Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke at his son’s middle-school graduation last month. But instead of wishing his young listeners wealth, happiness and good fortune — as cliché-laden commencement speeches often do — Roberts opted for the antithesis:
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.
Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.
And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you will be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others. And I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.
This was a tough-love but brilliant sermon delivered to young men who spent their middle school years at an elite, all-boys boarding school where tuition cost about $55,000 a year and where they dined in jackets and ties. These were young men who were privileged when they arrived at the boarding school, and even more privileged now because they have graduated from there.
Roberts advice to them was, don’t act like it. Rather, he asked these students to view themselves as equals to all the people they meet in life.
The message was not unlike one I heard repeatedly from my mother while growing up in a completely different environment — a low-income, unprivileged household in rural Illinois.
There are a lot of people with a lot more money than us and there are a lot of people with a lot less money than us, she would say. We are all human beings in this world. Every single person on this earth can teach us something we don’t know or understand. We aren’t any better than anyone else and nobody is better than we are.
I believed her message then, and I still do today, which is why the Chief Justice’s speech hit home.
The wisdom and sense of fairness my mother imparted on me as a young man helped shape the ethic and culture of both my businesses — Heartland, which I sold last year, and Beyond, the new payments processing company I launched in May. We treat our customers and our employees as we expect to be treated ourselves, and we’re committed to helping those less fortunate. Through Beyond, I am making my public nonprofit, Give Something Back, the major shareholder and beneficiary of all my personal earnings. Which means, every time new customers sign up for Beyond payment processing services, they will be helping to send students to college.
Give Back has already provided more than $35 million in scholarships to more than 1,500 students who face such adversities as homelessness, poverty, growing up in foster care, and having parents who are incarcerated. With the profits from Beyond, we will help many more.
Spending my childhood in a cash-strapped household, living with an abusive father, struggling to make my business succeed after several setbacks, have all taught me courage and compassion. As Chief Justice Roberts said to the middle-schoolers, I had the ability to see the message in my misfortunes. It’s a message that all of us — regardless of one’s position in life — need to hear every now and then.