No secret that school gets back in session for most of the country about now. No matter if you are a student yourself, or have kids going to school, you could not have possibly missed annual barrage of Back to School ads, promos, sales, and such. You know, the annual tradition that begins barking to us in the dog days of August as an unwelcome reminder that in a few preciously short more weeks summer will be drawing to a close. August also, oddly, seems to spawn forth the release of seasonal (?) pumpkin beers, which at this point have already been on the shelves for several weeks. But the process of getting them there started much, much earlier.
With an average brewing time presumably in the 2-3 week range, after which they are then stockpiled and sent to wholesalers around the country to eventually hit retailers’ shelves by—in some seasonally-challenged instances—early- to mid- August. That means that while you were only a month or so into your summer tan and more concerned with your beer-geek friends critiquing you for pouring your local brewery’s summer wheat into a freezer-kept mug (after all, it’s so damn hot today right? Well, I actually agree with them…), your favorite pumpkin ale brewer was taking delivery of massive loads of pumpkin and working on their posters reading “Get Yours Today!!” (complete with fallen leaves, dried cornstalks and other autumnal imagery that Mother Nature will be catching up with three months later).
It’s the way of the world. Hell, I remember one summer many many years ago in Los Angeles I was dating a girl that was a personal assistant to Neil Diamond, and I recall her bemoaning that she was growing sick of hearing the Christmas songs he was working on recording for his upcoming holiday release. (Never mind that Neil is Jewish; I thought the end result was a great effort.) And y’know, I never have really forgiven myself for not taking at least enough advantage of that previous relationship to swing by the offices for a pic and an autograph.
Anywho. While you were diving into the pool / lake / river / ocean / sprinklers / hydrant in the middle of the summer, your fall sweaters are receiving their final stitching in China and Bangladesh. Or thereabouts.
But I digress. We were talking about Back to School, which, as I haven’t managed to get to yet but will now, reminded me of my relatively recent commencement speech I gave to the 2012 graduating class at Cuyamaca College just a few short months ago. Why would anyone ask me to give a Commencement speech one might reasonably ask? Well, the previous spring I’d been invited to give an environmental keynote to a Green Business Symposium that was being held on the campus, and I guess they liked my message. And delivery. I’d hoped they did, but I admittedly get a little bombastic at times, especially if it’s a topic that I care about, and I was pretty certain that I was either going to eventually get invited to give another talk perhaps, or politely asked never to set foot on campus again. Fortunately it was the former, but I hadn’t expected to get elevated to Commencement-delivery status. I was honored. And gave an enthusiastic Yes!
But what would I say to a group of students about to head out into the quote-unquote “real world”? As I contemplated my own graduation some 25 years previous (not that I can even recall who gave my university’s commencement or any of the words of wisdom that they gave unfortunately), I tried to think about what I wish I’d been told when I was handed my degree, and the pen just couldn’t stop flowing. The proverbial pen, that is. I actually used my laptop, as I am now.
Anyway, I think I did OK, if I may say so myself. And I really enjoyed getting a chance to share my thoughts and perspectives with the young and not-so-young minds (Cuyamaca is quite delightfully diverse, with graduating students from the 2012 class ranging from a brilliant 18 year old, and an equally-inspiriational-but-in-a-different-way octogenarian gearing up to take their next step. Since then, I’ve seen some nice feedback from a snippet of my speech that was posted by the college, and I thought, well heck! Why not share my thoughts with the world? Or at least the thin slice of the world that’s represented by you, my dear readers.
Yes, some people might disagree or scrunch their noses at some of my suggestions, but that’s alright as it’s quite impossible to say anything that’s worth saying at all without at least a modest percentage of scrunched noses… so if you feel inclined, please do scrunch away. While I may not agree with the scrunching of your nose, I will defend to the death your right to scrunch it. Or something. No matter. I wrote it for those who, like me, are rarely satisfied with the status quo… those who are always looking for ways to innovate, improvise, and improve along the way. If you’re of that cloth, feel free to read on. And if you’re not, you may benefit from reading it most.
So, without further delay, mention of sweaters, Christmas albums from Jewish singers, August onslaughts of pumpkin beers, or other asides, here is the text of my 2012 Cuyamaca College Commencement Speech:
It’s a great honor and privilege for me to be here today. I’m honored that the leadership of Cuyamaca decided to invite me to come speak with you today. It’s my goal to not make them regret the decision. Too much.
As an environmental and sustainability geek, I’m especially impressed that Cuyamaca College was recently selected as one of just three community colleges to win the inaugural Energy & Sustainability Award in the entire state of California. It always takes a team effort to accomplish such a task, so you can all take credit.
Although… umm… that means those of you in the stands with plastic single-use water bottles now officially know that we all noticed. At any rate, all us reusable water bottle users hoped you’d be bringing reusable water bottles too, but appreciate the fact that you’ve decided this will be your last one. Right? Good.
I brought my reusable bottle. At Stone, we also use these for beer. No, I’m not telling you what I’ve got in mine right now, but as far as you know it’s water.
I also want to acknowledge that the college has created a sustainable urban landscape degree and certificate program, with the very first getting their degrees on this very day. Congratulations, you are the wave of the future!
I see a great range of diversity out there in the audience. I see a lot of people who have overcome substantial obstacles to get here. I know that a lot of you have likely been told by others—friends, family, co-workers… strangers even— that you couldn’t do it. That you couldn’t go to college… that you aren’t smart enough, that you aren’t good enough. Well, the fact that you are sitting here today sends a very clear message: “Limit yourself all you like, but do not attempt to limit me.”
Keep that motto. In fact, don’t allow yourself to limit you either. That internal voice of doubt means that sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. Never accept the limiting voice, no matter where it comes from.
Look around you… you are sitting among a group of people who have accomplished a LOT. You see around you people with talent, determination, and a yearning to accomplish even more. Take a moment to acknowledge yourself, as you are certainly a part of this group. You’ve done a lot to get this far, and you have a lot more to accomplish in the years ahead.
Many of you know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. Others of you might not. And that’s OK. You know that college was an important next step, but a next step to where?
No matter where you are in your life, it’s never too late. Hell, I didn’t start Stone until I was 32. Only then did I discover my true life’s passion, and I went for it! The blinders went on, and the long 14-16 hour days wizzed by. At that time, craft beer wasn’t at all popular like it is today, and virtually no one was interested in what we were doing. But I was, and I was going to make sure we were successful come hell or high water.
Whatever you do, DON’T follow the rules. Rules are for other people. Because if you follow the rules, there’s less hope of doing something that’s truly great. Truly spectacular.
OK, perhaps a little clarity here. I’m NOT talking about not following the laws. That’s a risk/reward scenario that doesn’t pan out. I AM talking about not following the “rules of convention.” And of course, you need to use your good sense to know which rules to break. I think you can break the rules of marketing all day long, but I don’t really suggest that you break, say, the rules of accounting. (Unless you want to spend some quality time with the Enron folks.)
With all this rule-breaking talk, I want to tell you that I do believe in the power of a college education. I believe the college experience teaches us many critical and foundational things upon which we can build our lives and our careers. However, it does NOT teach you one of the things that I think can be your strongest ally: the power of ignorance.
That’s right: ignorance.
Now, as any college educated person knows, the definition of ignorance is not what most people think it is. It’s most certainly not stupidity. It is, instead, the state of not knowing.
Ignorance is quite powerful. In fact, I think it’s been my single greatest attribute in business over the years. Coupled with enthusiasm—and in my case beer geekdom and unabashed zealotry—you can have an even stronger equation. How? Well, you see, it’s because so many of the things that I’ve done, I’ve done only because I was too ignorant to know that they weren’t supposed to be done that way.
Great artists, explorers, entrepreneurs, record breakers, and leaders all have one thing in common: they were ignorant of the fact—or simply unbelieving of the idea—that they couldn’t go beyond the previously acepted limitations. Those limitations were someone else’s facts, not their facts. Someone else’s so-called “facts” had little importance to them, or perhaps, much of the time, were the impetus of the desire to prove the establishment wrong.
In the world of beer, the establishment told us that the American beer drinking public was unsophisticated. The establishment said that the American beer drinker didn’t like complexity, and instead wanted vapid watery emptiness. They asserted that the public simply didn’t know, and didn’t want to know any better. But I was unwilling to believe that. I thought they were wrong. Fast forwarding to the here and now: Stone and 2,000+ other craft brewers from San Diego and all across the United States are proving that notion wrong more and more each day.
There’s a quote I always like to reference, from H.L Mencken. It’s something along these lines: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” I’ve refused to believe it, and I’ve created a rebuttal that sums up my thoughts on taste: “The American public, when faced with great options, will make great choices.”
And so where has that gotten us at Stone? Well, we’ve been the fastest growing brewery in the United States over the last 15 years. (This is without advertising and without ever discounting our beer, mind you.) And it’s allowed us the freedom to make beers that we knew most people wouldn’t even like because they were so different from the norm.
With that, I’d like to ask five things of you…
1) Do Good Things.
It does matter. Everything you do in this world counts. It counts for the worse, or it counts for the better. It’s up to you to choose and I urge you to choose better. The old 1960s phrase was: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” meaning that in order to make changes for the better, we all need to actively work on them. We’ve got a lot of challenges in our world, and we need your help in working toward the solutions.
2) Be a conscious consumer.
In the grocery store, in the shopping mall, or online, don’t buy what the man on the TV tells you to buy. Refuse to be lead by the nose with the idea that you need to buy! buy! buy! and spend! spend! spend! If you must buy something, buy the good one, rather than the latest cool one of the moment… or the one that breaks easily, only to be thrown away and replaced by yet another cheap one. (And by the way, the good one is rarely the one advertised on TV.)
3) Follow the passionate path, and have fun.
Do things that matter to you. Follow your heart. Follow your passion. Do things that you enjoy. I’ll bet the classes you did the best in were the classes that you enjoyed the most. Life and careers are like that as well. If you follow the path of things you are passionate about and enjoy, you will likely do better at them than at something else, and you’ll go to work each day willingly!
And speaking of fun, I gotta take a Twitter pic & tweet this out…
4) Ignore everybody.
This is key if you’re going to follow the passionate path. You’ll need to realize that you cannot listen to other voices than your own. It’s difficult enough to overcome the doubt, fear and negativity of our own internal voice; don’t allow any external voices to add to it. I want to share the very simple idea that doing it your way is better.
What I mean is, I believe that things are almost universally better when people do something the way they think it should be done—the way they truly think is the best way. At Stone, if you don’t care for what we do and how we do it, then you’re not our customer. And if you’re not our customer, we don’t need to fashion ourselves to your personal tastes. In fact, we shouldn’t. If we did, it’s questionable whether we’d make a loyal customer out of you, and we’d almost definitely alienate our customers that have been loyal.
Now I’m not one to say that all advice or perspectives from others is bad. Far from it! So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? It’s simple: does the advice support your vision, or does it attempt to derail it? If the former, lean in.
“Don’t be afraid to fail” is what many people will tell you. I want to amp that up a bit. I want to urge you to stretch, push and risk so much that you DO fail. Make mistakes. Maybe try and avoid huge ones, but you can recover from nearly all of the medium-sized mistakes, and definitely all of the small ones. And each time you do, it’ll put you further ahead of the curve, because most people don’t even want allow for the chance of making even the small mistakes.
Not sure if you can do it or not? Try anyway. Fail. Learn. Try again. Do something amazing.
Am I saying that everyone graduating today should be risk takers? I think you already are. You risked your time, your energy and the power of your focus on the idea that you’d make it this far. And you did make it. And I am willing to risk saying that I think you’re going to go on to do some pretty great things. I want you to go out there and prove the naysayers wrong, and in the process you’ll prove me—and yourselves—right.
Stand up brothers and sisters. Stand up and be proud.
This is your time. No longer will we listen to anyone telling you that you can’t do it, will we? No longer will you believe the lies of oppression that say you’re not good enough. You want—and you demand—the right to prove that you’re better! That you will make the world a better place.
We refuse to believe that we can’t make a difference, when we know that we can…and will! Am I right brothers & sisters?
With that, I ask you this one simple question: if you are with me in sending a message to everyone here, and everywhere else, that you are someone to be reckoned with… that you are someone to be watched… that you are someone who’s done a lot but has a lot more great things that you’re still going to do, can I get a “Hell Yeah!”
Make it happen, Cuyamaca Graduates!
Well, I did get a “Hell Yeah!” from the crowd, and I’m willing to bet some of those graduates are going to go out and do great things. I hope you will, too. Cheers to following your own muse!