An address to the Cum Laude Assembly of the Penn Charter School, April 27, 2011
Stephen Spinelli Jr., President, Philadelphia University
The title of my talk is, “A commercial about a product called me”. It might be the strangest title of a Cum Laude Society keynote speech ever proposed…at least I hope so. It is constructed to articulate the wonderful and, I believe, reconcilable combination of self promotion and service as the foundation of a purpose driven life.
I ask you to imagine how the world sees you and how you would like to be seen. Recognize and shape that which makes you different and special. Too often we teach people to be like everyone else…but just a little better. A “92” on an exam is a lot like an “88” but a little better. More on that later.
You are “selling” yourself…your ideas, your skills, your opinions and perspectives every day. As you mature in life the intensity and impact of your uniqueness will increase or recede depending on the decisions you make. Why not proceed with thoughtfulness and even a plan?
Let me start with a brief commercial about the product called Steve.
Poverty is classically defined as the lack of basic human needs, such as clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. There are 1.7 billion people in the world today that live in poverty. I define it more simply. Mom and Dad said no when we asked for more food. When I was young I thought this was because of religious observance. “Regular” Catholics abstained from meat on Friday…we skipped entire meals! Or, maybe mom just thought we were getting fat.
I consider the realities of my youth to be a great advantage in my life. Truthfully, I was one of the very lucky kids. First, I had a loving family. And, after ninth grade I was awarded a scholarship to a private school in Massachusetts. I then received a scholarship to attend college. The powers of a loving family to inspire and motivate a person and the pursuit of knowledge to lift a life are enduring axioms for me.
After college I had a mentor in business who gathered a team of motivated young people to create a new venture. While in business I did my MBA degree, catalyzing my belief in focused thought leading to decisive action. The “thought and action” paradigm still drives me.
After selling the company, I completed a Ph.D. My future rests in combining entrepreneurial experience with a scholarly life. That is was brought me to Philadelphia University.
The facts of my brief commercial are unimportant; fun for me to talk about, but, really unimportant. What is important is that building the story is a lifelong behavior. Drawing on the past for knowledge and wisdom but thinking about and working to be the person I want to be today and tomorrow.
I ask you to consider creating your “commercial about the product called me.” You have to have the courage and fortitude to be different…that brings me back to the fact that the world questions and sometimes belittles the outlier. But the outlier is the most interesting person. The path less taken is made a road by your dedicated passion fueled by knowledge and ignited by action.
Passion, knowledge, action.
Here’s a tool I find helpful.
Penn researcher Martin Seligman has identified three types of happiness that might be informative when writing your commercial.
The first type of happiness is the pursuit of a Pleasant life.
A pleasant life consists of having as much pleasure as you can, working to increase the duration and intensity of your pleasures. These are shortcuts to happiness. You can go shopping; you can watch television; you can take drugs. You can eat chocolate. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but almost always ephemeral, a moment or a fleeting few hours of happiness at best.
The second is an Engaged life.
An engaged life is being totally wrapped up in the people you love or being enraptured by the music you are hearing or book you are reading. There are no shortcuts to the engaged life. The engaged life can only be had by building and knowing your greatest strengths, your signature strengths, and crafting, or re-crafting your life to use them at school or work, in love, in leisure, in your family and with your friends.
The third is a Meaningful life.
A meaningful life consists of again knowing what your greatest strengths and talents are and using them in the service of something that you believe is bigger than you.
Most folks need pleasure, but too many live in the pursuit and acquisition of pleasure. Life satisfaction is more a function of the second two pursuits, engagement and meaning, built on knowledge, understanding and service.
(Source: Dr Martin E.P. Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania)
You have begun the production of your commercial whether you like it or not. Your generation is the first in history to be culturally imbued in creating the differentiated “me”. Most of us in the room have a Facebook account, tweet, text and/or blog. Some of us post videos of what we think might be special about us. We have screen names and avatars that depict the persona we conceive ourselves to be. My wife’s screen name is CFS (Carol Fulton Spinelli) Music. She broadcasts her immersion in music as the cornerstone of her persona. Her avatar is her female conception of Mozart (it scares the heck out of me). By the way, Carol is Phi Beta Kappa and should be giving this talk. I’ve done distance teaching and my avatar is a muscular man with lots of hair.
I ask you to consider the creation of your story…and go beyond the144 character text messages and fantastic caricatures. Do not use words or themes that are common and self-serving but rather I urge you to explore the depth of your beliefs and understandings. Start today by asking the question, “What are the truths by which I will lead my life.” For me
I will be a loving member of the family,
Knowledge inspires me,
I will think deeply and act decisively.
I will serve in the education of as many people as I can.
- Write the words that define who you are and who you will become.
a. Some of the words are descriptive
b. Some of the words are aspirational
c. Some of the words are damning
- Avoid saying things that everyone else will say.
a. Unique is defined by Webster as existing as the only one or as the sole example
b. Limit the use of adjectives! Mark Twain, in a letter to a 12-year-old boy wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
- Think about your transition from the external environment controlling who you are to an internal locus of control.
- Begin to tell a story…
a. Ideas excite people…begin to imagine
b. Words inspire people…learn and become passionate
c. Take action…it will ignite the passion in your life
- If you really want to have fun with this, write a break-up letter with the aspects of the current product called me that you are going to change.
For example,“Dear over-sized ego,
We’ve been together for a long time, as long as I can remember. I’ve relied on you in good times and bad, but honestly, I’ve used you. And frankly, when we’re together, I’ve begun thinking about other people…”
You get the point.
As you leave this special, historic, nurturing place called Penn Charter, a community that you have been blessed to attend, that has helped you shape your ideas and mold your persona…embrace the product called me. Dare to be unique, believe in something more important than yourself and build a purpose driven life.