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Pieces of Eight

Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, urged graduates at ECU’s Dec. 16 commencement to set high standards, do quality work and encourage creativity. He presented several simple rules to help graduates achieve success. Approximately 600 graduates, along with their friends and families, attended the annual event. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

Bowles Offers Simple Rules for Happiness, Success

Following are excerpts from the commencement address delivered by University of North Carolina System President Erskine Bowles at the Fall 2006 Commencement, Dec. 16.

As a parent of recent college graduates, I know firsthand how proud your parents and your friends are today. All of your parents and all of your friends here today are proud of you because they know just how hard each of you have worked to earn, and I want to stress that word, “earn,” your degree.

Graduation from ECU is something you can be proud of for the rest of your life. There is no question whatsoever in my mind, nor should there be in yours, that your total experience here in Greenville has prepared each of you to take that next giant step forward out into the great big world. And I am truly honored that you would ask me to come here and make this one last lecture.

Now I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say, about the message I wanted deliver to you here today….

The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to talk to you today the way I wish the graduation speaker – whoever he or she was – had talked to me almost forty years ago when I sat right where you are sitting today. And as hard as it is for you to believe, many of the challenges that I faced after those four years are similar to the ones many of you will face after graduation from East Carolina.

But while the challenges are similar, the circumstances are certainly different. When I graduated, my generation faced an uncertain world – an uncertain world that was being shaped by the Cold War, an arms race, Vietnam and political upheaval here at home. Your world and the challenges you face – they are being shaped by the post 9/11 environment, by the War on Terrorism, by economic uncertainty here at home, and by globalization and the reexamination of our nation’s role in an ever complex world.

And while these circumstances are different, both of our generations faced similar challenges. I’m talking about the challenge of a new job, the challenge of starting or operating a business, the challenge of adapting to changing work conditions due to dynamic markets and improved technology, the challenge of finding the time, energy and, yes, the money needed to support the causes you believe in. And the challenge of providing a secure future for yourself and, down the road, for your family.

Therefore I decided that today I would share with you several simple principles that have been very helpful to me throughout my career in both the public and private sectors of the economy. They are all short and sweet, simple and even trite. But they have helped me enormously and I hope that you will take home at least a few of these and perhaps find them useful in the exciting days you have before you.

• The first is don’t over-promise. I see this all the time…people promising to submit a memorandum to the president of this country on Tuesday only to finish it early Wednesday morning; people committing to deliver a completed action plan and instead offering merely a solution to one aspect of the problem; people in the business world promising to deliver a product to the market this year only to have production problems and having to delay until next year; people forecasting earnings of X only to deliver X minus five percent. My advice is simple – do the opposite. Be that person who under-promises and for God’s sake, never over-promise.

It’s like when I get home at 7:30. If I tell my wife I’ll be home at 8 and come home at 7:30, I am a hero! But you know what? If I tell her I’m going to get home at 7, and I get home at the exact same 7:30, I am a dog! Either way I got home at 7:30, but one way I’m a hero; the other I’m a dog.

My experience has been if you produce beyond the expectations of the American people, or beyond the expectations of your boss or client, you’ll have a hard time not being given more and more responsibility.


• Second, always do quality work. I know you’ve heard it a zillion times here in Greenville. But I guess it can’t hurt to hear it once more. It’s true. There is absolutely no substitute for quality. If you’re going to do it, do it right. My experience has been that a job well done is the best advertising you can have.

The opposite, of course, is also true. It’s like this friend of mind in the movie business once said to me. He said, “Erskine, if you make a bad movie, the people will not come and you cannot stop them.” Now if you think about it, that’s kinda reverse logic. He got it right. If you make a bad movie, the people will not come and you cannot stop them.


• Third, you simply can’t say “Thanks” too much. Recognize the people who have helped you and thank them profusely. I’ve never met a single person who minded being praised or thanked, even when they didn’t deserve it. God knows Washington is full of them!

But gain the reputation for appreciation, appreciating the work of others. And I’m not just talking about folks that are above you or those that are at your own level. I’m talking about those who work with you, those who work for you. You’ll find that a simple “thank you” to an assistant will carry you a long, long way....Take time to show you are grateful and you’ll find that other folks will absolutely bust their butts to make you look good.


• Which brings me to my fourth rule. Encourage creativity and embrace change. Encourage people to look for better ways to get the job done. I believe this principle goes hand in glove with surrounding yourself with good people and listening to them. If you’re going to be successful, you can’t ever believe that you have found the answer…that the way you’re doing it now is as good as it can be done. My experience is your product is never as good as it can be. You can always find ways to improve your product and your process....

You can make substantive change. You can improve your product, even in the government. But you have to create an atmosphere that encourages creativity. You have to have the courage to change. You must embrace change and treat it as your friend.

I have never believed that acceptance of status quo is the way to go.... I have always believed you should set high standards, that you must establish goals, objectives, timelines and hold people accountable and if you do, people will perform beyond your expectations, but even more importantly, beyond their own expectations. Never believe you’ve got it right. Always look for people who believe you can make it better.


• Fifth – take time to add to the woodpile. My dad used to say that all of us have a responsibility to add to the community woodpile. He instilled in his kids the belief that everyone needs to take time to help their fellow citizens. He stressed that anybody can be there for you when you’re up, but it’s the good ones who are there for you when you’re down. I have always found that it’s the busiest people – people like your chancellor – who somehow find the time to help someone or do something significant for the community....

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that life’s greatest question is, “What are you doing for others?” Believe me, it’s a question that’s not always easy to answer.

Our time, money and energy are precious commodities. It’s often hard to really want to give them away. But when you do give to your community, when you do add to the woodpile, you will experience a pride and sense of purpose like no other.


• My last and most important piece of advice is, save time for your family. There is nothing in my life that has meant more to me than my wife, my three children, my parents, my brother, my sisters, and now my two grandkids....When you look for a job, look for a family-friendly place to work, one that encourages you to spend time with your family. Then do it. Spend time with your spouse. Spend time with your kids. Build up those memories.

One recent Father’s Day my daughter Annie drew me a picture. On that picture were drawings of all the trips our family went on together as a family. Those are her memories. Those are my memories. It’s those memories that sustain you through the good times and the bad.

So in summary...I hope you will take some of these simple principles along with you. I have found these lessons to be very useful throughout my career and I believe they have helped me to realize what limited success I have had, but above all you should recognize that there is clearly no recipe for success. The very definition of success is different for us all.

In the grand game of life, I think you’ll find that true success is simply being happy…happy in the home, happy at work, happy in your community. Set goals for yourself. Develop career passions. Find people that you care about and search for outside interests and activities that will challenge you. Stay in touch with your classmates sitting around you today. Remain a support group for each other. Do these things and I guarantee you that success and happiness will come that much easier.

This page originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at