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Embracing Nine Principles for Personal Fulfillment and Success

Insights from David Rubenstein's journey of leadership, innovation, and giving back were shared with the Kogod School of Business's spring 2024 graduating class.

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Commencement speaker David Rubenstein and Kogod Dean David Marchick award the Baltimore Orioles' mascot with a medal.


Thank you very much for honoring me with this distinct honorary degree. I really don't deserve it, but thank you very much for giving it to me anyway.

As I stand here today, I want to thank the chairman of your board, Gina Adams. Gina and I have worked together at the Economic Club of Washington for many years. And Gina is an incredibly energetic person who has really made the Economic Club of Washington much more viable than it otherwise would have been. She's also at FedEx, as you may know. At FedEx, as the head of Global Affairs and Regulatory Affairs, she's done a lot of things for this community, including making certain that when the pandas come to Washington and when they leave from Washington, they go on a FedEx plane. And I'm very confident that in the not-too-distant future, the FedEx plane will be bringing back more pandas to the zoo. So, I'm hoping you'll be involved with that as well.

I'd like to thank Sylvia Burwell as well. I've worked with Sylvia for many years at the Council on Foreign Relations, and she's done a spectacular job as president of the American University. In a number of years, I hope she can be president of the American government. Now she's about 25 years too young. You need to be about 80 to be president. In about 25 years, she'll have enough seasoning, and I hope she can lead our country as well as she leads this university.

I'd like to also thank Bob and Arlene Kogod for their incredible, incredible generosity to this country and to the city. Bob and I served together on the Smithsonian board for many, many years. And Bob had incredible, incredibly transformative gifts to the Smithsonian among other things. But the good thing is all the years I've dealt with Bob, he never mentioned again that the first time I went to raise money from him in my first deal at Carlyle, I lost all the money he invested with me. He'd never mentioned that to anybody, and I appreciate that, Bob.

I also want to thank David Marchick. David, as somebody who’s worked with me for many, many years at Carlyle, has done an incredible job. His biggest deficiency is I tried to tell him that private equity as a higher calling than education, but he said no, he'd rather be dean of the Kogod School rather than stay in private equity. So, I failed in that mission to convince him to stay in private equity, but maybe someday he'll come back to the most important calling of mankind—private equity.

So, how many students here never thought that they would be living to see the day that they actually graduated when they came here? The first year? How many of you actually never thought you'd actually graduate? Anybody?

How many parents here never thought they would live to see the day? How many of you are pleased with the education you got at this school? How many? Alright, how many are glad you came here? How many of you used AI to finish your final exams this year? How many of you thought you might get caught but you thought it was still worth the effort? Anybody? How many of you are graduating today know exactly what you're going to do in your career starting tomorrow? How many of you are clueless as to what you're going to do? How many of you expect to be living with your parents for a while? How many parents are happy with that? How many of you would like to join me in the owner’s box for the Orioles and go into the clubhouse with the players? Because you'd like to see what baseball is up close. Anybody here? So, they asked the dean of the Kogod School to pick the best students in this graduating class and have them come with David and me to an Orioles game, and you'll meet all the players and go into their clubhouse. Maybe you go on the field, maybe you can pitch a game or so. And so, we'll do that, and David will work that out with you, and I hope to see a number of you at the Camden Yards very, very soon.

In 1962 before all of you were born and before any of you were conceived, John F. Kennedy made a speech at the American University. And he talked about the importance of bringing peace to the world. At the time, he was urging the governments of the world, particularly the Soviet Union, to figure out how we could end nuclear weapons being used in the atmosphere. Ultimately, shortly before he was assassinated in 1963, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was agreed to, inspired in part by the words he gave to the world at the American University commencement in 1962. As a result of that, we don't have nuclear bombs going off in the atmosphere, in space, or in the oceans, but obviously, we still have lots of tensions around the world. And obviously, war hasn't gone away. Think about this. As long as humans have been on the earth. We have unfortunately, had a complicated brain that has enabled certain things to happen that maybe shouldn't have happened. We have a brain that has been able to create Shakespearean plays, Beethoven symphonies, and Picasso paintings, and now our lives are dependent on the brilliance that has come up with things like cell phones, smartphones, Amazon products, Google searches, and so forth. We now can treat cancers we couldn't treat before. Now we can figure out what your diseases are through MRIs, CAT scans, and an incredible amount of technology since President Kennedy gave that speech in 1962. Our lives have changed dramatically for the better. Yet the human brain still has a flaw which says if you don't look like me, I might discriminate against you. And if you don't like the way I am doing certain things, I might go to war with you. And war is still, unfortunately, troubling our civilization. The wars we now see today and are visible in the paper, the Ukraine war and the war in the Middle East, are only two of eight to 10 different wars in the world right now. And so, as long as humans have been on this face of the earth, we still haven't figured out how to avoid war. And we still haven't figured out how to say to somebody, I disagree with you without trying to kill people, and it's a sad situation. 

Hopefully, at some point in our history in our life on this earth, we will figure out how to use our brain, which has so many wonderful features that can do so many wonderful things, and how it can be used to channel humanity towards peace and not war."

David Rubenstein

David Rubenstein

cofounder and cochairman, The Carlyle Group

The Bible tells us that blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God. Now, when the Bible was written, there were no private equity firms. There were no hedge funds, and there were no tech startups. So obviously, the Bible doesn't say blessed are those who are great investors. Blessed are those who are great private equity people. Blessed are those who build tech startups. Perhaps, there should have been that in the Bible and maybe if it was ever amended, maybe it would say that. I would like to say, though, to those of you who are going into the business world, and I presume many of you are because you're at the Kogod School of Business. People who do business should not look at themselves as second-class citizens to the peacemakers; peacemakers do wonderful things for humanity, but people who actually create jobs, make the world a better place by doing that because if you build a business, you create something that will create other people's livelihoods, you will make the world better for other people. So, just think about the great technological inventions of the last 2030 years that all of us to get through the day. Just think about the people who created those, the businesspeople who came up with the ideas, the business people who financed them, the business people who made the investments in them, they've all done wonderful things as well. And so all of you can do wonderful things as well, in the business world if you go in the business world and you can make a difference in humanity and actually maybe make the world a better place.

Now, I'm not going to tell you how to be a wealthy person today. You'll figure out that wealth isn't the only thing that makes you happy. But I would like to focus on a couple of principles that I think will help you get through life and maybe achieve the most elusive thing in life, which is personal happiness. The hardest thing to find out in life is personal happiness. As we all know, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they're endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But never in the 50 years he lived after he wrote that did he ever actually say how to get happy or how to become happy. And so, I'm going to tell you how to do it right now.

I've been focusing on baseball recently, as you've heard, and in baseball, nine is very important. There are nine players at a time playing on the field, and there are nine innings in the game before you have extra innings. And so let me give you nine principles that are going to make you personally happy, maybe very wealthy. And maybe most importantly, make your parents proud, which is the most important thing you want to be able to do, no doubt.

The Nine Principles

So let me start with the first principle. Today is a commencement. The word commence means beginning. It doesn't mean the end. So, when you're happy today, and you're finished with your school here, you're just beginning your education. You're not ending it, you're just beginning, and I hope you won't fall into the trap that so many other people do when they graduate from college. Fifty percent of the college graduates in this country never read another book after they graduate. Fifty percent of the people who graduate from college never read another book in their life after they graduate. So, you know many different things you can do to improve your brain over the next 30, 40, 50 years of your life. But try to read—you can't read too much, and I don't mean reading tweets; they're nice, but read books, read the things that focus your brain because as you go through life, people want to talk to people who are well educated, the people you're going to deal with the rest of your life, they're going to be people who hopefully have college degrees, graduate degrees, and they're going to be reading books. If you're going to be competing with them, you need to read, so don't forget to keep reading. And I mean reading things that challenge your brain not things that are just easy to read.

Second, what you're going to be trying to do in your business career and in life is one very major thing which is to persuade other people to do what you want. That's what life is often all about—persuading people to do what you want. Think about it: if you have a business colleague, you have a parent, you have a spouse, you have a child, you have anybody you want to deal with, you're always going to say, “You should do this,” “I think this,” well how do you persuade people to do what you want? Well, there's several ways. One way is to learn how to be a good writer. I am surprised by how many people come out of college or graduate school and can't really write the King's English. They actually write very poorly. Practice your writing. You're not going to be a perfect writer. You don't need to win a Nobel Prize in literature. But you need to learn how to write effectively and clearly to persuade other people to do what you want. You don't have to write the Gettysburg Address, but write clearly and think about it and always practice the skill—you can't practice too much. Keep writing, writing as much as you can succinctly, clearly, and persuasively. The same is true in talking; learn how to talk. You don't need to be Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial. Nobody is going to be able to do that so easily. But learn how to persuade people by talking well. Learn, practice, and keep doing it over and over again. And the best way to persuade people to do what you want is to lead by example, when George Washington was at Valley Forge in 1777 he could have stayed at the Four Seasons down the corner, but no, he said I'm gonna stay with my troops, he led by example. You should lead by example; if you want people to follow you, you want to persuade people to do what you tell them you want them to do, and they will follow you.

A third principle is—and the parents may not like this—experiment with your career and try many different things. My mother wanted me to be a dentist. I tried to persuade her that my hands would be arthritic, perhaps, and I wouldn't have a career afterward. So, I didn't go to dental school. Thank God, I wouldn't have been good at that. I didn't start Carlyle till I was 37 years old. Now all of you are much younger. But my point is to experiment with something.

As you look for a career that you love, you will only do something successful in life if you find what you love. Nobody ever won a Nobel Prize hating what they do."

David Rubenstein

David Rubenstein

Cofounder and Cochairman, The Carlyle Group

You have to love what you're going to do. It took me many years to figure out what I love. I started practicing law. I was terrible at it. My clients reminded me of that all the time. So, I got out of that. I worked in the government of the United States, and I got inflation to 19 percent, which is hard to do, so the voters threw me out. And so I had to find something that I loved, and I fortunately found something. You will go through this journey as well. Find something that you actually love and experiment. You won't likely find it right away. Very few people find something they want to do for the rest of their life right after college or graduate school.

The fourth principle is to try to give back to society in the business world. Obviously, we measure our success to some extent by how much money we make, earnings, and so forth and so on. But your real success in life will be what you give back to society. The greatest pleasure in my life is giving back to this country and not just making money. The kind of things that you've heard about that I've done are things that I've taken great pride in doing in part because I grew up with very modest means. I didn't have a lot of wealth. I got lucky in society, and therefore, I wanted to give back to the country that made it possible. You should do the same. Think about what you can do to give back to society, and you don't have to give away money to give back to society. The most valuable thing you have is your time. You can always make money; you can't get more time. So, take your time and volunteer. Give your time to organizations that give back to society. Pick up something in your neighborhood, your community, your state, or your country, but try to get back because you'll feel you've done something useful with your life. As you get older, you will have children, and you will probably say to your children, do this, do that. Well, you want your children to see you as a role model. So, give back to your society, and your children will feel you're a role model. And for the parents who are here, you want to be proud of what your children have done. So, to make your parents proud, try to do something useful for society, not just making money.

The fifth principle is humility. There are many great people in the business world who are not humble. And there are some people in the political world who can even rise to the highest office in the land who are not humble. Nobody is a great virtue. Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln saying I won the Civil War by myself? I did everything by myself. If it wasn't for me the country would have gone the other way. That wasn't his style. Humility is a virtue. Don't tell people how great you are. Let other people tell you how great you are. So, try to practice humility no matter what you do. Remember, you didn't do it all by yourself. You had a lot of help. So, try to be humble as you go through life.

The sixth principle I want you to think about is this. Don't cut ethical corners. The easiest thing in the world to do is to cut ethical corners. In my high school in Baltimore, the two most outstanding students are people who are thought to be great future leaders. They both made ethical mistakes. One got involved in insider trading and went to jail, and the other sold drugs and went to jail. Those people were thought to be superstars and yet they made ethical mistakes.

It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

David Rubenstein

David Rubenstein

Cofounder and Cochairman, The Carlyle Group

So, when you're ever tempted to do something that you know is wrong, legally wrong, don't do it. You may get away with it once, you may get away with it twice, but eventually, you'll be caught, and your reputation will be ruined, and your entire life could be in tatters. So be very careful. Do not cut ethical corners.

The seventh principle is to try to be a leader. It's okay to be a follower; there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think you'll get more pleasure out of life if you say, “I want to lead; I want to do something that makes the world different. I'm going to make it happen because of my energy and my drive.” So, try to think of something where you can be a leader in something that makes a difference. Be a leader. I think greater pleasure comes out of being a leader than being a follower. There's nothing wrong with being a follower. But all of you have degrees from a great university. Now, you should be a leader and always think about how you can lead, not just be a follower.

The eighth principle I want you to think about is this: the most common word in the English language is “I.” People love to talk about themselves more than anything else. Oh, the word is used more than any other word, but there are two other words you should use more importantly than the word “I,” and that is “Thank you.” Those words will get you further than almost anything else. I've said repeatedly, keep thanking people who help you. Remember today to thank your parents or guardians or grandparents. Whoever got you here, thank them. Thank your professors as well. And remember, don't just do this today, do it throughout life. If you use those two magic words, thank you, you go a lot further in life, and I think you will be personally much happier.

The last principle, the ninth principle, is this: for the rest of your life, people are going to ask you when you meet them three questions. “What's your name? Where are you from? Where'd you go to school?” When you say where you went to school, you should say it with great pride. Because you went to a great school. You have a degree from it, but you should actually help make the school even better by giving back to the school. You don't have to do it today. I'm sure the development people will figure out how to get a hold of you at some point. But remember this: you have a vested interest in the university being better, and why is that? When you tell people what school you went to, if it's a bad school and it's going this way, they will think you're not as smart. If it's going this way, going up. People think you're smart. So, if you go to a great school, and it's getting better and better and better, people say, “Wow, you went to American University! You must be really smart.” If the university is going down because you're not helping, you're not giving back, people will say, “Well, maybe you're not as smart as I thought you were.” So, if you really want to help this university, and you want to make people think you're smarter than maybe you really are, give back to the university and support the university.

Now, let me just conclude with one thought about business. Businesspeople often are vilified in the press to some extent. Businesspeople aren't the peacemakers of the world. But there are times when businesspeople can do things that are incredible. And all of you can think of examples. So let me just give you one that I've been involved with recently. My son-in-law asked me about a company he wanted to join. I told him I knew about this company; it was a startup company, and it wasn't really that well known. And he said that he wanted to join, and I said, “Well, I've looked into this company, it's a medical technology company. It's been around 10 years and hasn't produced a single product, not one, in 10 years. Why would you want to give up your very good career to join this kind of early startup that isn't going anywhere?” And so, he didn't follow my advice, as is often the case with my children and my son-in-law. He joined the company, and then he wanted me to invest in the company. I looked at it and said, “They have no products in 10 years; nothing has been approved by the FDA. So, I'm not going to invest in that company.” Later, the company decided to go public, and he asked me to invest in the company again. I said, “I'm not investing in that company because it still has no products, and I wouldn't buy stock when it was private. I'm certainly not going to buy when it's public. It's not worth anything.” That company was put together by an immigrant from Armenia. He came to this country with no money, and he basically had this to do something in a very narrow technical area that I didn't think would ever work. And so, he spent 10 years of his life raising money for this company, putting his heart and soul into it, and ultimately, it worked. And ultimately, that company helped save many lives. Many of you here probably had your lives saved by the company named, Moderna. And many of you, how many here have used Moderna? Anybody use Moderna for their vaccines? Wow. That's an example of where a businessperson said, “I'm going to persist, and I'm going to change the world, and I'm going to make products that are going to help the world be a better place.” You can all do the same thing. You can persist in something and come up with an idea that can change the world. You have a degree from a great university. I hope you use this university's degree to help you get further in the world. But if you want to be personally happy, remember the nine principles that I mentioned. And also, I hope to see many of you at Camden Yards. Thank you very much.