This time of year is full of Commencement ceremonies across the country. In honor of this year's crop of graduates, the class of 2012, I've been thinking about whether there is one pithy lesson that I might convey to them as they enter the adult world. My inspiration in this thinking is a book I read recently called "This I Believe," a collection of essays from famous, and not so famous, people who summarize their life lessons in a brief vignette. It was inspired by a radio program by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and was revived by PBS and recently compiled into a well-done book.
So, in that vein, here's my simple lesson to this year's crop of graduates: push the boundaries. Why? Because they are there to be challenged. Because conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. And you don't want to settle for living a conventional life within a conventional world.
This lesson was hammered into me by my father, a Holocaust survivor who never saw a line he didn't try to skip, an inefficiency he couldn't stamp out, or a injustice he didn't try to undo. One of his favorite phrases is"don't assume anything." In other words, don't take for granted core assumptions – whether in tackling a math problem or life. Instead, test them and try to stretch them to their limits, and beyond. Further, he would rail against the injustice of those would seek to benefit from old rules in an unfair manner. I still bump into residents of my home town who remember his repeated crusades against the local cable monopoly as a town meeting member in the 1970s and 1980s.
My Dad was inspired to become an entrepreneur because of this life philosophy – as many entrepreneurs do. Great entrepreneurs see boundaries as challenges. They take great pleasure in tweaking the status quo and rethinking decades of assumptions. And they incorporate this philosophy into their personal and professional narrative as they pursue new products and services that disrupt existing markets.
My 12 year old son lives this mantra to the hilt (I wonder if entrepreneurship has genetic roots?). He questions every rule, every boundary with a probing, "Why?" I love him for it, despite the fact that it makes parenting a challenge. And I know someday, like this year's crops of graduates who push the boundaries, it will put him in a position to change the world.
So, dear graduates of your various institutions, remember this lesson. A lesson that scores of entrepreneurs and world-changers have learned before you. Ethically, morally, appropriately…push the boundaries. We'll all be better for it.
"Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it."
– Henry David Thoreau