Commonwealth School Graduation Speech



The Commonwealth School is an academically rigorous, independent, co-ed day school of about 150 students from grades 9 through 12, located in Boston’s Back Bay. I was invited to speak at their graduation and spoke about life, “a-ha” moments, and keeping a sense of humor.



I am Karen Firestone, Chair of the Board of Trustees. Welcome to the commencement at Commonwealth School, and congratulations to the class of 2015.

I wanted to talk to you briefly about a phenomenon that I call the “a-ha” moment, which refers to a situation in which you suddenly recognize something so obvious that you should have understood it years before.

For example, about 5 years ago I was in Waltham looking for a certain address and noticed that I was on School Street. Then, I saw that there was an old school building on that very road, and I said to myself, “A-ha!” It had taken me over 50 years to grasp that a street would be named for something that was on or adjacent to it. Just like River or Mill or Bridge Streets.

Often the “a-ha” moment occurs when you realize that you were spelling a word or phrase incorrectly. Around 2010, I began hearing discussions on CNBC about the C-Suite. In my mind, I spelled that “SEA SWEET”. I didn’t understand how something sugary that was connected to the ocean would have anything to do with major corporations, but I was too lazy to look it up. Then I read an article that contained the expression and it was spelled “C-SUITE”. I Googled that and found out it meant the suite or group of executives whose titles start with the letter “C” such as CEO, Chairman, and Chief Operating Officer. AHA!! Nothing to do with salt water taffy!

One of the young men who works for our company told me that he just learned that the nursery rhyme that goes “This Little Piggy went to Market” was not about a cute little pig skipping to the market with her shopping basket, but instead was about a pig on its way to becoming pork chops and bacon. He was shocked, but so was I.

A partner of mine then confessed that he was well into his twenties before he understood that “C-O-L-ONEL” was the same word as the one he heard preceding an army officer’s last name, which he saw as “KERNEL” just like the corn. I then admitted that when I met someone from U-Conn, the school, though I assumed the person was from way up north in Canada.

Everyone over the age of 40 is embarrassed to ask the meaning of many mobile device acronyms. I had a real “a-ha” moment when I learned that “LOL” was Laugh Out Loud, since I kept thinking it meant Lots Of Love, which clearly made no sense coming from the people who were writing it in their text messages to me.

But then there are serious “a-ha” moments. A few years ago, we had a client and his wife, along with their two investment trustees, in our office. During the meeting, one trustee, a man about my age, made a comment about how I always do what David, my partner with whom I co-founded our company, says, since he’s the big boss. I just let it go then, but decided there was a way to address what I thought was a demeaning and probably sexist comment without losing this account. At the end of the meeting, I asked the clients to step out of the conference room so the trustees and I could have a short meeting. Sitting across from the man who made the remark, I said, “Tom, David and I started Aureus together and we have been equal partners until recently, when David sold me some of his stock as he’ll be retiring soon. Now I am the largest shareholder, and on my business card, which I handed to him, it says President and CEO.” The other trustee, a female lawyer, was sitting next to me, clutching at my arm as I said this. Tom slowly picked up the card, looked at it, looked back at me and said “A-HA”. Since then we’ve gotten along very well and have even joked about it.

So my suggestion to the class of 2015 is to get used to the “a-ha” moments that you’ll encounter out of the blue, all through your life. Learn from them but keep a sense of humor when they arrive.