Life is Defined by Choices

Mike Dubin 01C, founder and CEO of Dollar Shave Club, delivered a speech at the 2018 Emory Commencement ceremony. Want to watch it yourself? We've got the film and the transcript, too.

By Elizabeth Cobb Durel
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Mike Dubin 01C tells Emory's class of 2018 that life is defined by choices, reports Forbes.

Watch for yourself. A transcript of this video has been prepared below.

Also watch this exclusive sit-down interview with Emory Alumni Association.


Good morning. You guys staying cool out there? I think I only have forty-five minutes of remarks. So we'll try to get you out of here quickly.

It is humbling to share the stage with people like my fellow honorees who have made such enormous impacts in the arts, in eradicating hunger, and ending apartheid. I sell razors on the Internet. But they're great razors. I guess whatever I do next, the bar is pretty high. Thank you Madam President, trustees, faculty, staff, fellow honorees, parents, guests, students, and soon-to-be former students.

First things first, congratulations to the class of 2018. Thank you to my family for joining me here today. My mother, my father, my mother's boyfriend, Doug, who are both here and who get along great. Thank you to my parents for supporting me through my journey at Emory and beyond. I wouldn't be up here today if it weren't for them and for a lifetime of their love and support. Thank you. You can clap for my parents, it’s ok.

It is so great to be back here at Emory. It is an honor to be addressing the graduating class of 2018. Actually no. It's a shock to be here addressing the graduating class of 2018. I, admittedly, was not the best student at Emory University. I graduated from Emory with a 2.6 GPA. Some of my best grades were A- in Yoga and B+ Team Handball. That's right I couldn't quite get all the way to the A in Team Handball. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I was declared ineligible for the men's varsity soccer team, an organization for which I was recruited, and in the spring of the following year, I flunked political science 100 for the second time in back to back years.

Now I’m a Doctor. So you should obviously listen to me today. Now the teacher of that political science class was Professor Giles, and I understand Professor Giles is with us in the audience today somewhere. Professor Giles, will you stand and be recognized? Giles I've been waiting 20 years to say this to you. You are a great teacher, and I was not your fault. I know you've been beating yourself up for the last 20 years, but I want you to know I'm OK. We can both move on now. Actually I was recently told that Professor Giles is retiring next year after 35 years of service here at Emory University. Congratulations. I guess you double flunked your last student. And right now Professor Giles is like “Who is this guy? I do not remember this A-hole.”

No, there's no one in 2001 who would have guessed that anyone from my class would be up here 17 years later giving a commencement address that it would be me. I know some of you are bummed you didn't get a real A-lister like Salman Rushdie or Stormy Daniels. Well I'm not Stormy Daniels but I did pay Emory a 130,000 dollars and man did I get—you know what? I'm going to skip that joke. Keep moving.

So sorry you got the guy who sells shampoo and razors on the Internet. And now you have to listen to me for 15 minutes. Some of you will, some of you won’t, some of you've been up for 24 hours and are already asleep. Some of you have headphones in right now and can't even hear me. Some of you aren't even wearing clothes under your gowns right now. Well nonetheless I'm going to talk to you for a few minutes.

Should you listen to me. Would I listen to me? I don't know. I guess I did listen to me, and despite the rocking freshman and sophomore year, maybe even because of them, I turned out OK. But we'll come back to all that. 17 years later, I can now look in the rearview mirror at my journey and offer a few thoughts that I think can be helpful to you on your journey, as you exit this chapter to seek a life of meaning and happiness by pursuing your choices. And that is the word of the day “choices.”

I believe that if you want to live a life purpose and happiness you have to become familiar with the essence of choices. Choices come. Thanks for that. Choices come in all shapes and sizes and not all the important choices present themselves obviously as the important ones. You have to hone over a lifetime the skill of recognizing which choices are the important choices. Now, there's no doubt that the shape your life takes will come down to a few big choices. Should I take the job? Should I marry the person? Should I move to San Francisco? These big choices easily and obviously present themselves as choices that will have a big impact on the course of your life.

But there is another species of choices. Let's call them little choices. They're the ones you make more frequently, maybe even every day. The ripple effects of which I believe actually have a bigger impact over the course of your life. They’re choices about where to invest your time, where you choose to invest your time, how you choose to invest your time, and with whom you choose to invest your time. In some ways again you make these choices every day and there will be no mystery to the result where and how and with whom you spend your time. Excuse me. Invest your time is where you will see your life grow.

You should choose to think of your time as an investment. Peter Drucker, the famed business writer, says “One cannot buy, rent, or hire more time. The supply of time is totally inelastic no matter how high the demand the supply will not go up. There is no price for it. Time is totally perishable. cannot be stored. Yesterday's time is gone forever and will never come back.”

So you have choices about where to spend your time and then you have choices about your state of mind. Choices about your mindset. How do you choose to frame a tricky situation? Is it a problem or is it an opportunity? Choices about your thoughts themselves, which thoughts you ignore, which thoughts do you dwell on? And choices about your attitude, will you choose to bemoan a stroke of bad luck or blame someone else? Or would you choose to scrutinize the choices that might have brought you there? Be mindful that these little choices about mindset and attitude are just as important as the big ones. Maybe more. Be thoughtful about the ripple effects of these little choices.

Now I realize all of that is a bit abstract that you've all come here today hoping to come away with the secret to life. So without further ado here is the secret to life: Stop going to the store to buy your razors, shampoo, hair styling cream, and aftershave. Instead, go right now the dollarshaveclub.com. We have everything you need to look, smell, and feel your best, so you can get out there, be confident and live a successful life. I'm kidding that's not the secret to life. But right now you can get started with a starter set for just five dollars and they’re amazing.

OK let's get back to choices. As you leave this place to see your path, let us not be abstract. Here are a few specific choices I recommend. Choice number one: choose to try new things. You are not done expanding your horizons. In fact you've only just begun. Something funny happens to people when they get older. They start narrowing their field of vision. They stop inviting new things into their lives. Just because you've chosen the next step on your path, do not become a one dimensional creature. I advise you to invest time getting exposure to new things even if, especially if, you can't draw a straight line between that thing and whatever it is you think you want to do with your life, which I promise you will change.

New things, new people, and most importantly, new perspectives. If ever there were a time in our history that we needed access to perspectives different than our own then it is now seek new things out and say yes just for the hell of it. You cannot foresee how such things will cross pollinate other areas of your life. I believe very much in this principle of cross pollination that expertise or perspective from one discipline can be exponentially valuable when applied to something else.

And maybe that's obvious coming from a liberal arts major but here's an example from my life: When I was living in New York City after college and I was a page at NBC, I heard that all the great writers and performers on Saturday Night Live had been trained to improv and sketch comedy, and I loved comedy. That sounded interesting so I signed up for a class, which led to another class, which led to eight years of classes and hundreds of hours of training. There was no plan to become a professional improviser or a comic or a writer. No direct line between that and my career in media and marketing. Or my goal goals in media and marketing. I just fell in love with the art form and I wanted to learn it. And it is only because of that improv and sketch training that I had the skills to write and perform in the first Dollar Shave Club commercial, or any of the subsequent commercials for that matter. Without those commercials Dollar Shave Club would not have become a game changing force in American business that it is. We may not have sold that company for a billion dollars in 2016. Without that improv training I would have had to hire somebody else probably wouldn't have been any good. And the final product wouldn't have been any good. So if I don't just say yes to that first improv class on a whim with a full time job. Then there is no dollar shave club and my poor mother would still be flying coach.

Furthermore my improv skills have proved invaluable in business. Improv taught me how to think quickly on my feet, to distill key thoughts from a discussion, and to synthesize them into a course of action. And this is what I do in business all day, every day. So by simply saying yes to something that I thought was interesting totally changed my life.

Choice number two: don't do what everyone else is doing and its cousin: Don't worry about what everybody else is doing. Despite how great their choices may seem or how much they all seem to have figured out. They don't. I know the question on everyone's mind here today is "what should I do with my life?" And that can be a really terrifying place to be. Not to have the answer to that very important question. Well guess what? You're probably never going to have the answer to that question. I don't think you ever get it completely. Ask around. Today at lunch ask your parents, ask your guests, ask your friends, if they know what they want to do with their lives. President Sterk, do you know what you want to do with your life? See the president of this university has two PhDs and still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. So you know who probably also doesn't? Your pal who built the two story beer funnel and now thinks he wants to be a lawyer.

I can’t think of many people in my graduating class that 17 years later are doing exactly what they thought they would be doing when they graduated. Some of you think you want to be in sales and you're going to end up human rights advocates. Some of you want to be pediatricians who are going to end up in film. Some of you have no idea what you want to do. Like I didn't. And that's okay. Most people don't know what they want to do with their lives at this stage or what their purpose is just yet and consequently why they make the choices that they do. So don't be inspired or activated by somebody else's unthoughtful choices and don't freak out because some of your peers may seem to have it all figured out.

Again another example from my life, after college many of my friends went into banking. I chose media and marketing because that's what I was passionate about. They were making 150,000 dollars a year. I was making forty thousand dollars a year. They were renting Summer houses in July. I was cooking rice and beans in the east village with no air conditioning. That was really discouraging. I thought I'd made the wrong choice. I hadn't, but I couldn't see it at the time and I contemplated being away from my path. But I didn't and I was rewarded for it. I stuck with media and marketing. At CNN, I learned how to hustle down business men and women politicians and artists and get them to share their stories. At NBC, I learned to write for and to reach big audiences. In advertising, I got to study how big brands talk to their customers, and the list goes on and on. All of these experiences contributed meaningfully to my success at Dollar Shave Club. And, this is not the path that you would prescribe for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur. Nor was it the path of a liberal arts degree, also hugely impactful. If I'd been swayed from my path then, well, you've heard all that before.

So don't be motivated by or swayed by social noise or by the early marks of financial success of others. If you want to live a unique and exceptional life, choose unique and exceptional things. Make your own choices. Follow your interests. Follow your passions and the universe will deliver you on your path. And be patient. Success takes a minute. Charlie Engle, a man who ran across the Sahara Desert 26 miles each day, yes, he ran a marathon each day, it took him months. He says, “You can't run day 40 on day nine. Have a plan. Yes. But just run today’s race.”

Choice number three is a mindset choice. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Over the next many years you're going to have the inclination to find people that look like you, talk like you, where they come from places like you, to undertake activities or pursuits you're comfortable with or good at, to run away from unpleasant things and conversations. That's okay it's natural not to want to feel uncomfortable. Your body's natural instinct is to be comfortable and to take the easy path. But it's important to train yourself to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. So do things that make you uncomfortable. If you don't become a master of your discomfort it will prevent you from trying new things or taking important risks. But that's where all the growth is: in the discomfort zone. I spend most of my time in the discomfort zone doing things I've never done before. I find it exhilarating.

I'd never run a company before a company of 10 employees or a company of 360 employees. I'd never raised 150 million dollars from venture capitalists. I didn't even know any venture capitalists when I started Dollar Shave Club. And I certainly had never negotiated the sale of a company before. You just got to do it. I promise you're not going to screw it up that bad. You need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. It's a feeling you're going to have constantly your entire life. Tough conversations with friends, tough conversations with business partners, tough conversations in personal relationships. And if you don't get comfortable your discomfort will betray you. You won't have the presence of mind in the moment when you need it most and you'll take the path of least resistance instead of the correct path.

So next time you experience discomfort, this is an exercise, lean into it. Hang in there. Learn it. Bathe in it. Come to know your discomfort as a friend. That feeling is how you know you're learning and growing. And if you're not learning and you’re not growing then you're falling behind.

Choice number four, and this is a two parter—don't worry I only have two choices left—choice four: this is a two parter. Be kind to yourself when you're out there making thoughtful choices, and trying new things, and getting out of your comfort zone, things are going to go horribly wrong on you, more than a few times. You're going to get knocked around. You're going to have moments when nothing goes right. When you thought you've made all bad decisions, when you thought you screwed up your life, and all the doors are closed, you will have to cope with fear. You will have to cope with disappointment. You will have to cope with defeat.

Because of my GPA at Emory, I didn't get into graduate school. In the crash of 2008, I got laid off. There's nothing that will prepare you for these feelings but when they happen, and they will, be kind to yourself. Know that it happens to everyone and you deserve to be kind to yourself. Sometimes there's even a great silver lining. If I hadn't been laid off in 2008, I never would have started Dollar Shave Club. Your journey, like mine, is not a linear path. It very much meanders.

So take it easy on yourself and choice 4B: choose to study your failure. You're not off the hook. Just because you're allowed to be kind to yourself doesn't mean you should waste a good failure. This is the time for analysis. How did you get here? What could I have done differently? Make the choice to study your failure from every angle. Was I underprepared? Did I misjudge something or someone? Did I make some bad choices? How could I, someone who couldn't even pass the same class after seeing the final exam the first time around, go on to build a billion-dollar company and manage 350 people? Only by studying my failure, and then by choosing to never waste another opportunity. I told you before I took sketch and improv classes at night. Well that wasn’t it. I took accounting classes and corporate finance classes at night at Columbia. A lot of class for someone who didn't go to much class early on here.

I could never get my freshman and sophomore years back but I would double down in the time that I had now. I'll never waste another great opportunity again, because I missed some on the first lap. So study your failure, dissect it, don't let it happen again.

And here's a related choice number 5: choose to ask for help. Great people await you in the real world. Ask them for help. They can help you prevent a lot of failures. To ask for help requires humility, another great choice. If you're great just go kick ass and let the work speak for itself. Nobody likes a glory hog. If you're not great yet, but you want to be, go ask someone who is great for advice and for help. Admit it when you're out of your league ask for help. Starting a new job? Ask someone how can I get the most out of my time here? Been in the job for a year and not sure you're on the right path? Look 10 years out and find someone who is having the kind of career you do want, and ask them how they got there.

Find a mentor, find a coach, you have coaches in sports and teachers in class. Why wouldn't you want one in life? It's the hardest sport of all. And unless you lived a life before, you're not an expert You don't have it all figured out, and you don't need to figure it all out on your own. A major reason for my success is great people along the way offered me help, because I asked.

Why was I such an unsuccessful freshman and sophomore student here? Because I wasn't sure how to leverage the amazing resources of this world class university, and I didn't ask for help until I was a junior or senior. And thank goodness there were people like Andrea Hershatter who's here today, who allowed me to take classes at the business school once I found my passion, and who opened the door when I expressed interest in marketing to Joey Reiman’s BrightHouse just down the street, where I had an amazing formative internship. Thank you, Andrea, my success is because of people like you.

And you too, Giles! You couldn't get me a D that second time around, could you?

People want to help you. Let them help you. And then it will be your obligation to help others and that is the final choice for today. Choose to take some responsibility for someone or something other than yourself or your family. You are one of the fortunate. Yes. All of you whether your parents paid your tuition or whether you worked at night to pay yourself. You now have a degree from Emory University. You are the fortunate.

And the pace of our world is accelerating. Never before has the gap between the more fortunate and the less fortunate been so wide. And technology and access to information, once trumpeted as the great equalizer, has for the most part acted as a grease downhill speed zone for those who already know how to wield the tools. We, the fortunate, have an obligation to bring along those who do not. That can and should mean different things for each of you. But if good, fortune, educated, humble, relentless, worldly people like you all decide to take responsibility for something other than yourselves, then we as a society may just avert a catastrophe.

So as you leave this place and begin the next chapter of your life to bring shape to our world, remember that the shape of your life and the shape our world takes comes down to the choices, big and little, every day and infrequently, that you make. I've given you a few to think about, the next 17 years are going to fly by. Maybe most importantly, have fun. I wish you good luck, good choices, and happiness. Thank you.

Editor's Note: Do you wish you had been there for 2018 Commencement? See our recap.

We hope you'll also make the choice to join your fellow alumni. There is a place for you.