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Remarks by Jamie Dimon at Syracuse University's 156th Commencement and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's 113th Commencement

May 16, 2010


Nancy [Cantor], thank you very much for that overly kind introduction. If you don’t already know, you have a fabulous chancellor. Board of trustees, Syracuse faculty, all members of the graduating class of 2010: it is a privilege to be here with you today celebrating this important step in your lives, one that I am sure is also a moment of relief and joy for all of you, particularly the parents that are here today.

Graduating today means you are through with final exams, through with submitting term papers, all that nervousness, the cold sweat of sleepless nights preparing to answer seemingly impossible questions. Well, that’s a feeling we banking executives know pretty well these days – we call it “testifying before Congress.”

I am honored to be here today, but I also know that some of your fellow students have raised questions about me being your commencement speaker. When I heard about these protests, I wanted to understand what was behind them, so I called one of the students leading that movement, and we had a good conversation – I’m sure she’s here somewhere. I heard her concerns about me, the nation’s banking system and about capitalism itself. Some I thought were legitimate, others I disagreed with. But whether I agree with her or not, I say “good for her;” I’m proud of her for speaking up. In fact, it is completely appropriate to hold me accountable for those things I am responsible for. We all should be held accountable. But what does it mean to hold someone accountable, and how do you make yourself accountable? Today I will talk about what it takes to be accountable, in the hope that it might be valuable to you in years to come.

I want to point out that in sharing my views with you, I do not mean to imply that I did it all right; I did not. Many of the lessons I’ve learned I’ve learned by making mistakes. It takes courage to be accountable. Throughout my life, throughout this crisis in the past three years, I’ve seen many people embarrass themselves by failing to stand up, being mealy-mouthed and acting like lemmings by simply going along with the pack. I also saw plenty of people under enormous pressure who always did the right thing. Graduates, you will soon leave this wonderful community and venture into a new world to get ready for new jobs, new opportunities and new lives. Along the way, you’re going to face a lot of pressure. Pressure to go along, to get along, to toe the line, to look the other way when you see things that aren’t right, and pressure to do things simply because everybody else is doing them. Never give in to that pressure. Have the fortitude to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Don’t be somebody’s lapdog or sycophant. Have the courage to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular, and have the courage to put yourself on the line, to strive for something meaningful, and even to risk what would be an embarrassing failure.

I think Teddy Roosevelt understood this nearly a century ago when he said, “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man – now the woman –who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without erring and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

It takes knowledge to be accountable. Having the ability to speak up is important, but it is not sufficient. If you have the guts to take a stand, what you think is a principled stand, then have the brains to base it on facts and analysis and critical thinking. In some places, it's always clear what the right thing to do is, but in many other situations, it is much more complex. There's a temptation to come up with simple and binary answers, especially when it couldn't possibly apply. We should remember what Albert Einstein once said: "Be as simple as possible, but no simpler." Acquiring knowledge must be a lifelong pursuit; it will lead to wisdom and judgment. It will never end. You will learn by reading-and read everything you get your hands on-and by talking to and watching other people, and you especially learn by listening to the arguments on the other side. It is your job to constantly learn and develop informed opinions as you move forward in your lives.

There’s some very thoughtful people out there, and reading their views and analysis will help educate you. If you think you are socialist, read Milton Friedman, the famous capitalist. If you think you are capitalist, read Karl Marx. If you think you’re Republican, listen to the Democrats, and vice versa. Look for the kernels of truth in what they have to say. Don’t reject it all out of hand, and be willing to change your mind. Do not fall into the trap of being rigid and simplistic. It’s okay for us at times to blame and be dissatisfied with others and hold them responsible, but it’s not okay to oversimplify and paint everyone with the same brush. It should not be acceptable to denigrate entire groups, not all companies, not all CEOs, not all politicians, not all media, not all students. Among these groups there are some terrific people, and among these groups there are some terrible people. To categorically and indiscriminately judge them as all equal is simply another form of prejudice and ignorance, and it’s not fair, it’s not just, it’s just plain wrong.

(Applause)

One must be honest with one’s self to be accountable. Shakespeare said it best: “To thine own self be true.” There’s already a book being written on each and every one of you, and people ask you it every single day. If I want to know all about you, all I would need to do is talk to your teachers, your friends, your colleagues, your fellow students and your parents. I would know if you were trustworthy, hardworking, empathetic, ethical, and if you deliver on your commitments, or if you were lazy and always let people down. It’s up to you to determine how you want that book to be written. It’s a choice. Don’t let others write it for you. So be the person you want to be, set your own high standards of integrity and performance. If you want to be a winner, then compare yourself to the best, and acknowledge that it will never happen without hard work. Abe Lincoln used to say, “Good things may come to those who wait, but only those things left by those who hustle.” If you want to be a leader, act like a leader. If you want to be respected and trusted, then demonstrate you deserve it by earning it every day. If you want to be known as honest, not telling lies is not sufficient. Don’t even shave the truth, and make sure your friends and colleagues will always bring you back to earth when you—like we all do at times—are deceiving yourself.

It takes knowing how to deal with failure to be accountable. The world is complex and challenging, and yes the economy is getting better, but you are still entering a job market at a tough time. But in fact, throughout your lives, you’re going to have to face tough times and failure, both personally and professionally. I’m sure some of you already have. But how you deal with failure may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. Some of the greatest people of all times—I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi, Abe Lincoln and many others—faced enormous setbacks and have persevered, often against seemingly impossible odds.

As you all know, over the past two years we’ve gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. A lot of attention has been paid to the mistakes made by those who helped bring on the crisis. The first step to dealing with mistakes is to actually acknowledge them, and it is true that many in this crisis have denied any responsibility. But in this crisis, there are also many who take responsibility and do something about it. At the darkest moments when it seemed like the whole system was unraveling, I saw men and women in my company, and in many other companies and in the governments around the world who took extraordinary action. They didn’t whine or complain, and when they got knocked down they got up and tried to do something about it. They worked for days and weeks on end without sleep, sacrificing time with family and friends, so they could try to contain the crisis, all the while knowing that they could actually fail at what they were trying to do. They weren’t driving themselves for money, or to score points with the boss— they understood that the well-being of millions of people depending on getting the situation under control. They didn’t lose their nerve when things seemed bleak, they showed the fortitude that’s necessary to handle a tough situation and to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks.

That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn in my own professional life. Before I became CEO of JPMorgan Chase, I was president of Citigroup—I just want to mention, that was 10 years ago—and one day I went to work and was very surprised to be fired by the man I had been working with for over 15 years. I remember coming home to explain what happened to my wife and my three young daughters. My wife and one of my daughters is here today, by the way. They were naturally scared about what it meant for our family and for me to have lost my job. My youngest daughter—she’s here today¬, she was eight at the time, she has not graduated yet, that’s next year ¬—asked, “Dad, will we still keep our house, will we have to live in the street?” and I said “Of course not, darling.” My middle daughter, who always looked forward to going to college, asked “Dad, will I still be able to go to college?” and I said “Of course, sweetheart.” My oldest daughter, she asked if she could have my cell phone since I wouldn’t be needing it any more; she showed the resiliency I’m talking about.

So make no mistake: setbacks will happen and when they do, it’s okay to get depressed, to blame others —for a while. Eventually you have to get up, dust yourself off, learn from it, and move on.

(Applause)

It takes humility and humanity to be accountable. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Humility is the realization that those who came before paved the way. Never fool yourselves into thinking that your success is yours alone. Your success is the result of your parents, the family that sacrificed to give you a better life, your professors and administrators who help you get through your time here at Syracuse, your friends, your neighbors, those who encourage you. In fact, this wonderful country, whose bounties we all benefit from, was built by so many people who made endless sacrifices, often the ultimate sacrifice, before most of us were even born. It’s important to respect what they have done, and to be grateful for it.

(Applause)

We also need to have the strength of character to hold ourselves accountable in all aspects of our life. As graduates of this world-class university, you each have what it takes to lead meaningful lives and to contribute to the lives of others. If you continue to be very successful, and little lucky, you may go on to become a leader of large groups of people—and that is a time when it becomes about them, and not about you. Leadership itself is an honor, a privilege and it carries a deep obligation. Throughout your lives, you will meet people who are not as smart, talented and skilled as you. They may not have had all the benefits that you have had, but many of them are doing the best that they can possibly do, and they take great pride in doing their part well. Remaining accountable to them means treating them all with the respect they deserve, whether it’s a CEO or a clerk. It requires grace, generosity of spirit and great compassion. To me, that is humanity’s highest form of accountability. Our survival and success depends on it.

In the words of the poem that I love by Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.”

And so it takes courage, knowledge, a strong sense of self, a capacity to overcome failure, and a healthy amount of humility and humanity to be truly accountable. These qualities are at the heart of our success as a nation. I’d like you to keep one concluding thought in mind: America’s success as a nation is not a God-given right. It is something that we all must work hard to achieve. If you’ve studied history, you see nations and empires rise and fall. The United States and the world has faced many challenges, some far tougher than the ones we face today. And I am confident that we will recover in the short run. But in the long run, you—the next generation—must continue to conquer the challenges we face. We must confront our health and education systems. It should not be acceptable that in the United States of America, only 50 percent of our inner-city school kids graduate high school. We must develop a real, substantive energy and environmental policy. We have had three major energy crises— it is not acceptable to have a fourth. We must build the infrastructure of the future. We must continue to welcome the best and the brightest from around the world to our nation. These are all serious issues but if we work together, we can fix them.

You all have the ability to carry the responsibilities you face in life. In so many ways, all of us in this stadium are truly blessed. We are lucky to live in this country and to have the opportunities we have been given, but that brings obligations. As you go about your life, remember your country. Regarding what you do, and what you achieve in life, try to leave everything and everybody that you touch a little bit better than they were before. Continue to be true to yourself and your values, be resilient, be honest, be humble, never stop holding yourselves accountable, and you will not only have the kind of life you wish and deserve, you will also do your part to make this country and the world a better place for generations to come.

To the Class of 2010, congratulations, good luck and Godspeed. Thank you.

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