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Live Your Dream – 2015 SAA Commencement

Today, I had the incredible privilege of delivering the commencement speech at the 2015 School of Advertising Art Commencement Ceremony. I always thought it would be fun to speak at a graduation ceremony. Sure enough, it was. I am so thankful to my friends at SAA for trusting me with such an honor. I hope that I lived up to your expectations – I know the experience exceeded mine.

If you’re interested in what I had to say, you can read it below or watch the video. Thanks SAA and good luck the the talented class of 2015. Live your dream!


Today is a first for me. I’ve never given a commencement speech, though I confess I’ve always wanted to. Like teaching a course in marketing, it’s a dream that I can cross off my wish list thanks to SAA. Before you now, I am in a small way fulfilling SAA’s mantra to live my dream and for that opportunity I am grateful.

Students, while I’m deeply honored to address you today, I’m not blind to the fact that not a single one of you came here today for the purpose of hearing me speak. I assume that in your mind, I basically represent one of the last remaining obstacles between you and your degree. Let’s be honest, after two years of very hard work to get here today, you really don’t care too much about what I say as long as I don’t take too long to say it. Knowing this to be true is actually quite liberating as a speaker. With all the pressure to be brilliant removed, I only need to be brief to make you happy. So, I’ll do what I can to make you happy by being concise. Still, I do want to share some thoughts, wisdom, and advice with you – which hopefully you find valuable.

Today marks the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another for you. For some this will be a radical and sudden shift, and for others perhaps a more gradual transition. But for all, your life is rapidly evolving and will continue to do so at an ever increasing pace for many years to come. It is a very exciting time.

Looking backwards you began life a child with no skills, no money, no independence, no responsibility, and an abundance of free time. Steadily over time you’ve built marketable skills, developed the capacity to earn money, learned to behave responsibly and prepared yourself to live independently all in exchange for some of your time. And now you stand ready to enter into the professional world where you can work full-time, hone your skills, earn more money, gain more responsibility, become far more independent, and in exchange for all of that – experience life with an increasing scarcity of time.

This change can be very tough as you begin to realize that free time – something you once totally took for granted – is now in very short supply. Author and social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to time as “the ultimate scarce resource.” He’s right. You see a big problem with time as it pertains to your life is that while you know it’s finite in supply, you don’t know just how finite. The law of averages would tell you that you’ve got a good 60 – 70 years of time left here on Earth, but the problem with average is that it only applies to most people. Some of us have less time than others, and it is impossible to know who among us will ultimately wind up above or below average. What you need to realize is that every day, every minute, and every second of your life matters.

As your time becomes increasingly limited, how you use it becomes vitally important. What you choose to do matters. So in the limited time I have left, I’ll share with you a few things that I hope can help you to make the most of your time as you embark on the amazing journey ahead called life, wherever it may take you and however long that journey may be.

First, what is maybe the most important piece of advice I could give to a young designer. This will save you hours of time, lower your stress level, and increase your sense of sanity and your stature as a “team player.” That simple advice is this – “Make the logo SMALLER!” Yes, make the logo smaller. This piece of seemingly silly advice is really about anticipation and professionalism. You know without fail that when you first show a design to a client, they’re going to ask you to “make the logo bigger!” By anticipating this dreaded directive in advance and adjusting your approach accordingly, you can give the client a win without sacrificing your design. So make it 20% smaller the first time. Then you can feel like a hero when you make it 20% bigger for them based on their feedback. The client gets what they want, the design ends up where it should be, and you can avoid a whole lot of stress and aggravation. Life is filled with these opportunities to learn, anticipate, and act. Recognize them and approach them wisely. Look for ways where through thoughtful anticipation you can engineer an outcome where everyone wins.

Second, and this should also sound familiar to any young designer – Decide what’s important. Think back to your first few projects at SAA. I’m not talking about the beautiful, polished, clean pieces you showed off at portfolio yesterday. I’m talking about the early stuff. Remember those projects? Pieces with multiple headlines, disjointed imagery, crazy illustrations, 13 typefaces, paragraphs of copy, photos and countless other elements – all crammed into one design and all competing for attention. Every inch filled with noise and yet totally devoid of a meaningful signal. Life is no different. You see, it’s true that you can be anything, but because time is finite, you can’t be everything. You have to decide what’s important. You have to choose. What are you trying to be, to do, to accomplish. What’s matters? What’s your dream? Figure this out and then start cutting the things that don’t contribute to the achievement of that dream. Remove the noise and shift the focus to what’s important, amplifying the clear signal. That means eliminating bad habits, bad relationships, and bad decisions. Learning to politely and professionally say no to the things that matter least, so that you have time to say yes to those that matter most.

Which brings me to the next point I’d like to make, which has to do with white space. We’ve established that you are going to have less and less free time. Here’s another fact, if you don’t decide what to do with that time, the world will be happy to choose for you. You’ve got to carve out and create white space for yourself. By white space, I mean deliberately making time for yourself to do the important things that renew your creative energy. Make time for happiness. Make time for learning. Make time for sleep. Make time for important relationships. Make time to ask for feedback. Make time for reading, or drawing, or music, or hiking, or just quietly sitting and breathing. Make time for dreaming. Where does this time come from? From eliminating the non-essential, non-important, non-productive elements from your life. As author Greg McKeown says in his brilliant book Essentialism, it’s about the embracing the idea of “less but better.” Give yourself room to grow, and breathe, and live. It’s never been easier to waste time on non essential things and it’s never been more important that you choose not to.

Now let’s talk about habits. We truly are creatures of habit. Habits account for most of what we do and how we do it everyday. Therefore it’s really important to be conscious of your habits and to intentionally build good habits. Habits take far less brain power than thinking. And for creatives, brain power is what pays the bills, what moves the heart, what makes you happy. Good habitual behavior removes the need to spend limited mental energy trying to make decisions about basic and trivial things. Good habits help you save your mental energy for problem solving and creative endeavors. You are just now entering your career. Start it with developing good habits. Be early to work. Be prepared for meetings. Be disciplined about exercise, diet, and sleep. Build routines that make life easier. Example? I pick out and iron all my clothes for the week on Sunday, sometimes while watching football or sports. Ok so that doesn’t sound that impressive when I say it out loud. Let me elaborate. This simple act knocks out a necessary task in an easy way at a time during the week where I don’t have much stress on my brain or demand on my time. This habit eliminates the daily need to think about what to wear first thing in the morning, when I’m zombified, which is one less decision for the first part of my day. No ironing vastly speeds up my morning routine, which gets me out the door faster, which gets me to work earlier, which gives me a jump start on the day, which in turn reduces my daily stress – and gives me a guilt free reason to watch a little television. Simple habits like this make life easier. Build good habits, break bad ones, and free up time and energy for more important things.

Next, a little bit about the future. First, have a plan. Second, realize the world doesn’t give a damn about your plan. Boxer Mike Tyson said it best, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What I’m saying is that while a plan is essential, you have to be ready to deviate from your plan at times. This requires flexibility and grit. What that does not mean is to sacrifice your ethics, your dreams, or your time for someone else’s agenda. The world is extremely complicated and incredibly unpredictable. Plan according to what you anticipate happening and be prepared to respond to what actually happens. They will rarely be the same thing, and you probably won’t know if the deviations are actually good or bad for a long time. As author John Acuff states, “You can’t predict the future but you can change the present.” You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt and play it as best you can. When you screw up, own it, learn, forgive yourself and move on. Keep your cool. Remember that your story is that of the hero’s journey. An essential part of any good hero’s journey involves overcoming major obstacles to triumph in victory. Over the past two years you’ve demonstrated that ability and believe me, you’ll do it again. Don’t be afraid to ask others for help along the way. We’re all the hero of our own story, and many will empathize with the challenges of your heroic quest and help you succeed if you just ask. Remember that some of the most challenging, difficult, seemingly terrible things we endure in life provide us with the strength, wisdom, and character required to be great. Life is a process. Choose to be an active part of that process. Trust the process. Love the process.

Here are a few more quick tips. Be surprised by something everyday. Surprise someone else everyday. Say thank you every day. Say I love you to those you love. Say I love you to yourself and mean it. Make friends with that little voice inside your head. When you are presented with a new challenge, and that voice asks “you sure you can do this?” remember everything you’ve accomplished successfully in life, remember all that brought you to this moment today, and respond with an emphatic “hell yes I can!”

And from the future and talk of plans for tomorrow, no doubt you’ll be answering questions about it for much of the remainder of today, let’s now return to the present moment. This glorious moment in time in which we are here together celebrating you. Drink this moment in with your senses. As The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said, “you can not step twice into the same river.” This moment, and all to follow in your life, are unique and fleeting. Be there for them. Pay attention to them. Some, like today, are planned milestones – life changing days filled with celebration. Others only show their meaning in time. Every day is filled with these opportunities for beautiful experiences if we just show up. Show up and be present. Show up and take part. Show up and listen. Show up and give the gift of your attention to those who matter to you. Show up and speak up from your heart. Show up and give the gift of you to the world. Show up and be present in the moment. Instead of constantly shifting your attention to the infinite abyss of what’s out there to consume, strive to be present with what’s right here, right now. It is from being present with those experiences that you’ll find wisdom, happiness, and creative inspiration.

Finally, let’s talk about dreams. Dreaming of that which does not yet exist, creativity, the ability to conceptualize a reality beyond the present one, is what separates homo sapiens from all other creatures. Once upon a time you dreamt of getting accepted to design school. You accomplished it. Then you dreamt of passing your first courses. You accomplished that. You dreamt of surviving portfolio. You accomplished that. You dreamt of becoming an amazing designer with incredible skills, a graduate of SAA. You are minutes away from formally accomplishing that. Look what you can accomplish when you dream and do. That must not stop today, for that is the most important thing you’ve been taught. Keep dreaming. Be willing to be bad and be determined to get better. Begin. Believe. Become. Let today, be but one in an ongoing series of big dreams that you make come true in your life. Never forget that you are amazing and beautiful and fully capable of realizing your life’s dreams.
So… Dream your life and live your dream.

Thank you and Congratulations!