"You owe a debt to the unlucky."
Michael Lewis's 2012 commencement address is a truly outstanding speech.
So often I am told that a speech is great when it is not.
A speech is inspiring when it is packed with platitudes.
A speech is brilliant when it merely mundane.
Michael Lewis's speech is outstanding. Lewis advises the graduates of Princeton University to remember how lucky they are. How blessed they have been with parents, country, university, opportunity, and ability.
Hard work played a role in the graduates' success, no doubt, but millions of people around the world have undoubtedly worked much harder than these graduates and do not earn degrees from Princeton because of circumstances beyond their control.
It would be easy for me to claim I have been unlucky.
- Kicked out of my childhood home after high school
- Arrested and tried for a crime I did not commit
- Victim of violence that resulted in a lifetime of PTSD
- Victim of an anonymous smear campaign that nearly destroyed my career.
Instead of going to college after high school, living on campus, traveling overseas, and immersing myself in the learning and lifestyle of my peers, I went to school four years later after putting jail, my trial, and homeless behind me. I worked 50 hours a week while double majoring at two different universities in order to survive.
It was not fun. It was not what college was supposed to be. I did not graduate college with lifelong friends or a bounty of memories of time spent in marble halls, crowded dorms, and green quads.
It was not the college experience that I had once dreamed of.
Still, I have been so lucky. Lucky to live in a country that provides freedom and opportunity. Lucky to be healthy and able to work as hard as I did. Lucky to be a white man who was not forced to battle the discrimination, hatred, and the glass ceilings of my female and minority friends. Lucky to find professors, bosses, and mentors who guided me. Lucky to find a family willing to rescue me from the streets. Lucky to survive horrific violence relatively unscathed. Lucky to find a brilliant and beautiful woman who was inexplicably willing to marry me. Lucky to have two happy, healthy children.
Michael Lewis urges the graduates of Princeton to remember how lucky they are. How their success is predicated more on their good fortune than anything else. He reminds them of what can happen when you begin to believe that you have risen to the top through merit alone.
It's the right message for the right audience at the right time, and it was spoken succinctly, clearly, and without qualification.
Michael Lew is right, too. Wouldn't the world be a far kinder and gentler place if the successful people of our planet would be willing to acknowledge the degree to which luck has helped them to rise and while keeping other people down?
We owe a debt to the unlucky. If only more people would be willing to pay that debt.