Stanford Report, June 17, 2001
|'The Process of Distillation: Getting to the essence of
Following is the Commencement address by Carleton (Carly) S. Fiorina, chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, at Stanford's Commencement ceremony on June 17, 2001.
Thank you. Good morning, everyone.
I'd like to echo President Hennessy in welcoming the parents and family and friends with us today … and in extending Happy Father's Day wishes to the fathers and father figures among us, in person, and in spirit. My own dad is in the audience this morning -- Dad, Happy Father's Day.
… But much as we love you, dads, … today is not about you.
Today we gather to celebrate the accomplishments of this starry-eyed -- okay, maybe it's dazed-looking – crowd of people sitting before us, adorned in black gowns and various other accoutrements …
To the Stanford class of 2001 … the graduate students and the undergraduates … I'm honored to be among the first to congratulate you on completing your years at Stanford.
I can guarantee your parents are extremely proud at this moment … proud of your accomplishments, if not your 'wacky walk' … Today they're literally beaming, with a little bit of relief … and lots of tenderness.
From the looks of it, one of you is wearing the same rented cap-and-gown I wore 25 years ago in Frost Amphitheater, where they used to hold the graduation ceremony … this one I'm wearing today is decidedly heavier, but it's giving me flashbacks nevertheless.
These past few weeks, I've been wondering what wisdom I might impart from this podium after 25 post-Stanford years.
The most earnest advice I received … came from the undergraduate Senior Class Presidents a couple of weeks ago – from Delphine and Brandon and Michael and Lauren. They said, "Make it personal. Tell us what it was like for you to leave this place. Tell us it'll be okay."
I took their request to heart. And I let my guidance for this speech come from memories of how I felt graduating from Stanford as a 21-year-old … and how those early years of seeking and stumbling shaped the experiences I've had these past 25 years.
one day after work a few weeks ago I drove around campus, to
rekindle memories. When I was in school, campus life was quite
different from what you've experienced – to say nothing of
the world beyond The Farm:
While you are not faced with stagflation exactly … your expectations of the job market have no doubt been flattened since you entered Stanford.
After all, Palm Drive was paved with job offers for the classes before yours. If you were a floundering Medieval History major, and you were interested in participating in what you thought might be the latest California Gold Rush, you might have shocked your parents by landing a dot-com job with a V-P title and stock options.
But here you are, the Class of 2001. And times have changed.
Perhaps it's unfair of me to presume, but if Spring Quarter had you feeling anything like I did at the prospect of graduating, underneath that cap and gown (and everything else you have on your heads), your fear is as great or greater than your excitement today.
I was afraid. The truth is, I was afraid the day I walked into Stanford. And I was afraid the day I walked out.
I was scared of leaving the protective bubble of this place for places unknown, during uncertain economic times … and I was scared of squandering the incredible gift of my Stanford experience on pursuits that weren't commensurate with expectations I … and others … had of me. I was scared of not doing it all, of making irrevocable mistakes.
If you're scared today, let me ask you this: What will you do with your fear? Will you let it become a motivator, or an inhibitor?
are the only one who can answer that. But what I can offer as
guidance, and reassurance, is a story … the story of
one Stanford grad's process of stumbling and searching to find a
place in the world, oftentimes in the face of her
I'd like to begin my story … at the History Corner.
The most valuable class I took at Stanford was not Econ Fifty-One.
It was a graduate seminar called, believe it or not, "Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Political Philosophies of the Middle Ages." …
Each week, we had to read one of the Great Works of medieval philosophy … Aquinas, Bacon, Abelard. These were huge texts–it seemed like we were reading 1,000 pages every week. And by the end of the week, we had to distill their philosophical discourse into two pages.
The process went something like this: First you'd shoot for 20 pages. Then you'd edit to 10. Then five. Then finally, two – a two-page, single-spaced paper that didn't merely summarize. It rendered all the fat out of a body of ideas, boiling it down to the very essence of its meaning.
And then you'd start all over again the next week, with a different massive text.
The philosophies and ideologies themselves certainly left an impression on me. But the rigor of the distillation process … the exercise of refinement … that's where the real learning happened. It was an incredible, heady skill to master. Through the years, I've used it again and again … the mental exercise of synthesis and distillation … and getting to the very heart of things.
The intellectual process I learned in that class … is also life's process. Because every life is a Great Work, with all the richness of its gifts, and the wealth of its possibilities.
When you graduate from here, you exit with thousands of pages of personal text … on which are inscribed beliefs and values shaped by years of education, family interactions, relationships, experiences.
And buried within those thousands of pages is your personal truth, your essence.
So, how do you distill your life down to its essence? You can begin … by confronting your fears.
I understand now, 25 years after that class: it is through a similar, personal distillation process … that I have encountered my own fears, and mastered them.
Each time I encountered fear … each time I had another moment of "ah-hah" … I was getting closer to identifying my essence … my true heart, my true self.
The first epiphany came in a moment of realization that I really did measure up. It was about conquering the fear of inadequacy.
Remember when you entered Stanford, as a 17- or 18-year-old kid, or an eager grad student? You were at the top of the heap. You felt pretty confident in your abilities, right? And then you arrived at your dorm, or attended your first department meeting … and after two or three conversations with your peers, you probably felt undeserving and totally inadequate.
If you're anything like me, your internal monologue went something like, "Oh my God: The Admissions Office messed up. They must have mistaken me for some other Carly. These people are in a completely different league! They're wondering what I'm doing here! What will I tell them?"
Let me warn you, my fellow type-A's: you'll probably have this feeling of inadequacy many times during your life. President Hennessy mentioned that I spent several years at AT&T. When I showed up there, once again, everyone seemed smarter. They seemed more confident, better prepared, better equipped to do their jobs than I was.
But slowly, you win some battles. You prove yourself with your work. You fail, and you survive. You learn. Maybe you even lead. And that fear diminishes a little bit. Lo and behold, you've knocked a couple hundred pages off your personal Great Work. You've begun the distillation process. You're beginning to define your life.
But once you realize that you do have a place among your peers … a new fear starts to creep in. You wake up one morning and think: Wait a second: Am I living my own life, or someone else's? Are the pages left in my story, mine to write?
For those of you choosing paths that are well-defined … paths that very neatly match others' expectations of you … my gut tells me that you are probably among the most fearful today.
Why do I say that? Because that was me on graduation day. I was on my way to law school … and quaking in my boots.
I was going, not because it was a lifelong dream, or because I imagined I could change the world … but because I thought it was expected of me. I thought I owed it to my family … especially my father–a Stanford law professor, a Duke law school dean, a 9th circuit Federal judge … not because he'd ever said so, but because I'd assumed it to be true.
So off I went to law school in the fall. And from the start, it left me cold. I barely slept those first three months. I had a blinding headache every day. And I can tell you exactly which shower tile I was staring at in my parent's bathroom when I came home for a weekend and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: It's my life. I can do what I want.
It was an epiphany for me. In that instant, the headaches literally disappeared. I got out of the shower. And I walked downstairs and said, "I quit." It was tough. But with that one decision, I cleared out about 500 extraneous pages of my personal Great Work.
The French writer Camus once said, "To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others." And yet, we often are. I had convinced myself that my parents' pride … and my analytic mind … and my Stanford humanities degree … were enough to quell the fear. But they were not enough to make me happy.
It's true that after law school I never looked back … but I still didn't know where to look, either. The important thing was, I was now in control. The only expectations I had to live up to … were my own.
So I went and got a job. It was with Marcus & Millichap, a real estate investment brokerage on Hanover Street, across Page Mill Road from Hewlett-Packard's headquarters. It's still there.
I had a title: it was not "V-P" … it was "Receptionist." I answered the phones. I typed. I filed. My parents were, understandably, quite concerned. This wasn't exactly what they'd hoped for, for their Stanford graduate.
But I paid the rent. And I learned from that work:
One day, a couple of brokers there decided not to be put off by my receptionist title or the obvious stereotypes that might accompany it and asked if I wanted to try something else. I was given the opportunity to contribute at a new level by writing up deals … Because of that gesture, because someone believed I could do more … I was able to trim a few more pages out of my personal discourse.
But after a year of this I was still seeking and stumbling … and restless … I felt like I needed to stretch … that I needed to change my surroundings and explore a bit. So I moved to Italy to teach English. Surprisingly, it was there that I decided business school was the next thing for me.
Frankly the business world was totally foreign to me. I grew up in an academic community, my mother was an artist, and we didn't really have friends in business. But at this point I was deciphering a much shorter personal text. And I remembered that at Marcus & Millichap I had discovered that I liked commerce, the pace of it, the people of it, the pragmatic problem-solving of it.
Choosing business school was surprising … and yet absolutely right for me.
Be assured, no matter how transformative your experiences have been at Stanford … this is only the beginning. As you do the hard work of distilling your life down to its essence … you will constantly discover things about yourself that are both utterly surprising … and surprisingly familiar.
I left business school lighter by a good couple-hundred pages.
The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once said, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms … to choose one's own way." For me, this third epiphany followed hard on the heels of the realization that I could confound others' expectations, and it would be okay.
There are no bad choices, as long as you learn from them. Some people simply stop choosing. Anyone can allow their past to be better than their future, if they stop choosing. Do not be afraid to make decisions. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Choose to be brave, and to keep moving forward. Don't let your options paralyze you. Make a decision, and then choose what happens next.
I joined the business world in 1980, and over the years, working on the East Coast, I hit my stride. I met and married the right man, my wonderful husband Frank, who's also here today … and with him came two wonderful daughters and the loving and boisterous Fiorina family … Finally, my year in Italy paid off! We loved the East Coast, and planned on spending the rest of our lives there.
And then, unexpectedly, the call came suggesting that I might want to return home to this community, to lead the company that gave birth to this Valley … Hewlett-Packard.
Nelson Mandela once quoted, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." That is the final realization I'll share with you … the realization that not only do you have control over your own life … but that you have the power to make a difference in other peoples' lives.
I drove to Palo Alto for my final interview with the Board of Directors … and it seemed appropriate to arrive early, and sit in my car across the street from Hewlett-Packard in the parking lot of Marcus & Millichap … and think about how life was coming full-circle in some unexpected, and truthful, ways.
I sat in the parking lot before what was by all accounts the interview of a lifetime … and I thought about the uphill battle that lay ahead if I took the CEO job at HP. I had no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges in leading a company that had a great past, but was now searching for its future. I knew that I was an unexpected choice for the position, and I knew that with this job would come a fair bit of scrutiny and criticism.
And then I weighed all of that … against what was worth doing.
I sat in my car … and I felt humbled by a great sense of responsibility for a great legacy. But I didn't feel afraid. I had recently watched my mother confront death with bravery … and in that experience, I learned what choosing to be brave really means. And I left fear behind.
The day I walked into HP for the first time as its new CEO … it felt both utterly surprising, and surprisingly familiar.
HP is a Great Work in its own right. It is worth preserving … it is worth revitalizing. It is a company of unique values and character, with a unique relationship to this community–to Stanford, to Palo Alto, to Silicon Valley. More than that, it is a company capable of making technology and its benefits accessible to all.
And my role is to help make HP relevant in a new era. My job is to distill its original essence, and write those two pages. Every single day.
My wish for you today, is that by the time your 25-year reunion rolls around – and it'll happen a lot sooner than you think – you, too, will have found a place in the world where your values, and your character, are at home. Where your actions and your heart are totally aligned.
your fear motivate you, not inhibit you. Ask yourself the tough
Tomorrow, you take your 1,000 pages … and depart this incredible place.
Before you leave, step back and consider the enormous text of your life thus far, and acknowledge its heft, and its complexity.
Before you leave, reflect on the support you've gotten, and the sacrifices that all these wonderful people in the audience have made, so that you could have an unforgettable experience here at Stanford. Today is the day to honor them with your joy … and with your fear. They have helped you have this experience. It's one you'll never forget, one you will always draw from.
Before you leave, acknowledge the incredible wealth of resources you have in the Stanford community. Stanford is a Great Work, too. No matter how far you may wander from Palo Alto, you can rely on this lasting, rich and diverse web of ideas, knowledge, and friends you've constructed.
Remember to encourage one another. Remind each other that life is just going to get better and better, if you let your fear motivate you to begin a rigorous, but enormously satisfying lifelong process of distillation: A process of writing your two-page, single-spaced, story.
And as you do your editing … and decide what to leave in, and what to leave out … you will recognize the choices that are true to your essence. You will know what is worth doing, and you will do it. It will feel utterly surprising, and surprisingly familiar.
I wish you luck, but more than that, I wish you courage and perseverance and the support of your loved ones.
My heartfelt congratulations go out to you, and to all of your mothers and fathers and families and friends.
Thank you. Make it a great life.