May 31, 2019

Gary Schoeniger’s Commencement Address, Pierpont Community & Technical College, 2019

By: Gary Schoeniger


How Underdogs Win

How do underdogs win?

This is a question I’ve been pursuing for more than 25 years. How do those who have no particular advantage in life—those who may not be particularly brilliant or creative, those who may not come from privileged backgrounds, those who may not have advanced degrees—manage to rise above their circumstances to create meaningful and prosperous lives?

My thought was that if I could somehow understand what makes these folks tick if I could understand the underlying factors—both within the person and the situation—it could be useful to others who were seeking a path towards a better life.

And so, as part of my research, I’ve traveled the world interviewing the underdogs and the misfits to understand what makes them tick. As a result, I stumbled across a simple yet powerful secret – a secret that was hiding in plain sight.

  • I met a blind man named Jim Stovall who used a cassette recorder and old VCR to develop a way that blind people could “watch” television.
  • I met a young soldier – Dawn Halfaker – who, after losing her right arm in Iraq, found a way to save lives on the battlefield
  • I met a man named Frank Magwegwe who went from homelessness on the streets of Johannesburg to become a CEO of several large corporations.
  • I met Sirena Moore Thomas, who, along with her father Ted, started a successful cleaning business with $200 and some used office equipment they found in the trash.
  • I met a man named Clifton Taulbert who was born to a teenage mother in a poor cotton community in the Jim Crow south who grew up to become a successful author, lecturer, and entrepreneur.

So what did all of these underdogs have in common?

They all seemed to have an entrepreneurial mindset. In other words, they seemed to understand that by solving problems for others, they could empower themselves. They did not all own businesses, yet they had overcome adversity by making themselves useful to others.

The lessons I’ve distilled from these underdog entrepreneurs have forever changed my life. They are simple lessons that anyone can learn to apply, in any set of circumstances. They are simple lessons—free for the taking—that can empower anyone to succeed.

I’d like to share with you five simple concepts that I distilled from hundreds of interviews with what I’ll call “unlikely” entrepreneurs:

  1. They all had a compelling goal. They were striving towards something positive on the horizon, they had a vision for a better future. They did not allow their circumstances to dictate their future, instead, they were making choices about a future they wanted to create. As the Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning: “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
  2. They see problems as opportunities. They recognize that by solving problems for others, they can empower themselves. It is this perspective that orients their minds in a way that enable them to see opportunities that others overlook. Rather than thinking about themselves, they learned to look at the world through a different lens – not just doing what they are told, but always trying to go above and beyond to make themselves useful to others. And, by solving problems for others, the derive meaning and purpose from their work.
  3. They did more than talk – they were willing to try. They learn to micro-experiment, always trying to find ways to improve things. To be clear, they were not reckless gamblers, rather they acted more like detectives following clues. It is this willingness to experiment that enables them to tease out latent opportunities that are present but not otherwise visible.
  4. They were always learning. They all seemed to have a sense of curiosity about the broader world around them and those drove them to learn. They all seem to be life-long learners as their understanding of the world was always growing, shifting, and changing. As Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who cannot read and write both those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
  5. They never gave up. They all seemed to have a high degree of resilience, which ultimately enabled them to transform their adversity into an advantage. They all came from challenging backgrounds yet they also looked at the challenges as the source of their strengths. I know that many of you have struggled mightily to get this far. And for that, you should all be very proud.

Among the most powerful lessons I learned from the underdog entrepreneurs is that we are not here to serve ourselves. Nor are we here to serve “the man.” We are here to serve others. We are here to figure out how we can best leverage our talent, interests, and abilities in ways that benefit others. Search for the intersection of your own interests and abilities and the needs of your fellow humans. By doing so, you will not only empower yourself, but you will enrich the world around you.

That is the simple secret that is hiding in plain sight. It is a simple formula that enables ordinary people to rise above their circumstances to create more meaningful and prosperous lives.

The world has changed in ways that now require everyone to think like an entrepreneur regardless of the path you choose. And the learning has just begun.

Hope is defined as the belief that the future will be better than the present coupled with the belief that I have the ability to make it so. Make no mistake – you are certain to face enormous challenges along your journey. Yet as I’m sure you will also find, the real obstacles are self-imposed.

There is one final thing I would like to share with you that I have learned from underdog entrepreneurs: You are more powerful than you imagine. The only way you are going to know is if you try.

Originally from the 2019 Commencement Ceremony at Pierpont Community & Technical College in Fairmont, West Virginia on May 7, 2019.