“College is not an on-ramp to the HOV success lane.”
That’s how CNBC star and former hedge fund manager Jim Cramer opened his commencement address to Bucknell University’s class of 2018.
Long before Cramer found success on Wall Street and on television, he endured challenges that many people would have a hard time coming back from. As a young graduate, he was immediately confronted by a series of failures.
“All of you will have a better day than I did in June of 1977,” Cramer said as he told the story of how he was unexpectedly denied his diploma on his graduation day at Harvard. That event was soon followed by him applying for 48 journalism jobs in the midst of a recession, only to get 48 rejection letters.
Months went by as he went jobless, living under his parents’ roof in Philadelphia. Eventually, his mother sold his bed and his father started charging him rent. He got the message and he soon moved to Washington D.C. where he lived with his aunt rent-free and eventually got a job at trade publication called the Congressional Quarterly.
But what he thought was an entry-level journalism job really wasn’t so.
“The editor-in-chief told me I was going to be a ‘key operator’ at the publication,” he said. “He handed me off to a tenant who ushered me into a closet of a room where there was a gigantic Xerox machine with a flashing yellow light that said ‘Call key operator.'”
After a month of working on the photo copier, he landed at the Tallahassee Democrat where he covered Florida State University. And shortly after he started, he found himself covering the murders of four young women by a serial killer named Ted Bundy.
His career seemed to be gaining traction. He soon got recruited by the much bigger, but now-defunct, Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
Burglarized, homeless and busted with an unlicensed gun
Cramer went from earning $143 a week in Tallahassee to about $173 a week in Los Angeles. But despite what was a higher nominal paycheck, he was actually earning only enough to be just under the poverty line.
He moved into what he characterized as “less desirable part of town,” with the hope of quickly rising the ranks. But after a series of break-ins and burglaries, he once again found himself with nothing.
“A little more than a year after not receiving my diploma from Harvard, I was evicted from my apartment and suddenly found myself homeless. Just the clothes on my back living in my 1978 Ford Fairmont.”
Concerned for his safety, he eventually bought an unlicensed .22 calibre pistol, which he kept in his car along with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
One day in Sacramento, he was pulled over by a deputy of the sheriff’s department. The deputy had his gun drawn and held it to Cramer’s head as Cramer stood their frozen. Apparently, a man matching Cramer’s description had just robbed a local bakery. But another deputy noted that the robber had an earring, and Cramer did not. They told him he was lucky that they weren’t going to arrest him for his unlicensed handgun.
But once again, Cramer’s luck quickly ran out when he noticed a yellow patch forming on his belly. He soon learned that his drinking was killing him, and a doctor gave him a year to live if he didn’t quit drinking right away.
“I recognized I had indeed been defeated,” he said. “The well of my pride had at last run dry.”
“I had to live up to the only sustenance I had,” he continued. “I had to let my classmates know… I needed to let them know I was beaten. I was the loser of the litter. The one that couldn’t make good. I sent SOS letters to the only lifelines I knew.”
“It was in failure I begot success,” he said. “Because rather than derision, rather than disgust and snickering, which somehow I thought would be the reaction, I received an outpouring of support and graciousness from my classmates.”
“One of my friends who had made good let me have an opportunity. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. They let me crash at their places everywhere I interviewed… They helped me get some money, dress better, afford a meal.”
Cramer eventually got back on his feet thanks to the support of his classmates.
“First lesson: It is okay to fail. But it is NOT okay to quit!” Cramer exclaimed.
“I need you to learn of the other important takeaway,” he said. “One that I should’ve known the day I was robbed of my diploma, but I was too prideful. I want you to, right now, look at the student to your left and look at the student to your right. Look at the young adults who have graduated in front of you and look behind you.
“Take it from a down, but not out once-22-year-old: Your classmates are your safety net,” he said. “Remember, your stumble is just a pothole in the road for your seated neighbors to help you fill.”
Cramer reiterated that the value of college was about more than the classrooms provided. But rather the relationships you make with those who will “protect you and serve you when you most need them.”
Sam Ro is managing editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @bySamRo