The Risk Takers at Phi Beta Kappa

This afternoon, while looking for a job description on my computer, I stumbled upon this article from an old Phi Beta Kappa newsletter that I had saved a year or so ago. After reading it the first time, I enjoyed it so much that I actually retyped it in from the printed newsletter.

The article contains excerpts from an address by John Zeglis, the chairman of AT&T Wireless, given to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at George Washington University. It is very inspirational.

Just in case you are curious, my wife is the smart one in the family and the Phi Beta Kappa member — not me. But, as an interesting aside, did you know that Glenn Close, Peyton Manning, and Ben Rogerson are also members– not too shabby!

Enjoy the article!

An Initiation Call for Risk Takers

By John D. Zeglis

As I speak, I have to be careful because it’s just possible that a room like this has my future boss in it, and I don’t want to offend her.

What is the essential message on a day you reach a pinnacle of academic success? The good news starts with the word that sums up the characteristics of all of you: excellence. Excellence is a choice. As John Gardner put it: “Very few people have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally, and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.”

You are here because you’ve made a habit of excellence. Occasional brilliance will not get you into Phi Beta Kappa. You are not one subject wonders. You’ve established your intellectual credentials in a wide range of subjects. The excellence that brings you here is not accidental. You have chosen to pursue it and you have earned it. You’ve broken the code of how to get it done. And that stays with you for life.

A word of caution from a worldly wise old guy who was once in your shoes: There is a paradoxical thing about academic excellence. If you want to continue your habit of excellence after graduation, you will have to learn how to take risks—and to fail more often than you’re used to.

If excellence is the word for today, the word for your future is achievement. They are not disconnected. But they’re not self executing either—it’s not automatic that you can go from excellence to high achievement in “the real world.” Many people who are excellent in school don’t have the same success over their lifetimes. Locking in a formula for excellence early in life, as you’ve done in your academic work, often makes people risk averse. They know how to be excellent, and they aren’t about to start taking risks on being less than excellent. But sometimes a little less success and a little more failure is a good thing.

Students who are identified as “the best and the brightest” have wonderful choices coming out of college. There’s the blue-chip law school, and later the blue chip law firm. There’s the silk stocking investment bank. There’s the Fortune 50 icon business enterprise. They are attractive choices. They offer great starting salaries, small risk, and the opportunity to work with smart students from generations past. The reward for your scholarly excellence is that you have the prospect of making a good living without having to take a great risk. But there’s a potential trap here. And I speak from personal experience.

The really smart students continue their habit of excellence in the workplace: through comprehensive research and perfectly written papers, adapted exactly to the employer’s style and methods. You get promoted. You become a partner in the firm or an officer in the business. You get tenure. And then what?

Well, for a lot of people, the prospect of job security, the need to pay the mortgage, and the corner office—they squeeze out a good part of the desire to take the kind of risk that changes things. And soon people who were A+ students have worked their way into a B– career track in middle age, and coast along into retirement. Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s wisest student of business, likes to say: “I would never promote into a top level job a person who is not making mistakes. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre.”

Adlai Stevenson was once a partner in my law firm. When he first ran for governor, he went to the smartest man he knew for advice, asking “How did you get so smart?” Smartest man: “Being smart is just a matter of having wisdom.” Adlai: “How do you accumulate wisdom?” Smartest man: “Wisdom is just the practice of good judgment.”Adlai: “How do you gain good judgment?” Smartest man: “From experience.” Adlai: “And how do you get experience?” Smartest man: “Bad judgment.”

Folks without risk barely nudge the needle on society’s achievement, growth, and innovation. It’s only your willingness to persist in the face of failure that can take you beyond excellence and into achievement. Bill Gates dropped out of school. Amy Tan never succeeded as a technical writer. Woody Allen flunked filmmaking. Mother Teresa lost more patients than she saved. Lincoln lost more elections than he won.

I admit that I am not the best example for you. I went to a blue chip law school and worked into a cushy job as a partner for a big law firm, and then general counsel for one of America’s great business icons. It was the comfortable life of a competent attorney who could always say it was somebody else’s fault. But then cataclysmic changes rocked my industry and my company. And I began taking the risks that led me to AT&T Wireless. It isn’t exactly a startup, but I now take more risks in a week than I used to take in a decade.

I don’t “win” nearly as often, but I’m having a lot more fun, and I’m engaged in a business that can fundamentally change the way we live. And I love it. I came to this discovery late in life. My most fervent wish for you is that you get a jump on this earlier than I did. Stretch yourselves. Push your limits. Expand your horizons. Dare to fail. If you never fail, you’ll never achieve your full potential.

3 thoughts on “The Risk Takers at Phi Beta Kappa

  1. dj

    Joe –
    Thanks for posting. That actually gave me chills. I just made an appointment to go bungee jumping from the highest point in the world. Seriously – good stuff.

  2. Bisi

    This is a reply to dj who said “Thanks for posting. That actually gave me chills. I just made an appointment to go bungee jumping from the highest point in the world. Seriously – good stuff”
    Errr ! I dont think he was talking about that kind of risk . I mean don’t try to rob a bank 2morrow all in the name of risk .

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