Experience and Learning
by Rush McCloy ’92
Commencement Address, May 30, 2010
Good morning. Dr. Curtis, Mr. Greer, distinguished guests, members of the faculty, parents, and especially the graduates. Class of 2010, I can not tell you how honored I am to give this commencement speech, mostly because I stand here in fullest admiration of what you have done with your time here. Your class, once again, set a new standard. I graduated 18 years ago and know I got into Deerfield in just the nick of time because since that time your class and others, each and every one of you, have consistently increased the value of a Deerfield degree. Thank you. Keep doing what you are doing admissions, until my children apply.
I tend to focus best when I can somehow connect to the person or lesson taught. Lessons can be ineffective when merely expressed in words without any relevance to your life. The only effective way to figure out whether the stovetop is hot is to touch it yourself, since lessons are best learned through experience. Therefore, all I can do is to encourage you to touch three specific stovetops because they have been so meaningful in my life and I really want them to be meaningful in yours. Deerfield has played a significant role in each one for me, so I hope you too will see the connection.
Stovetop 1 – Serve others and you will inevitably serve yourself
Stovetop 2 – If you aim too long, you will miss the shot
Stovetop 3 – Keep humility close to your core
FIRST STOVETOP – Serve others and you will inevitably serve yourself
So much good in my life has been a direct result of serving others; I can say, without hesitation, that if you serve others, you will reap the reward.
We should enter any form of service with altruistic intentions, but you will end up receiving more than you gain. Part of that reward is in your character, because service not only builds character, but also reveals character. What is important is that you are aware of your community, however you define it, and when something strikes a chord with you, take the plunge in whatever capacity your heart dictates.
And for leaders such as yourselves, it is important to realize that leadership is also a form of service and when you aim to serve those you lead, you will also see true reward.
No single event triggered my desire to serve more in both of those capacities than the events of September 11th, 2001.
I was in New York when we were attacked. My initial plunge occurred on September 12th. My heart yearned to get down to Ground Zero to help and I found a way to join an early crew willing to suit me up and head down to look for survivors in the rubble. I will never forget the fires, the smell, and the blanket of ash that wiped away a history of color. Those hours spent in the rubble triggered an even bigger plunge. I signed up to join the military. I did not know the pending sacrifices it might demand, nor did I care.
I began as an enlisted man before becoming an officer and then, six years to the day the towers fell, on September 11, 2007, I got the call to deploy. I was sitting at my desk in New York trying to build a company I started with a partner directly out of business school when my phone rang. Readiness Command said I was to report to Ft. Riley, Kansas for training. From there, I would ship out to Afghanistan.
It certainly did not seem an ideal time to pick up and deploy for a year. I had to put my business and pending marriage on hold. As is it usually is with service, it was exactly what I needed in my life. I was blessed with the ideal job function which was to build a counterinsurgency campaign through civil and psychological affairs. Our campaign stretched from the eastern border near Pakistan to the western border closer to Iran. I worked with locals, built wells, schools, roads, met with insurgents and shared chai tea with tribal elders to explain why we were there.
During the deployment, I worked every day for a year and yet, for the first time in my life, work never felt like work. I learned that I loved leading teams more than following financial markets, that I am more of an optimist than a skeptic and the experience drove me to take on a new private-sector career trajectory. I was there because I was motivated to serve God and country, but I feel like I have gained and been rewarded with so much more than I ever could have given.
As I mentioned, leadership is a form of service and serving those you are leading can also amount to a meaningful reward. On my tour, I came to realize that the only way to get the most out of the Afghan National Army forces we were training, and any US unit, was to serve them first and in the best manner I could. How could I gain the confidence of career US and Afghan military personnel as a reservist fresh off the streets of New York? I spent time learning to understand all the nuances of the members in my unit on any given mission. Only by investing in them, making sure they were taken care of, placing them in positions where I knew they could succeed, could we maximize the efficacy of our missions and minimize the risks. Results followed.
Never was this principle more evident than June 13, 2008. We were heading east to work in a town preyed upon by insurgents when we were ambushed. We fought for over four hours; everyone played their part bravely, and we captured three enemy prisoners of war. It is not easy to capture and not harm the person shooting at you, but our unit, side by side with the Afghan security forces we were training, did it in sync. We all were paid the ultimate reward; we never lost a soldier, something that only happened because everyone involved aimed to serve those in their direct command.
Looking back, I know which part of my development played a large part in giving me the will to raise my hand after September 11th. When I was a student here at Deerfield, service and teamwork were woven into the school’s fabric. Not because it meant getting into a better college, but because we were drawn to serve our community, our school and each other whether through peer counseling, big brothers, or helping each other study for an AP exam.
I was in Afghanistan on September 11, 2008 and I was given the opportunity to raise an American flag on my forward operating base in the face of the enemy. Although I loved my college and graduate school, I knew I was serving there in large part because of Deerfield. This school gave me much of what I needed to want to sign up to serve, to care about my community and to benefit from a support network that prayed for and kept me company throughout the deployment. The American flag I raised that day was flown in honor of Deerfield where it now resides with its corresponding dedication certificate.
SECOND STOVETOP – Aim too long and you are going to miss the shot
You can spend the rest of your life aiming, but you will miss the shot if you don’t pull the trigger. Trigger in that moment of clarity, however brief, and your life will become more interesting. Too often, that moment vanishes while it is still in your crosshairs and regret has a long tail.
In fact, I had a moment of clarity here at my 10th year reunion. I was giving a slide presentation around having run the Antarctica Marathon and the Leadville 100 Mile Marathon to raise money for pediatric cancer research. When I finished and looked out at my classmates, I knew I had a split second to capture some of the greatest characters, minds and hearts I have or will ever know to join me on another adventure – the Beijing Marathon. I did not know at the moment if the trip were totally feasible, but instead of sitting down, I seized that opportunity and asked “if any of you want to join me on a trip to Beijing, we will run the Beijing Marathon as a Deerfield team and raise money for pediatric cancer research.” Within 10 minutes, we had a team of 12, some running their first marathon. Off we went to raise a substantial sum, run the race that started in Tiananmen Square and laugh to and from Asia. I saw the shot to recruit the team and I took it.
And that is not the end of the story; it gets better. Stepping up in that moment of clarity also inadvertently gave me the chance to up my game. Shortly after the reunion, I was at a cocktail party in New York City. At the time, I felt like I was in a muddy trench professionally. My start-up company was running out of money and I was funding a business on fumes. At the party, I saw the most beautiful girl laughing in a way that just felt so comfortable to her and she had eyes to mimic her smile. I recognized her as a Deerfield alum. We overlapped briefly at school, as she was a freshman when I was a senior, but let’s put it into perspective. Here I am, a scrawny 5’9” if the truth can be stretched and I had the dumpiest old Ford station wagon parked outside that you had to kick the passenger door from the inside to open. Plainly put, I had no game. None. But I had a trump card in my pocket: Deerfield.
Again, I took the shot. I went up to her and after stumbling through a lousy introduction, I said “Do you want to come to China with some DA folks to run a marathon for cancer research?” She said she needed to think about it and would call me in the morning. I thought that was a polite no, but because she has the spirit and every amazing character trait I could imagine, she called with a yes. She is now my wife and we just had a child four weeks ago.
We never would have pulled off the trip if I did not quickly answer my heart at the end of my presentation at reunions. Also, look what happened to me by serving others. While raising money for cancer research, I found my wife, someone way above my rank. Had I aimed too long, I would not have Brooke as my wife and I would not have served overseas, both of which led to some of the most meaningful things in my life. So any of you who have been waiting to ask that person out for the past three or four years, you have one day left to take the shot.
The backdrop behind all of this is to have the confidence not to aim too long and that you can pull it off. I know you can, because we learned all the blocking and tackling right here at Deerfield. We learned the fundamentals of how to approach a problem, address competition, and embrace the importance of service and leadership right here. It is not because those skills are generically formed in high school, but because Deerfield is unparalleled in instilling and honing them whether you recognize it now or not.
Start a business while you are in college; do something bold in honor of someone no longer with you; teach, volunteer or work in some capacity in a remote region across the globe; take a year off to join an expedition regardless of how much it might frighten your parents. Again, if it is in your crosshairs and feels right, go for it. And if you need anyone to accompany you, there are always some willing companions to your right and to your left. I guarantee it. And if they won’t, then call me.
THIRD STOVETOP – Keep humility at your core
The third stovetop is one we all need to keep turning up to remind ourselves of its presence. That is humility. There are many facets to humility, but I have found a few important ones thus far. 1. Don’t take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself. 2. You have something to learn from everyone. 3. Don’t celebrate your own victories; instead, celebrate those who helped get you there.
The benefits of not taking myself too seriously and finding a way to laugh at myself were so apparent my senior year here at Deerfield. By the end of my junior year, I associated much of my self worth with getting into college. I started to take myself way too seriously and my ability to focus on meaningful parts of my life was distracted by this goal. I needed to shake things up a bit.
I am a terrible singer, beyond atrocious. Serendipitously, there was an audition for a musical. I thought I would use the audition to add some levity in my life, but did not think it would go beyond that. Mr. Reese is a brilliant director, but apparently subpar at casting. I pulled the wool over his eyes with some acting and to his future dismay, he cast me. Getting a part in a musical when you can not sing is bad enough, but the kicker was that I was cast as Linus in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”. I, at the very least, wanted Snoopy, a chill, cool character hanging out on the top of his house watching the world go by. No, instead I was hanging out on center stage with a blanket in my hand sucking my thumb in front of all my friends and teammates. It gets worse. It was the gift that kept on giving. My singing was so terrible and not salvageable after countless hours of extra work that I was strongly encouraged to speak my solo, which, for the record, was called “My Blanket and Me”. When we all had to sing together, I was strongly encouraged this time to lip sync. Everyone knew and we all laughed together. I am glad my wife never went to the show as a freshman or we might not be married today.
Soon, my focus returned and I felt more engaged; I gave more to my friendships and I felt incredibly confident and relaxed rolling into my college interviews. It paid off.
The second facet, you have something to learn from everyone, is relevant because if you are inquisitive with a thirst for learning, you will continue to become elite in your accomplishments. That being said, you still have something to learn from everyone. And as Emerson once said, “Every man I meet is in some way my superior.”
When I was in enlisted boot camp, I had finished a swim exercise and noticed that one of the guys to my right named Ron was voraciously writing notes. As I did as a student here at Deerfield, I figured if he were writing notes, I should probably be writing notes. Problem was, nobody was speaking and I had no idea what I was supposed to write. I poked Ron and asked him what he was doing. He said he was writing a plan for the company he runs in Texas. Company? I was impressed.
I knew I would learn about myself at enlisted boot camp and I wanted to be part of the backbone of this country, but I was beyond sure nobody was going to teach me hard lessons about my private sector career. Heck, I was the one who had been admitted to a top business school. I was not expecting to learn business and information storage principles at enlisted boot camp, especially since many did not have a college education. How wrong and arrogant I was. Turns out, Ron teaches employees at Fortune 500 companies how to store data and use their minds more effectively. He is in the Guiness Book of World Records for his ability to store numbers and recently won the 2010 memory competition. His principles continue to help me.
It hammered home that pedigree and stature do not preclude anyone from extracting as much as they can from those around them, in whatever form. Even though you were the pupils here, I guarantee you that all of your teachers here at Deerfield used each class to not only impart learning, but to also to learn from you. You teach teachers about themselves and they are teaching you because they are eager and natural learners.
The last facet is to celebrate those who help you progress more than you celebrate your own accomplishments. One of my favorite quotes related to this topic came from Winston Churchill, a man whose quotes and poignant use of words I venerate.
In the summer of 1941, the Victoria Cross for bravery was awarded to Sgt. James Allen Ward for a brave act he did while defending Britain against the Nazis 4,000 meters above the North Sea.
Some months later Prime Minister Churchill, while managing a war, took the time to summon him to Downing Street to congratulate him.
Obviously, Sgt Ward’s adam’s apple choked his air passage in the presence of Mr. Churchill, so noticing his obvious discomfort Mr. Churchill inquired “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence?”
“Yes Sir”, replied Ward, “I do.”
Mr. Churchill looked him in the eye and said, “Then you can begin to imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.”
In closing, I want to once again express how humbled I am to speak in front of such a distinguished group. You now have a Deerfield degree and nobody can take it away from you. The education and accolades will fade, but the spirit and bond only becomes stronger and closer with time. I grew up with the bond given my grandfather was involved on the board and my father and brother both graduated from here. Since then, I tacked on a few more as now my wife, father-in-law, and sister-and-law also all graduated from here; in fact, nine of my twelve groomsmen at my wedding went to Deerfield. That bond is evermore important as the world is becoming evermore collaborative, requiring teams to succeed. Well, you are at such an advantage, because the team you have sitting to your right and to your left is unparalleled and will remain so throughout your life.
If you remember one thing from today, then hold on to the Deerfield bond, leverage it and suck the marrow out of what it offers. Regardless of where you end up at college or potentially graduate school, nowhere will you find the bond in any group that better promotes adventure, intellectual curiosity and philanthropy. We are in a remarkable support club, one that only exists here. They will encourage you to always run with the swift because it is always better to come in last in the Olympics than first in a local meet. You will undoubtedly do some winning, but when you don’t, to paraphrase, what matters is how you react the next morning after losing. Luckily, you can risk to be bold because this support network will always get you moving and charging forward again. So now embrace it and use it to serve others, use it to throw the normal and practical aside and move mountains. You can.
God Bless you. Beat Choate
Rush McCloy, ‘92