Recently, Leaderonomics CEO Roshan Thiran was invited to provide the keynote address to the graduating class of 2014 at IACT College. Below is the text of his speech to the graduating class.
Ms Chew Sue Ann, Executive Chairman of IACT College,
Ms Mimi Tessier, Head of Mass Media Communications, University of Hertfordshire
Mr Khoo Kar Khoon, President of the Malaysian Advertisers Association
Mr Kenneth Wong, Representative of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Malaysia
Members of IACT’s Board of Governors and Directors
Students, parents & guests
Congratulations Graduates! For most of you, this graduation marks the end of your higher education, a turning point in your life. It marked the beginning of numerous decisions we had to make and trying to figure out what to do in the next phase of life.
So, I decided to give you 6 pieces of advice which you probably would not have learnt at university. Some of it may be counter-intuitive but are insanely true. So, here are my 6 pieces of advice to you.
1. “Talent is Rubbish” – it’s all about Practice (Mokhtar Dahari)
When I was 12 years old, I saw a fat, short and somewhat horrid looking man lift the FIFA World Cup. It was 1986 and Diego Maradona was so short that he had to use his hand to score goals. And I was inspired by him. If he can do it so can I. So I gave up badminton (which was the only sport I was playing then) and took up football. I practiced every day until I made it to my school team at MBS. And in 1987 they announced our coach – Mokhtar Dahari, Malaysia’s greatest ever football player.
I was shocked and excited. For the next 3 months, SuperMokh whipped us into shape. But he was always nastier to me. Finally, at the end of the season, I confronted him with my sulking face and asked him why he was so hard on me and not the other players in the team. He did not answer. Instead, he asked me a question – “Do you think I am talented?” I stared at him and answer “Err. Yes la” Then he shook his head and responded “I am not talented. Many others are much more talented than me.
However, I am the best in the country. You know why?” he questioned. I shook my head. “Because I practiced harder.” And on that day I learnt the most important lesson in life. Talent is meaningless. Everyone can be talented. It’s all about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and practice practice practice. The more you do something and push yourself, the better you become.
And you can be the best in anything in the world. If only you keep pushing yourself. Learning is painful. Practice is hard. But remember, when you graduate, it does not mean you are ready for the world. You never are. You have to keep practicing, improving and pushing yourself. Do it often enough and you will be world-class.
2. Daydreaming is a waste of time, just do – After SPM getting scholarship
My story after my SPM exams is filled with joyous and fun moments coupled with anger, confusion, fear and frustration. The funny thing is I really did well for my SPM. I was not surprised as I somewhat knew I would do well but my relatives and friends were probably extremely surprised as they wondered where I find time to study as I spent the majority of my secondary school life playing football and trying to ‘change the world’.
But study I did (when my friends were out looking for girlfriends or wasting their time looking for their “trophies”).
Nevertheless, having good results complicated matters. I decided deep down that I did not want to study in a local university and wanted to get one of those scholarships that were awarded. So, together with all my friends, we started applying for every scholarship under the sun. One by one, my friends, most of whom had lesser results than me, started to get scholarship to various countries and universities. I went for interviews after interviews, but nothing came about.
I soon realised that I was a hopeless interviewee. I tended to ‘tell the truth’ during the interviews and that was apparently not what interviewers wanted to hear–especially on my fine act of balancing ‘changing the world’, sports and studies. And as the weeks ticked away, nothing happened. I then had to face the inevitable — I had to go to FORM 6!
I could not believe it. I saw all my friends flying off to some exotic countries (for me, everything outside Malaysia seemed exotic!) or going to some private colleges.
So, off to Form 6 I trod but my heart and mind were jealously thinking of how ‘lucky’ my friends were while I was such a poor ‘victim’. But thankfully, this sad state of being a ‘victim’ didn’t last long. I knew bad things (in my case ‘being stuck in MBS’ !!) happened to everyone but our reaction to these circumstances defined great leaders. As I recalled watching Mokhtar Dahari battle the deadly disease that finally took his life, I convinced myself that I needed to take charge of my life and not be taken victim to whatever conditions surrounding me.
I had spent hours in Form 6 daydreaming about “if only” and how it would have been great to be oversea and live there but daydreams amounted to nothing. In fact, now I know research claims that outcome based on daydreams are a waste of time.
So, with this new resolve, I decided to dedicate the next few months of my life on ‘getting out of Malaysia’ somehow. And so I worked tirelessly day and night getting university application forms, doing up my ‘resume’ and writing passionate letters to various universities on why they needed to admit me into their school and pay for my education, food and lodging. I think I possibly sent letters to more than 1000 universities all over the world.
Surprisingly, I got answers from many of the big universities. Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown said come join us but only offered partial scholarships. So, I kept tirelessly applying to others.
Finally, a university in Connecticut sent me a letter accepting me into their university with a full scholarship covering everything from food, lodging, tuition and the works. All I had to do was to fly over there. I still remember receiving the letter on December 18, 1992. By January 3rd, 1993, I was on a plane (where I met my future wife on board) ready to start school in Connecticut. My perseverance and diligence had paid off and I was off to start my new adventure in this ‘exotic’ new place in New England!
So my piece of advice to you – stop dreaming about the great life you may have and instead focus on making that happen. Dream of how you are going to make your dream happen and not dream of the wonder of when your dream happens. And never did.
3. Be angry but Channel your Anger positively..
When I was in university, I got really angry with the university administrators and the student body. This anger consumed me as I felt there was injustice, wastage and incompetence. I was just a freshman in the university. My girlfriend (whom I met on the plane to US and later my wife-to-be) told me not to get worked up but to do something about it. I decided she was right and I registered to become student body president in the upcoming elections.
Everyone thought I was mad. I was a foreigner for one. But worst I was from a country called Malaysia. Don’t people in Malaysia live on trees was a question I was asked frequently. And worst of all I was just going into my 2nd year at the university. “Only seniors ran for student body president” was the common rant. But I ran and won. And then I decided to make the changes and correct the injustice and ensure competence was restored.
Ever since then, I learnt that it is good to get angry – but it is much better to channel that anger into action. Useless people get angry and sulk and moan and react stupidly. Great people get angry and then go out in a calm and calculated manner and fix problems. Which leads me to my 4th point
4. Work for a person who will develop you
One year before I graduated, I got an internship for 3 months with a company called GE. I was pretty excited. But then I was given a role that no one wanted – to work for the toughest boss. A man who was mean. Everyone tapped my shoulder and wished me “good luck” (and they were secretly happy that they got the better role!). Nonetheless, I started my role and met with Mike Petrucelli, my new boss. He was as tough as they said but he was an extremely effective person. He always got results. And he worked me like crazy.
While all the other interns were partying in the evenings, I was with Mike building the business. Mike “fired” me once for leaving a copy of the payroll in the photocopy machine and “re-hired” me once I learnt my lesson. He shouted at me for not speaking up at meetings and would only be happy once I started opening my mouth in official meetings. He taught me finance and business, even though I hated finance. At the end of the internship, he told me to quit school (I still had a year to go) and work for him fulltime. I negotiated with him and ended up working “fulltime” and studying part time.
As I look back at all the other interns who had “good” bosses, I am glad I got a boss who was tough on me. I learn much more than the rest and I progressed much further in GE than the rest because of Mike. So, my fourth piece of advice – work for a tough boss but someone who cares enough to develop you. The best sports coaches in the world push you the hardest and push you to greatness. Don’t settle for “good” bosses that never push you.
Make sure your first boss is someone who will really “whack you into shape”. And if you can’t find any such bosses, come join us at Leaderonomics. We will ensure every single employee is pushed to their limits and accelerating them to greatness.
5. Always Take The Hardest Job and keep challenging yourself to do the impossible
Take the hardest job you can find. The worst job. The job that nobody wants. I remember a time when nobody wanted a horrid role in Dallas, TX. Everyone ran away from the role. I have no idea why but I put up my hand for it. I hated every minute of the job and I failed miserable in the role. In fact, after 6 months, I was literally kicked out of the job. I should have listened to everyone’s advice, right? The majority had to know something for everyone to avoid the job, right? At least so I thought for a few years. The blemish on my resume – the failure at Dallas!
A few years later, I was a big leader in a massive turnaround effort. Same sort of Dallas scenario. Guess what happened? We turned around the organisation in no time. Why? Cos I learnt form the lesson of Dallas. If I never went through my Dallas saga, I would never have been successful in the bigger turnaround. So, take the hardest job you can find. Even if you fail, so what. You are young. People are generally forgetful. But that experience will do you so much good in the future.
Let me tell you about my friend Jamie Andrew. Jamie lost both his hands and legs in 1999 while climbing a mountain. Today, Jamie is still climbing mountains, including icy mountains with no hands and no legs. Every year Jamie challenges himself to do something impossible. A few years ago he told me he was going to do the IronMan triathlon. He did it. A man with no hands and no legs. I have both hands and feet and can’t do it. Couple of years ago he vowed to juggle a few balls.
I laughed – how could a man with no hands juggle a ball, let alone balls? A year later, he showed me how a man with no hands juggle balls. Every time I meet Jamie, I realise that nothing is impossible. If you can dream it, it is possible. And it starts with your first job. Never settle for something easy. Take a job that is so hard and so impossible. Once you conquer that job, the rest of life will seem so easy.
6. Do Good Always
This is easy right? But for some reason when most people enter the world of business or whatever field or domain, doing good is relegated to the sidelines. Throughout my life, I have been blessed every time I bless others. The more I gave of my time, money, skills and life, the more time, money, talent and adventures of life I received. And doing good does not need to give up your life as Mother Teresa did.
It starts by being nice to people regardless of their rank and designation. It sounds mushy but when you are nice to people they go out of their way to help you. And being new in an organization you would never know what sort of help you would need. Colleagues often like to work with nice people, regardless how talented they are. Honestly, I was not the most talented finance person, but I was definitely the nicest and I got away with murder many times, including getting my peers and bosses to do my work.
I remember a period of my life when I was really down. I just moved to New York City and was working at Rockefeller Center with NBC, the TV giant. Everyone seems to hate me there including my boss who didn’t even give me a place to sit. So I had to sit for my first week in the cafeteria. I smiled as people walked in and a famous TV show host came over and spoke to me. Not sure why – maybe he thought it was his job to “investigate”. Anyway, long story short, it all worked out for me at NBC because very soon I was partying with the TV stars. A smile can go a long way.
But even better if you do good – to everyone.
So, there you go – 6 things that changed my life. Wishing each of you all the best in your career and make it point in your life to develop yourself to your full potential and be the leader you were meant to be. God bless!