Preparing Boys for Life.
Excellence as a process: Cum Laude Society induction
Randall Drain '01

Founded in 1906, the Cum Laude Society is dedicated to honoring scholastic achievement in secondary schools. For this year's Cum Laude Society induction at Haverford, Randall T. Drain '01 was the guest speaker. He shares part of his remarks in this blog post. 

Good evening. Thank you Dr. Nagl, for such a warm welcome, and thank you all for inviting me here tonight. 

I love Haverford, and I love giving back to the school however I can because the school has done a tremendous amount for me. To be clear, my affection for Haverford extends in various directions. I was a varsity athlete here, which has had an undeniable impact on my growth and development. That said, Haverford very much so epitomizes academic excellence. Within that mutualistic trio, the A’s that Haverford School dominates – Academics, Arts, Athletics – academics stands out as the bread and butter of our school. Let’s be honest, it is extremely difficult to be average at Haverford. That is why so many Haverford graduates, Cum Laude and otherwise, go on to accomplish great things. So being here, with a group that responded impressively to the rigor required for excellence, is truly a great honor and privilege. 

Inductees, your achievements do two important things. One, they highlight you as individuals for what you’ve each done. Individualism is important; you are each the captains of your own ship. But simultaneously, your individual achievements also affirm the excellence of this institution and the timelessness of its mission. Remember this experience as an example of true excellence, where your individualism converges with a purpose that is bigger than you or any other one person. As you move forward, be on the lookout for these types of symbiotic relationships and you will likely find more success.

The most critical thing that I want you to remember is that: Excellence is a process, and it requires you to be patiently persistent as well as to partner with other people. I enjoy reading and writing, so you’ll have to bear with my alliterative frameworks. This one happens to be particularly useful, but I’ll admit, the Ps of excellence are a lot of what I came to talk about.

I love Haverford, and I love giving back to the school however I can because the school has done a tremendous amount for me. I was a varsity athlete here, which has had an undeniable impact on my growth and development. That said, Haverford very much so epitomizes academic excellence.

Before we take a spin through excellence as a process, there are people we – you and me - ought to acknowledge and properly recognize for their part in our excellence. Doing big things involves others. I want to point out two critical constituencies - groups of people - who have fostered the circumstances and opportunities that buttress our achievements.

First, family, especially parents. I do not think I know any of your parents personally, and many of the parents here may not even know each other. That said, parents are more similar than they may even know. Without knowing your parents, I know they are, within more or less a standard deviation on a handful of key inputs, basically the same as my parents. They love you, they make sacrifices for you, and they are committed to you unlike anyone else is. They put an exceptional amount of focus on you and they have provided advantages and opportunities that you should enthusiastically embrace, avail yourself of, and recognize. 

A very close second are your teachers, coaches, administrators, all of the staff at Haverford. Everyone here is focused on each and every one of you realizing your highest potential, which evidenced by tonight, is quite substantial. Let me just say, The Haverford School is one of the most well managed and effective institutions I have been a part of. So, we have your family, Haverford, and you working together. Now that’s a powerful partnership.

I say this not to goad you into thank yous or at all to caveat your individual efforts. I simply encourage you to think like the leaders you will become, which is to think systemically about all that it takes to excel and that your excellence is a process that involves others.

Everyone here is focused on each and every one of you realizing your highest potential, which evidenced by tonight, is quite substantial. Let me just say, The Haverford School is one of the most well managed and effective institutions I have been a part of. So, we have your family, Haverford, and you working together. Now that’s a powerful partnership.

So, as I thought about this talk, I reflected on my accomplishments, relationships, and growth on my own journey. What I concluded was that discussing my accomplishments alone would be very unhelpful and uninformative to you. So rather than lay out a litany of truisms that are too universal and too vague to be helpful, I said to myself, how about let’s confront some questionable advice about excellence you may very well hear in the future, perhaps in another speech by someone who loves talking in front of crowds and would like you to believe he or she has all of the answers. Plus, I like the TV show MythBusters and just enjoy irony as a general matter. So how about we bust some myths. 

The first myth I want to debunk for you is: Faster is better. You may be bombarded with paranoia about keeping up with change, the robots taking over, missing out on once in a lifetime this or that, all in an effort to get you to rush. To do what exactly you may ask? The carriers of this myth rarely know. Just hurry, they say. With all due respect to our stellar robotics team and the inevitability of change, hold on a second. Literally.  One of the biggest disservices my generation and those older than I are doing to your generation is feeding hysteria about the changing environment that is impossible to keep up with. It’s a bit much. Sure, there is constant change… there always has been… but you will be very prepared to adapt. For every one thing that may have changed about a given industry, there are two or three that remain similar or the same. The skill sets needed to learn version 1.0 task are often similar to those required to learn version 2.0 quickly. So, don’t panic. You will find success by being ready, not by being first. So, am I saying to be less assertive, no. Assertiveness is critical. But do not rush, take your time. Back to the requirement for persistence, anything approaching excellence requires sustained effort that cannot be rushed. Learn things well. Focus on the steps and processes required for whatever it is you want to do in life. Turn the shot clock off for the foreseeable future, and make consistent, sustained improvements in the things you enjoy doing.

Myth 2: You need mentors. You do not… at least not in the way some may try to get you to believe. This one is a bit controversial, so let me explain, as some here, including myself may be mentors and take the responsibility seriously. So, inductees, yes, you absolutely should begin to seek out knowledgeable people that can help you chart the best course for continued excellence. But notice the nuance. You are the captains of your ships and it is your course to chart. The course you choose will always be the best one for you. Don’t get me in trouble with your parents and misapply my busted myth when asked to clean your room or put your phone down. That’s not what this is about. Just like a chef who decides which high-quality ingredients to use or not, treat would-be mentors as potential sources for good ingredients or even as experienced chefs, whose shoulders you can look over. Actively pick what inputs and techniques you want to use to make your very own recipes.

Myth 3. What I like to call the peanut gallery may try to convince you that your liberal arts education and training is fuzzy, unhelpful in the real world, or sets you up to be behind. This one is insidious and stems from the same paranoia of Myth 1, the paranoia that causes people to believe 14-year-olds ought to dive into cost accounting, instead of mastering algebra.  So let’s take this myth head-on. The fact is: When your basic, fundamental and broadly applicable skills are superb you can apply them in myriad ways to achieve excellence at a very high level in any circumstance. Furthermore, mastery of those basic, fundamental and broadly applicable skills enable one to synthesize and apply knowledge, which are the pillars of leadership, at least its intellectual components. My career revolves around finance, investments, and entrepreneurship. There is nothing liberal arts about that right? No, in fact, there is. The single most determinant skill in my career has been my ability to write well. Go figure. Not financial modeling, not accounting, which I taught other MBAs just one year after I saw it for the first time and which helps with insomnia by the way. Sure, those were necessary disciplines that I eventually learned, but my liberal arts foundation which began here at Haverford, allowed me to gather professional skills quicker and apply them more effectively, just as it will for you. So, if you do not believe me, I’ll tell you a quick story about a guy I had the privilege of getting to know, while at Wharton. His name is Andrew and while I was learning how to price risk before we met, he served as a Tier One operator on multiple combat tours in places I squint at when pointing to them on a map. Excellence personified. Andrew is the kind of person I respect.  Funny enough, he didn’t do a whole lot of talking. But with a bit of persistence,  I was able to squeeze some tidbits out about his elite military training. For me, I don’t care what someone is good at, I am just fascinated by how they got to be so good, as it typically boils down to actions and choices. So anyway, Andrew explained to me in his cryptic special forces way that essentially the best warfighters in the world were the best for two reasons: One, each other i.e. teamwork i.e. people and partnerships, which we covered. But two, on an individual level, he spoke of the mastery of basic, universal skills that he applied in virtually any situation to solve any problem. So, if ever you have even the slightest doubt that a liberal arts education from Haverford has prepared you for whatever it is you want to do, recall this talk and a patriot named Andrew.

As you evaluate and interact with others, try to focus on those aspects that reflect what they do, their processes, and their persistence. You never know, you may just stumble upon partnerships that move you along your path to even greater excellence.

Myth 4: Surround yourself with winners. This one would be laughable, if it were not so pervasive. As if winning and success were colds to be caught. I promise you this myth about excellence is spoken by the uninformed and unfamiliar. Sure, I concede the company you keep is important, but it has more to do with the habits and values of that company than whether they have some patina of success. As you ascend to even greater heights, you will discover the importance of several words that end in – ity. That, I assure you. We could have a talk about each one, but we do not have time for that tonight. The one I will mention as I bust myth 4 is adversity.  There is no winning that doesn’t come through losing and no excellence that does not start by being mediocre.  So, instead of looking for winners, look for good processes and for the people behind those processes that will support you as you persist towards greater excellence.

Myth 5. The final myth. We’ve come a long way in protecting a top decile group from bottom quartile advice. So the last myth is timely as some adults these days seem to be lost in the woods. Hopefully, you inductees can save us. The last myth has to do with identity and more importantly identifying yourself and others as you continue to excel. You may be encouraged to project an identity and to assign identities to others, without regard for depth, originality or agency. Resist the temptation. Paradoxically, the people that will help propel you forward are everywhere but also hard to find. Respect yourself and others always, but do not waste time and opportunities getting bogged down by myths and mirages about identity.

Instead try, with an open mind, to focus on what one does and what you do. I promise the true stories about you and about anyone are told through actions and choices. So, as you evaluate and interact with others, try to focus on those aspects that reflect what they do, their processes, and their persistence. You never know, you may just stumble upon partnerships that move you along your path to even greater excellence.

Congratulations on your extraordinary accomplishments. And thank you again for having me here this evening. All the best!

Recent Blog Posts