This time of the year makes me look to those of you at universities and high schools across this country who are eager for new worlds to conquer.
I have spoken to tens of thousands of college graduates over the years, and enjoyed the occasion each time because when I look into the crowd, I see difference makers. I see young minds reaching out. I see the future.
You college graduates are poised to make your mark in the world. You high school graduates are chomping at the bit to prepare to do so. The wisdom that comes with maturity tells me the future belongs to you, not to an old guy like me (just don’t ever count the old man out).
When I reflect back on my life to this very moment, I know I would not have accomplished half as much without my college degree from Oklahoma State University.
Just look how far it took this Depression-era baby from tiny Holdenville, Oklahoma. I’ve visited with more than one president at the White House. The state of Texas has honored me as Texan of the Year. I’ve received one of the most distinguished entrepreneurial honors in America, the Horatio Alger Award, and been inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
I’ve spent a good amount of time on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans. Of all the income taxes I have paid in my life, more than 85 percent of them have been paid since I turned 70 — not that I was a dog taxpayer before.
I tell you this not to brag, but to illustrate a point. When I was basically starting my career over at 68, a reporter asked me if I didn’t think it was time to step aside and let someone else have a turn.
I told him that he had too narrow a view of America, that he saw this country as a feeding trough where an old horse must step aside for another, younger one, to get in. That’s simply not true: The feeding trough in America is endless. Step up, work hard, and everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
Each year about this time, I’m moved to wager with all of you graduating to the next big stage of your life: I will trade you my wealth, success, 68,000-acre ranch in exchange for your seat today. That way, I’d get the opportunity to start over, experience every opportunity American has to offer.
In that way, I could dispel something I hear over and over again. “Mr. Pickens, America has changed. I’ll never be able to accomplish what you have.
If that’s what you’re thinking, you are dead wrong. There’s more opportunity for success today than ever. America remains the greatest country in the world. There’s plenty of opportunity to go around.
Here’s some free advice to help you make the most of it.
Make a plan. When I was initiated into the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in college, my father came to Stillwater to pin me with his SAE pin. That Sunday, he pulled me aside — I thought to congratulate me. Instead, he summarized my business studies to that point, and told me something that stuck with me the rest of my life: “Listen son, a fool with a plan can beat a genius without one. And your mother and I are concerned that we have a fool with no plan. So you’re getting ready to have a plan and get out of school.” He set a challenging deadline for me to graduate. I then went to the head of the geology department, and worked out an ambitious plan to meet my parents’ deadline. It seems to have worked.
Don’t let age be an obstacle. You are young, and you have fresh ideas. You live in a new world, and can teach all of us a thing or two.
Competition is good, but play by the rules. I love to compete and win. I don’t want the other guy to do badly; I just want to do a little better than he does.
Learn to analyze well. Assess the risks and the prospective awards, and keep it simple.
Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader: Avoid the “Ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. You have to be willing to fire.
Be realistic. Dream, yes, but don’t be a day dreamer (like me wanting to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys).
Learn from mistakes. That’s not just a cliché. Remember the doors that smashed your fingers the first time, and be more careful the next trip through.
Don’t look to government to solve problems. The strength of this country is in its people.
Stay fit. You don’t want to get old and feel bad. You’ll also get a lot more accomplished and feel better about yourself if you stay fit. Practice moderation — balance that furious drive with time for yourself and family or those close to you. The key is organization.
Be happy and satisfied with what you are doing. This may be the most important. Life is too short. If you’re not happy, find something else to do.
Embrace change. Although older people are generally threatened by change, young people love me because I embrace change rather than running from it. For you, change creates opportunity. A few years ago, I couldn’t have told you what a podcast was, but I pride myself that at my age I can understand the power of social media — the reach of LinkedIn articles, tweets, podcasts, my Pickens Plan website. I use each to share viewpoints, have public discussions with big thinkers and policy influencers, and learn new things in the process. What do I think about your future? #jealous
Be confident. Go forward with the knowledge that you worked hard to graduate.
As you strike out on your own and get down to business, you are probably a little nervous, and that’s understandable. Your lives and routines are about to change dramatically.
Whether your new stage is a first career job or your first semester away from home, realize that becoming a successful adult carries with it certain responsibilities. One of those is an obligation to give back.
As you look to the future, do not forget the past. Remember what your education means to you, and what it can mean to your children and to future generations.
Now, go get ‘em.