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Wise Advice for the Class of 2016: “If You Focus on Building Your Character, a Great Career Will Follow”

Peter Fasolo, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Johnson & Johnson, recently had the privilege of speaking at the commencement ceremony for the Quinnipiac University School of Business & Engineering in Connecticut. He advised the graduates to defy conventional wisdom by experimenting and not being afraid to make mistakes along the way. See below for his inspiring message focused on the importance of leadership, resilience and knowing your values.
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Peter Fasolo speaks to graduates of the Quinnipiac University School of Business & Engineering.

It’s such an honor to celebrate with you today.

It’s a pleasure to share this occasion with so many proud faculty members, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends… whose love, support, and mentorship have helped you reach this moment.

Frank was very kind in his introduction. I asked him what I should talk about today. He said, “About 12 minutes.” That’s advice I intend to take.

So, if you’ll indulge me for just a few moments, I’d like to share a little of that perspective with you—in the hope that it may ease your path… and help you grow into the strong, compassionate, and moral leaders our society so desperately needs.

I Know You’re Anxious

One thing we all understand about the world—whether you’re in your 20s like you or in your 50s like me —is how competitive it has become.

In some ways, that’s a good thing. Competition breeds achievement.

As graduates of Quinnipiac University, you know this better than most. You could not have made it this far without working incredibly hard.

But, as of today, your finals are over. Your last paper has been graded. And a different reality is about to take hold.

One side effect of living in such an ultra-competitive world is that it’s tougher than ever to find a job after you graduate. And the pressure to have everything figured out… to get ahead, stay ahead, and “succeed” according to the traditional terms society defines for us… well, that pressure can be relentless.

Wherever you’re headed—and whatever your aspirations may be—I imagine many of you are feeling a little anxious about what comes next.

That’s only natural. After all, the conventional wisdom is that—starting today—the race is on to land the perfect job, start the perfect career, and build the perfect life.

Don’t Be Anxious, Be Open

But I am here to tell you, graduates, that the conventional wisdom is wrong.

When you walk across this stage, you will step into a world that is wide open. A totally blank canvas.

So now is not the time to be anxious. Now is not the time to feel lost… or hopeless.
Now is the time to be the most hopeful… the most open… the most optimistic you can possibly be. Because the opportunities before you are endless. And nobody expects you to have everything figured out right away.

Take it from someone who knows exactly what you’re up against as you prepare to enter the workforce.

Frank introduced me as the Chief Human Resources Officer at Johnson & Johnson—the largest health care company in the world, with more than 130 years of history and 128,000 employees.

What that means is that my team and I are responsible for hiring 20,000 people every year—including engineers and businesspeople like you.

After more than 30 years in this business, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about what it takes to get hired and build a career. And the first thing you should know is this: When I look at a job application—especially from a young person—I don’t expect to see that they had it all figured out on the day they graduated.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

I want to see that they experimented… knocked around a bit… and tried different things. I like to see a path that’s not linear. A resume that tells a story.

To me, that’s not a vice—that’s a value. It suggests a healthy restlessness… an intellectual curiosity that I absolutely prize.

Now, I’m not talking about aimless drifting. I’m talking about a purposeful exploration.

This, in turn, suggests a candidate who is developing the quality I value most in any employee or colleague.

That quality is leadership. Because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my career, it’s that our world needs leaders—driven, selfless, compassionate, hardworking leaders—now more than ever before.

Now, what do I mean by that?

How do you get there? What practical steps can you take to show HR professionals—like me—that we should put your resume in the short stack?

The answer is simple: Don’t worry about plotting out the perfect career trajectory.
Instead, focus on building your character. Focus on calibrating your moral compass.

Be kind. Be respectful. Be truthful.

Mean what you say. Do what you say you’re going to do. And listen more than you talk.
That’s how you lead. That’s how you build character: by being a person who makes other people feel heard, appreciated, and valued.

As long as you focus on becoming such a person, a great career will follow.

Fulfillment in the Service of Others

This is something I learned from my father, who worked for more than 30 years in the inner city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, not too far from here. He dedicated his life to underprivileged kids and families at a place called the Cardinal Sheehan Center.

From his example, I learned that when you spend time in the service of others, you end up finding fulfillment for yourself.

That is the kind of character I look for in the people I work with.

And that is what led me to Johnson & Johnson—a company that embodies this philosophy.

At J&J, we aspire to help people live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

We are by no means an NGO, or a charity. We’re a corporation.

But we’re also, more than anything, a purpose-driven organization.

We know that it is only by serving others first that we can deliver a return for our shareholders.

It is only by serving others that we can find fulfillment for ourselves.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Now, I hope this is an idea that rings true for each of you, and a lesson that will guide you throughout your careers.

But I also know how tough it can be to find ways to serve—and find companies that align with your values—at a time when society, your peers, and… yes, even your parents… are pushing so hard for you to make practical decisions about your future.

You need to pay rent. You need to put food on the table. These things are not trivial!
But there’s a difference between earning a living… and prioritizing material success, pursuing “external achievement,” and chasing other people’s dreams.

As the old saying goes, “Money appears to buy happiness, but the exchange rate is not that great.”

Let me tell you: It’s important to figure this out for yourself—and find a good fit between your interests, your values, and the way you spend your time—before it’s too late.

I was very lucky in this regard.

For most of my college career, I was an accounting major. I figured accounting would be a practical way to make a good living.

And I’m sure it is—for some people.

Unfortunately, it took me until my junior year at Providence College to figure out that I am not one of them.

I was miserable as an accounting major. I just hated it.

But then I enrolled in an introductory psychology class… and absolutely fell in love.

I put in the same long hours. If anything, I worked even harder!

But, somehow, it felt wonderful—even effortless. So I scrambled to change my major, gave up the stable, straightforward future I thought I had in front of me, and pursued a master’s, and then a Ph.D., in psychology.

Broken Executives

Of course, it’s very common—even normal—to take a lot longer than I did to get to that point.
Many people go through the first three… five… or even ten years of their careers without a clear sense of how to align their passions with their professions.

That’s the time to experiment, as I said a moment ago. That’s the time to try, and fail, and try again. Because the real danger lies in not trying: in accepting other people’s definition of success… falling victim to blind ambition… and pursuing achievement, for its own sake, at all costs.

Early in my career as a psychologist, I worked with a lot of CEOs. I saw what happens to people who never match their passions to their professions.

They wake up one morning—late in life—and realize they are empty. They squandered the best years of their lives, and now they are hopelessly, helplessly lost.

On the outside, these “broken executives” may be tough to spot. They look very much like their peers who have aligned their values with the organizations they serve.
The difference is on the inside.

Fail Before You Flourish

This brings me to my final point—the thing that leads so many of us, at various points in our lives, to question what it means to be happy—also happens to be the thing we’re most afraid to do.

Parents, cover your ears.

Graduates: You need to make mistakes along the way so you can learn from them, pick yourself up and move forward.

I know how excruciating that can be.

But I also happen to believe that that’s when character springs to life: in those difficult moments when it’s put to the test.

Resilience is a key component of leadership. And I frankly don’t want to hire people—or work with people—who have never failed… and learned… and become better, smarter, and humbler for it.

I know I have myself. I have stumbled. Gotten things wrong. And picked myself up.

The three most powerful words in a leader’s vocabulary are: “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.”

Practice it. Internalize it. Make it your mantra.

I say these words all the time in my current job at J&J.

This is why I surround myself with outstanding talent who can teach me, teach others, and we all get better together.

In Conclusion

So if I can leave you with one thought, graduates, it’s this: Your lives will be defined not by what you achieve… but by who you become as a consequence of the choices you make.

Look at business. Look at politics. Look at the naked ambition—and empty achievement—that too often masquerades as success.

Look at the challenges your generation will be called upon to solve: from poverty, to sustainability, to health care.

Most importantly, graduates, look inside yourselves: at the resilience you’ve already shown… and the obstacles you’re now superbly qualified to overcome.

“Look around,” Class of 2016… “at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

“Look around. History has its eyes on you.”

That’s right. I’m quoting Hamilton. Like many of you, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop.

But it’s true.

What a moment this is! What a time to be alive… with a blank canvas stretched out before you!

I cannot tell you how excited I am about the future you’re building. Your potential is truly limitless. Opportunity awaits!

Thank you again for inviting me to share in this moment. Congratulations, good luck, and Go Bobcats!

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