Recently, my favorite professor from my time at Duke, Professor Jody McAuliffe, invited me to speak to a group of Seniors who are graduating with a major or minor in Theater studies. I put the following speech together. I would like to thank all my friends who provided great perspective and thinking as I prepared this talk.
Thanks for having me tonight, I’m honored. Also, loyalty is an important thing for me, and I’ll tell you right now that I’d run through walls for Jody, so when she asked, I wasn’t going to miss it. It is great to visit Duke and to get a chance to speak to you graduating Seniors who are majoring or minoring in theater. Congratulations.
In business, you learn early that it’s important to give people a quick headline of what you’re talking about. So here’s my headline, my executive summary. Of all the great lines in Shakespeare, my favorite is this, from Hamlet: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Impossible to argue with, it basically covers everything you’d ever need to know in under 10 words.
I suspect that I’ve got a very different background from the types of speakers you generally have here talking to you. I’m no longer involved in theater. I’m in the technology business. At one level, this is totally different. At another level, there’s more relevance to the two efforts than you’d think. And that’s really the lens through which I’m going to talk: namely how did I go from doing all this theater at Duke to what I’m doing now? And what, if anything, was relevant from Duke and theater that remains useful to me today?
And I hope it’s relevant, as there is this question that’s out there when you major in theater in college. Perhaps you have had it asked of you. It certainly was asked of me. And the question is this: what can you do with a degree in theater or English or whatever liberal arts major you may have taken? Well, my view is, quite a bit.
I’m excited to speak with you tonight to share my experiences and perspective, with really two goals in mind. One is to offer a perspective that says all roads remain open to you—if someone asks you what you can do with your education or degree, your first response should be thinking instead why couldn’t you do anything. You might not become a professional athlete, and you might be a bit behind on becoming an astronaut. But literally any other route is either open to. Or it can become so, if you work hard enough.
My other goal is to share some of the key learning I took from doing a lot of theater and going to Duke. Much of the benefit of this learning wasn’t obvious to me at the time, so hopefully highlighting it now will be useful to you as you sit here tonight getting ready to graduate.
Here’s a little about me. I did a lot of theater while I was at Duke—I acted in a bunch of plays, directed and wrote one, stage managed a few, and worked on student film projects. And I was so passionate about becoming a professional actor that I graduated after my Junior year so I could move to New York and get started. I performed in several small productions there, joined an improvisational troupe at the New York Comedy Club, and joined Actors’ Equity. But after a few years, I decided that I needed to make a switch, and switch I did.
Now I work in technology, as a venture capitalist. In theater terms, I think the right analogy is that I’m a Producer. If you’ve ever seen the terrific Tom Stoppard movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a great exchange between Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck’s character) and Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson’s character), where Ned asks Hugh, “Who are you?” and Hugh responds, “I’m, uh…. I’m the money.”
That’s one way to think about what I do, I’m the money. We invest money into technology companies when they are very, very early in their development, maybe not even a script on the page, so to speak. And our goal then is to do everything we can to help that company turn into something that is sustainable, important, impactful—a great performance. On one level, yes, I’m the money. But I say that tongue in cheek, as it turns out that there’s a lot of work involved beyond just writing checks. Before I became a venture capitalist, I had worked for about 10 years at Microsoft, in sales and marketing. I worked for Microsoft in Seattle and in Japan. I also started my own company.
Reflecting on all this, here are some of the important lessons and perspectives that I have found valuable based on my time as a theater guy at Duke.
This above all, To thine own self be true
The first play I was in at Duke was Hamlet, which I started working on about a week after I arrived fall of my freshman year. I played Bernardo, the castle guard at Elsinore in Act I, scene 1 who is famous for having the first line of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Bernardo starts the play by yelling “Who’s There?” Then with his partner, Fernando, the two characters do a Shakespearean equivalent of the start of a Law & Order episode—two police officers out on a quiet night of partrolling the castle walls, before all hell breaks loose when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father shows up.
Not a lot of dialogue for me in Hamlet, but what was great is that I heard the play so many times through rehearsals that I knew almost all the lines of Hamlet by the time we went to production. It was awesome.
“This above all, To thine own self be true.” Polonius, Danish King Claudius’ chief counselor, kind of a Donald Rumsfeld type, is giving a bunch of fatherly advice to his son, Laertes, before Laertes heads off to France. And he drops this gem. It’s actually kind of unfortunate that such an important piece of advice is delivered by Polonius, as he’s such a windbag. But I guess a blind squirrel catches a few nuts every now and then.
Irrespective of the messenger, the message is an important one. And I think this being true to self is one of the most important benefits of dedicating time and study to theater here at Duke. Namely, you are building a habit around prioritizing doing something you love.
As you go out into the world, you will very likely find that pressure is going to increase immensely to follow a crowd, to fall in line. Student loans need to be paid. A career needs built. Etc. And you are going to be presented with choices, and you’re going to have to live with the choices you make. I don’t know how you think about prioritizing become a performer or writer and waiting tables in New York for potentially a decade or more, versus say, becoming an talent agent, or heading to medical school or teaching yourself to code or becoming a teacher or a chef or joining the Peace Corps. Any of those paths are fine, you just have to weigh in your own head and heart how you balance priorities like the importance of doing something you love, supporting yourself and making an impact.
Any path is fine, so long as it works for you. What is not fine, and what can happen, is you make choices that aren’t true to yourself. You do something for the money, for the status or prestige, not because you are passionate about it. This is problematic. Because once you go into any career as a Duke grad, you’re going to be competing with a bunch of other people just as smart and talented as you, all able to work hard, in whatever field. And you want to know who stands out when it’s you and a bunch of other smart, talented people? The person who stands out is the one who loves what they do. It’s obvious.
And I don’t say that to be a downer at all. I say that to encourage you to embrace and nurture the habit of following your passion. Know that there are opportunity costs—right out of school, Chekov won’t pay the bills the same way a company like Cisco will. But you are the only person who’s going to have to live with the choices you make. So my advice is, be aware that you’re making a choice. Weigh your options, and in general follow your heart. “Tthis above all, to thine own self be true.”
Now I’m extremely fortunate that I make a living doing something I love doing. I work hard in terms of hours spent. But most days, the time flies. In all honesty, on most days, it hardly seems like what I do is “work”. It seems more similar to what I’d do if you just let me do what I’d do naturally. Which is a pretty powerful experience. And once you find a fit like that, its amazing how unstoppable you’ll become, how hard you’ll work—because, no surprise, once you find yourself making a living doing what you love, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. Everything just kind of fits together.
One of the great sayings in theater is that the show must go on. Whatever disaster befalls you onstage, you adjust, you improvise, and you get things back on track. You don’t stop. Whatever happens, whatever you do, you can never stop.
And what a great philosophy that is for life. In whatever you do, theater, business, anything, you are going to encounter adversity and rejection. That’s a constant, a given. The question is whether you can keep getting back up each and every time you get knocked down.
I call this quality being unstoppable. And this is such a key, key quality to develop. I wish at Duke we’d talked about its importance more. The best story of unstoppability is one that I heard recently. It is about Sylvester Stallone. The story, briefly, is this. When he was starting out as an actor in New York, he was turned down by something like 150 agents. He ended up going back to one who had rejected him and asked for a meeting, and the agent agreed to meet him at the end of the day. Sly showed up at the office and the guy either never came out and blew him off. The agent arrives at the office the next morning to find Sylvester Stallone asleep in the chair. He’d spent the night, waiting for the guy. The agent then gets Stallone a gig as an extra in some movie, and Sylvester Stallone does it, but realizes that working bit parts as an extra won’t really get him to his goal of becoming a movie star.
To achieve his goal, he decides that he’s going to have to write and ultimately star in a movie. Fast forward some time, he sees a boxing match that inspires him to write the script for Rocky in a fury or writing. He tries to sell the script, and for many more months, he’s rejected again and again and again. He’s broke.
After a lot of work, he gets someone willing to buy the script. The opening bid is $100,000, which in the 70s was a ton of money, especially for a guy who’s broke. He refuses to sell the script unless he can be the star in the movie. The buyers won’t let him star in the movie, and eventually they raise the price to $400,000. But he continues to refuse, because they won’t let him star in the movie.
At this point, he’s so broke that he can’t afford to feed both himself and his dog, so he sells his dog, by standing outside a liquor store asking people if they’ll buy his dog. He finally finds buyers who buys his dog for around $50. Think about that for a minute. He sold his dog instead of taking money for a script.
Eventually, he was offered $25,000 from someone who wanted the script and would let him star in the movie. He accepted this, and the first thing he did was go back to the liquor store to find the guy who had bought his dog. 3 days later the guy who owned the dog came to the liquor store, and Rocky offered him $150 to buy the guy back. The guy refused. Sylvester Stallone ended up having to pay $15,000 to the guy and offer him a part in the movie to get his dog back. And he did. And the rest is history.
I think about this all the time. In my work, I’ve had so many rejections, made so many mistakes. I’d like to think that I’m good at ignoring rejection and just continuing to keep coming. But I’m always asking myself what else can I do to become more unstoppable? Have I let some obstacle block me from what I want to do? Have I given everything I can to make the reality I want come true? If not, what else can I do? And why aren’t I doing it?
Basically, if you refuse to give up, you will make it. In whatever you do in life. It’s just that simple. So the message is this: be unstoppable.
Work really hard
The other great thing about “the show must go on” is that it implies that you’ve got to do whatever’s needed to get the show up and running in time for opening night. I think that doing as much theater as I did while I was at Duke instilled terrific work habits. Theater was a major commitment for me, from the time I arrived at Duke until I left. I recall the summer after my junior year here, I was finishing up my degree, and I was directing a version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm that I’d adapted from the novel. To finish the script, I had to write for about 48 hours straight. There was a 72 hour sprint before the opening performance, where I was working around the clock to get everything done. But to see the curtain go up, and to feel the adrenalin—the excitement and fear that goes with seeing all that work as a writer / director leap out of your control and into the reality of a staging—what a payoff.
For any of you who’ve performed, directed, written, stage managed or whatever at a high level here, you’ve had those long nights. Those nights have served me for a long, long time—when I need to get work done, I know how to hunker down and stay up until it’s done. This too is a great benefit to the work you’ve been doing in theater at Duke: when you have to get the work done, you’ll know what it takes to deliver.
Push your comfort zone
Another skill from theater that I lean on is the mental toughness that comes from getting out there and stepping onto the stage. So many times in my working career, I’ve had moments where I know that I’ve got to push myself beyond my comfort zone and I’ve got to make the investment pitch, I’ve got to close the sale, I’ve got to recruit the candidate, do a press conference. So many times, its 5 minutes until I’ve got to go in and do something—whatever it is, it is so clear that right here, right now, I’ve got to bear down, lock in, and deliver. And it is so similar to the excitement and nervousness I got before heading on stage. Working in the theater gives you skills here, trust them.
Treat people well
I read a story when I was in high school about a former president of one of the big movie studios, I think it was Paramount Pictures. It’s always stuck with me. One of the things he was famous for was being nice to everyone. Here was this huge mogul, super powerful guy in Hollywood, and he knew the names of everyone down to all the receptionists, all the valet parking guys, and he was always really polite to them. Someone asked him once, basically, what gives? And his answer was, hey, there’s no upside in treating people badly, especially in an industry where you never know who’s going to be the next Tom Cruise. I couldn’t agree more with this approach: it’s good business.
It’s also just a better way to live. And I’d say, that if there were one thing that I experienced in my time in the drama program here at Duke that I’d be critical of, it’s that we weren’t quite as supportive of each other as we could have been. There was a lot of gossip, drama and intrigue. We should have been more like a team or a family: more supportive, more helpful to one another, in my view. Because when you get to New York or LA or wherever you go, whatever you do, believe me, it’s going to get a whole lot more cut-throat. The road will be bumpy and challenging. Having smart and talented friends here from Duke to lean on will be important in whatever journey you go on. Cherish your friends, keep them close, and treat them well. Support each other.
Take care of yourself
Finally, and then I’ll get to Q&A, I’d like to close out by saying take care of yourself. We say that a lot to each other. But to me what I mean is concrete: Stay fit. Eat right. Don’t smoke. Try to always save some money, no matter how small an amount.
There was a period a few years back when things were really, really challenging for me. It felt like walls were closing in on all sides. Personally, professionally, it was really dicey. And I wasn’t taking care of myself.
And all hell broke loose, not just physically—ballooning up on weight, crazy back pain. But mentally too, I was scared, anxious. Not really knowing what to do, I just knew that things were wrong, I got myself into fitness, joining a Crossfit gym. And after about 45 days, I can remember the moment, all the stress seemed to melt away, and I said to myself, “I got this.” Everything since is just a matter of working whatever challenge is in front of me at the time. I’ve faced challenging times since, but with a more firm foundation, it’s not a problem. I’ve got this.
Stress, rejection, nerves—those are part of the game, sorry. It’s not whether you experience those, it’s whether you can respond to them. Take care of yourself. It will keep your energy high and your mind clear.
So that’s basically it. I hope that you’ve had a great ride at Duke. As you head onto your next steps in life, I sincerely hope that you stay true to yourself. Start there, mix in some unstoppability, some hard work, some risk taking, and treating people well, and you’re going to be just fine. You’ll be better than fine. You’ll be great. Thanks and take care of yourself.