I was invited to give the keynote address to 400 students and parents at Smithtown High School West's 2013 Business Awards Ceremony. The topic was how my experiences in Smithtown shaped me through college and into my career. I am a graduate of Smithtown West and was active in the school's Business Department. This speech is as-prepared for delivery.

Mrs. Elmore, business teachers, thank you for inviting me tonight to speak. Thank you for inviting me back to Smithtown West.

Students, parents, Mrs. Elmore and the department invited me here tonight to talk about how the Smithtown Business Department influenced me in college and now in the early stages of my career.

Before I get to get to that, let me tell you a story. Exactly two years and two days ago – exactly two years ago from this Monday, May 20 – I was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a final round interview for the NBC Page Program. The NBC Page Program is a storied, entry-level media program that takes 60 applicants out of a pool of over 7,000 each year. I was competing for something that I wanted more than anything I had ever strived for. After learning the industry through four years of commercial radio at WVBR in Ithaca, this was my future.

The final round interview for the Page Program is unique in that it is actually a group interview. First, a group of 5-10 applicants are interviewed all at once by a panel of five interviewers. Then, all the applicants leave the room, and each is called back one-by-one to be interrogated by the panel. Finally, for the third segment, the entire group is brought back in, and each candidate gives a timed, two-minute presentation about why he or she should be selected.

Does this format sound familiar to something you do here at the Smithtown School of Business? Anyone in the audience? 

(Call for answers)

Yes, it’s Business Olympics! It’s DECA! It’s what the Business Department does, and, frankly, does even better than Cornell University. I walked into the interview, and I realized I’d already done it in high school. 

You’ll be using the skills you learn from this business department for the rest of your lives, no matter what you choose as your profession. The teachers here teach only two lessons, although you may not realize it yet:

  1. How to take risks and push yourself outside your comfort zone
  2. How to develop soft skills you will find crucial to your success.

You’re certainly not going to learn these skills on the job. After all, you need these skills to get a job. You will find you will ultimately succeed and fail based on how well you master soft skills, and you will navigate your careers, successfully or not, based on how well you are willing to go outside your comfort zone. 

I can say with unwavering certainty that I would not have gone to Cornell, would not have accomplished all I did at Cornell, and would not be working in the industry I only dreamed of working in when I was sitting in your seats six years ago if it wasn’t for what I learned here at the Smithtown School of Business.

I LEARNED TO TAKE RISKS

First, the Business Department taught me to take risks and to go outside my comfort zone. When I came into Mr. Aleci’s marketing class my sophomore year, I was shy and I was sheltered. In fact, I was so sheltered that I did not want to compete in one of the DECA competitions that went on to nationals solely because I did not want to travel to States or to Nationals. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could be successful – I literally just did not want to travel! The older kids were talking about how much fun the trips were, but all I saw was the question mark around being out on my own.

So, I signed up for one of the competitions that ended right here in Suffolk County. Low opportunity ceiling. These business teachers, though, wanted me to challenge myself. Mr. Aleci rejected my choice and put me into the Food Marketing Management Level competition, in which I would have the potential to continue on to Nationals.

I qualified for States in the regional competition, but I declined the opportunity to go. I think I said I didn’t want to miss class, but in reality I was as afraid to travel to Rochester to compete as I was to leave home the first time in Kindergarten. 

Mr. Aleci and the business department were so adamant about me going to states that Mr. Aleci actually called my parents. Usually the teacher calls your parents when you are a trouble maker, but here was Mr. Aleci calling my parents because I did something right. I qualified for states a sophomore! I was just in trouble for being blind to the opportunities risks could provide.

I did end up going to States. And, nothing happened. I was fine. In fact, I had fun. I even won a trophy and qualified for Nationals. We played the same game of me not wanting to go to Nationals and Mr. Aleci calling my parents. But, again, Mr. Aleci won, and I went to Nationals that year too, and for the next two years of High School, ultimately finishing second in the nation my senior year. All of that – the challenge of the competition, the pride in seeing my efforts pay off, the friends I made on the tips, who I am still close with today – all of that would not have happened if I had stayed in my comfort zone here in Suffolk County. 

And, let me tell you this. Deciding to go to States – deciding to pass that first hurdle and take the risk of doing something I was uncomfortable with – was perhaps the second most important inflection point in my life so far. 

This was an important moment for two reasons. First, if I didn’t go on to compete, my high school extracurricular resume would have been comparatively flat, and I certainly wouldn’t have taken on the major leadership roles in the Business Department that I did. Second, passing the threshold into something unknown taught me that it’s okay to experience discomfort. It doesn’t all need to be safe. 

GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT

In fact, Forbes published an article in April of this year titled, “Why Getting Comfortable With Discomfort Is Crucial to Success.” In this article, the author shared the results of her interviews with leaders from a diverse range of fields, finding the common line of advice was that one can’t be successful unless one is willing to first face the discomfort of failure.

This Business Department here in Smithtown pushes you to reach your potential in a way that no other department at the high school does. In your regular classes, you experience success and failure in private. Your success and failure is grades on written tests and essays. No one will know your grades except for you. 

That’s not true in the Business Department, and that’s not true in real life. Of course there are written tests here, but the big tests are all done in public. The Business Department challenges you to present to your peers, and in so doing provides an opportunity for your peers to judge you. Your classmates will know how well you did because they are watching you perform, and, in some cases, are evaluating you on a peer review. That’s the real world. There are no private exams at work. You are all going to be one step ahead of your peers who are not in a program like this because you are learning how to face the public critique you will face for the rest of your lives.

Of course, the Business Department is also teaching you the skills you will need to excel in these public tests.

IT’S ALL ABOUT SOFT SKILLS

The second thing I mentioned that the Business Department teaches is soft skills. By soft skills, I mean teamwork, collaboration, presentation, critical thinking, and problem solving. All your classes teach these skills, but the lessons are not as direct as they are here in the Business Department. 

The Business Department teaches these skills through class projects and presentations, and especially through extracurricular offerings such as DECA, Business Olympics, and the Business Etiquette Dinner. These types of skills will set you apart in the workplace. 

No one at work will ever care that you know anything else you learn content-wise in high school. It will all be useful to you, but your success and failure will never hinge on any of the content like it will on soft skills. You can always reteach yourself history if you need it for the job (I certainly do as a news producer sometimes). You can’t as easily go learn soft skills.

And why are soft skills so important? A recent study by the Conference Board, a nonpartisan business research organization, found employers rank “professionalism/work ethic,” “teamwork/collaboration,” and “oral communications” as the three most important applied skills needed by workforce entrants. One recruiter told the Wall Street Journal, “In real life, you have 10 minutes to present to management. If you can’t get the whole story in that time on two or three slides, you’re dead in your career.”

In other words, you need these skills to succeed. You will be judged on a job interview based on how well you communicate, and you will be promoted through your career based on how you sell your ideas and work as a team. That’s true for any field into which you will go.

THE POPULAR WIN

Let me share one more study with you that suggests soft skills are important. A study published this past October by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the students with the best social skills in high school earned a 10% wage premium nearly 40 years after graduation compared to students with social skills that were not as developed. These social skills, namely the ability to meet people and network, are soft skills.

What I want you to take away from this study is that the researchers found popularity is NOT an “innate personality trait.” They found the social skills that lead to popularity can be learned. And, the researchers who found that those who learn to play the game in high school are already figuring out what they need to know to succeed in the working world. The report concludes – and this is my favorite part – school policies that focus on “developing social competencies may be a fruitful way of promoting success in life.”

The Business Department’s curriculum promotes these social competencies! All of you are already on the path to success just by being in this room. 

YOU NEVER REALLY LEAVE HIGH SCHOOL

There is one more item of social science I would like to share with you. New York Magazine recently published an insightful essay about how no one ever really leaves high school; these four years will stay with you forever: 

  • Studies have found you retain a disproportionate share of memories from adolescence;
  • Scientists have found a correlation between male earning potential and height at sixteen;
  • Adults are more likely to have a higher self-esteem if they are an average weight, as opposed to overweight, in late adolescence.

Why is it that our high school self-identity is so adhesive into adulthood? I’m going to quickly share some biology with you, and then you’ll see where I’m going with this. It turns out that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that scientists believe houses your personality, explodes in its development right around the time you are in high school. You literally grow into who you will be for the rest of your lives in this time period while your brain is in transition. 

Right now, you are forming your self-concept, which you will use to define yourself. For example, you might decide that you are the type of person who likes to watch sports, or you are the type of person who does stupid things at parties. Or, perhaps you decide that you are the smart but shy person who recedes when in a group. I’ll give you one more: perhaps you are the type of person who needs to be pushed into stepping outside your comfort zone.

It turns out it’s not only the self-image you learn here that will stay with you for the rest of your life. The lessons you learn here will also stay with you. Those two – your high school self-image and your high school lessons – can combine powerfully later on. Let me explain.

STILL A SHY SOPHOMORE

I learned from Mr. Aleci and the Business Department about how valuable it is to step outside one’s comfort zone, but I was still, and perhaps am still, defined by that shy sophomore who did not want to go to states for DECA. I’ve just since learned to overcome the urge to stay in my comfort zone. But, I’m aware of it thanks to the teachers here. And, with that knowledge, I can push myself to take a risk.

You may remember I mentioned earlier the second most important inflection point in my life was deciding to go to states for DECA. Well, my most important inflection point also has to do with taking an uncomfortable risk. See a theme here? You really never leave your high school self.

I left out of my bio that I had a brief stint at a consulting firm between my time in the Page Program and joining NBC News. I left the Page Program for a number of reasons, but when I left I knew that I was going into an industry for which I did not have passion or even interest. The consulting job paid well, and it was safe. A few months down the road, though, I desperately wanted to come back to the media industry. I was faced with my classic dilemma: stick with the known and safe at the consulting firm, where I would have a very stable, predicable career, but not be passionate for my work. Or, I could leave and come back to NBC into a risky, fickle industry. NBC News was a black hole to me. I knew media from my time at Cornell’s radio station, but I studied business. This was the choice: take a risk at 22 years old when I could fail publically in front of all my friends and family or stay at something safe.

In making that decision, I actually thought back to being that shy sophomore sitting in the back of Mr. Aleci’s class. What would that person have done? What did this Business Department teach me through DECA and Business Olympics? Did I learn my lesson?

Well,  I’m now I’m at NBC. That decision is a move I fully credit to what I learned right here in the Smithtown School of Business. So, Mr. Aleci, Mrs. Elmore, everyone else: thank you.

STEP 3: TELL THEM WHAT YOU TOLD THEM

Students, the lessons and soft skills you learn right here in the Smithtown School of business will stay with you for a very long time. Perhaps it’s because science tells us that we naturally remember the most from our adolescence. In reality, I think it’s because what you learn here is important. And what you really learn here at the Smithtown School of Business isn’t the Marketing Mix, LIFO, FIFO, and Wall Street. It’s (1) how to go outside your comfort zone and (2) the soft skills you’ll call on time and time again to be successful in your careers. 

So, on that note, Mr. Aleci, I want to point out that I just concluded with what you always called the third step of a presentation: tell them what you just told them.

That’s something else I learned here.

Thank you all.