Last month Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, sent world stock markets into a tailspin by suggesting that America might end its financial stimulus package sooner rather than later. Cue plenty of red on plenty of dealers’ screens.
Bernanke was also in the news for another reason – he returned to his old employer, Princeton University, to give the graduation address to the class of 2013. You can read a full report on what was a widely-praised speech here. The speech contained ten points for the graduating class to consider, including advice on finding a wife.
I don’t want to step on Relate’s toes so I’ll sidestep that one and instead concentrate on three of the other points Bernanke made, the first of which has been a running theme of this blog. Life is unpredictable. As Bernanke said, “A dozen years ago I was minding my own business teaching Economics and trying to think of good excuses for avoiding faculty meetings. Then I got a phone call…”
More pertinently he said, “Any 22 year old who thinks they know where they will be in 10 years, much less in thirty, is simply lacking imagination.”
Well, the timescale I’ve often used in this blog is five years, never mind ten. Technology and the world are changing so quickly that none of us know what’s going to happen. Business models that looked likely to last for ever have been swept away: companies that didn’t exist a few years ago are now worth a billion dollars. Right now the most dangerous thought you can have is, ‘this will never change.’ And there’s no better advice than ‘never stop learning.’
Secondly, advised Bernanke, be happy with yourself. “If you’re not happy with yourself, even the loftiest achievements won’t bring you much satisfaction.” And everyone who sits round an Alternative Board table knows that’s true. Whatever you achieve, if you’ve no-one to share it with it won’t mean much. There are very few sadder sentences in the English language than, ‘I missed seeing my children growing up.’
A good friend of mine will drop his daughter off at university in September. “Twelve months and we’ll have gone from three at home to one at home,” he said to me. “I saw every football match, every school play. I was there all the time. But it still wasn’t enough.”
And the third point? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As Bernanke put it, “If your uniform isn’t dirty, you haven’t been in the game.” Again, that sentiment will be nothing new to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis. Mistakes are one of the defining factors that separate successful people from unsuccessful ones. A mistake is a learning experience; it’s a setback. It is not a complete and total disaster. It is not the end of your business career.
I like that phrase: ‘If your uniform isn’t dirty.’ And as the father of two highly energetic boys it poses an intriguing question… If I turn up at the next Board meeting with grass stains on my suit, have I just made a colossal business mistake? Or did I find time for a quick game of football with Dan and Rory?