Growing Up Poor Makes You Battle-Tested and Other Deep Thoughts from Lloyd Blankfein

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Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein just wrapped up his commencement speech at Laguardia Community College in New York. These are his most interesting thoughts.

He grew up street tough:

I grew up in the Linden Houses, which, as some of you know, is a housing project in East New York. Up until high school, I shared a small apartment with my extended family, which included my grandmother, my sister and my nephew. I grew up with the idea that college was more an aspiration than expectation.

He was a sheltered, insecure college kid:

Growing up, my biggest goal was just to get out of East New York. I took the college entrance exam and committed myself to getting into college. I did. The day I left for college was one of the first trips I made out of New York City. College was an intimidating place for me. The other students seemed naturally confident; many had traveled and seemed to understand the world. To this day, I can’t forget how insecure I felt, but it made me work harder.

He knew he wanted to be a lawyer, but wound up hating it:

After college, I went to law school for three years, and then into my dream job at a big NY law firm. But even though it had been my dream, I didn’t like it once I got there. For the first time, I was feeling financially secure, but I knew I wasn’t passionate enough about what I was doing. And because I didn’t love it, I would never be fulfilled from it, or be really good at it. Someone who loved it more would have greater enthusiasm and focus. For some it was fun; for me it was always going to be a chore.

He made his wife cry, but it worked out:

After five years at a law firm, I decided I wanted to try something different. I came home and told my wife I was quitting, and she cried. And not out of happiness. Anyway, it worked out. I got a new job at a small Wall Street firm, we got bought out by a larger firm, and I ended up remaining at that large firm…Goldman Sachs.

The love of wealth and power can only motivate so much:

In my career, I’ve been fortunate to know and work with many of this country’s top CEOs and business leaders. I’m always struck by a certain passion that defines them. While they may be wealthy and powerful, their passion goes beyond money and power. I won’t stand here and tell you those are bad things. They can be pretty good, but only if you have a larger purpose in mind. If you don’t have passion for your work or the drive to make a better life for your kids than your own, then you won’t have what it takes to keep you going.

Growing up poor gives you muscles:

You built up muscles that others who‘ve had an easier time don’t have. Those muscles will serve you for the rest of your life. My struggle to get to and through college turned out to be an advantage for me. The disadvantages you have had become part of your personal history and track record, all advantages in your later life. So confidence is justified.

You can settle early, but eventually, you must do what you love:

Find a job that you like. You’ll be better at it and you’ll last longer in it. Having said that, in a tough economy, or because of family pressures, you may not always be able to take a risk with a job choice. And, no doubt, we’ve all settled at various times. But, don’t let necessity in a given moment become the excuse for a lifetime of inertia. Keep trying to get yourself to the right place. If I’d stayed a lawyer, I could have made it work for a while, but I would have fizzled out eventually because I didn’t love it.

Don’t be a one-trick pony:

Be a well rounded, complete person. Many of you will go for further education or career training. Of course, it’s important to learn the things that you need to make a living. But, don’t forget to read, and to learn history, literature and about current events. You’ll be more interesting to others, more interesting to yourself and you’ll be more successful in your job. Most of the books I’ve read didn’t apply directly to my job or industry, but I’ve applied their lessons in unexpected ways.

Give back to the community:

Find ways to contribute to make yourself proud and to set an example to your kids. Making a living is not life. It is a means to an end, not the end. You have to feel proud of yourself. There are always going to be people who struggle and for whom community work is not a realistic option, but try.

You are who your friends are:

Try to surround yourself with people who are equally ambitious. Put yourself in situations where you can grow – where you’ll not only push yourself but others will push you.

What a country:

What were the chances that a kid from the projects would run one of the great financial institutions in the world? You just never know.