2018 Commencement Address

Delivered by:
Robert F. Moran
Chairman of the Board of GNC Holdings Inc.
May 18, 2018

Father Peter, Dr. Patrick Maggitti, esteemed faculty and administration, fellow honorees parents, families, members of Nova Nation, and, most importantly, Villanova class of 2018!

Look at all of you! You’ve done it!

You are about to get a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. You are surrounded by family, friends, and the people who took this journey with you.

It’s likely there is a bottle of champagne in your very near future. So I’m sure there are about a hundred things you’d rather be doing right now other than listening to words of wisdom from a slightly over-the-hill guy with a lot of retail experience.

By the way, you are in little danger of remembering a word of this speech years from now.

Seriously, as I was getting ready for today, I wracked my brain for any memory of the commencement speech at my graduation . . . and I came up empty.

So please take notes today.

But here I am, and I have to tell you that this really is one of the greatest moments of my life.

I never dreamed I’d be the guy who gets an honorary degree, much less be asked to give the commencement speech at my alma mater. So, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I wish my parents were here… actually... only to see the look of disbelief on their faces. They would have been shocked and probably questioned Villanova’s judgement, but I like to think they would also be proud.

I’m a working-class kid with a little smarts and lot of attitude who grew up in a Clifton Heights row house, just a few miles down the road.

Going to Villanova was a dream come true for me.

I came here with a dream of running track – a program that has a deep tradition, and that I’m still very close to today and that’s now led by two of the greatest track and field coaches in the country, Gina Procaccio and Marcus O’Sullivan as evident by the five Championship of America wins at the Penn Relays and winning 3 of the 4 indoor and outdoor Big East track and field championships this year.

And just this past year, I was able to put my mom and dad’s names on the Moran Center for Global Leadership at the Villanova Business School. I’ll get back to all of you in a minute, I promise, but first I have to thank Dr. Patrick Maggitti for giving me the dream, Dr. Jonathan Doh, Director Kim Cahill, and Dr. Joyce Russell for all your support.

Villanova shaped me. It molded who I am, how I think, and what I value. I came of age here. And it’s good to be home.

Since we are all family, I’m not going to talk politics or patriotism or Nova bombs or Kelly’s.

I’m not going to share my secrets to success. I’m here today . . . sincerely hoping you fail.

See, I like failures. I think they are the best kind of people. I hire them all the time.

Here is what I believe: The harder you fail, the harder you tried. And if you’re not failing, it means you're hardly trying at all.

But fantastic failures – the people who fail and fall down and keep getting back up –– are curious and courageous. They’re passionate and hungry. Usually, they have something to prove. And in my experience, they’re the ones who light the world on fire.

You are leaving Villanova with a diploma and an empty suitcase that represents all you have experienced and all you have learned here – a suitcase that will help you carry all you will gain in this next phase of your life.

You’ve got great foundation to begin your journey. Your mission now is to fill that suitcase up.

You will spend your life packing it with things that work for you, and discarding the things that don’t. Sometimes, it will be tough to know which is which.

But I will tell you this. If you don’t fail, you will never really know. You will end up hauling around a lot of worthless stuff far longer than you should. And when you really need something, there is a good chance it won’t be in there.

When I left here with my Villanova suitcase, I was determined to be successful. I did everything. I took crazy jobs and hard assignments. I moved myself and my family from the US to Peru, Mexico, Spain, to Canada and back again. It worked. I was killin’ it.

But if I am being honest, a lot of that ambition was driven by fear. Fear that I would fail and that someone would find out – or I would find out – that I was not as good as everybody thought I was.

Looking back, I could have had all my success – and an even richer life – if I had accepted that failure was inevitable, natural and incredibly valuable.

So go for it. Run toward your future. Just don’t run away from failure. Because when you are running from something, you can’t think of anything but going as fast as possible in the other direction. And that’s when you will miss the stuff that makes life beautiful.

As the philosopher Ferris Bueller famously said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Please. Don’t miss it.

And never, ever let your fear of failure take you out of the game.

Here is how human nature works: We get handed an amazing opportunity – one that scares us a little or, better yet, a lot.

But instead of diving in, we say things like, “Oh, I am not capable of that or I have too much going on or it isn’t the right time.”

But none of that is true.

What’s true is that we are all simply terrified to fail.

And then we wonder why we never get what we want in life.

I have a better idea: Give yourself permission to reach for your potential, even if it means falling on your face.

You are going to screw up. You will do stupid stuff. And the chances are very high that along the way, you will make a mistake that does real damage . . . to you or other people. That’s just how it goes.

You can try to be safe and stay on the sidelines of life. You can wait until you have 100 percent of the information and feel 100 percent comfortable, so you don’t make a mistake. Guess what? You will make mistakes and miss opportunities anyway!

Or, you can summon the courage to make a quick start. You should always have the finish line in sight, but it is OK to zig, zag and course correct along the way.

A lot of things will go well. Others will not. But you will literally be living and learning. And if you keep moving, you will get to the right answer and have all the knowledge and experience you picked up along the way.

Before the cautious runners even leave the gate, you will be done with the race and on to the next challenge.

So you might as well get out there, get into action and make your mistakes on the move. Because look, that is really the only way to make your heart’s desires happen.

And I promise you it will be a whole lot more fun.

I contend that the most successful people – the happiest people – make failing a way of life. They don’t worry about it. They see how fast and how fully they can do it.

Consider Jack Andraka who, at 15, decided he could make a better pancreatic cancer test than the ones created by PhD scientists and multi-billion dollar pharma companies. 199 research labs rejected him.

Number 200 did not. And we now have a test that is a hundred times better and 26,000 times less expensive.

It took five years and over 5,000 failed prototypes for James Dyson to create the world’s first bag-less vacuum.

Now, he has the best-selling vacuum in the world and a net worth of $4.2 billon.

Then there is Elon Musk, a guy who has failed so many times there is an infographic on the subject.

He has even been fired from two of his own companies.

His early electric cars spontaneously combusted and he has blown up six rocket ships trying to make his big idea of routine space travel a reality.

While lots of people, including those on Wall Street, don’t like him much, the reality is that Teslas are status cars. SpaceX is a profitable, respected company with over $12 billion in contracts. And Elon Musk is a Steve jobs-level genius.

These are all people who have amazing ideas, but they know they are going to fail time and time and time again.

And they revel in it.

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”

These people see not what’s here, but what is possible.

I call them relentlessly restless. They are always asking: “why does it have to be this way?” and “how can we make it better?”

They’re the type of people who have a healthy disrespect for the status quo, even, and especially when everything looks great and they can declare success.

They’re constantly searching for that one more thing. And one more thing after that, and one more thing after that, and one more thing after that. They are trying. And failing. And trying again.

That is how great companies, great countries and great universities like this one are built. It’s how the world changes. And I strongly recommend it’s how you take on your life.

But this advice comes with a warning label.

If you live this way, you better get comfortable being uncomfortable.

People are going to constantly question you. Those are the people that love the status quo, because they’re too afraid to change.

You are going to constantly question yourself. You’re going to be scared. A lot sometimes. And in that place, you will probably do your greatest work.

In that place, you will no doubt succeed.

And that is when you’ll really be in trouble.

The easiest thing in the world is to fall in love with your own success. I know, because it happened to me.

I’m an ordinary guy, but there is one thing I’m good at – helping other ordinary people do extraordinary things. And that completely described my team at PetSmart.

They were a bunch of regular people, many of them fantastic failures, who pulled the company from the edge of bankruptcy and made it one of retail’s great success stories.

But guess what happened? Competitors started noticing, and they started to close in. And we were so busy enjoying our success, we didn’t see it until it was almost too late.

So, we had to take a hard look at ourselves, and we learned that we were not nearly as good as we thought we were.

By now we were running a $4 billion business with over 1,000 stores. Complexity and some level of bureaucracy were part of the game.

We weren’t going to get around it, and we knew we had to be flexible and fast.

So, we dug in and created a culture that was incredibly focused on getting things done.

We made “one more thing” a way of life.

Instead of coming up with a great idea or a brilliant solution, we made it a requirement to come up with three options, knowing that at least one of them, or maybe all of them were – you guessed it – likely to fail.

OK. I have now spent most of my time with you demanding that you fail. So the next question is: how do you turn all of that failure…. all of that trying…. into goals met, aspirations achieved and dreams realized?

For me, it starts with doing something that matters. We always hear we should do what we love. And I agree.

But the real joy comes in creating change for the better.

I’m not saying you all need to go out and save lives or solve society’s problems. (Although please do that. The world needs you.) But ask yourself, is what I’m doing worth it? Is it worthy of me?

And once you have found your purpose, be unstoppable in making it happen.

Take on that job or assignment you are not sure you can do. Go work with that person who intimidates you. Say yes.

Then, fill your suitcase with everything that works and be ready to unpack and leave behind everything that holds you back.

I’m almost done, I promise. But after March Madness this year, I can’t leave you without this: “Let’s Go Nova!”

What a tournament… what a final game! If we were good people, we would have a moment of silence for the University of Michigan basketball team… but we won’t!

What a thrill for me, a rough-around-the-edges Philly kid, to be there! It inspired me, and I’m pretty sure it will inspire many of us for the rest of our lives.

And I love that “One Shining Moment” video they show at the end of every NCAA championship game. I even like that Ne-Yo has replaced the late, great Luther Vandross.

I love it because it's about young people taking all their God-given gifts and all they have learned to go after big dreams on a big stage.

Fighting and failing and fighting again to achieve all they know they are capable of, and to surpass expectations.

That’s how you reach your potential.

You can talk about the underdogs all you want, but when people expect you to win, you have everything to lose.

And that’s when the fear of failure can really kick in. That’s when – just like the Nova basketball team did – you tell fear to shut up, remember what matters and find your own shining moment.

So go. Fail. Set big goals. Take big risks. Look fear in the face. You will have some luck along the way. Be grateful for it. You will have some setbacks. Be grateful for those too.

Screw up. Then screw up some more. Then screw up again.

Learn. Do something that matters. Fill that suitcase with successes and joys and things you love. Live an outsized life.

And above all, find your shining moment and do it over and over and over again.

Congratulations to the class of 2018!

Good luck… go ahead and start filling your suitcase!

V for Villanova

V for Victory