As a gay 15-year-old boy in the conservative Midwest, Andrew Cone concedes that silence smothered him. As the student speaker at Harvard Business School’s Class Day activities today (May 24), Cone demonstrated he has gotten over the problem.
In a 12-minute, 30-second address on the Baker Lawn of the school’s campus in Boston, the Class of 2017 Harvard MBA encouraged his classmates to voice their opinions, however unpopular or unaccepted. “I remember realizing that more than the way I walked or the way I dressed it was really the way I talked that prompted people to label me,” he says. “More specifically, it was the way I said the letter S. My S is sibilant or characterized by a hissing sound. I thought that if I could mask my S, I could mask myself. So first I tried changing the way I pronounced words.
“After I obviously failed at this, I then tried to speak without saying S very much. It was not until years later that I realized how much I had silenced myself. I didn’t want to face confrontation for what I was saying or how i was saying it. Isn’t that something we can all relate to? There are ideas inside each of us that should be articulated and for one reason or another they are not.”
CHOSEN TO GIVE THE STUDENT ADDRESS OVER MORE THAN 50 CLASSMATES
Cone was chosen by his peers through an audition process that included more than 50 student speeches. He grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, after spending his childhood in the United Kingdom. He went on to study the history of art & architecture at Harvard College, where he also performed with the Krokodiloes and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, two student musical and theatrical groups.
Before going to Harvard Business School, Cone worked in marketing and brand strategy for Ogilvy & Mather in New York and Hong Kong. After graduation, he will spend one year in strategic planning at the Whitney Museum of American Art as an HBS Leadership Fellow before joining McKinsey & Company in London.
“Now is not the time to shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable,” he added. “Try to think of a time when you didn’t stand up for an idea or a person. Maybe it was yourself.” The reason, said Cole, was likely fear. “There are times we don’t speak up for fear of being redundant. The silent majority will carry the day. And we face no consequence. If we all remain silent on topics for which others will speak on our behalf there will come a day when no one does. It is better to engage imperfectly than abstain indefinitely.”
DAVID BRADLEY JOKES THAT ‘HARVARD STUDENTS ARE A PICNIC BASKET OF SNAKES AND VIPERS’
He noted that some of the best moments in HBS classrooms occurred when students with 90 different perspectives revealed their empathy toward others. “We must listen to those who speak up along side and against us. We must embrace dissenters even when it seems inconvenient. We need to value the voices of our doubters as much as those of our champions.”
David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media and an HBS alum from 1977, delivered the keynote address that even included a quip about the recently published critique of Harvard Business School in a book called The Golden Passport.
“I have just one administrative matter the dean wanted me to share with you,” said Bradley, early on in his speech. “It’s a piece of good news. Many of you have been troubled by this spring’s best selling book The Golden Passport. For the parents who don’t know about The Golden Passport, it’s a book by an author named Duff McDonald. It’s an unrelenting attack on Harvard Business School and its students. He refers to Harvard students as a picnic basket of snakes and vipers.
A FOCUS ON ADAPTIVITY TO LIFE’S SETBACKS
“So here’s the good news. In a partial retraction today, McDonald explains that he stands by the snakes and vipers part but he meant to be describing Stanford and not Harvard students. he regrets the error. Just in the interest of libel, the whole thing was a joke.”
Bradley focused his address on the importance of being resilient in one’s life. Citing a Harvard University medical study that examined the predictors of the health and happiness of 268 undergraduates in the 1940s, Bradley noted that how a person responds to setbacks often determines his or her health and happiness late in life.
“Everyone of the 268 students sufferred setbacks across their lives,” said Bradley, “and dear Class of 2017 you will, too. Life is a sign curve. They are like radio waves. They are up and down and up and down. This is going to be your life. You are up and down, on and on until the end. The only thing you can know at the bottom of the curve is that you will come back up. The only thing you can know at the top of the curve is that you are coming down.
THE TOP AND THE BOTTOM OF LIFE’S CURVES
“But the top and bottom of the curve are very different places,” warned Bradley.”The top of the curve is easy. Those are the happy times. The only caution I have for the top of the curve is to have some sense of modesty or self-deprecation or impersonalization of your success, such that if you come down you have prepared yourself for it. The bottom of the curve is entirely different. It’s indescribably hard. There will be moments in your life that will just take the wind from your sails.
“The essential lesson for the bottom of the curve is not to derail. This is no time to radically rethink your life. It’s no time to make big decisions. You don’t quit your marriage. You don’t quit your job. You don’t move to Vermont and open a B&B. You don’t abandon your children in favor of a lover in Tahiti. The temptation is to escape the hard hour by escapting the cirumstances around it. It never works. You can’t escape the hard hour.
“So how do you get through it? There is a little bit of learning out of pain management. What you are taught with pain is to shorten the horizon. If you say I can’t endure this for the rest of my life, you say can I endure it for the day or the moment. You shorten the horizon to the period you can cope with and within that period, you do your duty. You wake up in the morning and you do what you are supposed to do. You go to work, You tend to your family and you keep your appointments, dutiful day after dultiful day after dultiful day until the curve bends back upward. And it will. It always does.
“Nothing deeply good happens at the top of the curve. Everything that is significant as to nature, character and disposition is accomplished at the bottom. In popular parlance, we say that a man addicted to alochol has to hit rock bottom to change. The change comes when you are at the bottom. A prolonged hard hour in your life has the power to change your nature, to reduce you to a distillate to a pure version of yourself. It’s one of life’s ironies that all high character has been produced in the low moments.”