Alumnus Macon Phillips '96 was the speaker for the Cum Laude Society induction ceremony. Macon works at the White House as Special Assistant to President Obama and Director of Digital Strategy. He is responsible for Whitehouse.gov, the official website of the President of the United States. While at Randolph, Macon played basketball, was a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta and the Foreign Language Club. He attended Duke University, where he majored in sociology. Macon and his wife, Emily, are the proud parents of Max Rankin Phillips, born just after November’s election. What follows are the remarks he made and a video.
Bear with me. I haven’t had to turn anything into Randolph in 17 years! And it’s quite intimidating to stand here and offer my “words of wisdom” to all of you students—because when I look out at this crowd I can draw a continuous line back through my years at the White House, the presidential campaign in Chicago, the consulting job in D.C., the gig I had managing commercial real estate in Vermont, the Americorps job that changed my life, the summer in Huntsville shucking oysters at a bar downtown, the tech jobs I had in California right out of college, my four years at Duke, all the way to that chair you’re sitting in.
I had a lot of hope when I was in that chair, but I also had a little fear. As excited as I was about setting out on my own one day, heading to college and so forth, I still wondered how the grown-up world actually worked.
If there are any of you out there who feel that way, let me tell you: 17 years later, I’m still filled with that wonder.
There’s no secret code to being an adult, and you certainly don’t learn it in college. It turns out that as you grow older, you pick up a lot of new ideas and friends, but you never really “figure it out.”
It’s not anyone’s fault really. How could anyone be expected to master a world that is changing as profoundly as the one we live in right now?
I feel incredibly lucky to have the unique appreciation for this change that comes from beginning high school with card catalogs and finishing it with search engines.
When I was in lower school, we used paper punch cards leftover from the first computers as scratch paper. By middle school, I used a dial-up modem to connect to the computer lab’s BBS system. And when I say computer lab, I mean the single place on campus where we kept all the computers. Now the phone in your pocket would run circles around those old machines.
There’s a nine year-old from Tennessee named Robbie Novak, who many of you may know as “Kid President.” For the rest of you, he’s an adorable guy who puts out his own “Presidential addresses” that are as inspirational and positive as they are popular. One of his pep talks has more than 17 million views.
I was with him yesterday when he met the real President. After a brief presidential summit, President Obama gave Robbie a tour of the Oval Office. He stopped at a shelf and said, “Now this is pretty cool, it’s an original telegraph”
Robbie replied, "What’s a telegraph?"
So look, technology is getting more powerful—that part is pretty straightforward. The real change—what makes your generation really special—is how you’re using it:
• Need to collaborate on a group project? Spin up a Google Doc.
• Want to join a conversation about any subject with people around the world? Find the right hashtag on Twitter.
• Have something important you want to share with the world? Cut together a video, publish it yourself and, who knows, the next thing you know you might be in the Oval Office.
These examples may be obvious to you, but that’s my point. These new models of learning, collaboration and networking aren’t obvious to everyone else. Many of my Randolph classmates and most of my White House colleagues wouldn’t instinctively think of those things. I know that may seem crazy, but it’s true.
Now here’s what’s really fun to think about: In 17 years, imagine what one of you will be saying to the kids sitting where you are now.
What new models of collaboration and discovery will exist? What tools will the next generation take for granted that you will struggle to figure out?
So here’s my advice: while you are the vanguard of the technological and cultural change touching everything from governments to news media, from the entertainment industry to issue advocacy, from health and wellness to how we stay in touch with our loved ones, press your advantage.
Starting right now, through college and into your twenties, know that your generation can punch above its weight. The rest of us are just trying to keep up with the things you do naturally.
The first big risk I ever took was a gigantic flop. When I graduated from college, I moved out to California to start a company with a Randolph classmate that would make CD-ROMs shaped like business cards. I thought that was the future. I had a business plan and everything. What a terrible idea!
But you know what? It got me out to California, away from everyone and everything familiar. It put me squarely in the part of our country that was bubbling with passion for technology and media and I learned more about those industries than I ever did in a classroom.
The best things that ever happened to me came from taking risks. Calculated risks, to be sure, but bets I fundamentally made on my gut and nothing else.
Earlier, I spoke about a job that changed my life. Taking that risk is the reason I work at the White House. It’s the reason I’m standing in front of you right now. It was 2002 and I was living back here in Huntsville. After four years of college and two years in California, I didn’t feel like I had much more of a plan than I did when I was 17.
Browsing the internet one night, I came across a job that looked interesting. It was a small non-profit in Vermont that connected college-student mentors with children in low-income housing communities. I’m not sure why, but I had a hunch that this was what I needed to do. Maybe it was because I’d always wanted to live where it snows. Maybe it was because my dad was getting really eager for me to go to law school. But a week later, I packed up my pick-up truck and drove north.
So, here I was in Vermont. It was cold and I didn’t know anyone. I’m not going to lie, at the beginning I wasn’t sure if this was the right decision.
But slowly, I started to realize that everything was changing for me. You see, while I had spent years struggling to learn what to do, I had never stepped back to ask why I was doing it in the first place. Sure, there were grades to keep up and rent checks to send, but I didn’t really have a theory about what all this effort boiled down to.
Working with those mentors and kids made it click. I realized that the world these families faced was very different—and much more difficult—than the life I had come to take for granted.
I was lucky to be born to such wonderful parents who paid attention to me every day of my childhood, who helped me with my homework and taught me to be courteous to others.
The Randolph experience you and I have in common is exceptional. And by definition that means most other schools, most other students, don’t know anything like it.
Addressing his alma mater at Princeton, the author Michael Lewis, summed up the way I felt in Vermont very simply:
Recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.
So I decided to apply everything I learned and every skill I had to help repay it. Thanks to what I had learned those years in California, I knew a few things about websites and digital media that really came in handy. Working on solving that problem, with that sort of approach, has led me to where I am today.
I’m not suggesting we should all jump in my truck, head up to Vermont and join Americorps. My story is just that—mine.
Your passion may be for building bridges or designing websites, for trading stocks on Wall Street or trading lines with another actor on the stage. But here’s an important lesson from my experience that I hope you’ll take away from this: shake it up.
On one hand, challenging your assumptions may reveal that your original path was right all along. But, on the other hand, you may unlock some amazing new passion you never new existed.
Whatever you do, take advantage of the wonderful foundation your Randolph education offers and the incredible technologies at your fingertips to seek out new ideas. Get out of your comfort zone and discover what you’ve taken for granted and what new passions reside within you.
Do it because you owe a debt to your teachers, to your parents and to this community for all they have given you. Do it because you owe a debt to the unlucky, those who might not be able to take the risks you can. But most of all, do it for yourself. And you know what? Have some fun while you’re at it!