Sometimes, counterintuitively, the best way to take pain out of the world is to confront it head on. So the question I want to focus this address on is: how best to take the pain, and at the same time create something useful, something positive, out of it?
September 6, 2018
CFK co-founder, social entrepreneur, and bestselling author Rye Barcott delivered the spring commencement address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barcott is currently co-founder and CEO of With Honor. He previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps and founded Double Time Capital, a clean energy investment firm. More than 30,000 people made their way to Kenan Stadium to celebrate with nearly 6,000 degree recipients. Read Rye Barcott's full commencement address below.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2018 Commencement Address - Rye Barcott
Good morning Tar Heels. Who would have thought? No one! Wow! This is awesome!
I remember being in Kenan Stadium 17 years ago on a Sunday cleaning it after game day to make some money for ROTC. From stadium clean-ups to commencement speaker. Who would have thought? No one! But I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve dreamed about leading a Tar Heel chant in Kenan Stadium. I’ve dreamed about it, and now I have the mic, and we love this place, so we have to do this.
TAR… [audience chants HEELS]
I was in your shoes. Then I graduated and had a rollercoaster of17 years that’s included facing the tragedy of extreme poverty and the peril of war, as well as the blessing of starting a family, and the joy of creating enterprises that have helped thousands of people.
These experiences – the successes and the set-backs – bring me to my favorite line from my favorite movie. In the movie Platoon, a soldier is traumatically injured and screams in shock. He’s in a place that isn’t safe, and his screaming puts his unit at risk. His sergeant leaps forward, covers his mouth, and, eyeball-to-eyeball, says, “Take the pain! TAKE THE PAIN!”
The soldier goes quiet. The soldier grinds his teeth. The soldier survives. No one else is injured. This message, “take the pain,” may seem inappropriate for commencement, which is a happy day, a day of hope. But the truth is many of life’s most fulfilling moments rarely happen without some degree of pain. Now, hopefully the pain we face is less extreme than that scene in Platoon.
Think about the all-nighters you may have pulled to get to this day, or your hardest classes, or a breakup with someone you loved, or the loss of a loved one. Pain comes with varying intensity and significance. I do not want to suggest pain should be sought out. On the contrary, we all want to live in a world with as little pain and suffering as possible.
The challenge is pain is inevitable, and it does not go away if you run from it. In fact, it often gets worse. Sometimes, counterintuitively, the best way to take pain out of the world is to confront it head on. So the question I want to focus this address on is: how best to take the pain, and at the same time create something useful, something positive, out of it?
This question is always important, but it is critical in volatile, uncertain times. Right after I graduated, September 11th happened. Across the nation, we felt anxiety, confusion, and fear. Suddenly, we no longer took our security for granted.
You are also graduating in a volatile time. It’s unclear where the world is going: political polarization, school shootings, job displacement, fake news, the list goes on and can wear you out every day. The point is, as anxiety and volatility rise, it becomes more important to navigate through the fog of pain.
So, back to the question: how best to take the pain and turn something useful out of it? I’ve worked in social entrepreneurship, the military, and business. Through each of these I’ve found an answer to this question. It has three parts: attitude, service, and perspective.
Attitude is often the most important characteristic to take the pain and create something useful out of it. Let me tell you a story about attitude.
One of the most painful moments of my life led me to social entrepreneurship. I was 21 and half-way around the world. I curled in the fetal position, freezing yet sweating. My stomach heaved. I wondered if whatever was inside my body might kill me. All I could think about was the pain. I was not taking it well. Then a nurse named Tabitha came to see me.
Tabitha lived in a nearby ten-by-ten foot shack in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. I had travelled to Kibera in Nairobi on the advice of an anthropologist at UNC to better understand why ethnic violence happened. Tabitha took a look at me and diagnosed malaria, which I had read has killed more people in human history than any other infectious disease. I had taken some anti-malarial medication, but it clearly wasn’t potent enough.
Tabitha handed me some traditional medication. She said I would be okay if I rest and “think positive.” Tabitha’s words and the medication helped. I changed my attitude, began to think positively, and started to control the pain more than the pain controlled me.
Before I left Kibera, Tabitha asked for the equivalent of 26 dollars. She wanted to start a small business, make some money, and eventually build her own health clinic to help people the way she had helped me. I gave her the 26 dollars.
When I came back to UNC for my senior year, I couldn’t get Kibera off my mind. With a local Nairobi native, I decided to start an organization helping kids. I raised some money and went back to Kibera.
Tabitha found me and led me to her ten-by-ten. But this time she had two ten-by-tens. The second one was a clinic. It became part of our organization, which we called Carolina for Kibera. Tragically, years later, Tabitha passed away. She was about as old as I am now.
It was not until she died that I learned about terrifying pain she had never told me about. Her late husband had lost his mind, attempted to kill her, then died by suicide, leaving her and her three kids to fend for themselves in one of the world’s largest slums.
Due to circumstance beyond her control, pain was an unavoidable and ever-present part of Tabitha’s life. Yet she faced it with a positive attitude, with a can-do attitude. And what a difference that can make.
Today, the Tabitha Clinic treats more than 15,000 patients per year. It's part of Carolina for Kibera, which now, 17 years later, is the anchor of the largest public health partnership with the U.S. CDC in a slum community around the world. We produce knowledge that helps improve health globally, and we save lives in Kibera from deadly diseases like malaria.
I once heard this quote: “Attitude is everything. Pick a good one.”
Let me turn next to service as one of the three parts to best take the pain and turn something useful out of it. Many of you will graduate and head into your first job. My first job as a Marine was great. I got to work with Americans from all walks of life and serve something larger than ourselves.
A Marine I served with, Sergeant Dave, grew up in particularly painful circumstances. He’s an orphan. Think about that: to grow up without parents. Maybe some of you have endured this pain. Shortly before we deployed, Sergeant Dave learned that his son had been born, but with a hole in his heart. Imagine the stress. To deploy on dangerous missions knowing your newborn son is fighting to survive with a hole in his heart.
Yet Sergeant Dave performed so well overseas that the President of the United States called him personally that Christmas. How did he do it under such duress? Sergeant Dave said he decided his son’s condition was out of his control while he deployed. The best thing he could do was to immerse himself in his service and be optimistic because that helped him, his family, and everybody around him.
That’s the wonderful secret about service. Helping others helps you. You think less about your own pain and can make more of a difference. I’m happy to say that Sergeant Dave’s son is alive today, and healthy. It’s worth pointing out that both service and attitude were intertwined in the way Sergeant Dave took the pain.
His attitude was embodied by my all-time favorite leadership quote. It’s a line from General Colin Powell, who said: “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Optimism in the face of adversity is not easy, but if you can muster the self-control and strength to have it, you will not only get more stuff done, you can lead.
This brings me to my third and final point about how best to take pain: perspective.
In my first business job the summer before I started my MBA, I was asked to compile a list of companies. It was tedious work, somewhat mindless. I did it half-heartedly and gave it to my boss. When he pointed out three spelling mistakes, I reacted poorly. He counseled me that if I made such careless mistakes again – and certainly if I ever reacted in such a way – he’d fire me.
I was stunned. I tried to make up excuses. Then I called a friend of mine, a fellow Tar Heel. He told me I better change my perspective. The world doesn’t revolve around me, he said. I was lucky to have that job to learn while also making enough money to pay for my honeymoon that summer. Thousands of people would seize and be grateful such an opportunity.
He was right. I regained my perspective and doubled-down on the work. Yes, it was tedious. But I threw myself into the grind. Years later, that boss actually became a personal investor in a business I co-founded.
The truth is, most of the time pain is not accompanied by glory. It isn’t life or death, like extreme poverty and war can be. It usually doesn’t make for a great story.
Our beloved university helped open our eyes to the world. Keep this perspective. Nurture it. It can help you better take the pain and create something useful, maybe even something transcendent, out of it.
Speaking of perspective, part of having perspective is being thankful for what you have. We have very special people in the stadium today: parents. And today, we especially honor mom, on Mother’s Day.
So, parents, Moms, THANK YOU and CONGRATS! With your child’s graduation, it’s celebration time! And, just remember, if they come calling for more money, 26 dollars can go a long way!
I’m delighted my Mom is here today, along with my Dad. They met at Carolina, and I met my wife, Tracy, here too. Now we are parents of two great kids – Sage and Charlotte – who are 5 and 7 and also here today. They were super excited to participate in the Tar Heel chant.
By the way, for those who don’t know, a Tar Heel is a reference to soldiers from North Carolina, where tar was once a major industry. The soldiers developed a reputation for holding their ground in battle with such courage that others speculated that they must have had tar on their heels.
So, graduates, Tar Heels, my hope for you – and for us – is that you don’t run from the pain. Maneuver around the stuff that you can, the pain that’s unnecessary. For the pain that’s part of life and certainly the pain that’s part of making a difference, KEEP THE TAR ON YOUR HEELS!
OK Carolina, I’ll never get to do this again. Can we do this one more time? One more chant?
TAR … [HEELS]
TAR … [HEELS]
TAR … [HEELS]
Congratulations, Tar Heels.