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Pieces of Eight

Phillip R. Dixon, former chair of the ECU Board of Trustees, addressed the fall 2005 ECU commencement, urging graduates to follow some simple rules for success. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

Dixon Explains Simple Rules for Successful Living

Following are excerpts from the commencement address delivered Dec. 17 by Phillip R. Dixon, member of the UNC Board of Governors, former chair of the ECU Board of Trustees, civic leader and noted Greenville attorney.


As I recall, my parents had a great deal of advice for me when I was finishing school. Other than the most obvious “get a job,” I recall most of it sounded terribly boring, and you may have heard some of this advice before. “Life isn’t fair,” “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” “some good deals aren’t,” “money won’t buy happiness,” “no pain, no gain,” “talk is cheap,” “pride goes before the fall,” and “no man is an island.” Even though those expressions are tired, they are probably still true. But let’s be more practical. What are life’s dos and don’ts? You have probably already heard many times how to dress for an interview, and what to say in response when they ask you what kind of salary you want, but what are the things you really need to know? What are the things we people in the business world look for in people who we will hire and promote? Our world is changing. Education remains a key to success. As my youngest partner, Jeff, suggests, you really should get as much education as you possibly can. Get a master's or professional degree, or seek a doctorate. With our distance education offerings on the Internet, it should be easier, less expensive, and much more convenient than ever for you to do so. Remember, there are many much less fortunate. In my practice, I see this daily – one in five people I see in my practice cannot read and write; one in five is functionally illiterate. Accordingly, you are already far ahead of the average, but as time passes, more will be required and expected of you.
Here is my list of Rules to Live By:

1. Be willing to pay the price

My wife is a very talented violinist. Her favorite virtuoso is Isaac Stern.Someone once approached Mr. Stern and offered this praise after a concert, “Mr. Stern, I’d give my life to play as beautifully as you do.” Mr. Stern responded, “I did.” You graduates have already invested four or more years as a down payment, while some of your former high school classmates decided to spend these past four or more years elsewhere beginning their careers. Today most of them are already earning what they can expect to earn for the rest of their lives. Don’t throw that down payment you have made away. If you want to be successful in a chosen field, find out what it takes to be the very best. This is going to include time, practice, commitment and some sacrifice. There is a price that must be paid. Be willing to pay the price.

2. Be self-disciplined

Emerson said that our primary need in life is to have somebody who will make us do what we can do. We all have had that somebody who has gently prodded us along – a parent, friend or teacher. From now on, you will have to rely more upon yourself to motivate and inspire you to make you do what you are capable of doing. Discipline is necessary to put in the necessary hours, to stay up to date in your chosen field, to read, to use your time well, to eat right, to stay healthy, to maintain balance in your life, and to stay with the tasks that you are given. Remember also that it is “follow-through” that marks success. Discipline is simply control. If you don't control yourself, someone else will, or no one else will. Either case will be less desirable than self-control.

3. Set some goals

This is not the same as being disciplined. Discipline is setting your alarm clock at 5 a.m. and making yourself get up when it goes off. Goal setting is knowing why you set the alarm at 5 a.m. in the first place. Think about what you hope to achieve, and chart out what you plan to achieve. If you have ever been sailing on a boat, you know that finding the wind is not always easy. If you have no plans to go any place special, then any wind is the right wind; but if you have a certain waterside restaurant that you want to make by noon, then you need to pick a specific direction and find the right wind. “Winners” in this world expect to win in advance. Life for them becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Choice, not chance, determines destiny. Make some choices and set some goals.

4. Learn to get along with others

Studies confirm over and over again that people do not lose their jobs because they don’t have the technical know-how and the requisite skills. Most frequently, they simply cannot get along with other people. You may not please all the people all the time, but you can please most of the people most of the time – even if it is no other way than being open to their criticism. This is particularly true with spouses and roommates. If your employer tells you that you lose your temper too easily, and your parents and spouse tell you the same thing, it stands to reason that you probably lose your temper too easily. When you hear such feedback, listen before you deny it. Don’t be so defensive. Evaluate it, ponder it, and make any changes in your life that are in order.

5. Be a dreamer.

We have all heard the quote from George Bernard Shaw that says, “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” We need more people in the workplace saying “why not?” We have many problems, and we need solutions to them. Keep your head in the clouds – Dare to Dream.

6. Take risks.

Don’t be afraid to fail. We need people in the business world who strike out where there is no path, and leave a trail of their own – not people who simply follow where the path leads.

7. Stay informed.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” I hope that is true, and I hope that you will never be satisfied to stop learning what is going on around you. Wealth was once measured in gold. Now it is measured in what we know. Stay alert. Keep informed.

8. Be ethical.

Know when to compromise and when to stick to your convictions. What you once knew to be right and wrong is still right and wrong. Unfortunately, the corporate world is having to learn all over again that being ethical is what is best for business, and best for the bottom line in the long run. Compromise can come in many forms, whether it be decisions on insurance coverage, or how to handle
hazardous waste disposal. Right has been, and always will be, right.

9. Have some fun.

Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life. Coach Little League. Get involved in your church or a worthwhile community project. Do something to make the world in which we live a better place.

10. Define success in your own terms.

This is perhaps the most important rule. Some people spend their lives climbing the ladder of success only to find that when they get to the top, the ladder is leaning against the wrong building. Decide what you want. Ask yourself whether you want a job traveling most of the time. Do you want adventure and learning about the world around you? Or do you want to be at home at night with your family? Your personal definition of success makes many seemingly difficult decisions much easier through the years.

Some final observations:

• If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75 percent of this world.
• If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8 percent of the world’s wealthiest people.
• If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive the week.
• If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
• If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more blessed than 3 billion people in the world.
• If your parents are still alive and still married to each other, you are very rare even in the United States.
• If you hold up your head with a smile on your face, or are truly thankful; you are blessed because a majority can, but most do not.
• If you can hold someone’s hand, hug them, or even touch them on the shoulder, you are blessed because you can offer a healing touch.
• If you can read, you are more blessed than over 2 billion people in the world who cannot read at all.

This page originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at