The Last Speech

By Christos Tsolkas

became acquainted with the “last lecture” idea when Joel Peterson discussed it during an innovation course at Stanford University.

The “last lecture” is intended to be given every year to graduates. It is the last piece of advice or wisdom they’ll receive before starting their careers.

I tried it myself, once, when I was moving from one company to another, and the idea really resonated for me. It forces you to gather all your important thoughts and ideas – everything you would like to leave behind. It is also a way of healing. It is not literally YOUR last lecture but it is the last presentation you will make to a specific group of people. It is a selection of advice intended exclusively for them, a navigation guidebook, or a set of Cartesian dimensions to help with their future trajectory.

I liked it. So I started keeping a notebook under the title “The last speech” addressed to an imaginary crowd of business colleagues and team members, in an unidentified place and time, under the overarching assumption that I would not be able to speak to them publicly again. Over the time, I have tried to refresh this last speech, updating it with new pieces, new ideas, and getting rid of older, maybe obsolete, ones. I have made multiple versions.

It might sound like an unnerving, even daunting practice, but it helps give me perspective. I can select and re-define the essence from the noise, and determine things that really matter to me in life while separating urgent business from nice-to-haves. Let me share some pieces of it.


My dearest colleagues, my true friends,
I’ve recently found myself often using a famous phrase by Henry Ford: ‘If you think you can or you cannot – you are right!’ It reminds me of how, in workouts, my trainer will insist: ‘Never say you can’t.’ Your true boundaries are just a preconception. Even if it is hard, even if the way is bumpy or full of holes, do not ever even think of not trying, of quitting, of stopping, of giving up or giving in. You might fall down once, twice, many times. BUT STAND UP

Stop #1. Consider the story of Susan Boyle, an obscure middle-age amateur singer with a very dismal, challenging life. Suddenly she blossems in front of millions of viewers on the British show Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009.
Susan was a black sheep, a loser to everybody, the judges included. She was a NOBODY. Yet she came out as the surprise nobody expected, which led her to an amazing career.

Susan’s dream came true and she became a successful professional singer, a millionaire, and a producer of one of the most successful album of all times in the UK. Respect, appreciation. Admiration.

Stop #2. Maybe I am one of the rare people —he is already quite famous—to have not known about Simon Sinek, a business thinker and amazing presenter from Ted, until recently. In his Ted-talk,

Sinek brings up the idea of safety, transparency, and personal sacrifice as the ultimate fabric of leadership. He says that “great leaders would never sacrifice their people to save their numbers, but they would sacrifice their numbers to save their people.” Please take this idea home with you, and lodge it deep in your mind for when you judge your next boss, or when you face the next dilemma managing your business and your team. ADMIRE SACRIFICE. Is she prepared to die for you? If yes, be prepared to die for her. You want the same from your subordinates. Be brave.

Stop #3. As leaders we try to deliver impactful presentations, to get the message across, to excite an audience, and we apply all sorts of techniques to do so. Yet recently a young woman who is not in a leadership position fully embodied the passion, clarity, crispiness, internal rhythm, and mobilization capacity the great leaders need. I am speaking of Emma Watson, the famous Hermione in the Harry Potter films. A few months ago her phenomenal speech on gender equality went viral.

I think she can be a role model for great speeches. Her speech is one of a kind. Every vowel and consonant had a job to do. Every pause, every look she gave the audience—helped her touch the hearts of her listeners, and she inspired a rare understanding and conversation about the issue of gender equality that went beyond all expectations. He For She. Beyond the technical aspect of her presentation, she left an energy able to move mountains! “If not me …then WHO? If not now…then WHEN?” Marvellous.

Stop #4. It is hard to change, but it is amazingly rewarding in the end, especially if you think of innovation, progress, and the development of the world. I was watching Erik Brynjolfsson, the MIT professor,

explaining the future of technology and the impact that this will have on our jobs and the development of mankind. It really resonated with me, especially when it comes to innovation. Innovation is happening faster and faster because it is built on existing innovations and previous advances. The most successful innovations are actually combinations of existing ideas put into a new or different format. I encourage my colleagues and friends to look outside their interests and to hone their radar screens in order to harness the ideas of others, adapt them, adjust them, and put them in unique combinations in order to deliver new value.

Stop #5. I’ve been thinking a lot, especially over the past few years, about the meaning of life. Hearing or reading stories about people who discovered it. I was very touched recently with the story of Annette, the wife of a close friend of mine, who was seriously ill. While in the hospital, she turned to him unexpectedly and said, ‘Phil, I just discovered the meaning of life; it is something to do, somewhere to go, and somebody to be with.’
This really moved me. Is that how we live a meaningful life? Filled with love, and give and take? Can we do that by finding important work for a meaningful company, or marketing meaningful brands? Can we be simultaneously independent, connected, and competent? In similar circumstances, another woman, Adele, a few days before passing away, noted in her blog,

…please, enjoy life. Take it by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it. Adore your children. You have literally no idea how blessed you are to shout at them in the morning to hurry up and brush their teeth.

Embrace your loved one, and if they cannot embrace you back, find someone who will. Everyone deserves to love, and be loved in return. Don’t settle for less. Find a job you enjoy, but don’t become a slave to it. You will not have ‘I wish I’d worked more’ on your headstone. Dance, laugh and eat with your friends. True, honest, strong friendships are an utter blessing and a choice we get to make, rather than have to share a loyalty because there happens to be link through blood. Choose wisely then treasure them with all the love you can muster. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Life has a lot of grey and sadness – look for that rainbow and frame it. There is beauty in everything, sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see it…

Viktor Frankl, in his memoir, a masterpiece of human wisdom, ‘Man’s search for meaning,’ discovers the meaning of life in the middle of torture, fear, fatigue, loss of dignity, and desperation in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.

All three of these people pass through a terrible experience to discover the idea of MEANING. Why not use their experiences to change our lives? Why not avoid regret by acting today rather than at the very end?
Why not to decide immediately to stop this or start that, to say more often ‘I love you’ to your son, to give flowers to your spouse more often, to enjoy a movie with your daughter, to feel more useful, more respected, and more remembered?”

If not US…then who? If not now…then WHEN?

Photo: Flickr, by Swaina 2008

CT. December 2014

  • Post category:MY WRITING