Joe Plumeri to Grads: Go Out and Play in Traffic

18 minute read

How you doing? You doing alright? I stand between you and the thing. All the speaker, I’m the last one. So you want this to go on, right? Nah. Come on, tell the truth. I want to thank Chairman Abbey and I want to thank Dean Crowell. This is an unbelievable occasion. I want to thank the faculty. I want to thank everybody actually. I mean I’m here. I feel like Pavarotti with the…this is really cool. I can’t tell you. This is cool. You’re giving an honorary degree to somebody that quit. You have no idea. I don’t like standing behind there, so you don’t mind this, do you? Alright?

It is true 47 years ago, I attended New York Law School and I quit, but you are responsible, this school is responsible, for whatever has happened to me that’s been good because if I did not go to this law school, I wouldn’t have wound up with the job that I wound up with at Carter, Berlind and Weill that I’m going to talk to you about in a minute okay? I’m going to tell you a story. You don’t mind if I tell a story, right? Okay.

You gotta understand that there’s 1,300,000 lawyers in this country. Don’t feel bad. There’s 5,000,000 to 10,000,000 executives and when I became an executive there was probably 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 executives and they weren’t hiring short Italian guys. So you gotta understand you gotta shot. What’s really important is not the fact that there are so many people vying for jobs today. What’s important is that there aren’t many people who are compelling at what they do; that make themselves so obvious that they can’t help but choose you because of who you are and what you represent. The world is full of competent people, but the world is not full of compelling people.

I want to talk to you about the things that I think will make you compelling. At least it’s made me compelling. I want to share it with you and there’s some things that if you think about them, they act as guideposts for you then you’ll never go wrong and you’ll find that your sense of feeling of who you are and the fact that you want to be compelling will be with you all your life.

The first one is you gotta have vision. You gotta know where you’re going and where you’re going has gotta be so focused and so clear that you won’t stop until you get there. It’s so important that that vision stays with you every day. The vision, by the way, is no good unless it is accompanied next by an emotion.

There’s lots of people who commit to joining a gym in January, but emotionally they don’t buy in to or they don’t make the commitment that you need to have that vision. I call it the Viking effect. Does anybody know what the Viking effect is? The Vikings were the people who were the bad guys that used to invade countries. You remember those Vikings? You know, from the North? Now you got it? When they landed ashore of a country they were going to conquer, they immediately burned their boats and the reason they burned their boats was to commit that they were not going to lose. The vision they had of conquering that country. The commitment they had in the emotion. There was no going back. There was no plan B. They burned their boats. The only way they could get back was to build new boats if they won. How many of you have committed to burn your boats with no plan B? If this doesn’t work, I’ll do that. If this doesn’t work out so good, nah, there’s always that. You can’t have it that way. The vision has to be so pure, so forceful in your mind that you totally, emotionally commit to what that vision is.

The next thing you need is purpose. Vision is nice. Emotion and commitment is nice, but you gotta have a purpose. It’s the glue that keeps your life together. What’re you doing here? Why’d you go to law school? Why did I become head of so many companies? What was my purpose? To make a lot of money? I’m telling you that’s not what it’s about. The purpose has gotta be genuine concern for what you do and the people you do it for. If you’re going to practice law and criminal law or you’re going to work in corporate law or you’re going to use the law to do something else, it doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is, is that you have genuine concern for people. It’s not about technology. It’s not about the internet. It’s about people and if you can have genuine concern for what’s good for people and that’s your purpose, you’re going to go as far as you want to go because your purpose is pure. It’s important to have one. It’s important to have one because it’s the center of who you are. If you want to know what passion is about and it’s been mentioned many times up here, passion is the marriage of your vision, your commitment and your purpose. You marry the three together and that’s where your passion comes from. In the absence of those things, you got nothing.

If you want to have the vision, you gotta go out and you gotta find that vision. I call it go play in traffic. Now you’re saying what’s wrong with the guy? He wants me to go get hit by a car. That’s not what I want you to do. I want you to do is to engage. We live in this society of hopeful authenticity, but it gets filtered through so many various things that are emails or texts or Linked Ins or Instagrams and through that filter, we wonder who we are. We gotta go out and engage and play in traffic. That’s how I got here. When I entered New York Law School, I thought it would be a great idea to go find a job with a Wall Street Law Firm and start my mediocre rise to the top. Thankfully the law school was downtown near Wall Street. So after my last class I said let me go knock on some doors, play in some traffic, see what’s going on and find a job with a Wall Street Law Firm.

So I went around look at directories. This is when you could go upstairs easily and I saw the name Carter, Berlind and Weill and I figured if it’s got three names, it’s a law firm. So I get up to Carter, Berlind and Weill, I said with whom may I speak about a job? I’m not sure I said it that way, but that’s what I did. And she said, “Well this is a small company, let me see.” She says, “Go down the hall and ask for Mr. Weill” and I go down the hall and ask for Mr. Weill and then he says, “What can I do for you?” I said I’m going to New York Law School and then after class I want to learn the law from a practical point of view and start my mediocre rise to the top. He says, “That’s a great idea.” I said, “It is?” He says, “That’s a great idea. What makes you think you can do that here?” I said, “This is a law firm.” He says, “No, it’s a brokerage firm.” So you see if it wasn’t for New York Law School, I wouldn’t be here.

So I started to walk out and he says, “No that’s a good idea.” He said, “No, I like your moxie.” They put a desk inside a closet, took the door out of the closet, half of me was in the closet, half of me was in the hallway. People would knock me in the back of the head, call me Joey Baby. I was a gopher. I went for this, I went for that. Twenty years later that company became Shearson Lehman Brothers and I was the President of that company because of New York Law School. That company was part of Travelers Group, which became part of Citigroup and so when I tell you that I am so endeared to New York Law School even though I quit, but I quit because I loved the closet. I loved what I was doing. I had a vision of being a great Wall Street executive. That was my vision. Crazy as it sounds, my grandfather, who came from Sicily and immigrated here, my father would tell me over and over again work hard and go after your vision and your dream. And that’s what I did. And so if I hadn’t gone out and played in traffic and pursued that vision, nothing would have happened. I came in the wrong place, which turned out to be the right place, you see, later on.

So that vision has gotta be so important the commitment, by the way, I made to that vision was the fact that I dropped out of law school because I was so committed to the different vision. You see how important it is? Go out, play in traffic. Something’s going to happen eventually. Something will happen.

Years later, I’m the Chairman and CEO of the Willis Group. Now nobody knows Willis. Willis is a British company. I was the first American, non-British Chairman in 200 years. You think it was easy for them to take me? Not only was I not British, they thought Fonzie came to run this place. Fast forward to 2008.

Now this company that lost money was now a leading insurance broker in the world. In 2008, I made the worst decision of my life and I buy this company in June of 2008. All of you remember what happened after that. Right, so the brilliant executive makes the biggest deal in the decade in the insurance industry and it turns out to be at the worst possible time. October comes around, all the banks that were going to lend me money permanently, they took a pass. Instead of giving me the permanent money, they gave me bridge loans. I’m not going to get into that, but that’s a bad thing. They were charging me more money than my relatives would charge. We do the deal, but it’s tough times. The credit markets were closed. In November of that year, my older son passes away. So I got back to back adversity. Think I could dig a hole and jump in it or could face my adversity, face my fears because they become your limitations if you don’t. And you blast through it.

In February of 2009 I find that now I got this other company. I got five offices in Chicago. I need to be able to merge all these people together culturally and economically so I ask my real estate people where’s the most space in Chicago? They said, “The Sears Tower. It’s the largest building in the western hemisphere.” So I said I want to see the owner. I see the owner and I said, “You got any space?” He says, “I got space.” Most people were moving out because they thought the terrorists were going to hit them. So it was under 70% occupied. So I said to him, “You know, I’d like to negotiate a good price for you.” He says, “What do you got in mind?” I said, “I don’t want to insult you.” He said, “No, please, what do you got in mind?” I said, “$10.00 a square foot.” He said, “You insult me.” The average rent was $35 I finally negotiated $14.50. He said, “Do we have a deal?” People in real estate know that’s a good deal. $14.50. He said, “Do we have a deal?” I said, “Not exactly.” I said, “The problem with the building is you see vision?” Okay? Commitment? All that stuff really works. I said, “The name of that building’s a jinx. People hear Sears they want to get out. They think a terrorist is going to attack them.” I said, “You should put a vibrant, futuristic, enthusiastic company’s name up there.” He said, “Willis?” I said, “Yeah, Willis.” Nobody knew Willis. They though it was that kid on television. What’s up? Finally I said to him, “I’ll do the deal if you change the name.” He comes back the next day he says, “I’ll do it if you give me a $1,000,000 a year.” I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.” He said, “You’ll do it?” It’s the first time I agreed with the guy. He says, “We’re going to do it?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll tell you why. I’ll give you a $1,000,000 a year if you give me a $1,000,000 worth of business because you’re not my client. So that way I’ll give you a million, you give me a million.” We get the deal done. Today that building’s called the Willis Tower in Chicago and they told me that was not possible.

The night that we dedicated the building, I was on the NBC Nightly News and Brian Williams said to me, he says, “How, after all these years, did you come along and change the name? It’s been that way since 1973. What did you do to make them change the name?” I looked into the camera and I said, “I asked.” If you have a vision and a commitment and a purpose. My purpose was to take care of the employees of my company. My purpose was to make sure that the investors in the company did well. They were people. I was genuinely concerned about what was going on.

Where is Sharon Cheren? Sharon, stand up please. You embody everything that I’m talking about. This is a lady who might be a little bit older than most of you, but you’re much younger than me. This is a lady who not only raised children, she decided to go to college. She graduated Summa Cum Laude the day her son graduated from college. What a wonderful thing and somebody says to her you know you ought to pursue your dream and go to law school, which I think is cool because she takes the assets and all the stuff you hate today and she does a video. And the video that she does, she begins to cry and break down and tell her story as she is sending it to this school. And instead of pushing the delete button and saying no that’s not good. I’m going to do another take, which is what most people would do because they don’t want to share their heart. They don’t want to share who they are. She didn’t push the delete button. She sent it while she was crying and telling her story. I think people like that in the world are the kind of people we need. People who are themselves.

Where is Dishon Dawson? Where’s Dishon? Dishon. You want to stand up please? I met Dishon before we came on. See this cool. This is all about what I’m talking about. Dishon was in financial services business. He said to me before while we were robing up, he said, “I was in the insurance business.” He said, “I was part of the round table.” If you don’t know who the round table is, those are people who sell a lot of insurance. But that wasn’t your dream. Your dream was to go to law school and become a lawyer, even though you have commuted 180 miles a day and you took care of your father, who was on dialysis. You see the vision was so clear. The commitment was grained in your head. The purpose was there and you sit here today. I have so much respect for you and everybody in this class because I’m sure everybody’s got the same story.

So there you have it. You want to be compelling? You gotta know vision, you gotta know commitment, you gotta know purpose and you gotta know passion. But knowing the words is not enough. Everybody knows those words, but they don’t know the music. You see they know vision, but they don’t see it. They know commitment, but they don’t sell out to it. They know purpose, but they have none. They know passion, but they don’t feel it. You want to go from competent to compelling? You have to be able to take the words and the music and the music comes from your heart. It’s the electrical, visceral feeling that you give off every day that shows people you’re compelling, you’re obvious, you’re better than the next person and you are so clear and so purposeful in what you want to do. Now you know the words. Now you know the music. It comes from your heart. This school needs people who have heart.

The community that I see here and I do a few of these, is different than most places. This place is compelling. It’s what makes you all breathe. You should have so much swagger as you walk out of here. Swagger’s a cool word, isn’t it? It’s cool, isn’t it? You gotta swagger. Let me tell you. Does anybody know what swagger is? Let me tell you what it is. I want you to never forget this. Got it? Go out of here, you’ve graduated from law school. It means you’re smart. I didn’t even do that. North of confident, south of arrogant is swagger. You got it? Let me hear it. North of confident. You’re come on, this is your graduation. You can’t be a lawyer and not be able to talk. What’s wrong with you people? North of confident. North of confident. North of confident. Walk out of here with swagger. God bless you and thank you.

Joe Plumeri is the vice chairman of First Data Board of Directors and a philanthropist. He was previously President of Citibank NA, and CEO of Willis and Primerica. He is the author of the national bestseller The Power of Being Yourself.

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

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Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead

Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves

Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us

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GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech

Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again

Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High

Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Michelle Obama to Grads: Shape the Revolution

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

Natalie Portman to Grads: Carve Your Own Path

President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You

President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change

Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life

Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’

Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

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