Commencement Address
Wake Forest University
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
May 19, 2003

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

I will give those of you who are worried about rain a little bit of comfort. Last Friday night I took my younger daughter to a Yankees game. It poured through the first and second inning but then it stopped for the next nine. What happened after 11 innings, I don’t know, but I didn’t care at that point.

Presumably, you will remember today as a day of joy, rather than a day of precipitation.

I’m glad to see that most of you got back from your post-exams from Myrtle Beach. It would have been a shame if we had to hold up today’s ceremony for you.

Thank you for inviting me today. I’m really looking forward to receiving an honorary degree. It’s a great privilege to be in such an esteemed group of honorary degree recipients. Particularly, United States Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who I have been lucky enough to meet before and, who I might point out with pride, is a product of the New York City public school system.

Let me, however, congratulate those of you that really did all the work and get the real degrees today. Those include those of you from the College, from the Calloway School, the Babcock School, the Divinity School, the Law School, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. And a special congratulations to the graduates of the Medical School, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Yes, you can give yourself a round of applause.

By the way, since I will soon be an official member of the Wake Forest class of Œ03, I’ve already put on my calendar to come back and watch you roll the Quad after we win the ACC basketball tournament next year.

Let me begin by offering you a choice. As a big city mayor, I could address you on comparative theories of municipal planning. Or, with my technology background, I could discuss, at great length, time-division multi-plexing. Or, as a former C student who’s been lucky enough to make a fortune, I could just tell you how to get a good job, make a lot of money, and have a good time. Which is it gonna be? You’ve made the right choice … partially because I wasn’t ready to talk about either of the other two things.

Let’s talk about your tomorrows. Some of you are just getting started in the professional world, and some of you are returning to it after taking time out to get an advanced degree at this great institution. But all of you are about to enter a dramatic new stage in your lives, a place where your future will be determined by choices you, and not others, make. And you, the class of ’03, will have more of them to make than any other class in recent history.

That’s today’s real subject.

Looking forward to the future with some anticipation? You should. In these uncertain times, if it feels like there’s a crisis around every corner, it’s because there is. But, as someone once observed, the Chinese character for crisis can be interpreted as meaning both danger and opportunity. Leaving the comfortable confines of school can definitely be termed a crisis. In the world you’re entering, mistakes have consequences, all is not always forgiven, and sorry to say, there’s no dean’s office to go to for help when you get into trouble. And one’s choices no longer solely revolve around what to order in “the Pit.”

From now on, you’re going to have to put your own bread on the table and, given today’s economic environment, I know many of you aren’t sure exactly how that’s gonna happen. Difficult? Sure, but as I said, danger and opportunity. And unlike the graduates of the dotcom era, you don’t have the disadvantage of thinking there’s something for nothing. You’ll be entering the job market with realistic expectations. You’re going to have to work and you know it, or you certainly should. And here’s something that you may find difficult to believe, but if you accept it, find it comforting: Your career path is not likely to follow a straight line. You will get a job even though many of you may not think so today. And you don’t have to assume that your first job will be your last. There’ll be ups and downs and sideways-ez. You’ll continue to have the opportunity — and probably the necessity — to make career choices throughout your lifetime. That applies to those of you with advanced degrees, as well.

Since I left graduate school, I’ve been an employee, an entrepreneur, an employer, and now a Mayor. I have been hired, fired, lauded and vilified. But, as far as I’m concerned, even at age 61, the best is yet to come!

Almost every successful person I know is doing things today that are radically different from where they started. I even know a former baseball team owner … who is currently a President of the United States. In fact, look around you — that party animal you lived next to in freshman year in Kitchin Dorm could be the next Bill Gates; that champion Demon Deacon field hockey player, the next Condoleezza Rice; that quiet law student down the hall, the next Mel Martinez — the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who happens to be here today for his son’s graduation.

Anything can happen, and it probably will. Let me give you some advice — first to those of you who are lucky enough to have a choice of jobs as you leave Wake Forest. When you select a job, don’t worry so much about your salary. Even though you’re going to have to pay the bills, your first job should be something that will teach, expand, humble and exhilarate. Something that will help you acquire the personal and professional skills that will serve you throughout the rest of your life. And, for the all too many of you in this tough economic climb who don’t have a choice of a job yet, OK, what about you? The most important thing to do is to find something that lets you grow, something that will be part of your life in terms of experience, character and relationships. Think of an activity or of a project you’ve been involved with at school. A varsity team, a community service initiative like “Project Pumpkin.” Think of the things you love doing, loved the people around you, loved being there at all hours until the work got done. That’s exactly how you want to feel about your job.

So if the commercial world is temporarily closed to you, why not take six months and volunteer for a nonprofit? It will give you many of the same experiences and contacts.

But whatever you choose to do, want to go in at the crack of dawn, want to stay until midnight, want to give it your all. And if you do, it won’t even seem like a sacrifice. And if your first job isn’t the job of your dreams — which is not unusual — you must convince yourself that it is and that will ensure the right attitude to succeed. In fact, and this applies to all of you, while luck plays a part in success — the harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s that simple. You may win the lottery, but having that as your strategy is not very smart, nor is planning to work nine to five. No, you’re going to have to invest the sweat and the time the same way I did. It’s the hand we were dealt, and we have to go and play it.

So don’t focus on what you’d like. Focus on the best of what the alternatives are. Pick that that’s in your interest long-term. Convince yourself it’s what you want and work at it as though it is. Then, once you’ve settled on what you are going to do, let me give you some advice on how to do it. Don’t just hold yourself to high professional standards … hold yourself to high ethical standards. You can see that in the papers everyday as one scandal after another unfolds. Things won’t always go smoothly in your career. But acting on principle and integrity will carry you through the tough times. People respect those with a moral compass. People give a special break to others they know are honest and trying. And you are judged by the company you keep. Make sure the people you work with can be counted on to help get the job done and to do the right thing. For better or worse, your reputation depends on theirs.

This is a complicated world. No single person has all the skills to solve the problems that face us. Things must be done collaboratively and collectively and cooperatively. Today, you share the pain and the responsibility. My advice, always use the words “we” and “us” — rather than “I” and “me.” And then you will also share in the rewards.

Let me tell you for a few seconds about some of the choices I’ve made in my life because I think they illustrate what I’m saying. The first part of my life wasn’t full of life-altering choices; at least I didn’t recognize them as such at the time. After college and business school, I took a job on Wall Street starting out as a clerk and rising to general partners. As a working-class kid from a small town near Boston it was a great ride filled with good work, fun, and lots of praise — and as Al Hunt pointed out, right up until the day they fired me, I loved every minute of it. But it was a great job. In retrospect it taught me an enormous amount. I loved every minute of it, and I’m still friendly with everybody I worked with there, even those that fired me. But it was over. Not my choice … but done. Next.

Then, I was faced with the alternative — what to do. And how I dealt with it turned out to be what defined the rest of my life. Winston Churchill once said, “The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity.” Even back then after getting fired, I was an optimist. I was like the kid who came home … found his bedroom floor covered in horse manure … and got a big smile on his face … because he knew there was a pony in there somewhere. Believe me, there are times at City Hall these days when it’s hard to find the pony among the manure … but I’ve found that those who succeed in life usually do. So, after getting fired, instead of taking a similar job, I took a chance on something I thought might be even better. Literally, the very next day after my employment ended, I started a new company. Sounded like a good idea to me. The problem was that for a very long time, nobody else agreed. We began with four employees, one office, one coffeepot and no business. And everyday for three years people, colleagues, competitors, even family members would share their doubts with me. But I stuck with it, and today, if I can boast a little, the company has worked out. It has been successful. That was my second great career ride.

For twenty years, I was a success in business but something interesting happened. I got restless. I began to notice friends who were in public service and they’d found a satisfaction — the satisfaction of helping others — that I have never experienced. So I made another career choice about three years ago: to seek a third career.

You might think it was difficult to walk away from the company I had built from the ground up even though this time, it would be my choice. But in fact, I think it’s easier to walk away from a success than a failure. With the former, you’ve nothing left to prove. With the latter, the jury is still out and you just can’t give up. So even though I was called “a hopeless long shot” by every political expert, I went for it because the chance to try something new, something important, was just too exciting to pass up. And what do the experts know anyways?! All they focus on is what can’t be done. For them, it’s the old way or the highway. Bull! I don’t believe it. I hope you can all have the opportunity to try something new against conventional wisdom and to find the courage to go and to do it.

My choice of public service is providing me with a sense of satisfaction unlike any other that I’ve ever had. Now most of you probably won’t go into government for your first career, but I urge you to try to get that same feeling by doing some volunteer work part time in your community. Or work with a local nonprofit or religious group, or even raise money for your alma mater. (I swear Wake Forest didn’t ask me to say that, but you should think about it!) Some of you will become educators, artists, business people, clergy, musicians, lawyers and doctors, eventually. Some of you may choose to serve in the armed services … and join the brave men and women who are, even as we speak, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedom, our security and our right to have a great ceremony like we do today. Regardless of your choice, do what you think is right for you and don’t pay attention to what the critics and naysayers say.

Let me just tell you a couple of things that the critics say about my latest career. “Bloomberg should shut up!” “Bloomberg is running a government by dictatorship!” “The Mayor is favoring his friends — and the polls say he doesn’t even have any!” This is the one I really like: “The only explanation for why Mike Bloomberg is working so hard to destroy New York is his secret goal to help the Red Sox finally win the World Series.” That last one came from my mother, she’s a die-hard Red Sox fan.

But you know what? They’ll never lay a glove on me, and they won’t lay a glove on you if you have courage. Because if you are going to succeed, you have to make the tough choices, you have to have the strength to stand by them no matter what anybody says.

But, if in the end, the end of the day, you ask yourself: am I making a difference to others? And if you can answer the fundamental question, yes, I am making a difference to them, then you’re making a difference to yourself.

So, in summary, what’s my advice to you? Get the best job you can find; or if you can’t find one at the moment, find a volunteer organization to go to work for. Convince yourself it’s where you want to be — whether it is or not. Attitude, even in your head to yourself, is everything. Work as hard as you can and be as scrupulously honest as possible. You are ultimately responsible for your success and failures, but you only succeed if you share the reward with others. Have a good time. It’s not a sin to enjoy everything God has given us. All work and no play really does make one a misery and it probably doesn’t help your career either. And then, when the right opportunity comes along, go for it! As Yogi Berra would say, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!” And chances are, you’ll be a success.

God bless!