Don’t Stick Your Finger In the Rat Cage – A Convocation Speech

I was invited to give the convocation speech at Ivy Tech in Warsaw, Indiana, during the honors ceremony the week before graduation. I was an adjunct faculty member there in Speech Communication for two years while I lived up in Syracuse, Indiana, so I was invited back to campus to share my words of wisdom. While it’s not Neil Gaiman’s Create Good Art speech, I think I did a pretty good job.

This is the text of my speech given to the students receiving honors and recognition, and their families.


I’m very pleased to be here. And a little surprised too. 30 years ago, I was not the guy you would expect to be asked to speak to a group like this. According to my high school grades and SAT scores, I was not even the guy you’d expect to be sitting out there with you.

But life gives us second chances. Second chances, third chances, fourth chances. I used all of those, and learned something each time. Eventually I got smart, and tried not to learn from my mistakes so much, but to start learning from other people’s mistakes instead. I learned how other people failed, so I could avoid doing that. And I learned how they succeeded, so I could do more of that.

So I want to talk about things I’ve learned in the last 5, 10, 20 years. Some of the knocks I’ve taken and seen other people take. I want to tell you what I learned in finding my way so you can find your own.

If I were really clever, like Neil Gaiman, the British science fiction writer, I’d tell you to “make good art,” and how you’re allowed to make glorious and fantastic mistakes. He didn’t say how many though, and I’m still trying to find the limit.

If I were David Foster Wallace, the American novelist, I’d tell you the story about the three fish, how “this is water,” and how it relates to the importance of being well-adjusted.” Well, I know what water is, but I haven’t been well-adjusted in years.

There are three lessons I want to share with you tonight, in the hopes that you can learn them now, rather than learning them yourself the hard way.


Lesson 1: Help Others Achieve Their Goals

The first is to help others achieve their goals.

When you do a lot of networking, you meet people who need something. They don’t necessarily need something from you. They just need something.

One day, you meet a Realtor who wants to fix up a rundown house to sell. The next, you meet a retired contractor who’s looking for something to do. You introduce them, and in a few months, he becomes her go-to-guy on all her fixer-uppers.

Or, your friend from high school is now a wedding planner. Two months later, your cousin opens a specialty cake business. And her best friend is a wedding photographer. You send a couple quick emails, and they’re having lunch and have passed enough business between themselves to book their entire summer.

Or your chiropractor tells you he’s trying to grow his practice. Three days later, a friend complains about her back pains. You refer her to your chiropractor, and she’s feeling much better, and is very grateful.

I have a friend who’s a professional photographer, focusing mostly on commercial and corporate work. He’s got another photographer friend who focuses on family portrait work. So the two of them trade leads constantly. Paul tells me he gets anywhere from 2 to 6 inquiries a month directly from Kristeen.

Why should you do this? What’s in it for you? You’re helping all these people, but what should you expect return?

Nothing. You should expect nothing. And that’s as it should be.

Because a little-known secret to success is first to help other people achieve their goals, their dreams, and their wins.

You don’t have to give up on your own goals. But in the course of your day, as you’re working on your own thing, you’re going to have a chance to help other people find the things they need. Introduce them to people they should meet. Share opportunities that don’t fit your own plans, and plug your friends in.

But — and here’s the kicker — don’t ask for a return favor.

That’s right, don’t ask for anything back. Nobody owes you one, you don’t have a favor coming to you. You don’t get a finder’s fee, a commission, or a free lunch.

If they insist on returning the favor, tell them about the people you’d like to meet or the opportunities you’re looking for. But explain that you’re not doing this so they’ll pay you back. You’re doing it to be helpful, because you hope they’ll do it for someone else some day.

Don’t keep track, don’t call in favors, and never call them and say, “Remember that one time I introduced you to that guy who did that thing with the stuff at the place?”

Because keeping track is petty and mean. Keeping track is lonely. Because people know when you keep track. They remember when you call in favors, and they know you keep an exact count of who owes what. And when they’ve paid you back, they’ll stop accepting your help because they know it comes with strings.

But if you’re the kind of person who just helps, they’ll remember you forever. If you do it enough times for a enough people, good things will happen for you.

Call it Karma, blessings, God’s favor, “The Secret,” or the universe doing you a solid. Whatever you call it, if you help enough people, your generosity will be returned to you in ways much, much bigger than if you kept track.


Lesson 2: Create Your Own Luck

By creating opportunities for other people, and helping them reach their goals, you’re going to accomplish my second lesson: create your own luck. You are going to create your own opportunities and your own lucky breaks.

Most people don’t like to do this is because it’s hard work, and the payoff is slow. Any time you try something new, like searching for a job, you won’t see success right away.

It’s very rare to try something for the first time and win a contest, get published, get recognized, or close a sale. There are no brand new singers who go on American Idol or The Voice and win the entire thing. Very rarely do we get that lucky. If you do, you’d better hope it’s because you bought a lottery ticket.

But you can create your own luck. You can create the circumstances where you get the thing you want, and the things you’ve worked for.

Maybe it’s getting that first job interview. Or the job offer. Or landing a sale with a big client. Or even running a 5K race. Trying out for a play. Publishing a magazine article.

But it’s not just blind luck. That didn’t happen the first time you ever tried to accomplish your goal. It happened after you applied to 50, 100, or even 200 jobs. Ten years ago, I applied for over 400 jobs in a single year before I got one.

Creating your own luck is not a matter of rubbing a rabbit’s foot, or having a four-leaf clover, or not changing your socks until your hitting streak ends.

Creating your luck is a matter of doing the thing you want over and over. It means applying for as many jobs as you can find. It means meeting as many people for coffee as you have time and a bladder for. It means making as many sales calls as you can, or sending as many emails.

Because the law of averages says someone is eventually going to pay attention to you. The hiring manager will call you. Or the purchasing manager will finally buy something. Or the newspaper or magazine will publish your article.

Lorraine Ball, Kyle Lacy, and Me

Me, Lorraine Ball, and Kyle Lacy. Lorraine introduced me to Kyle, and we started writing books shortly thereafter.

Or, if you’re like my friends Kyle and Lorraine, meeting someone will set off a long chain of events that lead you somewhere else. Kyle met Lorraine when they both attended the same networking group.

Kyle ended up working for Lorraine as an intern, and she taught him about marketing and networking. He left after a year and started his own business. I met them both through the same networking group, and Kyle and I eventually wrote a couple books together. Lorraine became my mentor and taught me about business, and I learned enough to eventually own my small company.

Now Lorraine’s business is the biggest it has ever been, I’ve written four books, and Kyle is a high up muckity-muck at ExactTarget in Indianapolis.

Our accomplishments all happened because we met someone who introduced us to someone else who introduced us to a third person, who introduced us to a fourth person who did something awesome. We constantly refer people to each other — “Oh, you need to meet Kyle,” or “you should really talk to my friend Lorraine.”

Sometimes those introductions pay off, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, they pay off five years later when someone calls one of us and says “we met a few years ago, and I just had something come across my desk that you would be perfect for.”

This isn’t just luck, this is serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person holding the right opportunity. This happens all the time in all our lives, we just have to be willing to be open to the idea, and pursue the people and opportunities that come our way.

It’s a direct reflection of the amount of energy and effort you put into other people and into the work you want to do. And the more people you meet, and the more energy you put in, the more successful you’ll be.

There’s an old saying that if you want to split a rock, you need to hit it 1,000 times. When it breaks, it’s not the thousandth strike that did it, it’s the 999 times before it.

When I was a kid, whenever I lost something, my dad always said, “It will always be in the last place you look.” I never understood exactly what he meant, so one day, when I was trying to find my basketball, I tried to shortcut the system.

I stood in my bedroom and declared, “The last place I’m going to look is my closet!” Then I looked in the closet and. . . no basketball.

I was so annoyed. I had told God and the universe that this was the last place I was going to look, but that didn’t put the basketball there, which meant this wasn’t true. It also meant I had to keep looking, which meant it really wasn’t the last place I looked. (It was in my toy box out in the garage.)

Your goals don’t work that way. You can’t stand over the rock and declare your first strike to be the thousandth. You can’t declare your first job application to be “the one.” If things worked that way, I’d be filthy rich.

Instead, you have to stand over the rock, sweat in your eyes, shoulders aching, swinging that stupid hammer over and over again. When you want to quit, you take a little break, get a drink, switch arms, and swing some more.

Just when you think you’ve had enough, and your arms are going to fall off, that’s when that last strike comes. You hit the rock and there’s a different sound. It’s deeper, and you feel it in the ground. That’s when everything starts to change and all your work starts paying off.

Not only do you get one phone call for a job interview, you get four. Not only did you close the sale, you got a year-long contract. Not only did you land the part in the play, you got the lead. Not only did you run the 5K, you won your age group.

It happened because you kept hitting the rock. You worked hard, you practiced, kept writing, rehearsing, running, and calling. And that’s why you succeeded.

None of this is going to happen for you every time. Just like every economy has an up and down, and every civilization has a high and low, our own lives have their own ups and downs. It’s what you do during the ups that prepare you for the downs. And it’s what you do when you’re down that makes your ups higher and longer.


Lesson 3: Don’t Take NO For An Answer

One of the reasons you have to keep trying? One of the reasons it’s going to be hard? Because you’re going to hear NO a lot. Which brings me to my third lesson, don’t take NO for an answer.

I was a troublemaker when I was a kid. I was constantly causing trouble, getting into trouble, and making trouble, and my teachers and parents were worried that I wasn’t going to do much with my life. I had “a lot of potential,” but so did every other kid. Turns out making trouble was the best thing I could have done for my future.

There are people who study this kind of thing. One interesting thing they found about troublemakers is that we make the best entrepreneurs and artists, because we never take NO for an answer.

“NO” is not the final word. It’s not even “No, dammit, now cut it out!”

We hold out for “Fine, do whatever you want.” Because in our minds, “See, I told you so” is our final word. We never want to end something on someone else’s terms, we end them on our own. If you tell us NO, we’re going to push and push until we get to our version of Yes, with or without you.

Lab ratIt reminds me of the time my dad made me get my finger bitten by a lab rat.

My dad was a psychology professor at Ball State for 45 years (in fact, today is his last day; he finally retired). When I was four, he did a lot of work doing behavioral testing on lab rats. One day, he took me to the rat lab so I could see where he worked. He bent down, looked me straight in the eye, and told me the one thing guaranteed to get me to stick my finger in a rat’s cage.

He said, “Don’t stick your finger in the rat cage.”

We spent the next few hours at Ball Memorial Hospital where I got a shot in my butt and a bandage on my finger.

Troublemakers never do what we’re told. In fact, we do the opposite of what we’re told. That’s what makes us such good entrepreneurs. People tell us to forget about a problem, or to just live with it, but we can’t. In fact, the best way to get us to fix a problem is to tell us it can’t be solved.

But we’re going to hear a lot of NO while we do it. We’re going to spend a lot of our life hearing NO over and over.

No, you can’t go to this college. Fine, I’ll go to another one.

No, you can’t take those classes. Fine, I didn’t want to take your stupid classes anyway.

No, you can’t have a job here. Fine, I’ll start my own job. And then you’ll contract with my company to do that job better than the person you hired.

This also means that life is going to knock you down. A lot. Many of us have been knocked down a few times already. That’s life’s way of saying NO.

But to the troublemakers and the entrepreneurs, that’s not the end. It’s a dare. That’s life pointing at its chin and saying, “come on, give me your best shot.”

The troublemaker will get up again and again and again. Eventually we’ll stop getting knocked down. We’ll be the ones knocking life on its backside for a while.

Many of you have already done something that 60% of the people in this country will never do — you went to school. And many of you are planning on going on to something bigger. A new job, more opportunities, maybe even more school.

And you are already — as motivational speaker Les Brown says — blessed and highly favored. I hope you all realize that, because I think all of you can do great things. All of you, not just our graduates.

And it really all will just come down to doing the three things I’ve discussed tonight: Help others achieve their goals; Create your own luck; Don’t take NO for an answer.

It’s that simple, but it’s not that easy. It’s hard work. It means doing a little more every day. Doing a little more than the person next to you. Working a little longer. Watching less TV and reading more books. It means getting up 30 minutes earlier, or staying up 30 minutes later.

I can tell you that even though this is common sense advice, it’s not as common as you might think. Because no matter how many times “the experts” tell people this is what it takes, most people won’t do it. They don’t want to put in the extra effort. But you can, and the payoffs will be huge.

Even if you do just 30 minutes more per day than anyone else — 30 minutes more practice, 30 minutes more sales calls, 30 minutes more job searching — you’ll be 2.5 hours ahead of the game at the end of the week.

That’s 10 hours in a month. That’s 120 hours in a year. That’s three extra weeks of work in reaching for your own goals. And if you can put in that three extra weeks of reaching for your dreams, you’re going to be miles ahead of those people who show up at 8 or 9 and go home at 4 or 5.

Because when you get down to it, by helping others, creating your own luck, and never taking NO for an answer, you too will be blessed and highly favored, and you’ll be in a position to do awesome things for yourself and your family.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

After the ceremony, a woman came to me and said her grandson was a fellow troublemaker, and she wished she had a copy of the speech she could show her daughter. I happened to have a hard copy of the speech, which I gave to her. She was so pleased with that. Best. Thank you. Ever.


Photo credit: Erik, Lorraine, Kyle Toni Deckers Lab rat, Rick, Eh? (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.