Paul Tudor Jones Failure Speech
Commencement Address To Graduating Class Of The Buckley School
June 10, 2009
When I was asked to give the commencement address to a graduating class of 9th graders, I jumped at the chance. You see, I have four teenagers of my own and I feel like this is the point in my life when I am supposed to tell them something profound. So thank you Buckley community for giving me this opportunity. I tried this speech out on them last night and am happy to report that none of them fell asleep until I was three quarters done.
When composing this message I searched my memory for my same experience back in 1969 when I was sitting right where you are. I realized that I could hardly remember one single speaker from my junior high or high school days. Now that could be my age. I’m old enough now that some days I can’t remember how old I am. But it could also have been a sign of the times. Remember, I was part of the student rebellion, and we did not listen to anything that someone over 30 said because they were just too clueless. Or so we thought.
Anyway, as I sat there considering this speech further, I suddenly had a flashback of the one speaker who I actually did remember from youthful days. He was a Shakespearean actor who came to our school to extol the virtues of Shakespeare. He started out by telling us that Shakespeare was not about poetry or romance or love, but instead, was all about battle, and fighting and death and war. Then he pulled out a huge sword which he began waving over the top of his head as he described various bloody conflicts that were all part and parcel of Shakespeare’s plays. Now being a 15-year old testosterone laden student at an all boys school, I thought this was pretty cool. I remember thinking, “Yea, this guy gets it. Forget about the deep meaning and messages in the words, let’s talk about who’s getting the blade.”
As you can see, I have a similar sword which I am going to stop waving over my head now, because A) I think you are permanently scarred, and B) the headmaster looks like he is about to tackle me and C) some of you, I can tell, are way too excited about this sword, and you’re scaring me a little.
I’m here with you young men today because your parents wanted me to speak to you about service—that is, serving others and giving back to the broader community for the blessings that you have received in your life. But that is a speech for a later time in your life. Don’t get me wrong, serving others is really, really important. It truly is the secret to happiness in life. I swear to God.
Money won’t do it. Fame won’t do it. Nor will sex, drugs, homeruns or high achievement. But now I am getting preachy. Today, I want to talk to you about the dirtiest word that any of you 9th graders know. It’s a word that is so terrible that your parents won’t talk about it; your teachers won’t talk about it; and you certainly don’t ever want to dwell on it. But this is a preparatory school, and you need to be prepared to deal with this phenomenon because you will experience it. That is a guarantee.
Every single one of you will experience it not once but multiple times, and every adult in this room has had to deal with this in its many forms and manifestations. It’s the “F” word. FAILURE. Failure that is so mortifying and so devastating that it makes you try to become invisible. It makes you want to hide your face, your soul, your being from everyone else because of the shame. Trust me, boys—if you haven’t already tasted that, you will. I am sure most of you here already have. AND IT IS HARD. I know this firsthand, but I also know that failure was a key element to my life’s journey.
- My first real failure was in 1966 in the 6th grade. I played onour basketball team, and I was the smallest and youngest kid on the
- 5. team. It was the last game of the season and I was the only playeron the squad that had not scored a point all season. So in thesecond half the coach directed all the kids to throw me the ballwhen I went in, and for me to shoot so that I would score. Theproblem was that Coach Clark said it loud enough that everyperson in the stands could hear it as well as every member of theopposing team. Going into the fourth quarter, our team was wellahead, Coach Clark inserted me and thus, began the worst eightminutes of my life up until that point. Every time I got the ball, theentire other team would rush towards me, and on top of that, thatafternoon I was the greatest brick layer the world had ever seen.The game ended. I had missed five shots, and the other teamerupted in jubilation that I had not scored. I ran out of the gym asfast as I could only to bump into two of the opposing team’splayers who proceeded to laugh and tease and ridicule me. I criedand hid in the bathroom. Well, that passed, and I kept trying teamsports, but I was just too small to really compete. So in the 10thgrade, I took up boxing where suddenly everyone was my size and
- 6. weight. I nearly won the Memphis Golden Gloves my senior yearin high school and did win the collegiate championship when I was19. Standing in the middle of that ring and getting that trophy, Istill remember looking around for those two little kids who had runme into that bathroom back in the 6th grade, because I was going toknock their blocks off. That’s one problem with failure. It canstay with you for a very long time. The next time the dragon of failure reared his ugly head wasin 1978. I was working in New Orleans for one of the greatestcotton traders of all time, Eli Tullis. Now, New Orleans is anunbelievable city. It has the Strawberry Festival, the Jazz Festival,the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, and just about every other excuse fora party that you can ever imagine. Heck, in that town, waking upwas an excuse to party. I was still pretty fresh out of college, andmy mentality, unfortunately, was still firmly set on fraternity row.It was a Friday morning in June, and I had been out literally allnight with a bunch of my friends. My job was to man the phone all
- 7. day during trading hours and call cotton prices quotes from NewYork into Mr. Tullis’ office. Around noon, things got quiet on theNew York floor, and I got overly drowsy. The next thing Iremember was a ruler prying my chin off my chest, and Mr. Tulliscalling to me, “Paul. Paul.” My eyes fluttered opened and as Icame to my senses, he said to me, “Son, you are fired.” I’d neverbeen so shocked or hurt in my