"Strategic Vision:" Dr. Greg Filbeck's Address to the Fall Graduates

December 20, 2011—As is tradition at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, the address at the fall commencement ceremony held on Friday, Dec. 16, was given by a Penn State Behrend faculty member. Dr. Greg Filbeck, professor of finance and the Samuel Patton Black Chair in Insurance and Risk Management, shared the remarks below with the college's 309 graduates and their guests.

"Strategic Vision: Your Personal Policy Statement"

Special guests, colleagues, graduates, family and friends…today, it’s an honor to stand before you as your commencement speaker for the fall 2011 graduating class. Graduates, you have reached a major milestone in your lives. You should congratulate yourselves and show appreciation for those key players in your life who have supported you both financially or with encouragement.

In portfolio management, managers often create what is known as an investment policy statement. The investment policy statement states the return objectives, risk tolerance, time horizons, and unique circumstances, among other topics, and is an overall statement that offers vision for establishing strategic asset allocation, helping investors stay on track to achieve goals, and avoiding impulsive moves which, at the moment, may sound attractive (think of IT stocks in the late 90s or mortgage-backed securities in the mid 2000s). And while at a given point in time market conditions may cause concern for a nervous investor, over the long haul it is a useful device for achieving long-term, strategic goals.

So, why talk about an investment policy statement to a group of graduates? The principles of preparing an investment policy statement can easily be transferred to our personal lives. I would like to encourage each of you as you move into the next phase of life to create your personal policy statement. Much like an investment policy statement, this personal policy statement will help guide you through the next horizon of life and keep you focused on your overall goals and mission in life. Think personal objectives, tolerances, time horizon, and unique circumstances.

The guiding principles for the personal policy statement can arise from tradition, life philosophy, or from faith. Whether you write it down or simply reflect on it thoughtfully, wording is important. The more clear and focused your statement, the more it conveys the path necessary to achieve your personal goals over time. An ill-worded statement can have unintended consequences and confusing interpretation. Poorly structured guidance can lead us astray. As children, we rely on our parents and other key adult figures to give us appropriate guidance. As we mature, our guidance extends to other influences—peers, community leaders, celebrities, and the media. For those figures who have served the graduates well through the years, a big thank you— it’s a tremendous honor and responsibility to be placed in one of these key roles, and now more than ever before we realize the dangers when these roles are occupied by those who do not bring honor to them.

Think of your personal policy statement as a road map to personal success. We all know how important road maps and road signs are—they often keep us from getting lost or sidetracked—and many times split-second timing can make huge differences in our ability to get to our destination on time. In our day-to-day living, we have all relied on such guidance. Airports are a great example of where we rely heavily on signs and maps. Many of you have probably flown through Detroit’s airport. While the current airport is well organized, only a few years ago the Detroit airport was ranked at the bottom of user-friendly airports. It was during that time that I connected on a flight through Detroit, trying to find Gate A6 with very limited time. I still recall my frustration—and a bit of amusement—as I encountered two side-by-side signs, one telling me gate A6 was straight ahead, and the other telling me to turn right to get to A6. In the pinch, we need clear directions in our travels through life as well. I guessed correctly and made my connection, which is probably why I can look back on the incident with humor.

Most of you have at least an abstract notion of goals you hope to achieve, although some of you probably never write them down. The danger of not committing them to paper is that they may end up as a set of ongoing talking points. You all know individuals who five, ten, or twenty years later are still articulating the same initial set of goals, but never seem to make progress toward them. Forcing yourself to write them down— to commit them to paper—often makes you more committed to their achievement. In the process of writing them down, you have to be clear about them. The goals need to be measurable and convey their intent clearly. Unclear or faulty words make you less likely to know exactly what you hope to achieve or the message you intend to convey.

Most of you will be moving on to a career or to graduate school following graduation. Each of you selected your majors because you enjoyed the subject matter, or your felt that the degree offered you opportunities to support yourself at a certain standard of living, or possibly both! While excellence in the workforce is extremely important, your career usually doesn’t define you as a person. Neither do your roles in life. My focus on discussing a personal policy statement is for your personal, not professional, goals.

Back in the 1990s, I was a member of the Leadership Toledo, and one of the exercises we performed was to select what defined us as a person. Approximately two-thirds of the participants selected their vocation or a role they play in life as defining them. Obviously your vocation and the roles you play are very important and will consume a large portion of your time. But my questions for you are, What drives you? What makes you want to wake up in the morning? Where’s your passion? What will keep you an active, rather than a passive, participant in life? It is in this area of thought that I am encouraging fodder for your personal policy statement. For some, it’s involvement with people, to make a difference in the world around you through community service or helping others. For others, it may be related to hobbies or avocations such as music, reading or travel. For others, it might be gardening or genealogy or spiritual growth or exercising. It could be related to your heritage, ethnic background, or political persuasions. It’s these passions that will differentiate you from others and help make your life extraordinary.

Many obstacles exist that can turn an active life into a passive life. For many of you, college has been a time of being a part of a broader community, with ready access to a number of other individuals with whom you have developed strong bonds and spent considerable time together. You’ve been active. You’ve been plugged into the community around you. The realities of life post-graduation can be quite sobering: increased responsibility, including a steady job, taking care of dependents, and so forth. In the midst of everything, it is easy to forget what drives you, gives you passion, what keeps you active. Sometimes it’s easy to become passive when not working or caretaking. And now, more than ever before, it is easy to isolate, to not connect with others. By nature, we are all social beings, but obviously some more than others. Passive living leads to isolation.

Jim Trelease, who wrote and frequently updates his Read Aloud Handbook, which primarily serves to encourage parents to read aloud to their children, presents some sobering statistics. In the 1960s, a survey concluded that almost two-thirds of participants stated that their favorite pastime activity was spending time with friends and family. When the survey was repeated recently, the same proportion listed viewing television as their favorite pastime activity. The average person in this country views approximately thirty-two hours of television as week—that’s almost a full time job. Imagine what life would look like with at least a portion of that time freed up for more active pursuits. Scientific American reported a study a few years ago that indicated that watching more than two hours of television a day resulted in statistically significant higher levels of anxiety. While everyone needs down time, such an investment of time at a passive activity can actually be harmful.

Not only do we need to be engaged with the world around us, we need to remain physically active, a key component of a high quality of life. Obesity has increased over six-fold in the past twenty years, and with it came increases in obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Our bodies were meant to move. The old adage “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” is true here. Expending energy helps you gain more energy.

The point is that it is easy to lose focus of that extraordinary life, to steer away from your Personal Policy Statement, because of the daily grind and the responsibilities that weigh heavy in adult lives. But the good news is that you do not have to fall into these traps. You can soar high, you can be whatever you want to be, but you need to cultivate and nurture those hobbies and interests that will keep you active.

Music has always been one of the passions of my life. In fact, on a part-time basis, I have racked up a dozen years of experience as a disc jockey at radio stations. I have found that music lyrics often provide inspiration for higher living. In the next segment of this address, I would like to present you with several examples of such lyrics that span your lifetime. To me, a good set of lyrics can serve as inspiration and motivation to fuller, more active life.

Many of you will recall the words of a recent top five hit by Natasha Bedingfield: “Live your life with arms wide open/ today is where your book begins/ the rest is still unwritten.” From your younger years, Elton John tells us to “never take more than we give” in the “Circle of Life.” Lee Ann Womack, in “I Hope You Dance,” encourages us to “never lose your sense of wonder/ you get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger.” Or even more recently, from Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb: ” “There’s always going to be another mountain/ I’m always going to want to make it move/ it’s not about how fast I get there/ it’s the climb!” Katy Perry offers inspiration with “Firework” – “You just have to ignite the light and let it shine.”

The words of St. Francis of Assisi remain classic in the 2006 Olivia Newton-John song “Instrument of Peace:”

Where there is hatred, let me bring love
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith
Where there is falsehood, let me bring truth
Where there is pain, I'll comfort you
Where there is silence, let me sing praise
Where there’s despair, let me bring hope
Where there is blindness, let me bring sight
Where there is darkness, let me bring light.
Grant that I may not so seek
To be heard but to hear
To be consoled but to console,
Not to be seen, but to see
To be loved but to love.

I close this evening by offering you one last set of lyrics, from Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” which are particularly fitting as you embark on your next journey:

I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly
I’ll do what it takes until I touch the sky
Out of the darkness and into the sun
But I won’t forget all the ones that I love
I’ll take a risk
Take a chance
Make a change
And breakaway

Graduates, make your life extraordinary—take a risk, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway.