AFSE Commencement Speech
Four and a half years ago, in January 2012, I announced on this blog that New York City was opening a new high school called the Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE).
Yesterday, AFSE graduated its first class. 110 of the 120 students who enrolled four years ago made it to graduation. And each and every one of these students took four years of computer sciences classes on their way from enrollment to graduation. It was a proud day for me as it was for them and their families.
Seung Yu, AFSE’s founding and current school principal, asked me to give the commencement speech. That was an instant yes.
So I stood in front of the graduates yesterday and talked about three things that have helped me in my professional life.
“to succeed you need to do 3 things: take risks, work hard and get lucky.” @fredwilson @afsenyc pic.twitter.com/E4rswaIqhd
— CSNYC (@csnyc) June 27, 2016
Here is the draft I wrote. As I got into it, I ad libbed a fair bit, but this is certainly the gist of what I said to the graduates yesterday:
Now for some parting advice for all of you graduating seniors. Listen up, I am going to tell you my secrets of success in business. This speech isn’t really about your family life. I could go on and on about that too but I would just say that you need a balance between your work life and your family life. You need to focus on both and they support each other. A healthy home life makes for a healthy work life. You need both.
So with that, I am here to tell you that the secret to success in your career comes down to three things, take risks, work hard, and get lucky.
You are all risk takers. You chose AFSE as eighth graders when the school literally did not exist. I remember what it was like back then. Parents would tell me “I can’t send my child to a school that doesn’t exist”. Guidance counselors would say “I can’t recommend that school to my students” I would hear people say things like “girls can’t go to a school like that” or “you can’t teach coding skills to every student”. And I am sure you heard the same things. But you came anyway. And standing here today, I will tell you that you attended and graduated from one of the top 25 high schools in NYC. I don’t know if there are actual rankings, but it is my belief that if you measure high schools on things like attendance, graduation rate, regents scores, AP scores, SAT scores, colleges attended, and reputation, AFSE would be an elite high school. One of the very best. And you went there and graduated from there. You took a big risk and it paid off for you. Keep doing that.
I have taken a bunch of risks in my life. I grew up in an army family and I broke ranks and decided not to go to West Point where my dad and his dad went. Instead I went to MIT, even though my parents could not afford to send me there. I worked in a research lab and sold donuts and coffee every morning to pay my way through MIT. I followed my wife Joanne and moved to NYC after college when my dad told me it was too expensive to live here. I went to business school and paid my way by teaching computers to my classmates. I took at job in venture capital when nobody knew what that was instead of going to work on wall street with the rest of my classmates. When the Internet emerged in the mid 90s, I left my safe job and started a new venture capital firm after my wife Joanne had quit her job to raise our three kids. When the Internet blew up and we lost most of our money, I started another venture capital firm and spent almost two years flying around the country spending money we really didn’t have trying to convince people to give me money again to invest in the Internet. I invested in social media when people said you could never make money in it. I invested in crowdfunding when people said that nobody would do that. I invested in Etsy when people said you could not compete with eBay. All of those risks paid off. Every single one of them. Thankfully my wife Joanne backed me every single time when I wanted to take those risks. She believed in me and believed in those bets. She hung in there when times were tough and made it possible for me to take these chances. We are an example of what happens when you hang together and take risks together.
I am not suggesting you take silly risks. I am suggesting you take calculated risks. Each and every time I took a risk there were people telling me not to do it. I listened to them. I did not disregard their advice lightly. I thought about it. And many times I have decided not to take a risk. But when, after listening and carefully considering the risks, my gut tells me to take a risk, i do it.
And then once you do that you have to work your ass off. I get up every morning at 5am. I have worked half a day by the time I get to the office at 9am. I still do that at age 55 when I have no need to anymore. It is what I do. I work hard. Because if you are going to take these risks, you have to work hard to make them pay off. This is not the lottery. You don’t just buy a ticket and sit back and see what happens. You take a risk and you work every day to make sure it comes through for you.
You all have worked hard. You have studied for the regents, the AP exams, the SATs, you have learned hard things like writing software. You have seen that hard work pays off. Keep working hard. It’s the only way to get somewhere.
But taking risks and working hard is not enough. You have to get lucky too. Luck is not just catching a lucky break. You have to be able to recognize it as such. You have to prepare your mind to recognize the lucky break when it comes your way. The Internet emerging as a massive financial opportunity in the mid 90s was my biggest lucky break. But I had put myself in a position to take advantage of that lucky break by deciding to work in venture capital ten years before that, by working hard to get better at my craft, and by paying close attention to the emerging areas of technology. I saw the Internet for what it was long before most people did. That was my luckiest break but I also knew it and jumped on it.
Everyone gets lucky breaks in their life. I can’t tell you when your lucky breaks will come. But I can tell you that they will come. You must be able to see them for what they are, you must be in a position to act on them, and you must not miss them. Pay attention, look carefully, and be prepared for your lucky breaks.
So that’s it. That’s my secret for a happy and productive career. Take risks, work hard, and get lucky. You have already done all three. Keep doing it.
Fantastic. Congrats to all involved.
Health & Wisdom 2 All
Congrats all! Man those 4 years flew by. Look where high school coding conversation is today. Amazing!Working with NYC youth everyday, I know stories and advice like yours are as critical to their success as the courses they took because not only do kids lack CS educations, they lack role models, examples and mentors in STEM fields.
I am coming to understand the power of role models in the equation. Skills are critical but not enough
Role models are HUGE.Frequently I’ll pull in a guest speaker and when they tell me about their planned talk I’ll usually get:them: “should I talk about (small bit of wisdom inserted)? They probably already got that from you.me: “Yeah, but they have to hear it from you.”Just as kids don’t listen to parents and some things have to come from teachers, siblings, or friends, there’s a similar mapping of kids don’t hear it when coming from teachers they need to hear it from the real world.By getting in speakers early, when those role models say things that end up mirroring the teacher, it helps authenticate the teacher as a role model.
Role models come in a lot of shapes and forms.They are not required for everyone….lots of people are self visualizing or instinctive….Fred being one of those people.
I am being serious when I say repetition (which I often call brainwashing) is extremely important with changing behavior with anyone, but especially kids. The things the speaker says to them become more important because they’ve heard it from you first in the classroom (or even from their parents).By the way, parents don’t listen to kids in the same way. Often a kid will tell a parent something but until the parent hears the same thing from another kid or another parent they don’t take it seriously.Part of this is probably explained by the “axe to grind” theory (just made that up) whereby if someone has an obvious bias the person receiving the info will pass it off subconsciously. But when someone w/o anything to gain (outwardly at least) says the same thing it will be taken much more seriously. Might explain why people take the things that they read more importantly then they should.Raising good kids is a matter of keeping on message with them and repetition as much as all of the other things that parents seem to think are important (even though their really not). Luck as well.
Agree – I love being a guest speaker in a college classroom or choosing people to bring in with me in a panel. It’s very rewarding.
Congratulations. That’s some retention rate.And good on the parents, teachers, staff members, who supported all of the young people. Onwards.
How do you teach “risk”? It needs to be a part of both a HS and college education. Without it you will be going backwards in the economic stream.Are these kids going to college?
start small and grow tall. maybe it’s taking an art class when you are interested in art but afraid to put yourself out there-or afraid to screw up your GPA. Maybe it’s forcing someone to take the lead on a small short project and mentoring them through the process so they learn what it’s like to be a leader. Then, don’t freak out if they fail.
Risk still equates to failure for most. It needs to be a skill.
Yup, but learning how to calculate it, and not to fear calculated risks is key. Avoiding risk entirely is stagnation.
Yes, risk without failure probability is not risk. I think the skill required is some form of failure recovery instinct, self healing and of course caring partners that help through the process. Taking risk alone is hard.
I’m pretty sure risky behavior is taught at most major colleges, in fact, I majored in it during my freshman and sophomore year.
Did that involve beer?
One of the best descriptions of “lucky breaks” I have ever read. Congrats. What a great day.
great speech. There are a lot of good lines, but “You are all risk takers.” is the key to the whole thing. I bet a lot of people in that room never looked at themselves as risk takers. Framing it that way will change how they view themselves.My gut says some chose the school because they loved computers. Some chose it because it seemed like a “smart decision”-a linear progression.If those kids embrace that framing, “I am a risk taker”, and truly learn how to accept and take risk, they will be wildly successful.
Really like this point. It’s sort of a subtle (unnecessary?) corollary, but it’s about refining the risks that you take. Most of the brilliance that we attribute to people is really more about taking risks early and often, and then quickly iterating their approach so that later when something looks crazy, they get to simply smile and say, “yes that does sound pretty off the wall doesn’t it.”
Also, they usually/probably understood the difference between Risk and Uncertainty.In risk the positive and negative outcomes are known along with the probabilities, and the risk can be modeled. In uncertainty, the probability of outcomes cannot be modeled, and the outcomes themselves are not definedNot discerning if something is Risky or Uncertain and approaching an Uncertain situation with a Risk management framework can set one up for failure down the road.
I love that you included the “get lucky” part as one of the three. Those of us who have been successful need to remember that or our heads get big in very ugly ways. I’m very grateful for the modest success I’ve enjoyed, but we should all remember that we’re two silly mistakes from being homeless. Maybe even one.
Luck is a huge part of it. Right place right time. But have to recognize it too
So is luck a fine tuned, present, openness?
You make some of your luck, but most of it just happens. Some person who is just as smart, disciplined, and a risk taker as I am isn’t standing at the right life intersections and lives in relative obscurity. There are millions of these people–working lunch counters, driving taxis, and working for other lucky people. Those are the people I enjoy talking to, and I don’t enjoy talking to people as a rule. 🙂
See my comment above. Love your comments and love Nashville especially the gulch which has really blossomed.
My mother grew up in wartime London and her pilot father always said “I’d rather be lucky than rich”.Your description of talking to people who recognize luck in others is a nicely subtle observation. Dovetails with you above comment of big heads and silliness. We are, as you mention, just steps from being our own downfall by chance or intention.
I thought that was a great talk. I’m really wordsmithing here but I like “fortunate enough to get the right opportunities” it’s not luck, but one has to realize that you cannot control the opportunities given to you. You have to take advantage of those opportunities but you have to realize that you were fortunate (or lucky) to be given them.It is the one thing that is not “fair” (hate that word) but some of us get the right opportunities and some don’t.
I like that statement our heads get big in ugly ways. So true.
They should pin that speech in their mind til they internalize it. I’m sure you’re also dying to find out where they’re all going after graduation.
Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom; I wish the graduates the best as they move on.
I’d like to hear Young Guru’s speech. Is it available?
I think the whole thing was video’d but I don’t know for sure
Love the luck piece (love the whole speech but that’s the one that these types of talks typically leave out).Great way to talk about the relationship of risk taking / risk assessment / hard work.The whole risk thing is something us teacher folk really struggle with, particularly with those students who’s economic or family situations are such that they can least afford risk.A big part of the struggle is due to an education system that encourages uniformity, following, and wrote regurgitation.As much as people say we want our kids to think, they come back with standardized tests.As much as we say take risks, at the end of the day, if they don’t have those SAT scores they’ll be denied the keys to the castle, or at least to the castle that they spent a lifetime hearing should be a goal.Some of the most wonderful things you’ve enabled at AFSE (big eye on mentoring here) should be part of EVERY public high school but we’re left with organizations like CSNYC trying to scramble for funds to sustain it and to bring it and other programs to more schools.Meanwhile millions district funds go wasted.
Right on. Making your own luck comes from hard work.
s/he who seeks shall find.
Terrific stuff. Love that you gave these young people a 3 point list.Some people work hard, some people position themselves and some people get good breaks. To really achieve something, you absolutely need all 3.
Fred – this is really, really excellent – the speech, the messages in it, and the success of the school and the first graduating class. Congratulations and thanks.
Sage advice, thanks for sharing with the AVC community. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me, so I appreciate the wisdom (but appreciate your other posts as well!)
Great – Congratulations to all !One “get lucky” strategy is like catching a bus, – it’s all about timing and positioning1. You identify a place where something will “come to pass” ( it needn’t be biblical!)2. You gather resources that will keep you in place and ready until it does3. You jump on board as soon as you can.The alternative is to be either at the wrong time OR the wrong place and is MUCH easier.So you go (where the puck is headed) – and you hold out until it arrives (maybe do things that don’t scale)Do these and you will get lucky.
Terrific.Three more:(1) Think. Yup, somewhere in there for that success it can help a lot to think a lot and effectively about the goals and how to get there. For much of this thinking, it is important to have a lot of data and experience to make use of. It’s good to borrow a lot of the data and experience, although maybe less of the thinking, from others — family, friends, mentors, lives of famous, successful people, etc.(2) Methodology. A golden “gut” is terrific; so is luck. But there can also be some methodology that helps.Maybe think of the methodology as the proven techniques of successful rock climbing. Or, think of the methodology in plane geometry — there you saw a few hundred theorems, and they were all true with essentially no doubt about any of them. Or, think about the methodology in physics, e.g., in designing a car to go 70 MPG, add up (A) the energy expended in aerodynamic drag, rolling friction, power steering, energy into the brakes and not recovered otherwise, the HVAC, the lights, etc. each 70 miles. Then consider (B) the energy from burning one gallon of gasoline. Well from physics, (B) has to be greater than (A). If the car is so well designed that (B) is comfortably greater than (A), then you have a shot at being successful on that narrow, technical part of the project.So, for a commercial startup maybe also have some crucial, core technology difficult to duplicate or equal. For that, use some methodology, say, applied math, science, engineering, or medical science to know, well in advance of going to market, that the technology is very likely to work well. Here I say “maybe” because so far in commercial projects only a tiny fraction try to have such technology; you can regard that fact as evidence of low value for such technology or as a great unexploited opportunity — your choice.High end projects for US national security are awash in technology from exploitations of such methodology — GPS, stealth, night vision, and dozens more we have all heard of. A big point is that, with this methodology, after the good, initial planning, the rest can be quite low risk. E.g., quite early on, there wasn’t much doubt that GPS would work as intended. Similarly for the earlier version by the US Navy.In a commercial startup, this methodology works well mostly just for some powerful, valuable, crucial, core technology, but that can be one heck of an advantage for a startup — e.g., get good results difficult to duplicate or equal. But, also need the rest — a product/service people like a lot, likely good publicity and marketing, hiring, management, execution otherwise.(3) Spouse. There are a lot of terrific people out there. There are also a lot of quite sick people out there. If you bet your business and/or life on a partnership with another person and they turn out to be, or in a few years become, really sick, then that can come close to just ruining everything else.For a spouse, learn about the main problems and how to detect them. Look at their family, closely. Here also use your “gut” — if something somehow doesn’t feel right, actually there is a big chance it isn’t right.
For rock climbing, aside from guts you need other body parts that I won’t mention in these premises. Yes, I may have some height issues.Add love to the list and you have the life equation system ready to be solved.
I have a perfect safety record in rock climbing — I’ve never suffered even a small injury, even on the most difficult mountains.Of course, neither have I ever done any rock climbing and, you can be sure, I never will!”Love”. Terrific stuff when it can be found.
Great advice, the being prepared for the lucky break is the part I liked most. Congratulations to all the people involved in the AFSE.Love your philanthropic work and initiatives.
So much Love and Admiration for this. I often hear people bemoan others for “getting lucky”. But when someone takes a chance on you, its up to you to take that 1 chance and encash it *ALL* the way and not take it for granted.Getting the right idea at the right time,finding a great co-founder, finding a great spouse, getting the right investors at the right time, building the right relationships from chance meetings with awesome people, recognizing the right market opportunity, are all situational.Articulating your story well, being authentic, working your ass off to be credible, being humble, paying it forward, not acting like a douche, communicating honestly with your investors, learning all the time, hiring the right people for the right reasons and staying true to your purpose, staying loyal and scrupulous – are all up to you.Everyone in the world gets an equal number of “breaks” regardless of social, economic, geographical, cultural barriers. You may start at a disadvantage but recognizing opportunities and working hard is in your hands.Nobody gets anything they didnt visualize.Thanks,Pranay
A wise man once told me, “You make your own luck in this world.”That does not mean you can control everything, but that you can identify situations and put yourself in positions for lucky things to happen to you.
I like the way you frame ‘get lucky.’This can be described as Maintain Awareness.The awareness to have today ties to your point that Brexit is creating an opportunity for some. Part of being lucky is identifying where the chaos is and then walking towards it.It fits the point that you there can’t be a hero unless there is a disaster.
congratulations Fred. simply awesome
Fred:After we read your commencement speech we valued more than anything that you have demonstrated over and over that you genuinely care about people. Understanding that you didn’t fall off an Island or raise yourself from adolescence as many would desire us to forcefully swallow.When you realize a person can relate and have empathy you acknowledge that person is human. Your blog highlights the good, the bad and ugly of humanity. We are connected to the good your blog offers.Thanks!
Congrats, this sounds great. Whish we had something similar in Germany.Just out of curiosity: what time do you finish working / go to bed? I assume “half a workday at 9am” relates to less hard working fellows, you probably have more than 2 workdays in comparison?
.Bravo! Well said, Freddie Churchill!Not a word to be changed.Well played!JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…
*coughs while laughing* freddy churchill
Very well said! Congrats to the grads! Do you have data about how many are matriculating to college vs. how many going right to work in tech?
Contributors:Legendary Coach Pat Summitt dies at 64.http://www.npr.org/sections…
She was an absolute legend.It was great that she stayed coaching the women’s game. She would have been one of the best men’s coaches of all time if she wanted to, but she had a passion for the Lady Vols. She ranks right up there with Wooden.It was heartbreaking that she got dementia and a testament to her greatness that even though her mind wasn’t right she could realize it and transition.
she ranks above him by breaking the glass ceiling in knoxville
I will just say they are in the same sentence. That in no way, no way takes away from her. Jordan, Magic, Lebron. Don’t know.Wooden had so many great books and philosophy , she broke down barriers. Same sentence.
great books r written every day. herman mellvilli’s MODY DICK became a best seller after he was dead tho
she earned it every waking moment
This is fantastic, Fred. Wonderful wonderful – thank you for sharing!
Wow. This was actually really spot on in so many ways. I can’t think of anything that you have written that I have agreed with so much. I think you have to extend luck to cover things like the motivation and ability to work hard. It’s something that is born in you. Meaning that you would have done well even if the Internet hadn’t come along that is so obvious.One more thing though. And I don’t mean this in a trivial way either. Meeting Joanne was key to your “luck” (at least according to things you have written in the past). However I also consider that luck which was also created by hard work that you had done prior to meeting her.  You have no idea what a boat anchor being married to the wrong person can be on one’s career. I mean you’ve seen it and you think you know it but you haven’t experienced it.
I think you can define luck, because people think about luck as being blind. Real luck isn’t winning the lottery – luck is about being prepared for any opportunity that comes your way. To be lucky is to be ready.
“To be lucky is to be ready.” Words to live by.Love that Girl Scouts motto: Be prepared. Such simple words and yet so profound.
when u r prepared 4 the worst the best will always cum
Being ready, being prepared. Some of my proudest moments in the corporate environment are when I was fully prepared with my reports, stats, etc. in meetings. Funny how then you get handed some great opportunities.
Exactly – whenever people ask me for advice, I try to tell them that the luckiest people in the world are the ones who put the work in. I think people tend to confuse luck and coincidence. Coincidences happen by putting yourself out there, and I that’s the real challenge.
when asked 4 advice I tell them it is only wur5th what ur willing 2 pay for it. free advice iz worth what u paid 4 it
u must be prepared in yore life az well az yore business
This is excellent. Congrats to all!
What an amazing marvelous thing 😀 Just another reason to be optimistic about our future!Some kinds of luck happen to you the day you’re born. But luck can be changed.
Amazing! What a great initiative and glad to see the first class graduate. Something I would have liked back when I was in high school. The “three secrets to success” ring very true and are great reminders for anyone and any stage in their life
Wow, very nice legacy to have! Your extended family! Would be interesting to track the 1st class over time? Maybe produce a doc….call it “The First Class.”
Contributors:Legendary Coach James David (Buddy) Ryan dies at 84.(Predictive text, correction made, Ryan Frew thanks, we know better when posting a death, much regrets)http://abcnews.go.com/Sport…In threes.
Correction: Buddy Ryan (Rex’s dad) dies at 84. Rex Ryan is very much alive, and not-at-all legendary.
This is about as good as it gets, Fred. Good advice to high school seniors and life seniors and all points in between. Thank you.Even though I have hard work and taking risks down pat, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly lucky person. So when one of your ingredients to success is to get lucky, that should concern me. And yet it doesn’t. Maybe seeing opportunity and grasping it is a type of “luck.” Sensing something in the air, a direction in the wind, doggedly moving toward something that no one else sees, maybe that is what it takes to “get lucky.” And then at times, there is staying up all night. That is still sometimes what it takes for me to get lucky.
Long time reader and this may very well be my first post! Or at least the first post in years.—I had the luck to meet Fred 2 or 3 years (by luck I mean that I read here that he would eventually do a party for people who had supported his fund raising projects and so I donated so that I would be invited and have the chance to meet all you legends from the AVC community. PS: you didn’t disappoint!).Long story short, when I took the chance to go up and briefly speak with Fred that evening (it was at Houston Hall on West Houston St), he asked me what I did and I told him I was trying to be an entrepreneur. He immediately responded back saying (I’m slightly paraphrasing here so not a direct quote): “If you’re taking risks then you’re already an entrepreneur”. He then was pulled away by into another round of hand shaking from other admirers.Which brings me to my point: what Fred told me that night never sat right and I’ve thought of it many times since. Today’s post seems like the appropriate time to expand on those thoughts given I disagree with what I was told that night (encouraging though it was!). At the time, and still now, I do not see risk taking as the defining trait of an entrepreneur.Risk taking is inherent to life and risks need to be engaged with thoughtfully no matter what the issue at hand. It isn’t just entrepreneurs who take risks (calculated or not). As Fred said in his speech (which I thought was great btw – Fred: you and the teachers and the students did a amazing thing with that school!) every one of those kids took risks, and they will hopefully thrive because of it in the years to come (even more so if they work hard and get lucky yes!). They are all risk takers! Which doesn’t mean they are entrepreneurs 😉
Holy crap time flies. Great commencement speech bartender!
Great talk, reminded me a bit of the Steve Jobs one at Stanford – was in in ’05?. The one which had “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” at the end, and also talked about the Whole Earth Catalog. Damn cool book for DIYers. I got hold of a copy and read it in my teens.
What an amazing milestone for Academy of Software Engineering. Great to see such support for gifted minority students!
so simple, but i love this:”You took a big risk and it paid off for you. Keep doing that.”
Fred:Are you able to provide a general demographics of the school?
Great speech and congrats!
Congratulations to all the students and parents at AFSE for taking a risk and taking this step as a core part of their educational journeys! This is a wonderful story. I liked your simple, straight-forward speech also Fred and commend you for both your transparency in talking about your journey, and involvement with these kids and their families. On the topic of taking risk, it’s interesting to note that in the world of Emotional Intelligence, the equation for a person to increase his/her self-confidence is to-A. Learn new skill sets in a particular competency.B. Decide if that skills set is within your capability- then rule it in or out.C. If you’ve already done A and ruled in B, then continue to take moderate risks behaviorally.
This is awesome Fred.Working hard, effective and efficient is key.I want to ask you something that many might be afraid to ask or feel inappropriate. May be this deserves a separate blog post.How is your health and relationship with your family?I’ll explain why I ask. I think this is the topic many are afraid to talk about because it could be considered private. At the same time, many start talking about this, including Mark Suster who blogged about ADD and how he uses it to his advantage.It’s great we are having lots of career conversations these days but it is just one piece of the puzzle that has no instruction, called life. Family and health are another two. The big question is how to make it work. Not talking about balance but rather about making it work. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. How do others make work? Members of your close family, what do they think about our lifestyle? Do they accept it? Do we all feel fulfilled?Thanks.
🙂 It happened – this is fantastic.
Absolutely love this! Is a video of the speech available?
Keeping it real. awesome. Very inspiring. We all can use these visionaries positive mind frames to help us accomplish our dreams. Thanks, FW, for posting it.