Karen Kaplan, chairman and chief executive of the ad agency Hill Holliday , delivered the commencement address at Bentley University on Saturday. Here is an edited version of her remarks.
If you ever needed proof that America is still the land of opportunity, you’re looking at it.
I graduated from a state school, a French Lit major in the middle of back-to-back recessions in the early ’80s. My work experience included babysitting and waitressing, both of which have come in surprisingly handy. And I’m not kidding.
I’m often asked to tell the story of how I got to where I am today, but I believe it’s more helpful to share a collection of observations I’ve made, and the nine lessons I’ve learned during my journey from receptionist to CEO of Hill Holliday. It’s a sort of road map that I believe can help anyone be successful in life while staying true to who you are. Or, as I like to call it, “how to get where you want by being who you are.”
Originality requires attention. We live in a world where everyone is connected, all the time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that multitasking has added six hours of media time to the average person’s day. But we still have only 24 hours in a day, which means we’re never fully paying attention to any one thing.
Digital natives check their phones more than 150 times a day. Yet we live in a world where there is a premium placed on the creation of original ideas. And it’s my experience that the act of generating original thought is virtually impossible while you’re busy transacting with your head down.
So just make sure you pull up every once in a while and pay attention to what’s going on around you that can inspire you and fuel your creativity, because the ability to create something original out of absolutely nothing will serve you well in whatever career you choose.
Always be confident and optimistic. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out as easily as the next person.
In this country it doesn’t matter where you came from; it only matters where you want to go, and anything is possible.
I would encourage you to think of confidence as another word for fearlessness, and as optimism as another word for hope, and approach everything believing you can succeed, and eventually, you will.
Embrace what makes you different. We are all unique. From an early age, my parents taught me to be proud of my uniqueness, that if you know who you are and you’re proud of who you are, you can very easily turn perceived liabilities into assets.
Even today, in 2016, there are plenty of times when I find myself the only woman in a room of men. But then I think, who are they going to remember, 40 guys in gray suits that all look like seagulls with different colored ties on . . . or me?
No coasting. When I started out in the advertising business, I knew that if I worked a few hours a day longer than most people, with a couple of hours thrown in on the weekends, that in a few years I would pass by people who had a 10-year head start on me.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” he writes about people who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished that they are truly outliers. He says that when you ask a successful person why they’re successful, they always say it’s because they wanted it more, they worked harder, and they sacrificed more. No one ever says it’s because they’re smarter.
Gladwell’s hypothesis in the book is that talent doesn’t matter much, that it’s all about determination, application, and practice. And that’s how he explains the careers of really successful people. He says it takes 10,000 hours — or 10 years at the rate of 40 hours per week — to get really good at something, and the first one to reach 10,000 hours wins.
He gives the example of The Beatles, who before they were discovered were the house band at a strip club in Hamburg, playing eight hours a day, seven days a week, when most bands were playing only a few quick sets a week. The Beatles got to 10,000 hours really early in their careers, and they won.
Successful people never coast, because they know you only coast one way, and that’s downhill.
Keep your eyes wide open. My mother taught me to be a lifelong learner, to retain the natural curiosity that we all have as children. Successful people are inspired not by how much they know, but by how much they don’t know. So they never stop learning and they give change a big, warm hug. They know they can always be better and do better, that smart is what you get, not what you are.
As a CEO, I hire people based on their perspective, not their pedigree, because it’s curious people who see the world differently that are the driving force behind most new ideas.
Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated. One of the keys to being successful is finding the right environment that will allow you to succeed. Not every environment is right for every person. I tell people not to be afraid to make a change if they feel their unique talents and contributions aren’t being appreciated or acknowledged. The right environment can make a world of difference.
Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster. Growing up, my father always used to remind me that, “A pat on the back is just six inches from a kick in the butt.”
I used to think he wasn’t being very supportive. But now I realize that he never wanted me to be too impressed with myself, or to get too accustomed to success. Truly successful people don’t take themselves too seriously and they remain humble. When they get to the top, they don’t forget where they came from. And we all know how important it is to be nice to people on the way up, because what goes up, eventually comes down.
To whom much is given, much is required. Never forget how lucky you are, and always reach out to others who deserve just as much.
Personally, I have found that most people have no idea what they’re capable of, and a little bit of love and encouragement goes a long way. So never underestimate the power you have to influence others, and remember that your candle loses nothing when it lights another.
And finally, you’ve got to believe. Successful people believe. They believe they don’t have to become someone, because they already are someone. Successful people believe that tough times don’t last forever. They wake up in the morning believing they can, and will, make a difference. And you know what? They do.