Commencement Address by Frank Andrews
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina
December 14, 2008
Graduating students, families, friends, faculty and everyone else here this morning – thank you for allowing me the opportunity to stand before you. I am deeply honored and more than a little surprised.
You students will understand this better in a few years, but the truth is I still don’t think of myself as old – especially when I am on this wonderful campus – and this is definitely a job for an old guy.
I run a communications agency, and we hire graduating students. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to grow them into fully-functioning members of our account teams. And hopefully making that maturation fun – both for the agency and for our youngin’s.
As you head out into the “real world”, I figured some of you might be interested in hearing what the guy on the other end of the table is looking for when you interview.
Or, if you already have found a job, maybe you might want to hear something about what you need to do to begin your career successfully.
If you aren’t interested in any of that, don’t worry. I’ll be done in 10 minutes, 15 tops.
I have advice in three parts. Here’s the first: Look for work that doesn’t seem like work.
Now parents, you can exhale. I am not suggesting your kids should go get a slacker job. After all, y’all have just invested in four, five, six years to earn this degree.
Instead, my advice to our new graduates is to seek a profession that fits you, and is so much fun you can’t wait to get there almost every day. When you enjoy it that much, you’ll be good at it, too.
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, said it better than I ever could when he gave his commencement address at Williams College. Here’s what he said:
“….whatever you plan to do, whether you plan to travel the world next year, go to graduate school, join the workforce, or take some time off to think, don’t just listen to your head. Listen to your heart. It’s the best career counselor there is. Do what you really love to do and if you don’t quite know what that is yet, well, keep searching, because if you find it, you’ll bring something extra to your work that will help ensure you will not be automated or outsourced.”
Now he ended there on a little bit of a Darwinian downer – the part about being automated or outsourced -- but those of you that read Friedman know it’s all about a flat world for him. While I agree, that’s not the point I want to make. It’s the “love” part I want to focus on.
Holden Thorp, who is the Chancellor here at Carolina, once said it this way. “It’s tough to find even one authentic passion. It might not exist yet, you might have more than one, or it might change after you find it. Count on much trial and error. Since it’s your passion, you can’t learn it from another person – not your parents, your spouse, your little brother, your dog – not even Jon Stewart. Believe it or not, you probably can’t find it on the Internet. You have to discover it.”
Now, I’m not saying you are going to be a world-renowned columnist for the New York Times or the Chancellor of your alma mater, though maybe you will. I am saying, however, that you can love your job as much as those guys love theirs.
And it’s worth the search. You have interests. You have passions. You have already made life choices about what classes you want to take and what to do with your spare time. If those interests and passions line up with what happens in the career you believe you want, you may be headed towards a great first job.
That’s what I’m looking for when I’m interviewing – the potential that you might actually engage and become captivated by what we do. That potential is far more important to me than your grades or your resume.
Now that brings me to my second dose of advice – Be true to yourself. That’s code for work hard.
Here’s what I mean. You know the classes you slogged through here in Chapel Hill and the ones that captured your imagination and your best effort. I know I did.
I wrote a lot of words here in the j-school. Jim Shumaker was my advisor and I took every class he taught. Yes, he really was like that character in the comic strip. I had Jane Brown for advanced reporting. I was in Dulcie Straughan’s very first class as a professor at Chapel Hill. I guess I am old after all!
Those teachers inspired me and got my best effort. I’ll confess, however, there were plenty of classes that I simply endured. Sound familiar?
That’s a luxury you won’t have when you leave here – not if you are going to be proud of your life. You are smart. You are grounded. You have spent a lot of time here – intentionally or not – on a journey of self realization. You know when you are giving your best effort, and you know when you aren’t.
The words I wrote when I got my first job seemed to count more. I was working at Hill and Knowlton, which is one of the world’s largest public relations agencies. I was third kid on the totem pole, but the deadlines and the stakes were real. The work we were doing was on the front page of every paper in the world, and the lead story on the news every night.
It wasn’t just about me or my grade or if I could get through it with less than my best effort. For the first time in my life, I wanted my work to be great every time. It was an adrenaline rush like I had never experienced. It was also great for my self confidence and, eventually, my career.
So the nugget of advice I give most frequently to our new hires is this: engage fully and work your tail off. Be the best at your level that we have ever hired. Know that your job is essential, and that doing it well will help build our agency. And it will be good for you, too.
Our new hires are probably a lot like you. They’re smart. They’re eager. They want to join a client-facing account team on Day One. They believe they can add value and just need a chance. Well, they can, and someday soon they will.
But it’s a tough fact of life that there are phones to answer, topics to research, proposals to assemble and lots of project details to coordinate – the nitty gritty of every successful agency. They get to shine at those tasks before we trust them with others. When they do, they get to shine again.
There’s an old adage about the reward for great work being more work. I guess that’s true, but if you love what you do, you’ll feel like you are the luckiest person alive.
Anyone here ever heard of work-life balance? It’s hog wash. Believe it or not, you’re alive at work, too.
The balance I believe you are seeking is growth, enjoyment and continuous learning in every aspect of your life, and you just left the last institution that’s sole mission is to help you find it. Congratulations! Now it’s up to you.
That’s why it’s worth doing your very best from Day One. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and a lifetime of self confidence and success to gain. It’s also a key thing your interviewers are going to be looking for – if they give you a shot instead of the others, are you going to make the most of it?
The last part of my advice is about your knees. Not your “needs”… your knees. It’s important for you to skin them every now and then. Sometimes that will happen because you take chances. Sometimes life will skin them for you.
Steve Jobs tells a great story about when he got fired from Apple. How many of you knew that happened once? Well, it did. It was a long time ago.
He was a co-founder of the company, took it public, built it up to $2 billion, and hired an outsider to run it. He and the outsider clashed, the board backed the other guy, and Jobs got fired.
He was thirty years old, and he had been kicked out of his own company in a very public and embarrassing way. Most people with his means would have considered buying a nice island somewhere and dropping out of sight.
Instead, he dug in and went right back at it from scratch. He founded first one new company, and then another. One of those companies – NeXT – was acquired by Apple and pretty soon he was running his old company again. Here’s what Jobs has to say about that chapter in his life:
“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Life skinned his knees, and he lived. In fact, he flourished.
My own knees have plenty of scars, though they’re not nearly as sexy as Mr. Jobs’. Unfortunately, I have never been fired. That’s a real badge of honor for an entrepreneur. The closest I have come is temporarily losing my soul.
Coming out of business school, I went to work for an agency that is now known as Jack Morton Worldwide. It was a wonderful, nurturing environment, with far-sighted leaders who gave me plenty of opportunity and support. I had early success rebuilding their presence in Washington and, over time, I came to manage their offices in DC, Atlanta and Dallas.
In hindsight, I wasn’t ready for that level of responsibility. The net result was a meltdown of epic proportions in our Washington office. We lost key accounts and key talent, all on my watch. We also got ahead of ourselves in Dallas, where I recruited away 10 folks from a competitor and managed to get each of them sued individually, and our company. Things weren’t going too well in Atlanta, either. I had to fire too many bad hires and start over.
Morton had been sold by this point. The culture was transforming from an independent agency’s to one of a small subsidiary of a large, publicly-traded holding company. The froth of the dot-com bubble was cooling, and agencies worldwide were facing a tough economy. My timing for skinning my knees probably could have been better.
I stuck it out and did my best to build everything back, with some success. But I wasn’t having any fun. It had been a tough couple of years, and I didn’t see a path back to mental righteousness in that job.
Chancellor Thorp talked about how your authentic passion might change after you find it. That wasn’t my problem. I still loved what I did. I was just in the wrong place.
I realized I was a dozen years into my career and I was still searching. I began to think about starting my own agency.
Believe me when I say it wasn’t a simple decision. My wife, Stacia, had quit her job to raise our two young children, Jackson and Gus. I had a one-year non solicit, which forbade me from pursuing my clients and employees.
The economy was in a downturn. We had invaded Afghanistan and were rattling our saber at Iraq. My timing probably could have been better for starting an agency, too.
After a lot of searching for my lost soul, I quit my job and went for it. I named my agency “August Jackson” after my kids. In the beginning, it was just me, working my tail off on a fold-out card table in a shared office next to a fire station. I loved it from Day One, and I still do.
Today we have a robust agency with offices in five cities, and we are growing like a weed. I draw on the lessons I learned from the “skinned knee” example I just gave you all the time, as well as countless others. They have made me the man I am today.
For better or worse, I am absolutely certain I will skin my knees again. It’s my nature. Who knows where my next life lesson will come from? Maybe from my kids. Probably from this economy.
Though I am not exactly looking forward to the setbacks inevitably heading my way, I will do my best to face them squarely and learn all I can. When you lose the capacity to grow from your experiences, you have surrendered your self determination. Of all of the advice I have offered you today, that may be the most relevant over time.
How about you, newly-minted graduates? When you line up your passions and interests with your current direction, does it all make sense? Can you see your path to righteousness? Are you ready to dig in and work as hard as you ever have? Are you ready to accept new life lessons? How is your capacity for taking risks? I hope your answers to my questions make you smile with confidence.
Those are my thoughts for you today, Graduates. You have been a gracious audience.
Congratulations to each of you. I wish you all much happiness and success as you depart this wonderful institution.
I’ll leave you with one last quote, this one from Roy.
“It's not just about the end result. It's about the chase. Enjoy doing your best every day."