Put Skin in the Game

Posted by James Rainey - 27 May, 2018

Billy Howard shoot - JPGS - 6703866The Head of School's closing remarks at Commencement for the Class of 2018. 

Your homework: First, there is a book that I want all of you to read. It’s called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America” by Deborah and James Fallows, and it offers an inspirational antidote to our daily “downer doses” of national news media. Its authors note, for example, that while only 36 percent of Americans in 2016 thought that the country was headed in the right direction, 85 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their lives and their ability to pursue the American dream.

This apparent contradiction makes sense when one considers the extent to which trust wanes with jurisdictional distance. Gallup finds that 70 percent of Americans trust their local government to “do the right thing,” but only 25 percent trust their national government to do so.

(If you'd rather listen to these remarks, scroll down to the video at the end of this post.)

Second, there is a guy on Twitter I want all of you to follow. His name is Vince Graham, and he has this to say about his own seemingly contradictory – but eminently logical – thinking about government: “I am, at the federal level, a libertarian; at the state level, a Republican; at the local level, a Democrat; with my family and friends, a socialist; and with my dog, a Marxist.” We all know that old communist slogan: “From each according to his ability… to buy chew toys, to each according to his need… to chew.”

The more remote the government, the less trusting the governed – and in America, an encouraging transition is happening: the governed are migratorially closing this trust gap. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of people have relocated from major cities like New York and Chicago, with populations as large as those of small countries, to mid-sized cities like Huntsville, where they can have a greater impact; and small towns, after shrinking for decades, are holding steady.

Steve Case, who co-founded America Online in the 1990s, leads “Rise of the Rest” events across the country to promote the tech industry in smaller markets. “For half a century,” he says, “there’s been a brain drain, as people left their hometowns for better opportunities elsewhere. Now we’re seeing a boomerang of people returning to where they’re from — for lifestyle reasons, and because they can see that their communities are rising and opportunities are increasing.”

I imagine that your parents would be quite pleased if all of you became “boomerang people” yourselves and, in a few years, settled back in Huntsville. 

Third, there is book that I want all of you to read. It’s called “Skin in the Game” by Nassim Taleb, who himself puts little trust in remote governments, or corporations for that matter. “Bureaucracy,” he says, “is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” For Taleb, the only ones who matter are those who have skin in the game – entrepreneurs and “artisans,” he says, who “do things for existential reasons first, financial ones later,” who “have some kind of ‘art’ in their profession,” who “put some soul in their work.”


Fourth, there is a movie that I want all of you to see. It’s a 1989 film called "Say Anything," and it’s about a recent high school graduate named Lloyd Dobler who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but who knows what he doesn’t want to do. As he earnestly explains to his girlfriend’s father, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed.” Lloyd Dobler doesn’t want a job; he doesn’t want to be “conveniently separated from the consequences of his actions.” He wants skin in the game.

Skin in the game is the opposite of consumerism. One of the people interviewed by Deborah and James Fallows in Our Towns says, “If you want to consume a fabulous community, you could move to some place like Brooklyn, or San Francisco, or Seattle, or Paris, or any other glittering site with restaurants, parks, and vistas to enjoy. If you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help.” 

Fifth, there is a book that I want all of you to read called the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of Hinduism. Discourse 3, verse 12: “One who enjoys the bounty of the gods without offering them anything in return is verily a thief.”

Sixth, there is a book that I want you all to read called the “Gospel of Matthew.” Chapter 7, verse 12: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Seventh, there is a book that I would like you all to read called “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!” by Yogi Berra. “Always go to other people’s funerals,” he says. “Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.” Skin in the game.

A few weeks ago, an office assistant in New York who worked for the same law firm for 67 years and retired at age 96 on a secretary’s salary died and left a gift of $6.24 million to the Henry Street Settlement, a Manhattan non-profit committed to social work and public health programs. In 2015, a Wisconsin grocer who only bought shoes at a discount and never took vacations died and left $13 million to his alma mater, a Catholic high school in Milwaukee, to establish a scholarship fund for students with financial need. A woman in Illinois who bought her clothes at rummage sales and chose to walk rather than own a car bequeathed $7 million to Lake Forest College when she died in 2010. How thrilling it must have been for these quiet philanthropists to imagine the good that would come from their generous gifts, each the cumulative result of myriad small sacrifices made day after day after day. Nassim Taleb writes, “When you have skin in the game, dull things cease to be boring…. When there is fire, you will run faster than in any competition.”

At Randolph, we have skin in the game, from our founders who committed time, talent, and treasure to realize their vision of a thriving and exceptional independent school in their beloved Huntsville; to the benefactors who have followed them, who have given generously toward the construction of facilities and the establishment of programs to sustain that founding vision; to the trustees who commit themselves to leadership of this school and, in many cases, to extraordinary investments of time without compensation; to the faculty who dedicate themselves to you, their students, at levels of compensation below what they could earn in other professions, and at levels of work effort and emotional investment that evince their constant love of the students in their care; all the way to you, who have modeled and helped to sustain expectations of investment in and stewardship of this special place on behalf of the students who will follow you here.


I failed to mention your parents in that list, who have invested and sacrificed considerably for you to attend so excellent a school as Randolph.

Eighth, there is an ancient Greek rhetorician named Isocrates whom I want all of you to study. “Conduct yourself toward your parents,” he advised, “as you would have your children conduct themselves toward you.” An inter-generational version of the Golden Rule. Reciprocal skin in the game. Gratitude.

At the time that you were born, I was living in Chicago, and a friend of mine there named David became a father for the first time. His daughter, Gabby, is graduating from high school this year – the same school where our own Ann Goodrich will soon be teaching, actually. They are also the Raiders. (Go Raiders!) My friend David was the seventh of seven children in his family, but he wasn’t an accident. Number six was an accident, so David’s parents had him to give number six a buddy. But we love all of our children the most. When Gabby was born, David’s father stood next to him quietly at her crib, and then he looked at David and said, “Now you know how much I love you.”

The Lower School at Randolph staged an abbreviated version of “The Music Man” this spring, and while our own production did not include the song “Till There Was You,” I thought I would share it with you now, on behalf of your parents, who love you the most of all their children, because we are never too old to be sung to.

There were bells on a hill,
But I never heard them ringing.
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky,
But I never saw them winging.
No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you.

And there was music and wonderful roses
They tell me in sweet fragrant meadows
Of dawn and dew.
There was love all around,

But I never heard it singing.
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you.

The tweet of a lengthy speech: “The news is wrong. The sky is blue. Read! Produce more than you consume. Put skin in the game, in college and in life. Be well.” Congratulations to the Class of 2018!

Topics: advice to graduates, summer reading, Head of School, Commencement, vacation books

Recent Posts

Senior Speech: Seek Out Diversity

read more

Senior Speech: The Value of a Single Friend

read more

Senior Speech: My Struggle with Procrastination

read more