William Stephenson, On Doing More in Life

William StephensonMy name is William Stephenson; I grew up in Manasquan and have spent most of my life in New Jersey. I’d like to speak with you about achieving your best, about making the most of your assets and realizing your biggest dreams.

I was raised with the adage that my accomplishments were only limited to the heights I could imagine. This was a commonly used and inspirational line that many parents shared with their children. At the time, those words didn’t mean so much to me. Upon further reflection however, the spirit of those words was ever present in my blind sub-conscience.

When I was only 9 years of age, I had 2 paper routes on opposite ends of town. It was a morning paper, The Start Ledger; therefore both routes had to be completed by 7am. I pedaled fast to get back from the Manasquan Beach and change in time for school. The early riches that I enjoyed afforded many crucial lessons which would subsequently fuel my future achievements.

By learning the power of hard work and money at such an early age, an age where we’re all highly impressionable, it forever solidified the correlation between the two. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for supporting me in those early desires. The significance of this work should not be underscored; to me, it helped form one of my core values in life, responsibility.

By learning to do for myself and not waiting for someone else to take responsibility, I not only acquired things more speedily, but I had the good feeling of having earned them myself.

This early money was invested wisely, not an IRA, not a 401K, I used those funds for flight lessons at Allaire Airport. At age 13, I was speaking with an Uncle of mine. He was a war hero to me, who fought in Korea. He stated that he always regretted not learning how to fly. For some reason, his regret cautioned me enough not to follow his path. I clipped a 50% off coupon from an Entertainment Guide for an introductory flight lesson. Well, soaring above my home town and central New Jersey served two purposes. First, it sold me instantly on the joys of flight. Second, and more importantly, it extended my reach out into the world; it effectively reduced the size of it and led me to believe that it would be easier to conquer now. Again, I have to thank my parents for allowing me to circle their home at 1000 feet. They clearly hadn’t read all of the accident reports on that scenario.

About one year after that first flight lesson, I accomplished one of my most rewarding feats. I had officially been involved with Boy Scout Troop 59 of Manasquan for only 4 years when I had reached a pinnacle by attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. To this day, less than 2% of all scouts make it that far. To this day as well, I still don’t know why that percentage has remained so low. Even at age 14, my drive was surpassing my moments. Each Eagle Scout applicant must appear before a board of review to validate his award and confirm that he in fact extols the virtues befitting the milestone. At this board of review the applicant sits among and across from several elders in his troop as well as a representative from the council level, the governing body for many troops.

I perplexed them all that evening, not on purpose of course. All I had to do was answer a few questions and I would be an Eagle Scout. Later, I was told that the elders of my troop were kicking themselves underneath the table. They would have preferred that I had said less rather than more that evening.

I was questioned about my awareness of the high honor they would soon bestow upon me. My answers and my feelings in general about the rank of Eagle Scout at the time were slightly dismissive. Quite frankly, I saw the rank of Eagle as just another step along the scouting trail. In fact, as they pressed me about why I didn’t seem as excited about it as perhaps the elders were, I told them that every scout should follow the logical path that I had taken and achieve the rank as well. My unrefined point that evening was that I felt the very act of holding that rank up on a special pedestal was one of the impediments to most scouts attaining it. I believe that more scouts would enjoy the accolade if it were not placed so high above them. Of course, this could possibly dilute the experience at the same time.

After much back and forth, I acquiesced and agreed that it was indeed a tremendous accomplishment. I was now one of the younger Eagle Scouts in our troop’s storied history. My years in scouting provided far too many memories and tales to share with you this evening, however, the leadership skills that I cultivated during those early years would prove pivotal. They have played a key part in every major accomplishment and milestone after that. I believe the Boy Scouts to be a fine organization for our youth when accompanied by active parenting. Its affects are incalculable.

Psychologists say that the majority of our basic learning is acquired by the age of 16; if this in indeed true, the importance of our early decisions is paramount. The more healthy habits and useful ventures we take part in during this phase of life, the better.

Soon, I was off to college at the University of South Carolina. I worked almost continuously through those years and took my virtues to the job place. I found myself in a setting where the status quo ruled. It’s certainly easier in the short term to follow the lead; however, leading the pack at the workplace provides far greater returns in the long run. Standing out and shaking up the system takes courage or simply a set of convictions that disregards the consequences. This is why leading in life is critical. When you place yourself in the driver’s seat you are less beholden to peer-pressures which may lead people astray.

Throughout these years my love for flying never ceased. I worked to learn and that correlation always seemed to get me through the tougher days. After graduating with a Bachelors degree in an area unrelated to flying, I returned home and finished the flight ratings required in order to call myself a professional pilot. I was now getting paid to give sightseeing tours up the Hudson River and around the Statue of Liberty. It was a tremendous feeling being right back where I started 10 years earlier yet so much further ahead. I was now getting paid for every one of those coveted flight hours necessary for advancement, how ironic, I felt?

Another crucial lesson learned during this phase of my life was how two steps back could lead oneself miles ahead. I left that wonderful job at Allaire Airport and gambled on a new venture at Teterboro Airport in North Jersey. I made less money and added one hour to my commute each way. Many thought I was crazy, but I was looking beyond tomorrow.

For the next 6½ years, I participated in a niche market in the business aviation world. I flew organ transplant teams around our country in Lear jets, King Airs, and Barons. It was hard work; we were often called into action at the last minute and it was typically midnight. Years later I would be rewarded for those efforts in a far greater way than just my pay. More on that treat soon.

The challenges that forced my cohorts and I in this last position codified that work ethic learned as a paper boy years earlier. One of the lessons there taught me that we are continually growing and every action or inaction we participate in affects our future. We mustn’t look at each day as just any day. Every morning we wake up is another opportunity to better ourselves. Rarely will anyone of us remain stagnant; we’re either moving a head or behind in life. We make these choices everyday and all day.

After just nine years in the aviation industry I had yet again reached a pinnacle. I have taken a job on a Challenger jet flying a Fortune 200 company and its proprietors around the globe. Those early paper route dollars that I invested in flight training have come full circle. Delivering The Star Ledger has broadened my horizons in the literal sense. My world had in fact shrunk that afternoon at age 13, when I took my first flight and my first flight lesson.

To help drive this point home, as to how each action we take today lends to our successes or failures tomorrow, let me tell you about my high school prom date. Edie was one of the more unique individuals attending Manasquan High School during my years there. I quickly noted something special about her. At the time of our senior prom, she had a boyfriend from another school. Because of those circumstances, I was certainly not looking short term when I asked her to be my date for that event. I was looking far into my future and recently that has paid off for me as well. On May 5th of this year Edie and I were married in Manahawkin, NJ; my high school sweetheart is now so much more and forever.

Now, as promised, the reward worth so much more than a paycheck. About a year ago I found myself at a wake for my friend’s grandmother. At this wake I was introduced to the parents of a 6 year old boy. I was expecting to meet these folks because I knew their son had been given a personal tour of Giant’s Stadium a couple of years prior, compliments of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. We had some mutual friends in that football organization. As I spoke with the boy’s parents, I was less interested in the NY Giants and more interested in what their child had endured to warrant the attention of the foundation. The Father told me that his son Stephen had received a heart transplant in early 2001. As they were asking me about the NY Giants, I persisted with the questions about his son’s heart. Well, as it turned out, at about midnight in early 2001, my copilot and I flew to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut and retrieved Stephen’s heart. Confirming the details of the missionafter the wake made me very emotional. This was the closest I had ever been to realizing the fruits of my labor. About two weeks later, we all gathered at little Stephen’s house and enjoyed the Super Bowl together. Stephen told me after a couple hours, “Thank you for my heart.”

Now, in conclusion, I’m no different than anyone else in this room. The only privilege I had growing up was my parents blessing on the myriad of desires I came home with each week. They thankfully had the courage themselves to let me take things to their conclusion. Well, I’m still reaching. When I fly along at 41,000 feet and I gaze out into the stars at night, they just don’t seem so far away. Each and every one of those stars seems to be inviting me towards it. I know there is something behind each one and the more stars that I can look behind, the more confident I grow. Harness each and every day you live and before you know it, you’ll be leading life, not simply living it.

Thank you all very much for allowing me to share some of the things I have learned about life in my first 34 years.