Dear University of Rochester Graduating Class of 2020,
As Chair of the Board of Trustees of our amazing University, I would like to share a couple of thoughts with you in honor of your virtual graduation. Though I am speaking to you from my heart, I know my sentiments reflect those of our entire school’s faculty and staff, as well as my fellow Trustees. Your graduation is a tremendous milestone and a huge accomplishment for you, your family, and your extended group of supporters. Years of dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice have brought you to this momentous moment and you should be incredibly proud of yourselves and feel confident that your degree is valuable, vital, and will serve you well in the “real world.” Though the Coronavirus has greatly disrupted our society, your last semester of college life, and the joyous celebration we had planned to recognize your many achievements, we all look forward to celebrating together when it is deemed safe to do so.
I know many of you are feeling cheated out of your final college experiences and being able to celebrate with friends and family, but I believe in time, your graduation year of 2020 will prove to be a significant one. Today, you are likely feeling the same pain, fear, and uncertainty that currently overwhelms all of us, and while I don’t want to minimize your feelings, I truly believe that when this crisis has passed and you’re able to reflect back on this period, you’ll see that this virus and all its repercussions, won’t have significantly held you back, but have actually helped propel you forward—if you’re able to pay attention and learn from this experience.
Why do I say this? Because, we grow and learn more from adversities and setbacks than we do from good times. Already this virus has taught or reminded us how truly vital human contact is, especially in the midst of a crisis. Normally, when we hit trying times, we’re able to rely on our broad safety net consisting of friends, peers, families and colleagues for physical warmth, direct emotional connections and intellectual and spiritual camaraderie. But today, due to the quarantine, many of us find ourselves separated from our larger support group and loved ones. While this can be extremely difficult and feel immensely isolating, the upside of this experience is that it’s providing us with the time and space to self-reflect on those in our lives who make us better people by constantly and consistently challenging us, supporting us, and being there for us. If we can remember this important lesson and make it a priority going forward by fully supporting, strengthening and appreciating these relationships, then we’ve truly gained.
Years of dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice have brought you to this momentous moment and you should be incredibly proud of yourselves and feel confident that your degree is valuable, vital, and will serve you well in the ‘real world’.
This experience has also taught us that we’re connected not only to those in our inner circle, but to each and every soul on the planet. The obvious heroes are our medical workers who are selflessly fighting on the front lines every single day, risking their lives to save ours, our teachers, who work tirelessly to guide and support our children, and our civil servants who constantly put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. But hopefully this experience has opened all of our eyes even wider, allowing us to see so many others who perform duties so essential to our well-being. I’m talking about those that deliver our packages, prepare and serve our food, check us out at supermarkets, manufacture our goods, produce our food, etc. This lesson is compounded by the fact that these service providers likely cannot work from home and, as such, their lives will likely be more harmed and disrupted than most. Let’s go forward from this pandemic remembering to treat everyone we encounter with the respect and admiration they so deserve.
This experience will also allow us to see people for who they truly are. It is in times of crisis that true character is revealed. You will quickly learn who has your back and who you can trust. You’ll also be given the opportunity to determine your own character. Will you be the type of person who will be selfless and help others in need, or will you run for the lifeboat because it’s “every man or woman for themselves?” If you’re paying close attention, you will learn, at this critical juncture, that life is truly not a zero-sum game. The reality is that the more you give, the more you’ll get. Make the right choice right now about the kind of person you want to be. Character isn’t defined when things are easy and straight-forward, it’s defined in difficult times. I know this because I, too, graduated during a crisis, and it taught me to see people for who they are at their core, which has proved to be an invaluable asset.
These are just a few examples of lessons we’re learning from this experience, but I’m sure there’ll be countless others. Going forward, you’ll have important choices to make. Will you allow this experience to get you down or will you see it as a unique “wake up call?” Will you come out of this experience weaker or stronger? Will you continue on with the status quo or will you grow from this experience and incorporate all the lessons that we are being shown? This is why I’m telling you, the class of 2020, that you are in a very special and unique position. You are old enough to fully understand and appreciate what is going on, yet young enough to allow it all to seep into your being so that you can become the best version of yourself. I promise that if you learn and pay attention to the lessons before you, it will propel you further than you ever could have imagined.
Your special graduation year is also going to require each of you to work harder and to figure out your next steps more quickly than most other graduation classes. This sucks. I get it. Tough luck. Get over it. Each of you graduated from the University of Rochester, so taking the easy path was never a part of your plan. You signed-up for a just fight and as graduates of our challenging school, each of you have proven that you have the ability and grit to be winners. Along the way, you’ve also learned that when you work extra hard for the goals you’ve set, achieving victory is that much more rewarding than if you’d easily “strolled” towards success. Never fear the challenge of hard work, instead embrace it and meet it head on. Success is fairly straight forward: have a well thought out plan, enlist help from others, don’t take rejection personally, learn from your setbacks, and always keeping your eye on the end goal. If you follow this plan, I promise you will not only achieve success, but it will be more real and meaningful than taking an easier path. Eventually, but probably not today, you will realize that this extra challenging graduation year is not only a blessing, but an enormous opportunity. How do I know this? Because I graduated from business school in 1987 and entered the world of finance almost on the exact day the stock market crashed and I distinctly remember the conventional wisdom that everyone told me at the time: “the world as it was known was coming to an end.” They were wrong. It didn’t. In fact more opportunities opened up after the crash than were ever evident beforehand.
Today, you may feel that the world is coming to an end and that each of you are heading into battle against unwinnable odds, but I promise you, the sun will rise again, and the world will keep turning. Everyone who has graduated in the past 12 years has only experienced a straight to the right upward trend in the economy and life. They are too young to remember the crisis of 2008 and, along with you, today are experiencing their very first “macro” adversity. So, you are just as prepared for the Coronavirus crisis as they are, except that you are younger, fresher, hungrier and less burdened with obligations. And trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Aside from starting my professional business career during the crash of 1987, I have dealt with major economic crises in 1990, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2008, 2011, and now 2020. For better or worse, the world turns upside down on average every 3-5 years, and by luck of the draw, you are entering the “real world” during one of these unfortunate episodes. Each one of these periods is uniquely painful, but they all have one thing in common: everyone feels that “this time it’s different and the world will never recover from it.” In time, your experience handling this crisis, especially at such a young and formative stage of life, will go a long way in enabling you to navigate future challenges better than people from almost any other graduation year. Yet another reason why the class of 2020 is so special!
In investing, there is a simple saying: buy low and sell high. It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly hard to do. When the world is doing well, it’s all but impossible to distinguish between a mediocre, good, or great opportunity or effort. Everything seems great because it is all relatively easy. Smart, hardworking, and ambitious people have a hard time distinguishing themselves in good times because a rising tide lifts all boats. However, in crappy times, when the boat is barely holding itself together, it’s actually the best time to differentiate and prove yourself. Your smarts, determination, savvy, and education are nice to have when things are calm, but they turn into an enormous advantage and differentiator when the world is crazed and upside down. It may feel unfair and a disadvantage to be graduating from college in such an unsettling period, but the truth is that you will look back on today and eventually realize that graduating in 2020 was one of the major reasons why you went on to enjoy enormous success and happiness.
I could go on forever because I truly believe that downturns in life made me the person I am today and have allowed me to prosper in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Turn this crisis into an opportunity to grow and learn and I promise you will be better for it. Pre-Coronavirus, I wrote a list of 100 things I wish I knew after I graduated from college and before I entered the real world. For your younger siblings, I also wrote a list of 100 things I wish I knew before I went to college. I have included both of the links at the bottom of this note. I include these thoughts in the off chance any of these lessons save just one of you a little bit of time from making the mistakes that I have made thus far in my journey. I believe these thoughts were relevant pre-virus, but I think they matter even more now that the world is again in such disarray. The main conclusion is quite simple: You are all young, hopefully healthy, surrounded by people who love and support you, smart, talented, honest, ambitious, and at the core, exceptionally good human beings. Your graduation is an amazing accomplishment and one you should take great pride in achieving. You are all graduating in a year that the history books will refer to as the year the world forever changed. I ask you to embrace these challenging times, turn the lessons learned into opportunities, and be a positive force for all that is good. Our world is slowly being passed to your capable hands and I feel confident that each of you will make it, as our motto goes, ever better.
Chair of the Board of Trustees, University of Rochester
CEO, Jefferies Financial Group