3 Big Lessons for College Freshmen: My Speech to NYU Stern’s New Undergraduate Class

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Below is a transcript of a speech I gave on August 27, 2012 to NYU Stern’s 600+ incoming freshmen and transfers. I’ll post the video when I get it…if the quality is halfway decent.

It’s exciting to see all these bright shining faces.  You’ll look nothing like this after your first all-nighter studying for your finance final. You’ll wake up covered in highlighter wondering why you were highlighting your iPad in the first place.  You’ll run into class late, give some lame excuse, and think about what you’ll tell your parents as you doodle skeletons where the essays should go. I remember those days well.

Today, I’d like to share with you three lessons I wish I got before I started college. Luckily all you have to do is stop texting for five minutes to benefit from my mistakes.

The first is Humility

Everyone talks about budget deficits, but the humility deficit no one talks about. It’s hard to be humble when life is so easy.  You can open an app and have any cuisine in the world delivered in less than 30 minutes. Anything you want to know is available almost instantly. And, we all know what a Snookie is.

It wasn’t like that for me growing up.  Humility came easily.  I was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. I grew up thinking Irregular was a brand of underwear. There’s something inherently humbling about not knowing English and having an entire wardrobe from the 99 cent store. I always had to work harder than everyone else. That got me top  grades in elementary and high school. Then I got to college…  Being the smartest kid in high school feels great, but when you get to college, everyone was the smartest kid in their school, too. Suddenly you’re just average and need to raise your game.

I started NYU as a journalism major and got into the scholars program, where all the smart kids went. Well, it didn’t take me long to screw that up. In my first semester, the scholars group put me on probation for my D+ in Calculus.  That’s right, D PLUS.  See, the D says “you’re an imbecile”, but the plus says, “you have damn good penmanship.” Insult, meet injury…

My less-than-stellar performance gave my immigrant dad an excuse to threaten to stop paying for school unless I got all A’s and stopped screwing around with journalism. (Thanks, Soviet Union.) He wanted me to have a major that makes money, like Accounting.  Clearly this was a brilliant plan…with that  D+ in calculus under my belt.

That screw-up and being forced to switch majors changed the trajectory of my life. I never thought I’d write or do anything creative again.  Very humbling.

The good news is since graduating with my degree in Economics and Accounting, I’ve done strategy for top global companies, created lots of products and services people love, and got to lead innovation at great companies like MasterCard, Citi and American Express. Now, I have my own business developing startups.  Most satisfying of all – though I never got my journalism degree, my book Econovation was published eight months ago and I now write for Harvard Business Review and other major publications.  I suppose the universe has a way of getting you back to where you should be…as long as you work at it.

Still, I never forget the 99 cent store…

Where will your humility come from?



The second lesson is this: the only thing that matters in life is relationships. And I don’t mean the 2,000 strangers who see your bathing suit photos on Facebook. You could stack up all the LOL’s and OMG’s in the world and they’ll never equal one good relationship in the real world.  The physical world is where the people who care about your well-being are.  Over time, learn which ones to invest in.

And content doesn’t matter.  Unless you screw up royally, no one will remember that great PowerPoint you made, or the grade you got, or what your project was about. As brilliant as your teachers may be, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll leave school with a completely empty brain. The ONLY thing anyone will ever remember about you is the FEELING they had interacting with you – your relationship, the laughs you had.  That alone will allow you to pick up where you left off, even if you run into them 20 years later.

For years, I’d spend a couple of hours a month updating contact information for people I hadn’t seen in ages; occasionally re-connecting. I never really understood why I nursed my address book like a baby. Now that I have my own business, I know why.  That network, those relationships are the lifeblood of my success. And many of them will go out of their way to help out because of the bonds we made.


That brings me to my final point – don’t be an asshole.  Can I say asshole?  Oops, I did it again.

When I was consulting at Andersen, I got dozens of calls from recruiters from every major investment bank.  I never accepted a single interview.  Why?  Nearly everyone I’d met from those companies – at happy hours and parties, was a spectacular asshole.  I’d sooner churn butter with the Amish than spend 12 hours a day with arrogant pricks.  And maybe I was onto something. Almost all of those firms are out of business now. Remember, whatever you are is exactly what you’ll attract.

So don’t forget – be humble, build real relationships, and be the kind of person others won’t want to kill after spending 12 hours with you. But of course, you probably Tweeted that out already.

Thank you.

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.