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July 28, 2015
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Class Begins Today


Scott Davis, UPS Chairman and CEO, returned to his roots in delivering the commencement keynote speech at his alma mater: Portland State University. He spoke about lessons he learned on his journey from accounting student to leader of a large multi-national business. "I've been the CEO of UPS for four years, and I learn something new every day," he said.

Thank you President Weiwel and good afternoon. Let me ask those who will be graduating shortly a question: How many of you had doubts over the past four years...okay, maybe six or seven years, that you would ever be just moments away from receiving your coveted degree? Well, you made it, so congratulations!

It is a tremendous honor to be back here 37 years after I received my degree. And I'm humbled to receive the Honorary Degree. Thanks for inviting me to speak.

When I told my son that I would be speaking to you today, he gave me some very insightful advice: "Dad, just don't bore them." That was really helpful. So to minimize that risk, I am going to do something that is unheard of from a commencement speaker - be brief! I want to share four ideas with you. That's it, just four ideas.

Let me begin with a concept that may seem strange as you sit here today, maybe even counter-intuitive. Class begins today.

I know what you may be thinking: "What? Are you nuts! I don't intend to ever step inside a classroom again!" Sorry graduates, but your journey is just beginning. It's your journey in the classroom of life.

No, you won't receive letter grades, slog through painful physics assignments, or be tested on Einstein's "Theory of Relativity" whatever that is! But you will be tested many, many times. Can you get up when you're knocked down? Can you open your mind? Can you expand your horizons?

I have faced all of those tests. I still do sometimes every single day. You will face them too. The decisions you make and the actions you take will determine whether you pass or fail. I want to share a few thoughts on the lessons I learned when I faced those tests. I hope my lessons will spark a few ideas for you.

My first real lesson in life came right here, at Portland State. I grew up in Medford, Oregon - rugged timber country near the California state line. During the summers in high school, I worked in a saw mill. It was hot, grueling, and sometimes dangerous work. The hours were long and the pay was meager. As you might guess, I was really, really excited to go away to college. I think that was my parents' secret goal when they encouraged me to work at the saw mill!

What I discovered at Portland State opened my eyes. The learning environment was different. The students were older and more experienced - professionals from a world I had never travelled. They had fresh perspectives and provocative opinions. They caused me to pause frequently, laugh regularly, and think differently. I soaked it all in. Not just the classroom discussions, but the lessons I learned from my classmates.

So what did I learn at Portland State? I learned what you study doesn't matter. What you do with your education does.

Portland State sparked in me a passion for life-long learning, a passion to question, to explore, to think. Buddhist Monks call it a 'beginner's mind'. What does that mean? A beginner's mind is always an open mind - a mind allowing for doubt, embracing possibility, seeking fresh perspectives. They believe; "In a beginners mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few."

I've been the CEO of UPS for four years, and I learn something new every day. I have a beginner's mind. That way of thinking started right here at Portland State. Graduating was just the beginning of a life-long journey of learning.

Class begins today. 

I learned my second lesson after I entered the work world. I graduated with a degree in accounting and began working for one of the major accounting firms. The work wasn't glamorous, but at least I had a paycheck. I could pay the rent. And I had party money and that was important!

After a few years I was bored. I was suffering from the most insidious disease known to mankind, a disease that cripples millions of people every day: The Cancer of Complacency.

My learning curve had flattened. I wasn't growing. I wasn't learning. I wasn't challenging myself. I was stagnating. Thomas Edison once said, "Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure."

It was the dawn of the PC era, and the world of technology was exploding with possibilities and potential. The passion and the spirit of dreamers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs inspired me, and countless others.

One of my clients was a small avionics startup company called Morrow Electronics. They had brilliant young engineers, and they worked around the clock on exciting new technologies. The best part: They went to work in flip flops, t-shirts, and blue jeans. I sure do miss those good ole' days!

Intrigued by the possibilities of being part of a start-up company, I took the leap and joined Morrow.

Then, I quickly learned the rest of the story. We had problems. We were undercapitalized, and we spent way too much time and energy tinkering with our products and not enough time figuring out how to make them work for our customers. We were idealistic but naïve.

Those hard facts hit me like an ice cold shower. I was shocked and riddled with regrets. What was I thinking when I left my secure job? So I quit, and raced back to the safety of another accounting firm.

Morrow was sold shortly after I left. But I stayed in touch with those entrepreneurs, and before long, they were launching another company called II Morrow.

They assured me that they had fixed their problems, that this time it would be different. They invited me back to become the chief financial officer. They said those immortal words you will hear many times in life, "Trust me."

That invitation was another test. The opportunity both excited and the same time terrified me. Should I follow my head and stay in my secure corporate job? Or should I follow my heart and take a leap of faith with another startup venture? My heart won the debate, and I joined II Morrow and never looked back.

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. It's this. Take risks. You will make mistakes. You may even fail. I can't begin to count all the mistakes I have made. But I've learned more from my mistakes than my successes. I'm a better business leader today as a result of my mistakes.

No failure is final or fatal. If you only focus on your mistakes or the possibility of failing, you will miss remarkable successes as well. It doesn't matter that you are always right. It does matter that you are always growing.

Class begins today.

My third test came three years later when UPS purchased our small growing company II Morrow. I agreed to help with the integration into the larger organization. Later, UPS asked me to join them and to move to their corporate headquarters. To go from an organization of 400 people to an organization of 400,000 people - that thought was inconceivable.

Are you kidding? Me? Join a faceless, behemoth corporation and all the evils they stand for?  Multi-national corporations are the Evil Empire, right? UPS expected me to trade my flip flops and jeans for wing tips and pinstripes. They expected me to move from beautiful Oregon to an entirely foreign country ... the East Coast! Worst of all, they expected me to shave my beard!

It was my next life test. I decided to join them. Why in the world would I do that? I saw something at UPS that was unique, that intrigued and inspired me, something that frankly surprised me.

You may not know this. UPS was founded 104 years ago up the road in Seattle as a tiny messenger service. What I found was that UPS was different than I expected.

It was not a group of cold, insensitive men and women. I saw people who were innovative, engaging and flexible. I saw people who shared the same rock solid values that I learned growing up in the great Northwest - values like honesty, integrity and hard work. I saw people who really cared about their communities, and cared about the environment - even though they dressed like Secret Service agents! My assumptions about big business were wrong. Big isn't bad.

What I learned from that test was pretty simple: When tested, weigh all your options and consider all the facts. Don't become starry-eyed and confuse faith with facts. There is no guidebook, no blueprint, no GPS to guide you on your journey. Only you can decide what's best for you. But ultimately, trust yourself. Trust your gut.

Class begins today.

My final lesson is what I've learned on the world stage. I've had the good fortune of travelling on business and pleasure to the far corners of the earth. What I learned can be summed up by Dorothy's observation in the Wizard of Oz: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!"

None of us are. The world is not going to be flat, it is flat. It is filled with amazingly diverse cultures, traditions, people and beliefs. We shouldn't grow myopic in our outlook. Simply clinging to the present, and doing things the way we always have would be like trying to navigate a new world with an old map.

The world is changing every day. For instance, YUM Brands food chain which includes restaurants such as Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, places many of you have had late-night visits to, are opening one new restaurant in China every 18 hours. Let me share this surprising fact with you. There are more people speaking and learning English in China than the total population of the United States!

What have I learned in my travels? We truly are not in Kansas anymore. We are becoming citizens of a global village. People on the other side of the world, continents away, may know what I said today before I finish my talk.

Sometimes, the pace of change feels scary but mostly it's invigorating. Now, we can't stop the change, but we can embrace it. How? Get a passport. Explore other countries. Learn a second or even a third language. Get a job overseas. Expand your horizons.

I know this with certainty. Portland State has given you a great foundation for your next frontier, wherever that may be.

Four pretty simple lessons: Develop a beginners mind, embrace mistakes, trust your gut, broaden your horizons.

And above all else, don't listen to the naysayers in life. They are like a wet blanket smothering your dreams. The naysayers scurry around like the Henny Pennys of the world, loudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen: "The sky is falling!" "Don't do it!" "It can't be done!" My best advice to you: ignore them!

Let me leave you with this final challenge. When everyone is convinced that something can't be done, that it shouldn't be done, go out and do it! Because, ladies and gentlemen, class truly begins today!

Thanks so much. It's really been an honor to speak to you.

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