Target CEO tells graduates: ‘ Find work you love, work you can be passionate about’

Robert Ulrich, chairman and chief executive officer of Target Corp., received an honorary doctor of laws degree and delivered the commencement address at the summer ceremonies July 20. Here are his remarks:

Thank you, Father Dease and Archbishop Flynn, for your leadership of this great university and its important contributions.

Thank you for this great honor.

It’s been said that small minds talk about people … average minds talk about events … and great minds talk about ideas.

Well, I was just an average student at the University of Minnesota with a degree in speech and journalism, but that’s OK — because as Will Rogers said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” However, tonight is about our aspirations … so, for the next several minutes, let’s pretend that I do have a great mind so we can talk about ideas.

Because your creative ideas are what the world is waiting for. Your ideas will shape how we live in the rest of the 21st century.

Marcel Proust said, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” You have unlimited possibilities because you have new eyes and new visions! Organizations want to know what you see. They want your ideas. When they offer you a job, they’re not only buying your learned skills, they’re buying your brainpower, especially the power of your right brain — the creative side.

I’m sure most of you chose St. Thomas for a great learning experience, wonderful academic credentials and the opportunity to use your mind to analyze, strategize and create.

These are expensive lessons. In some cases, your parents could have toured the world extensively or retired several years earlier on what it cost them to send you to college. But today I’m sure they’re not thinking about the sacrifices they made; they’re thinking about the difference you’ll make as you go out into the world.

And, for those graduate and undergraduate students who put yourselves through St. Thomas, I applaud you. The fact that you are here today demonstrates that you have developed a work ethic, goal orientation and personal commitment that will serve you well in whatever career you choose.

Each one of you can effect change … with your new way of looking at things … with the new ideas you bring to the table. America is built on ideas — the idea of freedom … the idea of liberty. The idea of diversity … the idea that everyone should make a contribution. The idea of a better place to live and hopefully ideas that will make the entire world a better place for all of us.

Ideas create products, processes and also profits that help everyone prosper. Ideas build companies, employ people, improve education, improve lives and make communities better places to live.

The idea may be for a new vaccine, a new technology, new educational methods, a new form of analysis or a new type of food. The operative word is “new.”

But be prepared for some resistance. Are new ideas universally embraced? Unfortunately … no.

In fact, Howard Aiken, who built the first large-scale digital computer in 1943, after encountering huge resistance from his own Harvard Physics Department, told his students, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

And, of course, T.S. Eliot said long before, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find how far one can go.”

New ideas are not universally embraced. But they should be embraced by the companies and institutions you want to work for and the people you want to work with. Hopefully, they’ll also be embraced by the new businesses some of you will start.

New is good. Of course to be new, you also have to be different. In fact, Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence , said, “You’re either ‘distinct or extinct.’”

Target competes against Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer — soon to be the largest company in the world. It was obvious we could not succeed by emulating their plan, so we took our inspiration from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I … I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” We knew we could never beat them at their own game, but we could succeed by being different. By charting our own course.

In planning your strategy for the future, I strongly suggest you focus on the attributes and abilities that can make you and your organization unique and set you apart from your competition … whether it’s in your own business, as part of a corporation, or in an educational institution. Be yourself, not a clone or a look-alike. Dare to be different. And always use your imagination. As Albert Einstein said, “Knowledge is limited; while imagination embraces the entire world.”

Obviously, we all have to be realistic, accept input and critique our ideas. But when you’re really passionate about something, remember this poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” It had a great influence on my life … fight for your ideas, or as Thomas said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!”

Where do new ideas come from? What is your source? Your inspiration?

There’s a story I’d like to share with you about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Holmes and Watson went camping. After a campfire dinner, they retired to their tent and fell asleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke his faithful friend. He said, “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.”

Watson rubbed the sleep from his eyes, looked up and replied, “I see millions of stars in the sky.”

“What does that tell you?” Holmes asked.

Watson pondered a minute. “Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are thousands of galaxies and potentially millions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me Saturn is in Leo. Theologically, it tells me the greatness of God’s creation. Time wise, it appears to be about a quarter past three. Meteorologically, it appears we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Mr. Holmes?”

Holmes replied, “Watson, you idiot. Someon
e has stolen our tent.”

The truth you are looking for isn’t “out there somewhere” … it’s right here! The inspiration for new ideas is all around you.

When Target buyers travel, I encourage them to shop new stores, visit museums, study the art and architecture of the area, eat local foods, and get a sense of the area’s history. Life is a fabric. The more you see and experience, the more threads you have to draw on for inspiration and ideas.

Be a student of both current trends and historical events. The designers of two of the hottest new cars on the market drew their ideas from the past — the Chrysler PT Cruiser from the cars of the ’30s … the new Volkswagen Beetle from the old Volkswagen of the ’50s.

And study industries other than your own … ideas come from everywhere!

When you do have a new idea, implement it quickly. In business today, speed is life. But, if you don’t succeed the first time, keep trying. Eventually you will break through with something really significant.

Try really hard to find work you love, work you can be passionate about. You can be good at something you don’t care much about, but it’s really difficult to be great at it! So please, try to find something you love to do!

Finally, one of your goals in attending St. Thomas was surely to have success in life. Success is measured in many ways.

Happiness, family and friends and the opportunity to make a real difference are extraordinarily important. Of course, money is also important because it can be a real force for good — and whether you give to charitable organizations directly, or through volunteering your time, creativity and talent for the good of your community — always remember — it’s important to give back!

One of the reasons our team members are proud to work at Target is because we give back to the community.

So, while you’re thinking up new ideas, I hope you’ll also include new ways to do good things for those less fortunate.

The world is waiting for you. When you step out into it, be sure to thank your family, friends and faculty for their help. Choose something you love to do, and approach it with passionate creativity. Remember … you control your destiny!

I wish you every success.

Thank you.