2024 New College Commencement Address

Post Date and Author:

- by Joe Ricketts

The 2024 Commencement speech by Joe Ricketts:

Distinguished faculty, esteemed guests, proud parents, supportive family members, and, especially, the graduating class of 2024, I stand here today with pleasure and gratitude. On behalf of New College of Florida, I extend a warm welcome to each and every one. But I must warn you before I go any further—I’ve heard many commencement speeches, and, ultimately, I found most of them boring.

The graduation speakers stand at their podiums and talk a lot about themselves, but we ought to talk about you, the graduating students. Where will you go next? Will you be successful, happy, and content? And what will you need to understand to get there?

I hope you graduates are feeling proud today. I certainly remember feeling proud when I graduated many years ago from Creighton University, but most of all, I felt ready to get moving. 

I came from a modest family background in Lincoln, Nebraska, and worked many jobs as a kid to save money for college. When I got to school, I found that the money I had earned didn’t go very far. I had to take frequent breaks from my schooling to earn more money for tuition. In the end, it took me seven years to get my degree, and when that day finally came, I couldn’t wait to get going and move on with my life.

On that day, I had a plan. I could see my path to success laid out before me in my mind. And the first thing I want to say to you graduates is that I’m glad I had a plan because it helped me spring into action, but the truth is—my life didn’t go according to plan. 

I believe that’s true of most lives. So how do you achieve success, happiness, and contentment if life doesn’t go according to plan?

As I said, I came from a modest background. I always wanted to be wealthy. What did I think that meant? I equated wealth with liberty. I believed that if I could earn enough, I would have the freedom to do what I wanted. 

One of the things I wanted most was to start a family with my wife, Marlene, and take care of my family, including paying for my kids to go to college so they wouldn’t have the long, laborious college experience I’d just had.

What did I think I could do to get rich? 

My first idea of financial success went no further than the well-off men in my town, the owner of the drug store or grocery store, our local dentist and doctor.  

I did not expect that I would ever work in the finance industry, let alone help remake financial services with computer technology and, in so doing, become a billionaire.  In fact, if you had asked Marlene, who met me in high school, she would have told you that I seemed like the other young men she knew. 

Maybe a bit more of a dreamer, imagining myself in charge of the small businesses where I cleaned or clerked, but basically like the others, the sort who grows up to work hard all week to support his family, then goes out on Friday night and feels happy to talk with his friends and drink his fill of beer.     

The only trouble was that I couldn’t become a doctor or a dentist because I didn’t have the grades. I couldn’t start a drug or grocery store because I didn’t have the capital to invest. 

But I had a plan. There was a new profession, stockbroker, that I had read about in a magazine. I thought that selling stocks would make me wealthy and give me happiness and contentment.

As I neared graduation, I was invited to join a six-month training program for stockbrokers in San Francisco. We learned sales techniques and the rules and regulations of the business. 

We studied some basic aspects of analyzing a company financially, but we did not learn much about that. The instructor’s attitude was, “We don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because we’re going to hire analysts to do that for you. We will tell you what is good and bad. Your job is to sell.”

At the end of the course, I passed my exam and earned a job as a broker, but although I had followed my plan and reached my goal, I was unhappy. 

I discovered that I was not a born salesperson. I didn’t really have that gift, and, at my firm at that time, the work felt dishonest. There was constant pressure to sell the investment products that would earn the biggest commissions, whether those products made financial sense for our customers or not. I knew I couldn’t be happy doing that.

What I hadn’t considered when I made my plan to become rich was that each person has unique qualities. Every human being ever born is different. It’s amazing. Those differences are what will lead each of us to our own individual happiness and satisfaction, but we have to discover that path for ourselves. 

I had not done that exploration. I had not listened to myself in that way, so I wound up with a career but still unhappy.

I had grown up in a family built around a family business. My dad built houses, and he did carpentry work. He inherited that from his grandfather. I grew up watching the men in my family figure out how to make a living using their talents. 

I tried working alongside them when I was a teenager, and I discovered I was no more a born carpenter than a born salesperson, but I kept that idea of founding your own business based on your gifts. Being an entrepreneur felt like the most natural thing in the world. In time, I put my wish to become an entrepreneur together with my knowledge of investing.

I found three partners to go in with me and create a brokerage firm that would not try to convince people what stocks to buy. We would simply give them an economical way to make their trades. 

I took a tremendous risk and borrowed money from family and friends, and I was able to put $12,500 into our new business. It seemed a crazy risk to borrow so much money. How would I ever pay it back if the company failed and I lost it all? I had no idea.

And yet, at the same time, I remember feeling comfortable. There I was in the middle of all that risk, and it felt normal. It was as if I’d been waiting for it all my life. That risk tolerance is part of what makes a successful entrepreneur, and that turned out to be another of my God-given gifts.

Now, I want to fast forward to one of the happiest moments of my life. We rented an office for our new business. The main room was so narrow that we couldn’t fit the desks facing forward, so we lined them up facing the wall. Customers who came in had to walk in front of all four of us. 

The place was dingy looking, with old linoleum floors, metal desks, and dull lighting. The building had been constructed before running water, so the plumbing was an afterthought, and the bathroom was terrible. In this small, dilapidated office, there was nothing physically distinctive or appealing anywhere, but my spirit was soaring. 

It felt like heaven, because finally, I had work that felt true to me, something to make use of the gifts I’d been given. I will never forget that feeling of excitement and pride.

Our business was based on the hunch that many people were smart enough and educated enough to do their stock trading for themselves, without a broker telling them what to buy, and we were right. 

When we started, we took orders for stock trades over the phone and wrote them down on paper. I intended that our customers could someday trade on home computers, but this was so long ago that home computers were still too slow and awkward. We started by having our customers perform stock trades with telephones. They would call up the brokerage and key in the stock symbol of the stock they wanted to buy on their touchtone phone keypad.

Everything my partners and I did in those years, we learned the hard way, through trial and error, from mastering new technology to satisfying a customer. It was work, work, work, but to me, this kind of work was an adventure.

There was no class you could take to explain how to succeed as a broker in the digital age. No one to tell us what to do. We had to get out there with our brains and our strength and make it succeed. We had to think for ourselves.

Building that business was often stressful. As the leader, I was under tremendous pressure, working so hard that sometimes I responded in dangerous ways, like letting off steam by drinking too much beer on a Friday night and then driving myself home when I was in no shape to drive. 

But I loved the challenge of using my gifts in meaningful work with the chance for great success. It made me feel alive. It made me happy. Today, at age 82, I’m still doing that work, developing new businesses, still seeking those kinds of challenges.

This is the next idea I want to share with you, graduates: Happiness and contentment are two different things. On the one hand, you need to find something you were meant to do, some work that uses your God-given talents, because that will make you happy. 

On the other hand, you need to find a way to be rewarded and reach your idea of success, because that will bring you contentment. 

Today is not the time to tell the story of how we made a success of Ameritrade, the online brokerage firm, but I want to talk about the elements that made my success possible because I believe you will need those.

Some of it, honestly, was luck.

A lot of it was years of hard work.

In addition, there were three other elements I want to share with you graduates today.

First, I was fortunate in my life partner. I married a woman I could rely on to stay with me and make a life with me whether or not I ever became rich. The early days of our marriage, especially after our first child was born, were very hard. 

We didn’t have any money. We didn’t go on vacation, she didn’t buy new dresses, we didn’t go out to eat, but Marlene didn’t care. She was happy with our growing family and the life we were making. Her happiness and her patience gave me time and support to build my success. 

When I got rich, Marlene still didn’t care, not in a profound way. She enjoyed the new opportunities, but being wealthy or not made little difference to her because her happiness was our family and her work as a mother. 

Of course, not everybody gets married or starts a family, but if you’re going to do those things, it’s crucial that you and your partner can support each other in doing the things that make each of you happy.

The second reason for my success, I believe, was the freedom we share as Americans. In other countries, I would have faced many obstacles in starting my business because I did not come from an aristocratic family, because of government corruption or over-regulation, or because the government was not committed to free-market capitalism. That freedom we enjoy in America has to be defended.

Third, I succeeded thanks to the education I received. My partners and I had to think for ourselves to make Ameritrade succeed, and we were fortunate that we had gone to schools that taught us how to think. This is another part of why I stand before you as your commencement speaker.

After the success of Ameritrade, I wanted to help provide education for those who, like me, struggled to afford it. I started by founding schools in Africa, then helped to develop two private high schools, one in Omaha, Nebraska, and one in Santa Rosa, California. 

In these schools, we don’t push every kid to go to college. We want them to explore a range of ways they can use their gifts to make a successful life. But some of our smart, hardworking students from modest backgrounds accepted the challenge of applying to tier-one schools just to see if they could get in. Some achieved acceptance and felt incredibly ecstatic. They felt grateful. 

And then, five minutes later, they despaired, because they knew their families could not afford to send them to the schools that had accepted them even if they received loans.

Seeing their disappointment, I said to myself, that’s a shame. We’re losing a lot of talent in the United States because we don’t have the mechanism for many intelligent, hardworking kids to go to college.

In response, I devised the idea for Ricketts Great Books College. In my program, students read the great books from history that our founding fathers studied. These valuable ideas from the past become their preparation for an unpredictable future. 

They complete their coursework online, connecting with teachers and other students on Zoom. They have online support to help them understand the older forms of the language they encounter in these old works of genius, and instructors with PhDs to guide them as they learn. 

The cost is $6,000 for the semester, but if they complete their work, we give them $4,000 back. It’s a chance to get a college education based on the great thinkers in the Western tradition while only taking on a small amount of debt, if any. It’s a chance for anyone with access to a computer to learn how to think for themselves. 

I am proud that New College of Florida has adopted the distance learning curriculum of Ricketts Great Books College, making it possible for New College students to receive credit for these courses. I see it as an additional path for students who want to learn how to think, not settle for being told what to think.

With so much difference among people, each of whom must find their own way to happiness and contentment, we need many paths. 

For that reason, I want to end this speech by offering my heartfelt congratulations to the graduates of 2024. I wish you good luck as you head out on your own. 

I wish you success in recognizing your gifts, discovering your true paths, and thinking for yourselves as you meet the challenges of the future. May you find your own ways to happiness, contentment, and success. Thank you.

Watch this video celebrating highlights from New College’s 2024 Commencement Ceremony.