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.
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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 life. I literally thought I was goingto die for I had just been sacked by an iconic figure in my business. My shame turned into anger. I was not angry at Mr. Tullis forhe was right. I was angry at myself. But I knew I was not afailure, and I swore that I was going to prove to myself that I couldbe a success. I called a friend and secured a job on the floor of theNew York Cotton Exchange and moved to the City. Today, I willput my work ethic up against anybody’s on Wall Street. Failurewill give you a tattoo that will stay with you your whole life, andsometimes it’s a really good thing. One other side note, to this day,I’ve never told my parents that I got fired. I told them I just
- 8. wanted to try something different. Shame can be a lifetimecompanion for which you better prepare yourself. Now, there are two types of failure you will experience inlife. The first type is what I just described and comes from thingsyou can control. That is the worst kind. But there is another formof failure that will be equally devastating to you, and that is thekind beyond your control. This happened to me in 1982. I had meta very lovely young Harvard student from Connecticut, dated herfor two years then asked her to marry me right after she graduatedfrom college. We set a date; we sent out the invitations; and allwas fantastic until one month before the wedding when her fathercalled me. He said, “Paul, my daughter sat me down thisafternoon, and she doesn’t know how to tell you this, but she isreally unhappy and thinks it’s time for you two to take a break.”At first I thought he was joking because he was a very funny guy.Then he said, “No, she is serious about this.” I thought to myself,“Oh, my God, I am being dumped at the altar.” I’m from
- 9. Tennessee. Getting dumped at the altar was the supreme socialembarrassment of that time. It was a big deal. When all my familyand friends found out, they were ready to re-start the Civil War onthe spot. I had to remind them that the last Civil War didn’t go sowell for our side, and I didn’t like our chances in a rematch. Thereality was that I was a 26-year old knucklehead, and since all myfriends were getting married, I kind of felt it was time for me to dothe same thing. And that was the worst reason in the world to getmarried. I actually think she understood that and to a certainextent spared me what would have been a very tough marriage.Instead, I’ve had an incredible marriage for twenty years to awonderful wife, and we have four kids that I love more thananything on Earth. Some things happen to you that at the time willmake you feel like the world is coming to an end, but in actuality,there is a very good reason for it. You just can’t see it and don’tknow it. When one door closes, another will open, but standing inthat hallway can be hell. You just have to persevere. Quite oftenthat dragon of failure is really chasing you off the wrong road and
- 10. on to the right one. By now you are thinking, how much longer is this losergoing to keep on talking. My kids are all teenagers, and wheneverI’m telling them something I think is important, they often wonderthe same thing. But the main point I want you to take away todayis that some of your greatest successes are going to be the childrenof failure. This touches upon the original reason I was invitedhere today. In 1986, I adopted a class of Bedford Stuyvesant 6 thgraders and promised them if they graduated from high school, Iwould pay for their college. For those of you who don’t know,Bed-Stuy is one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods. Eventhe rats are scared to go there at night. Statistically about 8% ofthe class I adopted would graduate from high school, so myintervention was designed to get them all into college. For the nextsix years, I did everything I could for them. I spent about $5,000annually per student taking them on ski trips, taking them toAfrica, taking them to my home in Virginia on the weekends,
- 11. having report card night, hiring a counselor to help coordinateafternoon activities and doing my heartfelt best to get them readyfor college. Six years later, a researcher from Harvard contactedme and asked if he could study my kids as part of an overallassessment of what then was called the “I Have a Dream”Program. I said sure. He came back to me a few months laterand shared some really disturbing statistics. 86 kids that I hadpoured my heart and soul into for six years were statistically nodifferent than kids from a nearby school that did not have theservices our afterschool program provided. There was nodifference in graduation rates, dropout rates, academic scores,teenage pregnancies, and the list went on. The only thing that wemanaged to do was get three times as many of our kids into collegebecause we were offering scholarships whereas the other schoolswere not. But in terms of preparing these kids for college, wecompletely and totally failed. Boy, did this open my eyes. Thatwas the first real-time example for me of how intellectual capitalwill always trump financial capital. In other words, I had the
- 12. money to help these kids, but it was useless because I didn’t havethe brains to help them. I had tried to succeed with sheer force ofwill and energy and financial resources. I learned that this was notenough. What I needed were better defined goals, better metrics,and most importantly, more efficient technologies that wouldenable me to achieve those goals. What that whole experiencetaught me was that starting with kids at age 12 was 12 years toolate. An afterschool program was actually putting a band-aid on amuch deeper structural issue, and that was that our publiceducation system was failing us. So in 2000, along with thegreatest educator I knew, a young man named Norman Atkins, westarted the Excellence Charter School in Bedford Stuyvesant forboys. We set the explicit goal of hiring the best teachers with thegreatest set of skills to be the top performing school in the city.Now that was an ambitious goal but last year in 2008, Excellenceranked #1 out of 543 public schools in New York City for readingand math proficiency for any third and fourth grade cohort, and ourschool was 98% African American boys. We never would have
- 13. done that had I not failed almost 15 years earlier. So here is the point: you are going to meet the dragon offailure in your life. You may not get into the school you want oryou may get kicked out of the school you are in. You may get yourheart broken by the girl of your dreams or God forbid, get into anaccident beyond your control. But the point is that everythinghappens for a reason. At the time it may not be clear. Andcertainly the pain and the shame are going to be overwhelming anddevastating. But just as sure as the sun comes up, there will comea time on the next day or the next week or the next year, when youwill grab that sword and point it at that dragon and tell him, “Begone, dragon. Tarry with me and I will cut your head off. For Imust find the destination God and life hold in store for me!”Young men of Buckley, good luck on your journey…..