Red Creek’s graduating class of 2021.
Some of you know me. To those who don’t, I hope you trust me at least enough to give me 7 minutes of your time. We’ll come back to this idea of trust.
Coincidentally, I gave a speech here 13 years ago to my Class of 2008. And then the following September of 2008, many of you started kindergarten at Red Creek. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
I’ve spoken with some of the members of the class of 2021. Your class officers asked me to tell you a bit about my experience and to give you some advice for the future. So here’s one idea to start:
People overestimate what they can accomplish in a year, but underestimate what they can accomplish in 10 years…or perhaps 13. I hope you realize the impact that you can have on the world. It might start small over this next year, but your growth will compound.
If you don’t know what compounding growth is, we’ll come back to that later too.
There’s a Big World Outside of Red Creek
I went to college in Rochester. I had close friends from many of the 50 United States, from Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Iran, Canada…and then there was me, Jesse from Red Creek.
Those friends, they laughed at the same things I laughed at. We enjoyed the same foods. We had fun at the same parties. But no—they could not handle our lake effect snow.
There are so many people out there from so many different places, who yet have so much in common with you, graduating here from Red Creek.
I hope you realize that. And I hope you go out and meet that world.
My day job right now is in Rochester. My coworkers and I design and build space-based satellite telescopes.
Technology is changing rapidly. You will see progress in the next few decades that amazes you. You will play a part in that progress. You’ll have a role.
That work might not be in outer space. We’re progressing here on Earth, too.
Some of the biggest companies today—Google, Netflix, Amazon—barely existed when you were born. Some of the biggest companies in 10 years might not yet exist today. You will be a part of that change.
The “Real World”
While our work and culture continue to move online (or to outer space), don’t forget this—life is still lived in the physical world.
After last year, we all realize that.
But here’s an important truth. When it feels like things are going badly, you—yes, you—have the ability to affect positive change.
Some of you have told me what you want to do in the next few years…what your hopes and ambitions are…and it reminded me of one of my heroes, a man named Howard Zinn. He passed away a few years ago.
But Zinn once said, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
We can’t all be heroes and we don’t need to be heroes. We don’t need The Avengers or Batman or special politicians. What we need are small acts of courage, and that’s something each of us is capable of undertaking.
That ability to act courageously is a new type of freedom. It reminds me of something that another one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, wrote. He said:
“The really important kind of freedom involves being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.”
I hope your lives are filled with sunshine and roses. But my experience tells me that you’ll face challenges. This last year was one of those challenges.
So when you face challenges in the future, remember:
Your small acts of courage can transform the world. And the freedom to help others is the true freedom that you’re being granted.
Too Much Growth
I hope I’ve gained some of your trust by now. I’m doing my best to serve a small act of courage to you and to care about you. And that’s a great way to build a trusting conversation.
Our conversations struggle when too much noise drowns out the signal. The world is noisier today than it has ever been before. Both the signal and the noise are fighting for the same precious resource: your attention.
So here’s another challenge: you have to find that signal. You need to choose to focus your attention on the truth. Shared truth is the basis of everything else we hold dear. Do it for yourself and do it for one another.
Back to Money…
Now, part of the reason I was invited here is that I run a small business (when I’m not working on telescopes). It’s financial literacy company. It focuses on helping young adults with personal finance and investing education, the kind of stuff that can help 99% of people out there.
So the class asked me for some tips. Here’s the first.
The world of money is also full of noise.
Like sharks smelling blood in the water, some people seek out conversations about money because they know they might be able to get a bite out of you.
When you trust someone with your money, you have to determine the signal from the noise. Read different sources. Take your time. I hope you’ll read my work and trust me, but they call it personal finance because it’s about you. It’s personal. So make sure your money choices make sense to you and benefit you.
Tip 2: Spend less than you earn. I know it sounds silly, but in my years of really paying attention to this stuff, this is the number one way people fall into financial trouble.
Remember compound growth from the beginning? It’s an idea that applies to investing. And what it means is that the dollars you invest in your 20s will have more impact than the dollars you invest in your 30s, 40s, and 50s combined. That’s the power of compound interest. That’s Tip 3.
Tip 4: Credit cards are like an expensive cooking knife. The same knife that cooks the gourmet meal can slice off your finger. Credit cards are dangerous tools due to the debt they can put you in. You’re allowed to use them, but you better not mess up.
And Tip 5: learning about money can be intimidating. But 95% of it is straightforward. It’s not rocket science. I should know. It’s a great thing to learn more about.
Class of 2021, the world is amazing. It’s also hard. But it’s a place filled with people a lot like the people you already know. Working with those people is your mission. You have a role to play. Whether big or small, your role can affect the world.
And in 13 years, I hope you’ll come back and tell us all about it.
I wish you more than luck.
I gave a college commencement speech a few years back at the college where I volunteer as a trustee. I told the story of two friends who had started out humbly, one an undocumented alien from Mexico who spoke no English and crossed the border alone at the age of 16. The other was an hourly union worker with no college degree who worked at the same company I did. Both are multi-millionaires now. The Mexican girl is now a PhD Nurse Practitioner and the hourly worker went to night school and worked his way up to owning a 100 million dollar business. It was a lot of fun telling their stories to young minds and wondering which of them would have similar stories some day.
Hey Steve! That’s great, and those sound like two great stories. One slight regret I already have from the speech is not telling another anecdote or two 🙂