…but you shouldn’t wait ’til the end to find that out.Yesterday morning I delivered the commencement keynote for Cal Poly’s class of 2015 engineers.  Beyond simply being a privilege and an honor to talk to this group, it’s also a pretty huge responsibility – and I wanted to leave them with some bit of wisdom that was as far from trivial as I could manifest.  Life is short and we only get one chance to get it right.  Here were my thoughts on how we’ll be remembered:

Like many commencement speakers before me, I toiled over what pithy message to deliver that might ring true as you enter this next phase of your life.  You see, as a graduation commencement speaker, one is supposed to impart some few nuggets of wisdom that will cause the collective “you” to reflect on your own personal road ahead.  My job today is to light the fuse that will send each of you out in the world like 1,000’s of sky rockets – burning bright and reaching yet unseen heights.

So what was the age old and strikingly sage advice that sprang to my mind? Absolutely nothing.  Nope – nothing – I was a completely empty vessel.  But you know how sometimes when you’re on that edge of sleep and awake, and you have this moment of lucidity that causes you to bolt upright and scratch down your thoughts?  That didn’t happen either.

There’s a near infinite list of “deep thoughts” I could share with you about what you should do with your lives – but you long ago set the course and speed of “what” you’ll be doing after today.  Words from me, however salient, on “what” you should do with your lives would simply come too late.  Yup, that ship has sailed.

For many of you, however, the question of “who” you will be in life is still not answered.  This morning I want to contrast for you the value “who” – you – are versus “what” – you – are.  I want to impress upon you just how wrong our priorities are between the two – and how much that contrast in value can (or has) already affected your life.

I can’t help but notice, on a day like today, that we as a people tend to celebrate life events marking “what we are,” but rarely, if ever, do we celebrate “who we are” – when, in fact, “who” is vastly more important.  Think about this for just a minute.  We celebrate graduations from College, High School, Junior High School, and Elementary School. I even know parents who are going to kindergarten and preschool graduation ceremonies – giddy about the transition to the next “what” their children are to become.

We celebrate birthdays, weddings, promotions, victories, retirements, and inaugurations.  We celebrate the passing of a phase or an accomplishment that places you in a new category of “what you are” but we don’t celebrate “who”.  And you know – the only place that I’ve seen “who” celebrated and I mean really celebrated, where human qualities like courage, empathy, perseverance, caring, or sense of humor, are at a funeral or retirement party, both of which are a little too late to really matter.

As I stand here today, we’ve gathered to celebrate an achievement that places you in a whole new demographic.  The next time you’re filling out an application for a job, a credit card, a home loan, car loan, or the census for that matter, you can check a box that says “college graduate.”  Now, I don’t mean in any way to trivialize the accomplishment of graduating from this outstanding institution.  In fact, graduating from Cal Poly is a huge triumph and I want to acknowledge first the massive work it took – both to get here and to complete your programs.  I know you’ve worked your ass off to get a seat in those chairs today.  I know intimately the sacrifices you’ve made – I’ve made ‘em myself – and each of you have great cause to celebrate.

But, I don’t want the following to be lost on any of you.  This new category of “what you are”, the holder of a degree from a prestigious institution, has vastly less importance and bearing on your future than “who” you are as a person.  Who you are is what drove you to reach this event: this outcome.  Who you are is how you’re going to accomplish the rest of your life.  “Who you are” is the thing that really matters.  It’s the thing that will drive you to your next life event – your next “what”.

Now, when you’re in a society that, to all outward appearances, values the “whats” in life more than “whos,” early decisions at macro levels are pretty easy to make.  College student:  That was a pretty easy one.  The value that you and society place as a whole on being a college student was in harmony.  College Graduate, this one is easy too – the value to you and society is harmonious.  The “what” in achieving a degree didn’t stand in sharp contrast with society’s opinion of value.

Though your challenges at Cal Poly have undoubtedly been daunting at times, your choices, all in all, have been easy. From here on out, from this day forward, it gets a lot harder.  From here it gets personal.  From here choices won’t be so clear.  From here, life will come at you like a whirling dervish – all fists and elbows. Over time, the choices of “who” you’ll be will write the story of “you” in an ink far more indelible than the calligraphy drying on your diplomas.

If “who” you are as a person has been trivial up until today, it won’t be when you wake up tomorrow.  I worry that many of you will get caught up in a vortex of “what” decisions and only discover “who” you are retrospectively – only after you’ve become someone you don’t recognize, someone you don’t like, someone you’re not proud of, as you so deservingly are today.  And that’s a legit totally worry.  I’ve seen it.

And unfortunately, it happens so often that the odds against you are staggering.  You’ve been training for “whats,” practicing for “whats,” collecting ribbons, trophies, plaques and diplomas for the “whats” of your life at a steady pace.  It’s “what” you know—to abuse the pun.  But if you continue to go through life focused primarily on what you want to be, versus who you want to be, you’ll find yourself on a road traveling farther and farther away from happiness – and ya know, happiness matters.

So where are you now?  Have you had that courageous conversation with yourself about who you are and what you ought to be doing because of it?  If not, you’re in a kind-a scary place right now.  It’s another cross road of sorts, but unfortunately one with no simple roadmap to your next decision.  The degrees of freedom are vast and you’re gonna have to make some decisions without the benefit of “harmonious societal affirmation” for the path you’ll choose.

To be truly happy, the decisions you make from here on out had better be built around “who you are” and not what you think is valued.  And you know, as a society we haven’t prepared you to think like this…

[Note: At this darkest point in my oration I picked up my notes and briefly feigned walking off stage saying “so best of luck with that, thank you, and good day” just to lighten the mood.] 

Ok, just kidding—it’s not all gloom and despair ahead.  The first bit of good news is that the idea of “who vs what” decisions is not a hard concept to get your head around – let me give you a personal example of what I mean:

Like you, I made a “what” based decision out of high school to go to college.   I decided to study business because it was expected of me to pick a “path of success.”  After just one semester in business school (where I was failing some classes and hating the ones I wasn’t failing) I made a “who” based decision that was an extremely tough decision for me. I became a fine arts major.  I loved art and design and had always been pretty good at it – but come on, art?  My father and grandfather, both attorneys, were not happy with me and couldn’t believe I would do this.  This was about me uniquely and actually broke their concept of what I was even in college for.  In fact, my father didn’t know “what” I was anymore.  “You’re going to college to become an artist?  You’re throwing your life away, that kind of thing.”  It was an exceedingly uncomfortable time for me, but business school was a lie and art was the truth.  It’s “who” I was and ultimately that decision was oh so right.

From that single decision, and some lucky twists and turns, I ended up at Xerox designing and digitizing some of the first typefaces for computers and laser printers while I was still obtaining my fine arts degree.  I was passionate about it.  Truly passionate.  My father and grandfather couldn’t believe that I was working somewhere other than a restaurant, convenience store or a renaissance fair – where an artist most likely would be working.  A cascading set of what in retrospect seem like pretty logical “who” based decisions led me to design systems that created typographic software, to build a business that made money in the creation of typographic software, to win the Xerox Chairman’s award for innovation, and finally led me back to grad school where I got my MBA.

This time around, in business school, I found a new passion for business that simply wasn’t in me as an undergrad.  I still can’t tell you what changed in me, or my environment…but in grad school I found more of “myself” than ever before.  That discovery drove me into a deeper career in software development at Microsoft and then Yahoo! where I was very fortunate to build products that changed the lives of millions of people around the world – just by doing what I truly loved.  I’m as passionate about life-changing technology today as I was about art in my youth—and I consider technology an art of its own.

You know it’s crazy.  I’m now the CEO of GoDaddy, the world’s largest technology platform for small business.  We bring in nearly two billion dollars in revenue annually, serve more than 13 million small business customers in 37 countries and use technology to fuel the passions and ideas of people around the world to start and run their own ventures.  What an incredible charge. I’m in heaven.  We went public just two months ago and I was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange launching the company.  It was surreal.

Now, as wacky and ridiculous as it sounds, and what my father now understands, is that if I wouldn’t have had the courage to make a “who” based decision to be an art major in college, I wouldn’t be the CEO of GoDaddy today, and none of that would have happened.  All of this – because I was lucky enough to make a “who” based decision very early.   All because I had a very scary conversation with myself about who I am and what I wanted to do with my life because of it.  Now, I could have made that decision later on – but I might have had so much investment in “what” based decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to divest.  I’m not telling you that I completely cast aside “what” based decisions – what I’m saying is that answering the “who I am” question actually drove my “what” and that is what I hope you can all take away from this monologue.

There are obvious times in life where you have the ability to pause, and take an introspective look at “who you are” and what path you might take because of it.  You are there right now and I suggest you take advantage of it.  That robe and mortar board you are wearing are signals that you are at a crossroads.  Not every crossroads comes with a robe and mortar board, so you’re going to have to look a little harder for your next one.

Through my career I’ve had one-on-one conversations with folks about their careers on a weekly basis.  Most of these folks have a “what based” end point in mind when we’re talking…and it’s usually “the next big job” they’ve conjured in their head.

These folks ask me what the key is to building their career is – what’s the next thing they ought to be doing.  And I usually frustrate them by answering with questions:  What are you passionate about?  What sends you springing out of bed in the morning?   What is it that brings out the absolute best in you?  What is it that inspires you?  What do you want to do for the world?  What would you do if money was no constraint?  What do you want to be remembered for?  What do you want your legacy to be?   Think about these questions – the answer to these questions are all about who you are and may help you discover what you want to be and what your next step should look like.

So today, you’re here to celebrate one of the great “whats” of our society and your life.  You are the 2015 graduating class of Cal Poly and that is a huge deal.  One worthy of praise and celebration.  I congratulate you on this enormous accomplishment.

But please, do me this one favor before you or your families leave town, before you start your career, before you start driving to your next “what”, before your retirement, and please, before you’re eulogized.

Please. Please celebrate who you are and weigh it with greater importance than what you are.  Celebrate your courage, celebrate your perseverance, your empathy, your wit, your intelligence, your caring. Celebrate your passion.  Celebrate your sense of humor through all of that and celebrate your unrelenting drive that has made this day possible.

I celebrate each and every one of you.   Congratulations Class of 2015 – and best of luck. Thank you!

11 thoughts on ““Who” You Are Always Trumps “What” You Are

  1. This is great, I loved reading it. I only wish I had realized all of this about 30 years ago. So glad youth of today have so many more choices and are able to make them without fear of being criticized. Thank you!

  2. It takes a lot of courage to address the “who in you”, especially at an early age. It is the “world of what”, that drives the immediate benefits of life and, that we all too often get caught up in only to realize later in life that the lasting gratification comes from within. Excellent oration and thanks for sharing, Blake. Regards, Ed

  3. I am struggling every day with this “what vs. who” question. Long ago I chose what (international business) over who (artist/designer). The What took me places, but now at 40 I realize that it does not fulfill me anymore, and changing paths now is almost too daunting. But I am doing it anyway.

  4. As a 63 year old being told that redundancy was on the cards I have had to take a long look at what I do next. Retirement isn’t an option so I looked at what I was good at. I have done lots over the years and gained a lot of experience and expertise in many fields DIY, handyman, plumbing, building, etc etc and a fair hand at wood work. BUT the past 10 years I have been a Community Police Officer, visiting victims of burglary and advising on home security, Ive got very experienced and good at it so decided, What I was, I could offer on a professional basis. I knew it would be hard to get off the ground, having been self employed in the past but my attitude has been completely changed by your term WHO I was (am)… I cannot explain it but now thinking of Who I am…. makes for a very positive attitude towards the future.

  5. Fantastic blog post, Blake. I took a lot out of the message you pass on. Society discusses WHAT we are with life events but rarely celebrates WHO we are and HOW we do it! √

    I try to shape myself to do the best I can for my clients, family and our world – hope everyone else can focus on what you write, too!

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