The perfect graduation speech boasts several elements. It must be inspiring — that’s a given. Sprinkling in a few jokes keeps the audience on their toes. Of course, an overarching theme ties everything together, which is spiced up with punchy and a revealing anecdote. The best speeches also feature an epigram that classmates will be quoting at the ten year reunion. Let’s not forget, the rite must conclude with a rousing challenge to dream, create, fight, and love.
Most important: It needs to run under 10 minutes…the shorter, the better.
LIFE IS ONE BIG WAITLIST
By those measures, Wharton’s Dante Pearson knocked it out of the park. His graduation speech on May 14th earned a standing ovation in The Palestra. Standing in front of luminaries like Dean Geoffrey Garrett and Yuri Milner, Pearson stole the show with a smooth delivery peppered with self-deprecating jabs and strategic pauses. In his seven minutes of spotlight, Pearson shared a wisdom normally reserved for more time-worn elders.
Like most speeches, Pearson opened by sharing how honored and humbled he was, before delivering the requisite Thank You’s to loved ones and mentors. The pocket-sized Pearson even made light that there was a step stool — with his name on it — behind the podium. Then, Pearson made a confession…
He had never made any director’s list (or any other list) at Wharton except for (wait for it) “the esteemed waitlist.” That’s right, the class speaker — a Harvard grad and Head Fellow of the Wharton Investment Management Fund — was once just another application in the pile. As a “proud member emeritus of the Wharton waitlist,” Pearson has come to an epiphany: Life is “one big waitlist,” as graduates often stay in a holding pattern awaiting promotions, families, and even retirement.
“If you believe me, that life happens while you’re on the waitlist, then most of us are taking on maybe the biggest risk of our lives and not even know it,” he observes.
THE BIGGEST RISKS? NOT TELLING PEOPLE YOU LOVE THEM
What risk? Pearson cites classmate Kyle Brengel, a member of Poets&Quants’ 2017 Best & Brightest MBAs, as someone with a clear understanding of what is truly risk…and it had nothing to do with the financial models that are mastered at Wharton. Before entering business school and eventually landing a job at McKinsey, Brengel was a Green Beret and an expert in mountain warfare. In his experience, people are often managing the wrong risks in their lives.
“You worry about the avalanche, but it’s something else entirely that gets you,” Pearson explains. “I think this applies to us as well because most of us are managing career risk. In other words, the risk of failing professionally or financially. Meanwhile, we are wildly exposed to other risks. The risk that we didn’t tell our brother we loved him enough. Or, that we didn’t practice our faith to its fullest extent to see where it would take us. Or, that we never actually fought for someone else’s rights when we didn’t have skin in the game even though these are exactly the people we say we want to be. It’s never a particularly good time, so we wait.”
The waiting may be the hardest part. For Pearson, the Class of 2017’s lives are already racing full speed ahead despite whatever they are waiting on to achieve. In other words, life is not a clean, step-by-step process, but a step forward and step back proposition where people are often far ahead of where they think they are.
“We tell ourselves, ‘When I get in business school, then I’ll actually have time to volunteer.’ Or, ‘when I’m done with my first year of work, then I’ll actually have time to write that novel.’ We put these things off until we feel as though we’ve made it. But in no uncertain terms, you already have and probably have for a while now.
“WE CAN’T AFFORD TO WAIT WHILE WE WAIT.”
Alas, Pearson’s soft-spoken speech was far from a dreary existential exercise. When it comes to risk, he was happy to play odds maker. “What is the risk that Trevor Young says no to a Wharton dance party invitation? Also, 0%, he cracks” He also managed to quote two beloved poets: Ludacris and T.S. Eliot, with the latter easily inspiring the meanest dig — and netting the biggest applause. “In his poem, ‘The Long Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ T. S. Eliot writes, “There will be time. There will be time.” But T.S. Eliot was wrong, which shouldn’t surprise us really since he went to Harvard.”
Wait, isn’t Pearson a Crimson through-and-through? Nevermind…
Cheap pops aside, Pearson’s carpe diem message to get off the waitlist clearly struck a nerve with his Wharton classmates. In an era where authenticity and action are among the greatest virtues, Pearson delivered a roundhouse that will resonate with his classmates for years to come.
“We can’t afford to wait while we wait. We’re running out of time to be the person we already say that we are,” he implores. “If you’ve been waiting for a booming voice over a loudspeaker to tell you when’s the time to start being you, now’s the time to start being you.”
To listen to the full speech, click on the video below.