On May 24, 2019, Michael R. Bloomberg served as Commencement Speaker at the University Maryland commencement ceremony. These are his remarks as delivered.
“There’s something from this campus that I hope you’ll remember. I’ll give you a hint, you’ve probably spent your entire time here trying not to step on it. That’s right, the Point of Failure.
“You learned about it during orientation, but your families may not know the story. Briefly, it’s the spot that marks the terrible fire that decimated the entire campus here in 1912. Many people thought the university would never re-open. The university president resigned. Others walked away.
“But one group refused to give up – the students. They returned to campus and insisted that classes resume. They convinced local families to house them. The State of Maryland saw their commitment and decided to re-invest in the school. And slowly but surely, from the ashes, this university rose again to far greater heights than ever before.
“Now, legend has it that if you step on the Point of Failure, you won’t graduate in four years. So today, my advice, go ahead and step on it. At this stage, what are they going to do to you?
“And when you step on it, think about what the point of failure stands for. Because for all that you’ve learned during your time here, I’m not sure that there is any more important lesson than the one behind that story.
“A group of determined young people believed in an idea that appeared hopeless. They banded together, they worked hard, and they refused to give up. They changed ‘you can’t’ into ‘we will.’ And they turned a Point of Failure into a turning point.
“Now, I know that all of you have experienced adversity during your time here. And in the years ahead, I can promise you that you will encounter your own points of failure. We all do, so let me give you a personal example.
“I spent the first 15 years of my career working long days for the same investment firm. I loved every minute of it. And then I got fired.
“I had a difference of opinion with management. I thought the firm should go in one direction. They thought it should go in the other direction – without me.
“Getting fired was a point of failure like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was embarrassing – none of my friends got fired. It was hurtful after all the years I had devoted to the firm. It was worrisome – what would I do now? And it was unfair, or at least I thought so. But it also became a turning point in my life.
“When it happened, the easiest option would’ve been to swallow my pride, send my resume to other firms, and do the same thing I’d been doing since I’d gotten out of school.
“But for a while, I’d had an idea for a new company – but I never had the guts to pull the trigger. My idea was to build a company that could deliver financial data to desktop computers. I’d worked on Wall Street and there was a use for it.
“There was just one problem, there were no desktop computers back then. And this was way before the Internet and social media. Yes, such a world actually existed. No Instagram, no Reddit, no Grumpy Cat, may she rest in peace.
“I had to build a new computer from parts you could just go buy from RadioShack. I had to write the code to run it. And I had to string telephone lines across the country to connect them, creating the first intranet.
“There were a million reasons why people told me: you can’t. But I sucked it up and assembled a small, young team that believed in the idea, and together we said: we will. And we did.
“So getting fired was tough. But there was a silver lining, because it was an opportunity to do something that I really wanted to do.
“Graduates, when you encounter your own point of failure, how will you respond? Will you see it as a defeat, or an opportunity? Will you take the easiest available route? Or the one that’s going to be tougher but also potentially more satisfying and fulfilling?
“The tougher route could turn out to be a dead end. But it could also be your Yellow Brick Road.
“Now, you don’t have to start your own company. The choice you’ll face will be different. It could be you’ll have to decide between leaving a company after you’ve been passed over for a promotion, or staying and working harder than ever to show the bastards that you’re better than they thought.
“I faced that choice early in my career and staying was one of the best decisions I ever made, even though years later they fired me.
“Or, it could be you’ll have to choose between taking a job with a higher salary, or one with a lower salary but with more opportunity for learning and growth. I faced that opportunity, too. I had two job offers when I entered the workforce in 1966, and I took the one that paid 35 percent less. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today, and there would be no Bloomberg company.
“That would have been bad news for me, but also for the 15 of you graduates sitting right in this room that my company has hired this year to begin full-time positions next month.
“I’m glad to say 209 Maryland alums are working at Bloomberg right now. We are practically a satellite campus, just without the turtles. Congratulations to all of our newest team members, you’ve made a great career decision. But just remember, I get into the office at 7 am, and I’ll be looking to see if you’re at your desks.
“To the entire class, let me say: don’t let short-term gain hold you back from long-term growth. When you believe in something, suck it up and go for it. And turn your points of failure into turning points in your life by taking a risk and then working like crazy.
“Now, I know I’m not the first person to talk to graduates about the importance of ‘taking risks.’ But there’s another group that needs to hear this message, and I hope you will deliver it to them loud and clear.
“It is a group that is so risk-averse that they are embarrassing themselves daily, and in the process they hurt you and do real damage to our country.
“Maybe you’ve guessed the group I’m talking about. They work just a few miles down the road from here, in Washington, D.C. They are our elected officials and their job is to address all the big challenges we face, from income inequality and failing schools to unaffordable health care and the opioid epidemic to gun violence and climate change.
“But many of them are just too afraid of losing their next election to do what their job requires, really to help you and me. Well I hope they’re watching and listening.
“Whether it’s upsetting a special interest that funds their campaign or losing support from a particular constituency or getting criticized by ideological activists, too many elected officials don’t want to run the risk so nothing gets done.
“And many of them are afraid of taking what has developed into the biggest risk in all of American politics today, and that is working with members of the other party. They are afraid that if they reach across the aisle to cooperate somebody from the more extreme wing of their party will challenge them in a primary election. And to be fair, they are not entirely wrong.
“Working with members of the other party is a risk and it may cost them their job. But that’s what leadership is all about. If you aren’t willing to lead, don’t go into politics.
“From my experience, voters respect and reward leaders who take risks even if they don’t agree with them. If that were not true, I never would’ve been re-elected twice.
“In my first year in office, we faced crippling budget deficits. So I made the unpopular decision to raise taxes and cut spending. And for good measure I also banned smoking in bars and restaurants. All I can tell you is when I was marching in parades, I got a lot of one-fingered waves.
“Back then people told me you can’t do those things and win re-election. But you know what? They were wrong. Over time, New Yorkers embraced the smoking ban. And they understood that funding our schools and police and parks and everything else required hard choices.
“If I hadn’t run those risks, maybe I would have had an easier time to get re-elected, I don’t know. But I never would’ve been able to look my kids in the eye or live with myself. If you can’t go home at the end of the day and look in the mirror, it’s not the mirror that’s the problem.
“Don’t go through life making excuses and playing it safe. And don’t accept those excuses from politicians. Don’t let them pass the buck and kick the can down the road. You and your families are the ones who will suffer.
“The good news is your time here has prepared you to lead from the front rather than following from behind. You know how important it is to embrace fearless ideas. You know what it’s like to be open and bold and look at things in new ways. And you know that it’s possible to do well and do good.
“As you leave here carry that knowledge with you because our country needs more people who have the courage to put fearless ideas into action. And believe it or not, as dysfunctional as our politics are it really is possible for a group of committed people to make a big difference by turning points of failure in Washington into turning points for America.
“I’ll give you one more quick example before I finish. I’ll use an issue that I was involved with, and I know some of you probably are, too. I’m talking about gun violence, which kills 40,000 Americans a year. That is one death every 13 minutes every single day.
“Whether you realize it or not, all of you have already been affected by this crisis, if only indirectly. You are the first generation to experience active shooter drills in school.
“After the recent shooting at UNC Charlotte that killed two students, a student who was on the campus at the time said that it felt ‘like a normal high school lockdown.’
“A normal high school lockdown. Just think about that. There should be nothing normal about school shootings.
“We can’t accept them as normal events. Not on college campuses. Not in high schools. Not in elementary schools. Not in churches, synagogues, mosques, nightclubs, concerts, movie theaters, malls, or anywhere else.
“After the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which killed 14 students and three staff members, the students from Parkland organized a march on Washington. It attracted hundreds of thousands of people, including many of you, I’m glad to say.
“On that same day, my foundation helped organize 750 simultaneous marches in cities across the country. A group I helped create, Everytown for Gun Safety, organized those marchers with an army of volunteers and voters.
“Together, we pushed states to adopt common sense gun laws that also respected the Second Amendment. And do you know what happened? Politicians actually listened. Because they knew that – for the first time – their jobs were on the line over this issue, and not from the NRA but from you.
“Since the Parkland massacre, 23 states – both red and blue states – have adopted stronger gun safety laws. And in the 2018 elections, Everytown for Gun Safety supported candidates who ran on gun safety, and I’m glad to say they won on gun safety.
“The Parkland students and all of those who joined them like the students here in 1912 helped transform a tragic point of failure into a turning point.
“Now, we still have a lot of work to do to stop gun violence, and we need more people to get involved. But never doubt that a group of passionate and committed young people can change the world by exercising their power as citizens.
“When you leave this campus, look for ways to exercise your power. Join an advocacy group. Write your representatives. Call them, organize, march, donate, vote. And get your friends and family to do the same.
“You have more power than you realize – use it. And when you encounter a point of failure – no matter how discouraging – refuse to give up.
“Before I leave you, I just want to mention one other issue where we need your generation’s leadership and courage to turn around what ultimately could be the ultimate point of failure. I’m talking about climate change. And the point of failure was crystalized during your time here in school.
“Two years ago, the White House announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It took almost 30 years for that global agreement to come together and every country signed it, including the U.S. But in 2017, we became the only country in the world – the only one – to reject it.
“Now, the real reason wasn’t about economics, and it certainly wasn’t about science. It was politics, plain and simple, and pandering to the most extreme voters.
“I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector, and I can just tell you that if CEOs ignored the possibility that sea level rises could flood their companies and factories or that more intense storms could destroy their infrastructure they would be fired.
“And in my view, we should also fire all politicians who ignore these threats. Otherwise, your generation will pay for it – as climate change kills more people, and destroys more homes, farms, and businesses.
“To a lot of people, the administration’s decision to pull out of the agreement looked like the end of U.S. leadership on climate change. But then something happened.
“Americans didn’t throw up their hands and walk away. Instead, all across this country, across thousands of cities, states, businesses, and universities – including the University of Maryland – stepped up and said: hold on, Mr. President. We’re still in. We are not giving up. And we are determined to make progress on climate change no matter what happens in Washington.
“Together, we turned their point of failure into a turning point for the climate movement, and guess who is helping to lead the way? The Terps. That’s right, students and faculty right here at your Center for Global Sustainability, which is led by my friend – and your dean of public policy – Bob Orr.
“They are doing the detailed analysis necessary to report the progress America is making to the United Nations. And earlier today, my foundation announced a $2.3 million gift to the Center to help them do it. It’s part of an effort we call America’s Pledge – because we can’t afford not to honor the pledge we made in Paris.
“Whether it’s climate change, or gun violence, or any other issue, all of you can make up for the inaction in Washington by turning their points of failure into turning points for our great nation.
“I’m optimistic that we can rise to the challenge, because I’ve seen your generation’s creativity and sense of social responsibility. I believe in you, and I believe in the spirit of 1912. That spirit, that willingness to do great things in defiance of long odds, has always shaped America. Now, it’s your turn to extend that tradition.
“When you experience a setback or failure, that’s okay. Don’t lose heart. In America, you can fail and try again. And again. And again. And still have hope of succeeding. Or at least in New York that’s what we say about the Knicks.
“Graduates: when everything burns down around you, don’t walk away. Fight for what you believe in. Ask others to join you. And demand that politicians run the risk of doing what’s right, not what’s easy. You will never regret it, and our country will be better for it.
“So before you leave this great institution today, go step on the point of failure because this really is a turning point in your life, and it’s only the beginning of the amazing and inspiring achievements that you are capable of.
“Carry the spirit of fearless ideas that you learned here wherever you go.
“Congratulations and best of luck.”