Foley Talks to Summer Grads about Success

August 18, 2008

Georgia Tech Graduation Speech
Jim Foley
August 1, 2008

On Success

President Schuster, thank you for that kind introduction.

Honored platform guests, colleagues, graduating students, families and guests.

I asked a friend “What makes a good graduation talk?”  He said, only partly in jest: short, short, short. I would have preferred a different answer – memorable, memorable, memorable.

Let me give both a try.

I want to talk with you about – success.  You probably have that on your minds right now – after all, you’re graduating from Georgia Tech. You’re getting out. You’re a success.

I’d like to address three questions:

How might you define success for the rest of your lives? 
What can we learn from how others view success?  
How do I, Jim Foley, define success?

To learn how you, the graduating class, might define success, I asked students in my spring classes “What does it mean to be successful?”

Their replies were thoughtful. Let me tell you what my students did and did not say. They did not say they wanted to have a fast expensive car. They did not say they wanted to be rich. In fact, quite a few explicitly rejected that as being successful.

You Georgia Tech students are not just smart, you’re wise.  You knew, wisely, what the author Thomas Wolfe said: “You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity.

My own philosophy is “Don’t seek out compliments and publicity – earn them, and they will come to you.”  There is a simpler version of this: “modesty is a virtue.”

Now, what did my students say?  Many said they wanted to be happy, have good friends and a loving family.

They understood implicitly what the Nobel Prize winning medical missionary and philosopher Albert Schweitzer said a long time ago: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

Students often ask me, “Should I take this job, or that job?” My standard advice is, “Go where your heart takes you.”  “Go where your passion lies.”

Most successful people truly love what they are doing. Take a job that doesn’t excite you, and being successful will be really tough.  Your lack of excitement and energy will be sensed by others and will likely defeat you, just as your passion for your work will help you.

I call this passion “The Fire in the Belly” and often talk about it with my colleagues as we review faculty and graduate student applicants.  A few years ago I was apparently using the phrase so much, that when a group of faculty colleagues and I were celebrating a success, they gave me pictures of an oriental fire-bellied toad, a European fire-bellied toad, a fire-bellied newt and a fire-bellied lizard.

I didn’t realize there were so many fire-bellied creatures like me!

Many of your fellow students simply talked about “achieving goals.” A few of the goals were specific:  invent something important; be recognized in my profession.

It was as though they had heard J.C. Penney, founder of a large chain of variety stores, say: “Give me a stock clerk with a goal, and I'll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals, and I'll give you a stock clerk.”

Many of my students’ goals were much more about the kind of life they wanted to lead than about specific end results.   In some way, they recognized that success in life is more about the journey, about HOW you conduct yourself, about how you lead your life, no matter the final destination.

What about my own view of success? It has changed over the years.  After reading Steven Covey’s best selling Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, I was able to put my evolving notions of success into a context.

Covey talks about three stages we go through as we grow up: dependence, independence, interdependence.

Dependence – when I was a kid, I depended on my parents, as we all did.  My goals were food, go swimming, play with my model trains, have fun.

Independence – that’s the “know it all“ stage, when we rebel, when we go off to college. We want to make our own way. My own independence stage lasted a long time. My goals were about me.  Earn good grades. Graduate.  Get a job.  Get research funding. Write research papers. Publish research papers. Earn tenure. Be promoted. It was about me.

Then finally, there is interdependence – when we recognize and celebrate our mutual interdependencies – at work, in clubs, at home.  When I finally got to this stage, probably in my late thirties, I began to say more and more to myself and to others:  “Your success is my success.” If I can help you succeed, then I too will have succeeded.

I was saying it’s no longer about me, it’s about us; we’re all in this together.

The sooner one gets to that stage, the better.  I hope many of you are already there. At your age, I sure wasn’t.

By the way, the subtext here is that goals change over time, as we journey through life.  That’s O.K.

What I’m saying is that the way I have chosen to define success for me, that is, the way I have chosen to lead my life, is by putting into practice “your success is my success.”

One way to think about “Your success is my success” is to recognize that we have all been mentored – by parents and friends, and in my case by my parents and wife and two daughters – and we have all been taught by teachers, coaches, and others – and they have all cheered us on to our successes.  In fact, my wife is sitting right over there, rooting for me.

No matter what our career, we can all cheer others on; we can all be mentors. In fact, we can all be teachers – it doesn’t have to be in the classroom. It can be whenever a colleague or friend seeks help solving a problem.

In my case, having taught in the classroom, I can tell you that teaching helps not just the learner but also the teacher.  Explaining a concept sharpens how well you understand it.

If I had the privilege of teaching any of you who are graduating today, let me thank you right now for what you taught me with your questions in class, your test answers, your projects.

The logical conclusion to “Your success is my success” is to recognize that we did not get where we are without the help of others.  Your success in graduating today comes not just from your own hard work but also from your teachers, mentors and parents. So I ask you now to take a moment to answer for yourself two questions:

How will you thank those who helped you earn your Georgia Tech degree?
How will you pay it forward to others?

Think about that for a moment.

In closing, I’d like to share with you two success lessons I learned from my Mom and Dad.

From Mom, I learned determination.  Yes, you need to love what you are doing, you need that fire in the belly, but you also need determination to do what it is you have set out to do.  Not a reckless “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” but an inner strength and belief in yourself and your goals that keeps you going when times get tough.

It’s the same idea as the brick wall my friend Randy Pausch described in his “last lecture” – the brick wall is there to test your determination.  To test how badly you want something.  Determination can carry you a long way.

From Dad, I learned to be nice to everyone.  He never talked about it with me, he just did it. For me, this means having a kind word for everyone – not just for President Schuster and my fellow deans and professors, but for the custodian, for the part time secretary, for the receptionist, and for the forlorn new student wandering around campus.

Be kind and thoughtful to others – it’s one mark of the kind of person you are. It’s one mark of the way you choose to lead your life.

So, congratulations to each of you on your success in graduating from Georgia Tech. My hope for each of you is that your life will be a success in ways that matter most to you, just as mine has been and continues to be for me.

Well, that’s it.  I promised you this talk would be short – we can measure that right now by looking at our watches.

I also promised that I would do my best to make the talk memorable – that we can’t measure right now.  So I’ll be at your 25th or 50th reunion with a pop quiz.  See you then, graduates!