Make a Difference
President and Chief Executive Officer
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
Commencement Address to
the Oglethorpe University Class of 2005
May 7, 2005
Let me say how honored I am to speak to all of you on this very special occasion. And I also want to add that I am extremely grateful to receive an honorary degree from this great institution. Thank you for your generosity.
As I begin, I want to join others in acknowledging everything Larry Large has done for this institution in his nearly six years as president. As a leader, Larry has been tireless and visionary, and he leaves Oglethorpe stronger and even better positioned for the future. Thanks, Larry, for all you’ve meant to us.
This morning we are here in this beautiful setting to salute the members of Oglethorpe University’s Class of 2005. And to all of you who are receiving undergraduate or graduate degrees today, I want to offer my personal congratulations. You have very good reason to celebrate.
In thinking about what I wanted to say to you this morning, I kept reflecting on your Oglethorpe motto. You know how it goes: “Make a life. Make a living. Make a difference.” I am confident you’ll be successful at the first two of those as you each choose different paths for making a life and making a living. But I would like to share some of my thoughts about the third part of that motto—a phrase I’m told President Large suggested adding—the idea of truly making a difference.
There are countless ways to make a difference, both big and small. Parents, grandparents and friends of today’s graduates have made an enormous difference in the lives of the students receiving diplomas. I’m sure you’ll savor this moment, knowing that, in the years ahead, these students will reap many dividends from the investments that you have made in their lives and in their education.
There are others who also have made a profound difference in the lives of these new graduates. I especially want to recognize the faculty—the heart and soul of this great institution—for leaving today’s graduates with a vast endowment by teaching them to think, to challenge, and to ask tough questions.
And—most importantly—to the students, as you leave this sanctuary and go about your lives and your careers, I can’t tell you what twists and turns lie ahead. But recent experience suggests that you should prepare yourselves for almost anything. When many of you began your studies as freshmen four years ago, we had not yet seen the horror of September 11, 2001. And during your time here, the United States has fought two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition to geopolitical instability, today’s graduates also face an economy that is undergoing profound change. In the past few years, we have seen a recession followed by an economic recovery along with wave after wave of business scandals. And we have seen China, India and other economies become powerful competitors in fields such as software development and manufacturing.
Despite recent setbacks and the emergence of new competitive pressures, our economy is incredibly adaptive and resilient. And I am confident that as individuals you too will adjust to the job market’s constantly shifting matrix of challenges and opportunities.
If you want an idea of how quickly trends change in our job market, look at the technology boom and bust of the past decade. After about five years of rapid growth during the late 1990s, many high-paying technology jobs disappeared. But in recent years we have seen the emergence of new employment opportunities, especially in booming fields such as health care, education, residential construction and professional services.
From the outside, I can imagine this turbulent job market can look pretty daunting. The good news for today’s graduates is that you have chosen wisely by pursuing higher education. The vast majority of quality jobs in the future will place a premium on knowledge and creativity, attributes that you have strengthened during your years at Oglethorpe.
Whatever options you choose, you have a solid foundation for making a difference. And as someone who has walked a most unlikely career path, I want to encourage you to embrace unforeseen opportunities. Some 40 years ago, I was a gung-ho, green-as-grass industrial engineer coming out of Virginia Tech. Instead of going to work for a manufacturing business like many of my classmates, I accepted a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, excited by the prospect of working as a technology pioneer on the banking frontier. Now, after a series of very different jobs within the Fed, I find myself sitting at the Fed’s Open Market Committee policymaking table with Alan Greenspan and others, who are, for the most part, career Ph.D. economists.
One of the most interesting parts of my job as a central banker is the chance to interact regularly with leaders from across our region to discover from a grassroots perspective what’s really going on in our economy. And in doing so, I often find myself reflecting on what distinguishes those leaders I admire most—not necessarily those who’’ve amassed fortunes or garnered fancy titles—but those who really make a difference. I want to describe to you four fundamental characteristics that I associate with these men and women who have risen above the crowd:
The first characteristic is hard work. You already have demonstrated that you know how to apply yourself because you have made it to graduation—and that’s great. But to make a difference in our changing world, you will need to continue to sweat the details. As I mentioned earlier, evidence suggests that jobs in the future will continue to change and will become more demanding—not less—as new technologies evolve and our global economy becomes even more competitive. Related to this idea of hard work, I want to take this opportunity to shoot down one of my least favorite sayings, and that is: “It’s not how hard you work; it’s who you know.” Whoever offers you that trite expression as advice is doing you a real disservice. Maybe you can open doors by dropping the right name. But you can’t get one step toward the top by coasting or taking short cuts. I can’t name anyone who has been successful over the long run just because of personal or family connections. The cold, hard truth always has been and remains: there is no substitute for hard work.
Second, truly successful men and women are committed to learning. They made their college graduation the end of the beginning of their education, not the end. Lawyers and school teachers are required to go back for continuing education credits. And I sure hope my doctor is continuing to learn about new treatments. Today’s employees at all levels are pleading for training opportunities—on both company and personal time. If you want to really make a difference in your workplace, make it a habit to hone your skill and find new ways to contribute.
Before I was promoted into my current job as the president of the Atlanta Fed, Chairman Greenspan and the other six Fed Governors in Washington had to approve my selection. Well, I’ve told you about my background in engineering, so you can imagine that I was pretty intimidated when I sat down for a formal interview with this group of distinguished PhD. economists. I’ll never forget my hour with Janet Yellen, a Fed Governor at that time and one of the most renowned economists in America. Janet said, “Jack, my advice to you is, buy a good book on macroeconomics and read it cover to cover.” She was right. I faced a steep learning curve. But years later I got to return the favor when Janet was named president of the San Francisco Fed, with a chance to use her economics training as a monetary policy maker but with some very new and unfamiliar responsibilities for managing a large, complex organization. When I heard about her new job, I called her and said, “Janet, my advice to you is, buy a good book on management and read it cover to cover.” Janet and I enjoy joking with each other, but the message is that, no matter how far you go, you never get to a point where you’ve learned all you need to know.
The third point I want to stress is that your chances of success increase significantly when you show a genuine interest in, and respect for, the contributions of others. Leaders who make a difference understand that the higher you go in your chosen profession, the more you realize that your success and the success of your colleagues are intertwined. Real leaders aren’t afraid to hire others who are smarter or more talented than they are, and they freely delegate responsibility and share credit. The bottom line: If you genuinely care about the people around you and invest yourself in their careers, they in turn will help you along the way.
Fourth, I can’t say enough about ethics. Our market economy is driven by self-interest, which is a powerful and constructive force. But in recent years we have seen reports—one after another—of business leaders who manipulated financial statements, who deceived investors or who abused their authority for personal gain. Tragedies such as Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia impose huge costs on our economy while eroding the very foundation of our marketplace, which is trust. What does this mean for today’s graduates? Let me say that a successful career in any field requires you to weave ethics into the fabric of who you are. Ethics is about more than just following rules. It’s about doing the right thing, even when nobody’s looking.
Shortly after his first inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the 1932 graduating class at Oglethorpe. That speech to your predecessors took place during the Great Depression, and the new president delivered a call to change that resonates across the decades. He said that day, and I quote: “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”
Fortunately, today’s graduates face an economy that is nothing like it was in Roosevelt’s first term. Our economic outlook is solid. We live in the most dynamic economy in the world, and your possibilities are limited only by your imagination. But regardless of unexpected events that are surely ahead, and regardless of the particular path you chose, you will advance your own cause immeasurably if you demonstrate the characteristics of success that I just mentioned—hard work; dedication to lifelong learning; respect for others; and commitment to ethics.
And as you make your life and make your living, be sure that your ultimate goal is to make a difference. More than ever, we need you to share your intelligence and your imagination, your talent and your enthusiasm. And as you apply your newly honed powers of reasoning, be skeptical, not cynical. It’s easy to stand back and criticize, but I want to call on you to step forward and respond to the world’s many problems. If something is broken, show us how to fix it. If something works, show us how to make it better.
In closing, I want to echo President Roosevelt’s message from many years ago by challenging today’s graduates to really “make a difference” by helping to remake the world. You’ll know when you’ve succeeded in this endeavor, and I can assure you there is no greater satisfaction. Again, my congratulations.